De-Centering Higher Education

by Marsh Soules, Ph.D.

Training or Education?

Peter Drucker, who gained some notoriety by forecasting the "information economy," has recently predicted the demise of the university: "Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Already we are beginning to deliver more lectures and classes off campus via satellite or two-way video at a fraction of the cost. The college won't survive as a residential institution." (Forbes Magazine, March 1997).

Drucker bases his prediction on an impression that higher education has experienced totally uncontrollable expenditures, without any visible improvement in either content or quality, which means that the "system is rapidly becoming untenable." The logic of this assumption is shaky at best,and more likely as false as his assertion that satellite and two-way video are delivering lectures "at a fraction of the cost." Drucker speaks the language of commerce, treating higher education as a product that can be continually improved--like an American car!--and fails to communicate with educators who treat higher education as a process. In effect, Drucker recommends that we substitute training for education.

Let's assume for a moment that we should be training people to find a place in a system which is predicated on efficiency, profit and competition. This agenda is hardly learner-centred, nor does it seem to credit the acquisition of knowledge. David Noble, who delivered the Lansdowne Lectures at UVic this year, maintains that training--preparation for the workplace--is not education, which he defines as acquiring self-knowledge. So the universities and colleges must make some hard decisions about what they do: training or education, or both.

If universities and colleges are training people for the global economy, how should we do that? Will training be redundant or quickly outmoded? Will it obsolete itself as fast as computing applications (in accordance with Moore's Law)? What kind of knowledge is suitable for a lifetime of work? Should we foster a corporatist ethic and working environment for our own operations? Would such a climate be conducive to the acquisition of knowledge? These are difficult questions for higher education to grapple with, and the introduction of new educational technologies into this environment is prompting a reassessment of what we are doing.

Finally, if the days of higher education are numbered as Drucker claims, are we to assume that businesses and the private sector will take on the social responsibility for training, or education, or both? I believe that higher education must be prepared to argue for the necessity of education, as well as training, and for the benefits of learning which is not bottom-lined by the dictates of efficiency. Canadian media theorists George Grant (Technology and Empire) and Joyce Nelson (The Perfect Machine) make powerful arguments for keeping people at the centre of education in an age dedicated to a technological will-to-power and the mastery of chance.

This is not to say that higher education should accept the charge of adopting inefficiency as a virtue. The widespread introduction of computing applications into the post-secondary curriculum is encouraging a healthy dialogue between the masters of production and the educators, and we are presently engaged in finding a common language--a lingua franca.

Performance or Collaboration

One of the things I have discovered in the delivery of on-line and distance courses at Malaspina is the dynamic tension between performance and collaboration. This tension reflects, in part, the tension between training and education. In a recent listserv discussion, I suggested that on-line communication tends to foreground performative aspects of teaching that many instructors have come to take for granted. I was thinking of my experience in a video-conferencing project at Malaspina in 1996 where the technology made me reflect on how I was communicating with course participants and support staff. The compressed video conferencing hardware, and the fact that I was interacting with two classrooms at once, required an awareness that I was, in effect, on stage. To give an obvious example: I had to learn (quickly) not to walk out of camera range or students at the remote site would be staring at a blank screen.

The evaluation of this video-conferencing project established that student satisfaction and success were directly related to a sense of membership in the learning process (see Enhancing Capacity with Video Conferencing, 1996).

We found that instructors must work diligently to involve course participants in a dialogue through the interface of the technology. For the participants, then, this felt as if we were performing. Once we had adjusted to the formalizing constraints of the technology, we were able to have lively and creative on-line dialogues.

When I noted this focus on performance to the CMCBC listserv, however, I prompted a response that the performing instructor up there on the stage was the old paradigm; now we were discovering that collaboration is more suitable to on-line communication. I couldn't agree more. I am discovering in my current on-line courses that strategies for interaction and collaboration are essential to the success of the courses. However, I don't believe we need to set up a dialectic between performance and collaboration with respect to on-line communication. Both are necessary for successfully negotiating the human-computer interface. The technology of distributed delivery is forcing a reassessment of learning, instructional strategies, and the role of education (and training). (For a more detailed discussion of this topic see: Protocols of Improvisation in Online Communication.

What does the intersection of collaboration and performance in the classroom look like when mediated by instructional technologies? First of all, there might not be a classroom.

In this sense, the buildings of higher education might well be put to different uses in the future. The principle of collaboration suggests that individuals be encouraged to participate in membership-building group activities. This sense of membership, as noted above, is central to the success of distributed learning. The principle of performance suggests that individuals need to develop a set of skills which allow them to participate equally with others in the learning cohort. Finally, instruction and administration of such learning must de-centre itself: to facilitate, rather than direct; support, rather than determine. For a variety of reasons, this de-centering will not be an easy thing to do.

As someone learning to use educational technologies, I have discovered that I was comfortable with my role as a performer on the stage at the front of the classroom and as the designated authority in the assessment of student performance. My students and colleagues are teaching me how to be more collaborative. I have also learned that taking on-line courses is not for everyone. In my limited experience, they appeal to certain students, maybe those students who are able to master the balance between performance and collaboration. Crawford Killian calls them "self-propelled learners." At the very least, they have to collaborate with the instructor in the delivery and reception of the course. The old dialectics are insufficient to map either the present or the future.

In the end, we are dealing with intangibles as elusive to pin down as the nature of cyberspace, but they are abstractions basic to our sustainability as a society. There's an anecdote of an engineer who installed a telegraph system in a remote part of the world. When asked by the elders of a village how this new technology worked, he answered: "Imagine that this dog you see in front of you has its tail in the neighbouring village. When someone pulls the tail in that village, you hear the dog bark in your village." The elders nodded to indicate their understanding. Twenty years later, the same engineer returned to the same village, bringing with him the newest technology, a radio. When asked to explain how it worked, he replied: "Remember the dog with its tail in the other village?" Everyone nodded. "Now, imagine the same result--without the dog."

Now, imagine higher education without a centre.

© Marshall Soules
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