TITLE: Minor Events in the Revolution at Universities AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: April 10, 2013 4:03 PM DESC: ----- BODY: This morning I ran across several articles that had me thinking yet again about the revolution I see happening in the universities (*). First, there was this recent piece in the New York Times about software that grades essays. Such software is probably essential for MOOCs in many disciplines, but it would also be useful in large lecture sections of traditional courses at many universities. The software isn't perfect, and skeptics abound. But the creator of the EdX software discussed in the article says:
This is machine learning and there is a long way to go, but it's good enough and the upside is huge.
It's good enough, and the upside is huge. Entrenched players scoff. Classic disruption at work. Then there was this piece from the Nieman Journalism Lab about an online Dutch news company that wants readers to subscribe to individual journalists. Is this really news in 2013? I read a lot of technical and non-technical material these days via RSS feeds from individual journalists and bloggers. Of course, that's not the model yet for traditional newspapers and magazines. ... but that's the news business. What about the revolution in universities? The Nieman Lab piece reminded me of an old article in Vanity Fair about Politico, a news site founded by a small group of well-known political journalists who left their traditional employers to start the company. They all had strong "personal brands" and journalistic credentials. Their readers followed them to their new medium. Which got me to thinking... What would happen if the top 10% of the teachers at Stanford or Harvard or Williams College just walked out to start their own university? Of course, in the time since that article was published, we have seen something akin to this, with the spin-off of companies like Coursera and Udacity. However, these new education companies are partnering with traditional universities and building off the brands of their partners. At this point in time, the brand of a great school still trumps the individual brands of most all its faculty. But one can imagine a bolder break from tradition. What happens when technology gives a platform to a new kind of teacher who bypasses the academic mainstream to create and grow a personal brand? What happens when this new kind of teacher bands together with a few like-minded renegades to use the same technology to scale up to the size of a traditional university, or more? That will never happen, or so many of us in the academy are saying. This sort of thinking is what makes the Dutch news company mentioned above seem like such a novelty in the world of journalism. Many journalists and media companies, though, now recognize the change that has happened around them. Which leads to a final piece I read this morning, a short blog entry by Dave Winer about Ezra Klein's epiphany on how blogging and journalism are now part of a single fabric. Winer says:
It's tragic that it took a smart guy like Klein so long to understand such a basic structural truth about how news, his own profession, has been working for the last 15 years.
I hope we aren't saying the same thing about the majority of university professors fifteen or twenty years from now. As we see in computers that grade essays, sometimes a new idea is good enough, and the upside is huge. More and more people will experiment with good-enough ideas, and even ideas that aren't good enough yet, and as they do the chance of someone riding the upside of the wave to something really different increases. I don't think MOOCs are a long-term answer to any particular educational problem now or in the future, but they are one of the laboratories in which these experiments can be played out. I also hope that fifteen or twenty years from now someone isn't saying about skeptical university professors what Winer says so colorfully about journalists skeptical of the revolution that has redefined their discipline while they worked in it:
The arrogance is impressive, but they're still wrong.
~~~~ (*).   Nearly four years later, Revolution Out There -- and Maybe In Here remains one of my most visited blog entries, and one that elicits more reader comments than most. I think it struck a chord. -----