Ryan Lanham: dissolving universities?

Excerpt from a debate on our p2p-research list, about the future of universities in a p2p world.

In this excerpt, Ryan Lanham responded to Nottingham Trent University network theory sociologist Andreas Wittel.

Ryan Lanham:

“I think your answer was right on the money with regard to what I was getting at…universities are unlikely to succeed by being more “business-like” because that is not their mission.

Efficiency is a reasonable objective, but is it achieved by being more business-like? I doubt it…unless your mission is to do the things businesses do–make profits, take market share, satisfy “customers.” A student isn’t a customer–just ask any teacher, and if education is a product, so then is a degree. Things earned are not sold to the earner. This is far more than a game of semantics; it speaks to organizational aptness for a given mission.

Universities drive themselves to extinction by becoming businesses. They are increasingly irrelevant that way with products and strategies that corrode and disintegrate. By being more p2p, they could slip away from institutional rot, and become far more conceptual…and more powerful.

I do disagree whether p2p is going to wither away capitalism; I think it might. Here’s why. Capitalism requires a debt-based economy–that was Keynes’ insight really–the difference between how he saw the creation of money versus the classical economists. To achieve a debt economy, you need investments in capital that can support future cash flows. Now in the case of p2p, I think such investments are far fewer and declining. It is fairly easy to fragment industrial production into the world Kevin describes in some of his writings…

Most p2p firms–an intermediate animal in my view–exist by leveraging investment in knowledge creation–what you say is a plausible mission of universities. Google, for instance, or Craig’s List or Ebay…all p2p to one extent or another. Facilitating p2p is not a likely long-term facility for garnering cash flows because efficiencies of knowledge arise. That is why Microsoft is starting to die…they didn’t anticipate cloud computing and more p2p models like the evolution of Linux.

Institutions were efficient by enabling norms (like how to write a dissertation) or by exercising bureaucracies. Neither of those is very efficient in a p2p world. So the same sort of institutional melt so many of us (Michel and Kevin notably, but also panarchists, knowledge management gurus and e-learning folks who dominate the blogosphere of knowledge work)

Universities have a choice. They can become more p2p–and some are–or they can die like the institutional dinosaurs they have become.

What would a p2p university look like? It would have open degree validation (like Wales) or some of the Open/Free Universities, it would implement peer-reviewed degrees for research, it would commit to use and produce open ideas that are not bound in paid journals or behind high-tuition walls. It would dissolve its barriers to entry and to scholarship–working instead to facilitate fellows and associates more than tenured faculty. It would cast a cold eye on formalism in scholarship in general, and in identity-building scholarship in particular. Public access, service learning, learner-centered models and use of social media would far outstrip classrooms, halls, buildings and walls–both physical and mental. It would have research in distant lands and partnerships with facilities around the world interlinked by electronic nets. It would grant status and prestige to a Clay Shirky, Harold Jarche or many similar net-based scholars as quickly as it would to a nose-to-the-grindstone assistant professor who publishes some trash in the Journal of Mumble Mumble and gets an editorship on the equally esoteric (and closed) Journal of TweedleDee. Harsh, but the reality is, most of us have stopped listening…and being heard is the p2p currency…as it is the currency of all thinking.

I believe even in science the tinkerers and DiY guys are coming on strong–in bioinformatics, genetics, robotics, transhumanism. Soon perhaps they will be there in medicine and physics. Long ago the best social science moved out of the academy.”

6 Comments Ryan Lanham: dissolving universities?

  1. Michel Bauwens

    Andy Robinson, via email:

    could virtual HE handle selection?

    Another point about both the book industry and the university industry are that they are selection systems as well as production/access systems. For the academic book industry, book sales (except for popular textbooks) are abysmally small. The industry survives because it is necessary for academic selection. Academic CV’s are determined by the number and quality of books and journal articles published. The higher-ranked the journal or book publisher, the better the academic’s CV. This is because book and journal publishing are selective, and selective by criteria (particularly but not only peer-review) which are widely assumed to represent in some way the quality of what is produced. This not only affects rankings among scholars but also the selection of particular post-PhD individuals as scholars (it is an independent variable from academic employment). Academic publishing may functionally be more important as selection than as production to be read – the number of readers per article is very small (actually in many cases more people will read or hear the paper pre-publication, or read a copy sent to friends and contacts of the author, than will read it in its official place of publication). In selection systems, brand-name recognition is very important. Online systems do not make good selection systems for a number of reasons. One of these is precisely that it is very open and p2p-inclined – anyone with minimal programming skills can set up a website, an ejournal, etc. Paper journals and book publishers have physical production limits which impose selectiveness, and a centralised distribution system which allows for rankings. Academic selection criteria are beginning to accept certain selective e-journals as equivalent to paper journals, and would doubtless accept paper journals which go virtual, but it is hard to imagine ebooks gaining similar status. The same even happens even with online selection criteria – Wikipedia for instance accepts academic journals and “reputable” publishers as valid sources, but not self-publication, blogs, most websites, etc (though they do allow the latter if some other criterion suggests a person’s expertise, e.g. if they’re an employed academic). It would be possible for academic publication selection to go entirely virtual only if the effects of the journal and book markets are replicated online. But it is easier for these functions to be performed offline, as the online selection criteria are necessarily arbitrary (e-journals manage it mainly because they mimic paper journals in length and format).

    Then there’s selection of lecturers. One crucial feature of universities is that they actually pay a stratum of people to teach, lecture and do research. While it is quite possible to teach, lecture and do research virtually, at present it is not typically possible to be paid to do so. And the limited number of paid posts is linked to the selection process. Could the physical space of the university be replaced by lecturers working online? In theory yes (and in practice – Open University works this way), but somebody would have to raise the money to pay lecturers to do this. So how is virtual HE to be funded? In theory it could be funded by a society-wide gift economy, but this would require a more general revolutionary change. What about market models? While these may be viable in limited spheres, in general I would say that market models are not sustainable for three reasons. Firstly because knowledge and skills are indefinitely replicable, not scarce, and given the open context, it would be impossible to prevent those who learn from setting themselves up as teachers. Secondly, because the quality of knowledge or teaching can only be ascertained after one has already obtained it, making it very difficult to make market-based choices in advance. The only possible guide in selecting a market education provider is previous feedback from others, but this could as well represent a cleverly sold teaching of fallacy. Thirdly, because the system would select by effective marketing rather than expertise or ability; it would therefore be deemed less reliable than the university system (which is assumed to select by expertise – whether it does or not). E-learning and qualifications suffer from the dangers of being tarred with accusations of low-quality degrees, buying and selling of degrees, etc.

    Remember also that university funding, and the market value of selection criteria, come from unwieldy old-style institutions as well. At present this happens in three ways at least – via prestige, which is very slow to change; via state funding; and via market demands (students trying to get skills or qualifications they think will raise their earning potential, at their own expense). In the current structure, market demands are highly responsive to prestige, and state funding is highly responsive to both market demands and prestige (as well as being quite random in relation to long-term trends). Look at the failure of Britain’s foundation degrees and GNVQs – despite these being geared specifically for “employers”, the latter still prefer old-style degrees and A-levels (and even special qualifications formulated by private schools to be more like old A-levels than today’s A-lelves are). Why? Well, I think a big part of it is that they know that the students with a choice, meaning either with a lot of ability or from upper-class backgrounds, will choose traditional courses over vocational courses. So they will use selection preference for traditional qualifications both as a placeholder for amorphous intelligence/potential/ability and as a placeholder for class discrimination.

    There are also ways in which the Internet has made universities more traditional. In particular, the instant transfer of data and the possibility of anonymity make the Internet unsuitable for reliable assessment. Plagiarism is very easy online. This has led to a revival in exams and other kinds of observed assessment. If part of the function assigned to universities is to deem people adequately knowledgeable or skilled in particular areas, it seems likely that observed assessment of some kind will persist.

    3) can the pedagogical functions of university be replicated virtually?

    Then there is the question of the pedagogical value of meeting in person, either with a tutor/lecturer/supervisor/skill-model or with peers. The lecture is vulnerable here, because it can easily be replicated virtually (though without any way of ensuring or verifying that people have actually “attended”). But seminars, one-to-one tutorials, critical pedagogies, pastoral support for students, are rather harder to imitate virtually. One could have seminars via instant messenger or skype or teleconferencing, which would be an interesting experiment. But with the loss or blurring of nonverbal cues, the absence of teaching resources which could be used by the entire group, the substituting of one or two senses for the full range, could the full experience be replicated, or something equally useful be created? Or if the seminar etc are not especially useful – could one create something which would not be rejected as less useful? I think a lot of the most successful pedagogies, things like Freirean pedagogy, require face-to-face interaction.

    I’m not saying any of this is necessarily a good thing. Some of it is, some of it isn’t. Personally I would rather like for all publications to have equal status, or subjective status, and for anyone who wants to be a skill-model, lecturer or researcher to be paid to do so. I’d love to see hierarchical rankings replaced by something more like the Open Source movement. I think the selection function of education is quite corrosive of knowledge-production and leads to a lot of the problems that are all too evident in academia today (style before substance, grandstanding, repetition, writing for the sake of writing, inter-perspectival sectarianism, hagiography, etc). But getting rid of selection functions would suggest a transformation to a society-wide gift economy, which I see as possible from counter-trends of resistance, but not from dominant trends in the current system. The moment we introduce state or market forces, we introduce selection, and hence the need for selection criteria.

    Incidentally – horizontal p2p education already exists, nascently at least, in popular/community education, things like the Cuban literacy programme, activist practices of skill-sharing, hacklabs, knowledgelabs, etc., and in indigenous education practices and epistemologies, travelling storytellers and the like. Of course, most of this is unpaid. And most of it does not get any credibility from the hierarchies in terms of selection functions.

    Another interesting possibility is what would happen to education if networks gained the ability to take and hold entire swathes of space against hierarchies. Suppose for instance that hierarchies have retreated to the network of global cities and extraction nodes, and that the remainder of the planet has become something like the Somalia or NWFP of today but without the constant wars. Now suppose that education projects (with or without fixed physical sites) were to emerge in these border regions, or be implanted there by intellectuals fleeing the controlled “core” spaces. It’s in this hypothetical context that I can see Hakim Bey’s idea of “research monasteries” becoming a close approximation of what would happen.

  2. Michel Bauwens

    Andreas Wittel, via email:

    Ryan says: Under what circumstances could we envision systematic collapse of universities on a large scale? And if we cannot imagine them not existing, what is it about them that gives them such heroic sustainability?

    Good question Ryan. I think we need to separate issue of education from the purchase of a degree programme. I’m looking at this with a fairly cold eye. this is my experience as lectuer in a BA Media degree programme. The vast majority all students don’t give a damn about education anymore. They are only interested in the marks of their asessments, and in improving these marks. They only care about the final degree and the results they get.

    The instrumentality of knowledge delivery started by unis has sure spread to students. Now everybody is instrumental about it.

    To put it provocatively: there is no other institution around that can sell degrees. For unis to disapprear the degree culture would have to disappear first. I can’t see that happening. Its not a heroic sustainability, but a pretty strong one.

  3. Michel Bauwens

    Sam Rose, via email:

    There are Universities that are turning to commons-based methods of governance and problem solving. These are the Universities that are positioning themselves for the series of changes that are likely to come. While many of them are approaching this change in a rather ham-fisted way, some are also learning. Those that are learning how to apply commons-based governance/problem solving practices are positioning themselves both for survival, and for the type of change that they see their students being ready for.

    (Michel makes a great point that in the east, in Asia, that many Universities are possibly in a different track, fulfilling a different set of needs. As we know, in the US, Universities are modeled after corporations, often with a primary focus on procuring and securing money from practically any source available. This is the type of arrangement that cannot be sustained. ).

    The nature of the change that will like happen in the case of Universities will not be collapse, but rather dynamic transformation, which includes collapse or die off of some parts of the system, and change in others.

    When we talk about “collapse”, we are not actually talking about the complete eradication/extinction of an ecosystem.

    For instance, we can say that the Roman Empire collapsed at around 500AD, and yet one could argue that successive empires in Europe carried forward many of the patterns of Rome, all the way to this day in the Republic of the United States of America, where we still convene a Senate, still arrange military and state power structures in ways that are remarkably similar in more than a few ways to Roman systems, etc Parts of the institutions of the Roman Empire remain with us today. They are cultural inheritances that were carried forward even though Rome itself ceased to exist.

    Another example is inside of your own body, which carries structures, systems, symbiotic relationships, and adaptations that emerged long before humans ever existed. Some of them go all the way back to the first organisms that we know of.

    On planet Earth, systems rarely completely collapse and disappear. Instead that usually change, evolve, adapt, and pass forward those parts that are still usable.

    We are in the early stages of seeing some of the Universities change and adapt. I think that Ryan can intuit that this change seems very likely to be coming. But, if I were to describe what I think is going to happen, I would not say that Universities are going to just be obsoleted into collapse and non existence. I’d suggest that the *current landscape and configuration of Universities is what is going collapse and become obsolete*, in those areas where it cannot be sustained. There are people on the edges of Universities that are already in the process of changing them, making them more networked, more commons-based in wealth creation and curating. Consider these people to be the evolutionary agents in the system (mostly at it’s edges). They are doing it not because they have some kind of fondness or nostalgia for Universities and want to nurse them along, but because of the conditions of their existence. They are heavily invested in those institutions, and yet can see that Universities (especially here in the US) cannot sustain centering all activity around securing money.

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