The following arises out some current reading, writing and thinking for the Place component of the Ps Framework. In the following I ponder the idea (which I currently agree with) that universities are inherently adaptable, they aren’t likely to die anytime soon and that this adaptability is yet another reason why the LMS product model for e-learning is wrong – since it ain’t adaptable.

Death of universities

There’s been an increasing number of discussions online recently about the “death of the university”. Essentially most of the ideas are based around the idea that society has moved on, its requirements are different, there are fundamental and significant problems with universities in general and that this will contribute to the death of universities and their replacement with something (which might not be an institution/organisation, but instead something much more distributed) else.

Some of the recent “discussions” include:

A common quote used in these is one from Peter Drucker (Lenzer and Johnson, 1997)

Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It is as large a change as when we first got the printed book

While I have a lot of time for Drucker and I should be careful about taking a quote out of context, this comment sounds a lot like the “growing revolution” type of quotes that have littered the history of educational technology. I summarise a few of these for different types of technology-mediated learning in this post (search for “growing revolution” and look for a series of tables).

Drucker hasn’t been alone in this view. New technologies are seen as a major force for change in higher education institutions that will potentially have a profound effect on the structure of higher education (Green and Hayward 1997). Some suggest that the rapidly evolving technology and emerging competition puts the very survival of the current form of the university at risk (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002).

The need for revolution

Associated with the view that sees a need for a revolutionary change (i.e. death/replacement) in universities is one which sees the university as a unchanging ivory tower removed from the needs of society. Universities, however, are one of a very few institutions that have maintained their existence since the 1500s (Kerr 1994). The pre-dominant model of the University is still the traditional combination of teaching and academic research suggested by Wilhelm von Humboldt in the 19th century (Tsichritzis 1999). These observations are often attributed to the ability of universities to be resistant to change (Green and Hayward 1997).

Universities are adaptable, not resistant

Rather than see universities as recalcitrant organisations that resist change, there is an alternate view that universities have continued to be in existence because they are adaptable. The following is from Martin and Etzkowitz (2000)

In the light of this brief review of its history, it is clear that the university is a very adaptable organism. Throughout its history, it has proved able to evolve in a changing environment. Indeed, it is so adaptable that there have been very few instances of the ‘death’ of a university.11 Universities reproduce but they very rarely die. (Some might argue that this is a bad thing!)

Given this adaptability, we would expect the university to survive but perhaps to take on new or modified evolutionary forms – new species or hybrids. In short, there will be far greater variety across higher education institutions.

Similarly, Kolsaker (2008) describes Kogan’s view

universities can fill any purpose that society sets for them – they are social artefacts and can change and evolve over time, without disastrous consequences.

The LMS as an less than adaptable historical blip

The notion of an enterprise learning management system (LMS aka VLE) is inherently less than adaptable. Being open source doesn’t stop the characteristics of the LMS product model being less than adaptable, especially when it is implemented using traditional “vanilla” strategies inherent in current practice around enterprise systems.

The enterprise LMS model is based on the “one ring to rule them all” model. This one piece of software and the way it is structured, the assumptions built into its terminology, data structures and algorithms is intended to be usable and used by all learning institutions. Regardless of their variety or needs for adaptation.

Jon Dron’s (2006) paper title summed up nicely the lack of flexibility of the LMS model and how it is implemented within universities – “Any color you like, as long as it’s Blackboard” (even the spelling of the paper title indicates the point about lack of flexibility – especially if you’re from the British tradition of spelling).

Social and technological artifacts

Using Kogan’s words, the university might be a social artifact and consequently can change and evolve over time to serve any purpose. A technological artifact like an LMS cannot. Especially when, as it is at the moment, treated predominantly as a technology artifact. I would suggest that the design, structure and support of an LMS has to be done in such a way as to enable it to be more a social artifact than a technological one.

References

Dron, J. (2006). Any color you like, as long as it’s Blackboard. World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare and Higher Education, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA, AACE.

Duderstadt, J., D. Atkins, et al. (2002). Higher education in the digital age: Technology issues and strategies for American colleges and universities. Westport, Conn, Praeger Publishers.

Green, M. and F. Hayward (1997). Forces for Change. Transforming Higher Education: Views from Leaders Around the World. M. Green. Phoenix, Arizona, The Oryx Press: 3-26.

Kerr, C. (1994). Higher Education Cannot Escape History. New York, SUNY Press.

Lenzer, R. and S. Johnson (1997). Seeing Things as They Really Are. Forbes.

Martin, B. and H. Etzkowitz (2000). “The origin and evolution of the university species.” Journal for Science and Technology Studies 13(3-4): 9-34.

Tsichritzis, D. (1999). “Reengineering the University.” Communications of the ACM 42(6): 93-100.