A post scarcity university for the innovation economy

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In my last blog post, I talked about some of the characteristics of a university designed for the 21st Century. In this one, I focus on what a university should be like in his post-scarcity age that we are in now.

Universities evolved during the industrial age, and many of the things regarded as key processes are industrial in nature and designed to aggregate scarcity. In the industrial age, content was scarce, so universities had physical libraries to aggregate content. Vehicles for delivering content were scarce, so they aggregated knowledgeable people, the academics, and used them primarily as content delivery tools. Because of the need for aggregation, the locations to learn were scarce, so we built sites to aggregate demand and supply, and designed classrooms as spaces within which academics could deliver content to a critical mass of students. The number of students in a classroom has, over time, been increased in most publicly-funded universities eroding the relationship of teacher with students. Recognising the limitations of lecturing to large classes, some universities have adopted a supplementary mechanism of smaller group tutorials run by less knowledgeable and therefore less scarce resources.

Assessment in such scarcity-based industrial settings was difficult, and the system could not bear the cost of meaningful assessment of actual learning, so primitive summative assessment mechanisms (tests, exams) were designed. Thus, so-called assessment was also industrialised, and abstracted away from the learning it was meant to assess. Under this system, the person delivering the content was given the task of assessing the effectiveness of its delivery and assimilation. Assessment was largely based on memory, and ability to express it in very primitive versions of the written form.

Of course, this description is a bit of an exaggeration, but this basic model remains the mainstay of universities around the world despite the fact that the key things aggregated are no longer scarce, or where they are scarce that scarcity is largely artificially maintained. For example,  the primitive written forms of assessment are easy to duplicate, so expensive tools to check for plagiarism have been created to prevent cheating under these industrial methods.

There is no reason for content to be scarce in the digital world, so laws have been extended, technologies developed, and paywalls erected to to ensure that businesses that profited from genuine scarcity continue to profit from artificial scarcity. To counter this, movements towards open access and open educational resources have come into being and grown rapidly. For this reason, many digital learning assets are becoming less and less scarce.

A university built for the innovation economy should be designed from the ground up to take advantage of this era of growing abundance, and should not overly replicate the aggregative functions based on the scarcity of the industrial age, unless such resources are actually scarce. While there may sometimes be a need for classroom-based teaching, most learning should be based on activities that have a strong element of collaboration. This should happen in projects around which learning must happen in order to complete the course or programme successfully. A project initiative may also adopt a classroom approach for short periods where specialised knowledge is required in a short period of time.

Projects should be based around creating a business that meets some consumer or social need, or solving social challenges that we face as a nation and the world. Students in the institution should be encouraged to think big, solving some of the biggest challenges in the world today, or creating a future that has not yet even been imagined.

The following are some areas of the institution, and examples of what it means when tackled from an abundance perspective.

Area Examples of application
 Design of the learning process Main learning activities happen outside of the traditional classroom; designed to incorporate open educational resources; where appropriate open data can be used for analysis; supplemented with classroom learning where necessary, but chunked according to need; extensive use of MOOCs and other online learning opportunities.
Design of the learning spaces Learning spaces are configurable; group work and group learning activities are supported; project spaces predominate; significant learning happens in socially-interactive online spaces;  learning can happen anywhere, inside or outside of the institution.
Design and access methods for learning content Access to learning content should be electronic as this is cheaper and makes a broader range of content available for the same cost; students create and share their own content;
Blend of technology and face to face approaches Where lecture-based teaching is used, topics covered will also be made available in video format; webinars will be used and key role-players in the world will be asked to provide webinars where appropriate; e-learning technology will be used to enhance classroom teaching, as well as to provide learning opportunities outside the scope of lecture times; face time will be used for solving challenges, assessing progress, and planning next steps.
Way in which the academics are appointed, rewarded and promoted Academics will be appointed based on their academic standing, will have a strong online presence and familiarity with social tools for education and research; they will be willing to use new teaching-and-learning methods, and think differently about education; where excellent academics are available but do not meet these criteria, they will be assisted with providing online resources; promotion will include both research and teaching portfolios as well as involvement with incubators and fostering entrepreneurship or solving societal challenges.
Requirements for academic publication To foster abundance thinking, academics will be encouraged to publish in open access journals. Paywalled journals will carry 0.5% of the value of open access journals when used in evaluations.
Structure of programmes Academics will have flexibility in the design of their programmes, creating an appropriate mix of learning and research activities, as well as fostering entrepreneurship and innovation where possible. Programmes will be structured around key opportunities, not around disciplines.
Expectations that students have of the institution Students will expect a good library with access to a contemporary complement of research journals and books; E-learning resources will be available learning, but learning management systems per se will not be used. Access will be given to open source software, open educational resources, open technology, open access journals, open data, and open hardware. Innovation will be fostered, and appropriate remix defined and rewarded.
Expectations the institution has of students Students should be comfortable and confident to learn concepts on their own with resource materials under some circumstances, or in a collaborative and networked way. This independence will be developed and encouraged.
Rigidity of the walls, both physical and metaphorical Institutional spaces should be reconfigurable where possible. Metaphorically, courses offered by other institutions, for example via MOOCS may be used to obtain credit. Students may participate in courses at approved universities for credit. Students may design some of their own courses, have them pre-approved and then have them assessed through an appropriate body of evidence.

Abundance-based thinking also holds many opportunities for new kinds of businesses. This institution must form partnerships with people who are attempting to advance abundance thinking and create opportunities for innovation around the notion of abundance. Abundance-based thinking also suggests a strong focus on open innovation, linked to Free and Open Source Software, Open Content / Open Educational Resources, and Open Hardware.

While some changes have occurred as a result of technology being applied to education, mostly they have created niches, rather then disrupting higher education as a whole. Content delivery mechanisms such as Moocs do not work for most students, and this is demonstrated by their massive dropout and failure rate. Data-driven initiatives, such as those initiated by the Khan Academy on top of high quality content resources, have added incremental possibilities, but not really done significant distruption. The promise of e-learning has not been met, with most e-learning initiatives being simply following educational worst practice, and making it worse with technology badly applied, hardly disruptive.

The real disruption of education, at least of the teaching of theory, will happen when Artificial Intelligence (AI) reaches a point where it can be applied to teaching-and-learning, is able to help build personalised learning for students with different capabilities, and can carry out the assessment tasks that are so difficult to scale. This will happen in the next 4-10 years, and the institution should both be prepared for it, and be at the forefront of research and commercialisation of AI in education.

This imagined institution must be prepared for ensuring that AI is use wisely to supplement the activities of great academic staff, in-line with sustaining an abundance thinking. If it does’t do this, it will be disrupted, just like every other institution. If it does so, it has a chance to be one of the disruptors, rather than a victim of them, and scale the business of higher education accordingly. The best way to predict the future is to create it.

Such an institution could be a viable business in South Africa, and make a valuable contribution to the innovation economy.