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The Monkey's Paw effect in higher education

The Monkey's Paw effect in higher education

The story of the monkey's paw by W.W. Jacobs tells of a talisman (the monkey's paw) that can grant three wishes but, when the wishes are granted, they result in horrific side-effects. Technologies are like that. We build systems for one purpose and other things happen that we did not foretell and did not wish for. From the large scale environmental and human catastrophes wrought by industrialization, mass ownership of cars or large-scale use of artificial fertilizers to the smaller things in life like the self-locking door that locks us out or the delights of autocorrect on iPhones, technologies are monkeys paws that grant our wishes while destroying other things we value. This creates a demand for new technologies to correct the problems of the ones that came before. Whole clusters of industries and intricate social structures, laws and institutions develop as a result of this. Amongst the many factors that determine their development and uptake, technologies feed from and are spawned by other technologies. We come to rely on technologies to deal with problems caused by the technologies we already have.

Education is massively technologized. You simply cannot do education without technologies, including language, pedagogies, and other infrastructure that surrounds the process. It's a fertile space for mischievous monkey-paw demons lurking in the technologies we use. 

Before the 12th Century, people used to visit scholars in order to learn stuff. They sat round while the great masters (always men) spouted their wisdom, wherever they happened to be located. These students were, of course, quite rich - going to spend a few years at the feet of scholars is not something the average peasant would have ever dreamt of and grants were few and far between. At around the same time, city burghers in Bologna and Paris saw the benefit of having many rich students populating their streets for years at a time and helped to establish Europe's first universities. It all went downhill from there. At first, there were two distinct models of university - the university of masters, of which Paris provided the prototype, which set teachers up as arbiters of all things, and the university of students, stemming from the processes used in Bologna, in which students determined what was taught and who taught it. We all know which model won! A concentration of self-moderating scholars soon led to things like (non-exhaustively):

  • a concentration of books in libraries;
  • buildings to house and teach students and faculty;
  • administrative procedures to manage ever more complex processes;
  • formal awards and testing methods to validate both institutions and their learners,
  • 'efficient' methods of teaching like lectures (and the infrastructure to match);
  • restrictive subject ranges born of economic and physical necessity (communities of scholars needed critical mass);
  • large complex bureaucratic infrastructures to maintain and organize the educational machine, to handle timetabling, student registration, award-giving, hiring and firing;
  • overseeing bodies (often governmental) to ensure quality, consistency etc;
  • and so on.  

A few centuries later, some time in the late 18th Century, the written exam was born (the Cambridge mathematical Tripos), an innovation that spread fairly slowly over the next century, driven largely by economic benefits. That was about it. Apart from minor technological innovations such as slates, blackboards, quills and so on, the occasional restructuring (e.g. Humboldtian universities) and the incorporation of subjects other than theology, law and philosophy, things pretty much stayed as they were. The teaching methods and organizational structures used today would be instantly recognizable to Abelard, one of the early pioneers. Almost every technological innovation in education since mediaeval times has largely been an attempt to overcome some of the unwanted consequences of the basic technologies that remain unchanged.

It is a little bizarre that distance institutions like Athabasca University and the Open University UK have managed to replicate structures that were designed to fit the exigences of scholastic life in mediaeval Europe, barely considering whether they made any sense once one removes the physical context that resulted from the needs of scholars of the middle ages. And so we have courses, semesters (though AU at least gets rid of these for undergraduate students), libraries, deans, faculties, convocation ceremonies, mediaeval gowns, classes, grades, exams, scholarly covens, doctors and masters. At least we don't have as much physical infrastructure based on mediaeval assumptions as most universities.

Higher Education has spawned a wealth of industries: copy houses, essay mills, textbook publishers, gown makers, schools that 'prepare' students for university, companies that filter based on qualifications, government departments dedicated to grant awards, professional societies to defend their disciplines, tourist industries to cater for the mass exodus of students every summer, student unions, faculty associations, institutional furniture suppliers, whiteboard manufacturers, and so on and so on. It is very well integrated in our social and economic lives.

But, sometimes, technologies can do more than repair the damage done by others. Sometimes they open up new adjacent possibles that allow us to replace the whole rotten caboodle, because the paths they clear ahead of them lead somewhere better. Christensen would call them disruptive. The Internet is one of those technologies. Right now, we in academia are mostly using it to shore up the old technologies and entrench them deeper with tools that automate mediaeval ways, like Moodle and other LMSs. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Imagine a world in which we throw away the old monkey's paw. Amongst other things:

  • No fixed-size courses that are simply the result of a need to herd cats and whose length is determined primarily by the need for students to help with the harvest or observe religious holidays at certain times of the year, not by any academic reasoning.
  • No exams that are designed to make the lives of scholars marking pieces of paper easier.
  • Accreditation that shows what you can actually do, not whether you can pass a test on those fixed-length courses; accreditation that is transferable to wherever you need to go next, that is precise, that does not bind you to one institution that holds you by the contractual short and curlies.
  • Resources that are distributed rationally and electronically, not bound to physical libraries that mimic a million physical libraries elsewhere for no good reason.
  • Institutional structures that are flat, distributed and agile, adaptable to changing needs and interests.
  • The end of academic disciplines that punish those that cross their borders (perish the thought that we might like arts, sciences, social sciences and humanities and might see fruitful ways to combine them).
  • Payment of teachers for teaching well, not jumping hoops and shuffling more bones on the research circuit.
  • Methods of learning that are fitted to the subject and people learning them, not the needs and capabilities of institutions teaching them. 

It's all possible, if a little disruptive, given the interdependence of so many things. Some people are already doing it.

Of course, technologies being what they are, if we made these kinds of change across the board then the monkey's paw would no doubt work its usual mischief. But this particular set of wishes has held sway for too long and it doesn't even make any sense.