Landing : Athabascau University

Medieval wikis and blogs

I was reading Norton's 'Readings in the History of Education' the other day (love my iPhone) because I am intrigued about how and, more especially, why our current university systems came to be. The book is full of wonderful gems, but a couple of things seemed particularly interesting:

1: The glosses

Readings were given from text that, over the centuries, was adapted through the use of glosses - essentially marginalia but, in some cases, greatly exceeding the volume of original text on the page. Often they were wrong, misguided, poorly thought through, but were often read with the same emphasis as the original text.

Wikipedia on parchment?

2: the travelling scholars

Equally interesting, before universities were formed, scholars would travel to learn from masters, wherever they might be. 

"in those days the school followed the teacher, not the teacher the school."

I particularly like this exerpt from Abelard's autobiography:

     "...I betook myself to a certain wilderness previously known to
me, and there on land given to me by certain ones, with the
consent of the Bishop of the region, I constructed out of reeds
and straw a sort of oratory in the name of the Holy Trinity
where, in company with one of our clergy, I might truly chant to
the Lord: "Lo I have wandered far off, and have remained in the

As soon as Scholars learned this they began to gather from every
side, leaving cities and castles to dwell in the wilderness, and
in place of their spacious homes to build small tabernacles for
themselves, and in place of delicate food to live on herbs of the
fields and coarse bread, and in place of soft couches to make up
[beds of] straw and grass, and in place of tables to pile up

I feel a certain sympathy with this approach (I am in the icy wastes of the Canadian Prairies because of the remarkable people here) but the main thing that bears mention is that it was individuals, not institutions, that attracted scholars.

Oddly like blogs?

It is interesting that, like scholars of old, some of the bloggers I like most (most notably Stephen Downes but, to an extent, most of my favourites) are often concerned more with the discovery and interpretation of other texts than with creating new ones. Of course, it is all much faster, easier, more networked but maybe a bit less impressive- John of Salisbury spent twelve years at Paris and at Chartres following his preferred masters (including Abelard), whereas twelve minutes is about all I can take of most blogs.

Why universities?

My interest in Norton's book stemmed from a concern that has bothered me for a long time that we are driven by the exigencies of the form of our buildings, the physics of everyday life and, maybe more, from the history that drove us there, to learn in ways that would make little sense if we were to start anew without such constraints.

Back then, for instance:

  • If you wanted to learn from a master, you used to have to travel to be with them. More masters, more travellers, more students. Not only that, more lawyers (oddly seen as a benefit way back then). This was very good for towns and cities and the scholars were given many privileges such as freedom from tax, their own law courts and so on, partly to encourage them to come and partly to give them the freedom to study, learn and think.
  • If you wanted to read (or, more often, hear) the great works of human knowledge (well, mainly Aristotle and the Bible) you had to go somewhere that there were copies of those books to be read. 
  • It made sense for many people to gather round a single lecturer as there were not enough books to go round.

These and maybe some other circumstances of course led to aggregation and the formation of universities that attracted more people to them like planets forming from dust or snowballs rolling down hills. Many similar contingent facts caused the formation of the strange, archaic and arcane system we use today. It was not always a direct path and ideas evolved and died along the way. Sadly the student domination of the university at Bologna was lost and we now all follow the Parisian, master-led system but, perhaps luckily, bad lecturers are no longer stoned (at least with stones).

We don't need to work that way any more (and, incidentally, it is bizarre that we reinforce this pattern with learning management systems). As we increasingly turn to learning from and with those we acknowledge as great in the online world, beyond the boundaries of universities, we are slowly reinventing the medieval pre-university system, with bells, whistles and some centuries of innovation, invention and discovery to improve things, of course. Wikipedia becomes our glosses, blogs become the reed-and-straw-built oratories and we gather round, despite the online discomfort, to listen to the wise. David Wiley has gone one step further down this road and offered personal certifications for those who attended his open course. Who needs universities?

Systems often develop more because of their history and context than because they are a good idea and universities, with their long and relentless history, are proof of this. There have been some big changes and innovations from time to time - the Humboldtian model and the open universities are particular milestones, but they really just embellished the existing deeper models. At Athabasca University (where I mostly work)  everything I teach is online and so are all the texts I use. I can teach to anyone, anywhere there is an Internet connection, any time. To maintain the traditions and processes of medieval universities is odd in the extreme and yet many of them are still there - convocations and silly gowns, deans, professors, doctors, degrees... Why? OK, I know we have to rub shoulders with the medievals and won't be accepted as serious scholars unless we do, but it is kind of crazy and a terrible waste of time, money and energy.

So why keep universities?

I think that universities do have some important roles to play still, beyond their credentialing function (one that evolved quite late in the day, incidentally). I love the fact that universities still have some of those inherited privileges from their forebears. We still need a system that gives uninterrupted space to think and freedom from the fear of getting it wrong or pursuing the ridiculous or arcane. We still need the space for young and old to discover the richness of our civilisations and their artefacts.

Is the university as we know it the best space for this, especially one that is online? I suppose one good thing is that a course at an open university like Athabasca gives people the excuse and the licence to make the space in their lives to learn and the resources from which to do so (though why does it have to always take place in units of around 100 hours?). It would be nice if we could make more opportunities for people to also hang out with the scholars. In medieval universities, for instance, lunch was an opportunity for masters to check that students had learnt the lessons of the day, and for students to question and debate issues that arose. Maybe comments on blogs fulfill some of that role - certainly the dialogue can get quite rich around some posts (if you want to comment on mine, by the way, it's probably best to go to the version at which allows comments from anyone - sadly seem to be disabled for visitors at the University of Brighton site) and Twitter, Facebook, etc can fill in some gaps here and there. However, we can go further. I think that we need to make our spaces more sociable, and give much greater value and recognition to sociability, provide opportunities for serendipity and enable cross-disciplinary fertilisation. It is worth remembering what it was that the early universities were trying to achieve. It wasn't just about economies of scale and academic freedom, but it was an opportunity for building knowledge, engendered by the drawing together of scholars with shared purposes and a passion for learning.