Landing : Athabascau University

The Institutions of Theseus

From Wikipedia...

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned [from Crete] had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.

—Plutarch, Theseus (

Over the past few days I have been in Japan thanks to the OU of Japan, talking a bit but mainly listening to the great and good talking about how their interest groups (universities, publishers and libraries) should react to a world of increasingly rapid and disruptive change. What interests me greatly about all of this (apart from the research, analyses and arguments presented, of course, much of which has been wonderful) is the assumption, by all, that their particular institutional sector should persist, no matter how much it may change. Libraries become learning centres, universities become publishers, publishers become universities... but the fundamental unit and mindset in each endangered institution persists. We imagine many interesting new futures for our institutions but the end of the institution remains unimaginable. 

I wonder, at what point would we stand up and say 'we've had a good run and we did a good job in our time, but now we are irrelevant and getting in the way of making life better. It's time to call it a day. What shall we do next?' I don't think most of us would ever do this. We just have too much investment in what we have done and it is too much trouble to change the whole thing at once. It's a bit like realizing that your house is not very well designed or efficient and therefore knocking it down and building a new one. But, though we may resist that for decades or even centuries, at some point, it has to happen. The trouble with the incessant expansion of the adjacent possible is that the argument for demolition gets stronger at an accelerating rate.

We have learned to accept this with computers for some time. From the late 1980s to the early 2000s I had one computer, albeit one very much like the Ship of Theseus, which had no parts in it's final incarnation that were present in the original of the late 1980s. But since then, while some information has stayed on my machines since the mid 1980s, when one machine no longer suits my needs, I get another. It's cheaper and simpler than modifying an old one. The same has been true of cellphones for as long as they have been with us.

It is, of course, a lot lot harder to do that with big institutions and businesses. Hundreds or even thousands of years of slow modification and adaptation have made things like libraries, universities and publishers a very fixed and deeply interwoven part of culture and society, not to mention infrastructure. It's not as simple as replacing a computer to replace an education system on which almost every other institution and industry in some way depends, especially once we move beyond higher education to schools. We can keep modifying and replacing parts for a long time, I guess, but at some point we will need a new ship.

Interestingly, the analogy holds in the extended Ship of Theseus paradox, in which the rotten planks of the original are collected and eventually reassembled to form the original ship while the ship that bears the name no longer contains any physical parts from the original (which is the 'real' ship? At what point does one change to the other?) - libraries are starting to pick up the discarded bits that schools used to own, publishers are taking over various roles of universities, universities are taking pieces of community libraries and trying to become publishers...the list goes on. But maybe we could build better ships instead?

When radical change to universities happens it will probably happen quite fast and it will probably slip in rather unexpectedly from somewhere else entirely. Erik Duval made a great provocative throwaway comment in a panel with assembled publishers that Wikipedia had made other encyclopedias irrelevant already. No one argued that one, but a few looked uncomfortable. Some tried to suggest a hybrid of open and closed content as the best way forward but they were unconvincing. Thanks to the Web, libraries too are already finding their traditional role of custodians of information largely usurped and are becoming something almost entirely unrecognisable to librarians of the past - far closer to educators and infrastructure providers than librarians in many cases. Education, however, is far more deeply intertwined with other things, from work and family patterns to accreditation, from relatively unencumbered knowledge generation to the preservation of culture. And it comes with quasi-religious trappings. It's a tougher nut to crack.

The separation of accreditation and learning support may be the catalyst for a cascade of change. PLAR/APEL and challenge for credit processes already largely separate learning from accreditation and may be the means to achieve a disruptive and positive evolution that is more widespread in its effects. Accreditation is the biggest single link between educational institutions and the rest of the social ecology so, when that goes, the rest becomes more open to change, competition and evolutionary pressure.

This is a risky process - high quality methods of accreditation are vital if we are to see positive change: if the separation leads to more standardised exams, for example, then the result would be a disaster for learning - teaching the most efficient way to pass tests will trump deeper learning every time and we could expect to see education mills tuning themselves to fit the tests in the worst way possible.

Competence-based methods that valorise diversity and creativity, like portfolios, are vital if we are to see a positive revolution and not make life worse than it is already. Richer competence-based assessment is also essential if we are to preserve the value of expertise in professors and lecturers: if standard tests become the norm, assessor roles will be significantly deskilled and the diversity that is one of the great parts of the university ship that must be preserved and nurtured will be largely stamped out. It's not that there is no place for that kind of test but it should not become the norm. It is important that, in separating learning and assessment, both should remain useful roles for a university, even if other companies, networks and organisations may provide one or the other parts for the learners. There should be nothing to prevent learners from choosing to have both provided by a university if they want, and it might be good for them to do so in many cases. But they should also be able to choose to learn elsewhere and be assessed by the university, or learn at the university and be assessed elsewhere, or bypass the university altogether, if they wish.

If we can cut the direct rope linking higher education and promotion/job finding, then the stage will be set for potential radical and positive change which will, peculiarly, be a return to traditional values in which universities are again set firmly in their role as creators and nurturers of knowledge.

I'm quite looking forward to that.



  • Mary Pringle February 26, 2011 - 5:41am

    I see a fundamental incompatability between the complete democratization of higher education, which seems to be implicit in your expressed hopes, and the old idea of a community of scholars. I wouldn't want to return to a day when women and others are arbitrarily excluded from that community, but I can't see it ever being something that most people would voluntarily join. I can imagine guild-like groups maintaining professional standards much as they do now, but I think most people are extrinsically movtivated and do not see the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself. A self-selecting community of scholars would be relatively tiny. Back to the future--it might not be so bad.

  • Jon Dron February 28, 2011 - 2:18pm

    I don't think the first phase of my ideas involves major disruption to what we already have - it just introduces a bit of evolutionary churn that is currently throttled by the tight coupling of teaching and summative assessment. We could carry on much as we do now in many ways, teaching, researching, assessing. But, as we move to the next phase, the separation of assessment has the big advantage of creating an evolutionary power struggle in which I think quality would improve: reliable assessment would be valued highly, as would good teaching, as separate and distinct processes. And they would not have to come from universities, but they probably would, at least to start with. In the future, my hope would be that universities of some form might remain but, to do so, they would have to be good. Maybe guild-like entities would evolve, but they wouldn't have to emerge for this process to work - the traditional peer-review and other quality control processes would still have a valuable role.

    Right now, we can teach really badly and assess moderately well thus, as long as our students are good enough to succeed despite our poor efforts, we come out smelling of roses. This gives very little incentive for teaching to evolve - as long as we are all caught in the same system, our ties to the surrounding ecology are too strong to allow significant change to occur. Maybe evolution would lead to bad things, especially if it were hijacked by poorly informed cost-cutters who might remove value as well as cost. But I think the roles of accreditation and teaching are too important for that to happen - people wouldn't like it.

    I should emphasise that formative assessment is a necessary part of good teaching - it's just the summative part I'd like to separate out.