This week, Cathy Davidson’s much touted MOOC on the ‘History & Future of Higher Education’ finally gets off the ground. The Coursera servers are straining at the leash with anticipation and digital identity/literacies/humanities type folks are ready for their first sets of debates and tasks. It’s a welcome attempt to hold an open conversation. Yes, it is clear from the pre-course materials and blogs that are circulating that it has a flavor that’s distinctly North American, leaning strongly towards liberal arts and the digital chateratti, but we’ll see how things unfold. There’s no reason why other voices can’t join in and help shape the discussions, broadening them and segueing tangentially. I’m sure, Cathy would love that. So I hope I don’t disappoint by chucking out some of my own ideas.
Many of us who were the first generation in our families, our communities, to access higher education, have a passionate commitment to an idea of higher education that perhaps transcends that held by the institutions themselves. For us, the potentially liberatory nature of what we experienced in the milieu of being a student (more so than in the strict confines of our disciplinary contexts, albeit that this sometimes provided a vocabulary for engagement) had profound effects not just on careers, but on personal worldviews. For many of us it was an initially alienating experience, a clear window on the inequalities of social and economic division in our societies. But also, when confidence slowly (oh, so slowly) grew, something to be seized, to be embraced and, we hoped, to be shared.
Have we, now in this post-Blair era of fees, privatization and commodification, of unaffordability and debt, of ‘mission drift’ (from teaching to some narrow conception of ‘research’), lost what meant so much to us? The talk of flexible learning, or part-time enrolment of credit accumulation does of course potentially broaden opportunity, but it also potentially narrows the experience. If for some in our society, the only access to a higher education is through a series of pre-packaged course options, built semester by semester, assignment deadlines competing with working hours, where’s the scope for the ‘other pieces’ of a ‘higher’ education? Divide and conquer, fragment and lose the ethereal glue that made something different, something distinct. Not a course, but an education.
What does it mean now to be a student? Are you a member of scholarly community for three of four years, or a registration number passed from one database to another as the credits are chalked up? Is the notion of a period of time in someone’s life where they have the gift of being able to study something in the utmost depth, protected from other pressures (by adequate funding and support), to engage in dialogue and personal unfolding as well as taking ownership of their chosen discipline, now gone? Or is it reserved only for the few? Only for the wealthy, only for the young, only for those who care little of debt and who have access to loans?
Or is it possible to build a new higher education that is based on principles, on transformation and on contribution to the flourishing of the individual and the strengthening of society and community?