Friday, February 26, 2010

Education 2.0: Universities as User Networks

The more I think about it, I become more convinced that universities have already started morphing into the User Network model, adopting the role of a guide and mentor to the seekers of knowledge, rather than trying to be the fountainhead of knowledge creation. One may as well argue some of the best research and innovation come out of universities. This is indeed true, and in that function, universities create knowledge. And, I see the universities concentrating more on research function, while morphing their teaching function into a technology-facilitated user network form.

This does not happen today as the universities are expected to meet their social obligations through the performance of the teaching function. The economics of an university is dependent on dispensing education, and research is mostly an area where universities incur costs. The government policy expects the universities to produce a certain number of graduates, in line with the needs of the employers as well as the needs of the community the university functions inside.

However, we are already stretching the model as far as possible. Particularly in the universities in Europe, the finances are stretched and the model is failing its responsibility at both ends, leaving significant financial holes as well as creating ever larger, not so balanced classes. The universities have already started combating this challenge by innovating new courses and formats, and many of these new, irregular, courses are aimed at professional learners and leverage the resources available both inside and outside the university. The universities work as the provider of framework for learning, and common benchmarks and assessment mechanisms, but not much else. Most of the learning is expected to happen in the context of learner's own environment, in the context of practise as one may say, and there is an increasing emphasis on creating shared learning environments, where the learners can bring their experiences together to achieve distillation of the available knowledge. One may argue that the university is still following a process, which is correct. But, the point to note is that we are not talking about a void in terms of process; the whole point of the shifting business model is that the VALUE resides in the NETWORK rather than inside the PROCESS.

Now, given that someone has to pay Professor's salary and the bills, the question is whether one can monetize such facilitated networks. It is interesting such questions are even raised, because we already have established commercial models how Facilitated User Networks can be monetized. Looking at telecom and banking industries, one may see that users pay for three different kinds of privileges, Membership/Participation, Access and Events. Membership is about the basic fact of being part of the community, and users choose to pay a fee just because there are certain values attached to such membership. Access to services, usually over and above the basic membership services, are charged for. And, then, there are Events, like an overdraft in case of a bank, and a tune download in case of a telecom provider, where users pay a charge.

I would argue that as and when universities morph into User Networks, their charging model will change to include all three components. People will pay to be part of the community, they will pay to access learning resources and they will pay for events and facilities around the process of learning. Not very different from what happens today, indeed; but we shall need a new paradigm to think of students as members and build and present a new service package accordingly.

Much of this will not sound revolutionary, and it is not. The practises already exist, and the examples can be drawn from across the board [from Gentleman's Clubs and/or Professional Associations]. New innovation in education has always been difficult, given that it is politically sensitive, reigned in by vested interests and the cost of a mistake is significantly high and irreversible. However, we are at a time when there is a broad consensus, across the countries and spectrum of opinion, that something needs to change in the way education is done. It sure seems that change, incremental or disruptive, will now surely come.

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