Pushing the boundaries of Higher Education

Content is King? Welcome to Tubeocracy!

Image by Yishay Mor, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Image by Yishay Mor, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Yishay Mor, Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Teaching, Levinsky College of Education, yishay.mor@levinsky.ac.il

In this paper, I will offer with some observations about the changing cultural and technological landscape, and argue for the changes these entail in Higher Education (HE).

The forces I wish to highlight:

From the observations about these forces, I argue for a shift to educational structures which are characterized by:

But first, a story..

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a talented, motivated and articulate student. She told me of an online research methods course which was notorious among her colleagues: “the teacher”, she said “thinks that teaching online amounts to posting a series of Word files on Moodle. I can’t understand anything. No-one can. And I need this stuff for my research. But don’t worry, I’ll get what I need on youtube”.

I love this story, because it captures so much of what’s ailing HE in three sentences. What’s wrong with this picture? First, the teachers is failing the student. Presumably, this teacher used to stand before a classroom and talk, and now she’s transposed that practice to an online medium: she transports words from her head to the students’ but instead of doing so orally, she does it textually. Arguably, her practice isn’t any worse. The only difference is that it’s quality is now visible. Second, the institution is failing the student. That institution should be monitoring the quality of teaching and addressing gaps in provision. Third, the student is resorting to unregulated sources of knowledge. How does she (or we) know that the knowledge she will acquire on youtube is accurate? How do we validate its quality?

The thesis

We’ll come back to this story later. Before that, I want to present a few postulates. I find them self-evident, so I won’t offer any data or references to back them up. However, I would be grateful if you, the readers of this paper, could contribute evidence for and against these claims.

Postulate 1: we live in an era of pervasive abundance of data

I deliberately use a seemingly redundant phrase. “Pervasive” as in “it’s everywhere” and “abundance” as in “there’s so much of it”. In fact, data is so pervasive and abundant that we don’t even notice it (it’s also largely invisible, which might also contribute to it being unnoticed). “Every step you take leaves a print”, says the Chinese proverb (I googled it). In our times, every step you take leaves a digital print, and that print is aggregated, memorized, analysed, and utilised. Big Data is dominating more and more aspects of our lives; commerce (e.g. recommender systems), transport (uber, google maps, autonomous cars), medicine (from predicting epidemics to personalising diets). The implications for education are threefold: regarding how we learn and teach, what we teach, and the questions we should be asking. As in other fields, the use of data holds a promise for efficiency, personalisation and massification. We’re starting to see this unfold in learning analytics and adaptive learning (Mor, Ferguson & Wasson, 2015) – but both penetration and quality still have a way to go. Critically, data is only as useful as the models used to aggregate, analyse and interpret it. Without quantifiable descriptions of teaching and learning practices, we are optimising what we can measure rather than measuring what we want to optimise. On the other hand, more and more vocations in the future will require some level of data literacy. This is still absent from current curricula. Finally, living in a data-saturated environment raises ethical, cultural and philosophical questions. Organisation such as the Data & Society research institute (https://datasociety.net/) are exploring such questions, but the educational sector is yet to fully engage in the discussion.

Postulate 2: we live in an era of pervasive abundance of information

I bought a pineapple. I was enjoying it with my five year old, and I said “you know, I think we can turn the crown into a pineapple bush”. Within three minutes we knew how to do that – all we needed is my mobile and a search on youtube. The fact that I can find any bit of information instantly, anywhere and anytime, is changing the way we shop, date, travel, and, well, spend time with our kids. It’s already changing education – in 1980 Arthur C. Clarke said “Every teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be!”, that story above suggests that’s exactly what’s happening. HE institutions are embracing this text by rushing into the MOOC trend, but they’re missing the subtext: a good teacher can’t be (replaced by a machine). Socrates, Dewey and Freire all remind us – a good teacher does not provide answers – s/he offers the right questions, the inspiration to pursue them, and the critical review of the answers we find.

As Diana Laurillard said, Education is a service industry – not a media industry. Our role as providers of content is over. With a flick of their finger, learners can find content of far greater quality that we can ever produce. Our purpose is to help them evaluate, connect, and act upon that content. In other words, turn information into meaning, and meaning into action.

Postulate 3: we live in an era of transient procedural knowledge

When I was 10 or 12, I got a bike, and my dad taught me how to fix a flat tyre. I teach my kids this craft, and I am confident they will pass this on to their kids. Driving a car, on the other hand, is something my eldest is learning now – and my youngest will possibly never need. Just like changing a ribbon in a typewriter or formatting a floppy disk. As the (artificial) world we live in changes at an ever growing pace, the knowledge of how to “work” it changes too. There’s no point in teaching people how to operate technology which will probably be obsolete by the time they graduate. Instead, we need to teach them how to master new technology as it comes their way.

Postulate 4: we live in an era of eroding epistemic knowledge

Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 was post-truth, defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’ (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016). The politics and culture of post-truth are blamed for many disturbing phenomena: Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump, climate change denial (ok, disturbing for some). It seems like we’ve left reason behind and accepted a consensus of “everything goes”, all positions are equally legitimate. Yet this argument is itself a bit of post-truth. Technology, media, or whatever your favorite demon is – are not making us stupid. They are only flooding us with content (see above) and frightening us with uncontrolled change. The theory of personal epistemology (Hofer, 2001) perceives three phases in the development of epistemic thinking – the cognitive practice of determining truth: absolutist or dualistic – seeing the world in simple terms of right and wrong drawn from a single source, multiplist – accepting all positions as equally admissible, and evaluative – using sound criteria and practices to assert the value of diverse claims. What we’re witnessing is not disintegration of reason, but merely dissolution of authority without the construction of autonomy. The pervasive abundance of information (above) has shifted us as a society from the dualist to the multiplist phase. Now it’s education’s job to complete the transition to evaluative. As Hoffer argues: “Our ‘educated citizenry’ may in fact be largely composed of individuals who view the world from a position of absolutism, or who simply accept a multiplicity of opinions about complex issues, seeing no need to support positions with evidence. Such individuals might not only lack the skills to solve ill-structured problems (Voss and Post, 1988), but may also lack the motivation to do so. Education that focuses on the progression of epistemological thinking has the potential for addressing this critical need.” Hofer (2001).

Where do we go from here?

I argue we need to strive for hybridity, empowerment, and criticality. Cremers et al. (2016) define a hybrid learning configuration as “a social practice around ill-defined, authentic tasks or issues whose resolution requires transboundary learning by transcending disciplines, traditional structures and sectors, and forms of learning”. Given the abundance of information and the transience of professional knowledge, our graduates will need to engage in hybrid learning throughout their lives. Our role is to train them to do so effectively. One corollarily to this is that we need to emphasise learners’ (and teachers’) autonomy and independence. Blaschke (2012) suggests the heutagogical approach to teaching and learning as one where “learners are highly autonomous and self-determined and emphasis is placed on development of learner capacity and capability with the goal of producing learners who are well-prepared for the complexities of today’s workplace”. This seems like the appropriate approach for our times, and compliments the concept of Hybridity. Jesse Stommel (2012) accentuates the distinction between blended and hybrid pedagogy: the former designates the technical mixing of presencial and online means of education. The later not only transgresses this boundary, it challenges many other dichotomies, between social, cultural, institutional and technical contexts. And it does so with a critical and reflective mindset. This mindset is, pardon the pun, critical. If our aim is to guide our students in the transition from dualist or multiplist epistemic practices to evaluative ones, we need to give the evaluative stance presence in all the experiences we provide them.

To conclude

Let us return to the story we started with. The student who shuns her professor in favour of youtube is demonstrating the onset of a critical, hybrid, heutagogical attitude to her learning. Will her professor identify this, and nurture it to maturity? Or will she become an obstacle – and eventually be pushed aside? Education, as a consumer product, is about to undergo the same consolidation that other media industries have experienced. Producing a high quality online course requires solid learning design, engaging video content, adaptive learning flows, and automated assessment. This entails large investments and a coordinate team of diverse experts. In spite of the widespread rush into MOOCs, in the end learners will gravitate to the producers with the capacity to generate the highest quality courses, and other universities will “lease” the courses from these providers. And what will their staff provide? The things that require a human: inspiration, empathy, moral and epistemic guidance.

On the other hand, we must be weary of idealising the learner. As a reviewer of this paper rightly asked, how representative is the student in the story of her cohort? How representative is my 5 year old of hers? The first represents a segment of her generation who are confident in their self-study skills, the second represents a section of hers whose parents guide her, through cognitive apprenticeship, in acquiring such skills. Both may well be a minority in today’s society. The greatest educational challenge we face is not one of economic or digital divide, but the epistemic divide: the chasm between those who know how to create and critique knowledge, and those who don’t. Are our systems fit to bridge this divide?

I argued that we educational institutions need to abandon their obsession with content and shift their focus to fostering epistemic skills, through hybridity, empowerment, and criticality. This entails a research agenda: we need to identify, model and quantify effective epistemic and heutagogical practices. It also entails an organisational and policy agenda: we need to evaluate teachers, departments and institutions not by the knowledge capacity of their graduates but by their knowledge creation capacity. These two agenda are intertwined: without the policy focus, the research will not prevail. Without the research, the policy is groping in the dark.


Blaschke, L. M. (2012). Heutagogy and lifelong learning: A review of heutagogical practice and self-determined learning. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 13, 56-71. http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1076/2087

Cremers, P. H. M., Wals, A. E. J., Wesselink, R. & Mulder, M. (2016). Utilization of design principles for hybrid learning configurations by interprofessional design teams. Instructional Science, , 1-21 http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11251-016-9398-5

Hofer, B. K. (2001). Personal epistemology research: Implications for learning and teaching. Educational Psychology Review, 13, 353-383. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/226743145_Personal_Epistemology_Research_Implications_for_Learning_and_Teaching

Mor, Y., Ferguson, R. & Wasson, B. (2015). Editorial: Learning design, teacher inquiry into student learning and learning analytics: A call for action. British Journal of Educational Technology, 46, 221-229. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273762453_Editorial_Learning_design_teacher_inquiry_into_student_learning_and_learning_analytics_A_call_for_action_Learning_design_TISL_and_learning_analytics

Mor, Y., Craft, B. & Hernández-Leo, D. (2013). The Art and Science of Learning Design: Editoral. Research in Learning Technology, 21. http://journals.co-action.net/index.php/rlt/article/view/22513

Stommel, J. (2012). Hybridity, pt. 2: What is Hybrid Pedagogy?. Hybrid Pedagogy http://www.digitalpedagogylab.com/hybridped/hybridity-pt-2-what-is-hybrid-pedagogy/