E L E C T R O S P H E R E    Issue 1.01 - May 1995

Crash Course

By Sadie Plant

Institutional collapse was once the dream of every 1960s student revolutionary. Today it has become an establishment nightmare. But with one difference - this time the revolution is real.

Education is running into trouble at every level and in all its forms. In Britain, structural reorganisation, economic deregulation, political mismanagement, and technological innovation have conspired to produce unprecedented flux and uncertainty in primary, secondary, and further education. But it is in the universities that the most critical implications of this new instability are most clearly revealed. Institutions which thought themselves immune to wholesale re-engineering have found their worlds broken apart. New ways of teaching - modules and semesters - break up the rhythms of academic work. New quality assessments disrupt academic careers and the flow of research money. A cash-strapped state increasingly expects university departments to generate much of their own income and compete for the funding they receive. A traumatised generation of British academics reflects on a golden age of stability when classes were small and jobs were for life. If they are already suffering, it is clear that they haven't seen anything yet.

"The technology that will take you all out is already here." It may sound like a line from a cyberpunk novel, but this is how British Telecom's research director, Peter Cochrane, described the implications of the telecommunications revolution at a higher education seminar last year. This is not merely a question of reform. Proliferating digital development is conspiring to challenge the education system itself.

Knowledge loses out to intelligence as hypermedia and the Net converge to challenge the mediating role of the teacher and the efficacy of specialisation. It challenges the assumption that the goals of education are always known in advance, and that the best route to those goals is a well-planned curriculum. The Net opens up unprecedented lines of communication between students, between professors, between disciplines, and between institutions. It multiplies new links between higher education and wider culture. In a world of smart weapons, intelligent buildings, and adaptive systems, intelligent activity can no longer be confined to humans, let alone a selected few of them.

The academy retains its monopoly on accreditation and qualification. But its ability to control access to knowledge and information is no longer guaranteed. It can no longer dictate the means and ends of education. The days of splendid isolation have come to an end. Universities are imploding, melting into the circuits of culture and trade from which they were once considered immune. Information circulates on networks which are largely oblivious to academic status. As Rudy Rucker (errant mathematician and futurist) said: "If you value your information the most, then you don't care about convention. "It's not 'Who do you know?'; it's 'how fast are you? how dense?' It's not 'Do you talk like my old friends?'; it's 'Is this interesting?'"

No one likes to confront their own redundancy, and even once-radical academics have become too well educated to question the foundations of education. A few years ago, I heard a British educationalist hold forth on curricula development and reform in higher education. At the end of his paper, someone asked him if he didn't think it was more important to question education itself. How does education function, and what is its purpose? Weren't these the questions that needed to be asked? "Oh," said the speaker, once a great protagonist of radical change, "we did all that in the 1960s."

You say you want a revolution

There was indeed a groundswell of discussion about the role of education thirty years ago, and significant changes did come in its wake. When it was granted its Royal Charter in 1969, the Open University (OU) fired a salvo across the bows of orthodox higher education in the UK. It asked for no previous educational qualifications, and it offered an unprecedented opportunity to study at home. The OU provided opportunities to many people who would otherwise never have come close to university life. As a child of Harold Wilson's passion for the "white heat of technology", it also took teaching out of the lecture room and put it on cassette, video, radio and TV.

When Wilson first proposed a "university of the air" in 1963, he envisaged a network which would allow existing institutions to collaborate on the provision of distance learning programmes. Under the guidance of his Minister for the Arts, Jennie Lee, it arose as an independent university with autonomous programmes and - unlike the polytechnics which opened at the same time - complete equality with existing institutions of academe. This was a radical break with what had been a peculiarly conservative past.

While distance learning has long been a feature of the academic landscape in the more sparsely populated and dispersed regions of the US, Canada, and Australia, Britain's population density and minimal distances would seem to make it an unlikely location for any similar moves.

But if geographical distance has never been the problem for British educational practice, it has had plenty of other barriers to overcome. Ridden by class divisions and an extraordinary lack of social mobility, British education has been rigidly policed and highly selective, and few of the chosen have been working class.

Stuart Hall, a professor of sociology at the OU, has no doubt that it was the extraordinary elitism of British higher education that spurred the Open University to extend academic opportunities beyond the old institutions of what he describes as "by far the most tightly controlled educational system in the Western world".

As far as its core bureaucratic structures are concerned, little has changed. The OU intervened in some of the existing institutional structures so dear to British life, but it has also kept plenty of others in play. The BBC - itself heavily invested in public service broadcasting and already committed to its educational role - was enlisted to work on the OU's TV and radio programming, with the consequence that much of its output has done little to take advantage of the pedagogic possibilities opened up by the broadcast media.

And although the OU has provided an alternative to the orthodox educational institutions, it has done little to challenge the dominance of those that remained. To this day, British academic life defers to the "golden triangle" which extends between the colleges of Oxford, Cambridge, and London. In what Marshall McLuhan called this "semi-feudal world", old boy networks continue to govern - not just curricula but also the distribution of resources and even the rationale for education itself. This has had a crippling impact on recent attempts at the reform of British higher education. To create more opportunities, reformers allowed polytechnics to offer higher degrees - just like universities. But now they are busily recreating a two-tier system - using a vast bureaucracy to distinguish those institutions "worthy" of performing research from those who are not.

Student choice was also high on the reformers' agenda. But even liberal educationalists still cling to rigid structures of study that are slow to respond to cultural change, and allow students little room for manoeuvre between disciplines. Universities still tend to do more to inhibit learning and thinking than to encourage it. Just as kids leave school more certain of their weaknesses than their strengths, so students graduate with a head full of specialised information which, at its worst, will have closed their minds without even increasing their chances of feeding themselves.

You tell me that it's evolution

"We can decide either to move into the new wall-less classroom," McLuhan wrote in 1969, "or to look on it as the last dike holding back the media flood."

If the big educational questions were indeed posed thirty years ago, it is now high time they were raised again. The OU has begun to discuss the possibility of developing into an electronic campus, with online access to online libraries, course documents, tutors and, of course, other students. But if the OU was ahead of its time in the white heat of technological change, the dark cool machines of the 1990s do not make things easy for such large institutions to adapt with the speed that would allow them to survive.

It is increasingly obvious to students that specialist knowledge is increasingly unhelpful in a parallel world which favours versatility, adaptability, and breadth. Institutions are being forced to pay close attention to student demands for an education that might give them a chance of commercial success in a world devoid of both careers and even specific jobs. This generation needs neither training for careers nor simply education "for its own sake", but rather the confidence and ability to learn, survive, and communicate in a world increasingly geared to the new discontinuities and contingencies which lie in wait on graduation day.

With access to a range of sophisticated software systems which take them into a data-dense world of which many of their teachers are barely aware, the last generations of twentieth-century students are in any case learning to learn for themselves, becoming detectives, hunting for contacts and data on the Net, and finding themselves in countless webs of connection extending across all the old divides. Such developments themselves have significant intellectual and institutional effects. The proliferation of cross-disciplinary communication is exciting new interest in connectionist paradigms that completely rework the existing ordering of knowledge into arts, sciences, and humanities, and students of, say, philosophy and cultural theory are increasingly keen - and able - to connect with their peers in areas as diverse as architecture, mathematics, and the biological sciences. The ability to navigate waters as diverse as these is an increasingly vital skill.

To the extent that universities continue to obstruct these trends, they will find themselves increasingly left behind. Established institutions will soon be competing with new and more flexible sources of intellectual skills, discussion, and information. Some will be commercial, others informal networks of co-operation. They may not be able to offer degrees, but, degrees might seem increasingly irrelevant in what William Bridges, author of Jobshift, a recent book on changing working patterns, refers to as a "workplace without jobs" - unless universities learn to make them matter.

British higher education is riddled with pockets of excitement about the markets and machines of the 1990s. There is a good deal of thought and discussion about both the pedagogic and commercial potential of Net trade and information distribution. Perhaps Britain's relatively deregulated economy and telecommunications industry, together with a widespread interest and theoretical prowess in computing culture, will leave its institutions well placed to adapt. But if it is to do so, then thought will have to turn to action, fast.

It is - if you can use the word in these unfamiliar surroundings - the entrepreneurs of academe that are pushing forward. Small institutions, short on funds, eager for new projects to raise their profile - and, due to the vagaries of educational budgeting, often better placed to spend money on technology than personnel - are setting up projects in remote-learning and online tuition. In the last few months, Southampton Institute has begun to solicit students worldwide with its global MBA. "Tuition rates for Bangladesh will vary" say the administrators, without a hint of irony.

But even at big universities, change is simmering in the back room. At the University of London, BT has invested in Relate (Remote Language Teaching over SuperJANET), a project to bring remote teaching into the forefront of the communications revolution. Instead of simply putting a lecturer on screen, Relate creates a virtual classroom - which allows questions and answers, and teachers and students to scribble notes and diagrams for each other on a shared electronic blackboard. Although the system is designed for high-speed academic networks, it can work tolerably at slower speeds - say on an ISDN line. More important, the software which makes the system run is in the public domain. So, as the tech spills into the streets, the knowledge to improve it will rapidly be brought to bear. Learning how to learn better is a key element of the new education.

Should Britain's universities themselves prove slow to learn, a new force is coming to push them forward: competition. Oxford may be under little threat as yet, but less entrenched institutions are starting to find themselves competing for students with all sorts of new names. The Global Networked Academy is an international organisation, with partners scattered across the world, which teaches its courses via e-mail, and holds seminars in MOOs. Its clientele are, in many cases literally, a thousand miles away from the Oxbridge triangle, but that does not mean that its ilk do not ultimately pose a threat. If Southampton can go to Bangladesh, Harvard can come to the United Kingdom.

And it is not just the same old courses over new media. With new channels also come new skills and new content. Rhonda Wilson, a Birmingham-based arts entrepreneur who also teaches photography and the media arts, argues that art students must be taught marketing and negotiation skills. "Communication between traditional arts lecturers and education's mostly younger clientele is hitting a point of crisis", she says. "Professional development skills are going to be crucial to the future of arts education, otherwise it cannot afford to exist."

Communication and information are crucial to education, and it is clear that any changes to them will rewire the very conditions of academic possibility. Undermined by the entrepreneurial, and encircled by a networked web of new technology, new ways of thinking and new ways of learning, the old academy is under siege. Using the fear of the transmission of pornography as their excuse, some British universities have now begun to monitor the electronic communications of their students and staff, and it is clear that there will be no shortage of attempts to curtail the cross-disciplinary and inter-institutional connections which are presently proliferating within and beyond the academy. But they are too little too late. Technology is bringing down the walls of the ivory tower.

We just want to change the world

Because all are concerned with learning, intelligence, and the storing and processing of information - be it in humans, machines or both - the evolution of education, computing and communications are intimately intertwined. And as paradigms shift in one, so too will they shift in the others. Modern education has operated as the large scale, top-down engineering of artificial intelligence. It is an expert system designed for the reproduction of expert systems; a specialised and disciplined procedure intended to reproduce specialisation and discipline in knowledge. And to the extent that higher education remains premised on the paternal function of the professorial figure - handing his knowledge down through the generations, restricting access to information, and preserving a tradition still in debt to the Greeks - the academy perpetuates a top-down mode that continues to teach with authority. Its purposes are legislated in advance. Its "academic disciplines" are means of policing the historical boundaries of study and research and its educational practices are designed to ensure that these orderings of knowledge are safely reproduced.

Traditional teaching methods and purposes are in effect serial processors, centralised means of guiding development in the right order and one step at a time. But new networks and new technology change the character of learning. Rather than a question of top-down teaching, intelligence becomes an exploratory process for which preordained canons and prescribed procedures tend to be nothing but obstacles.

This is neither a metaphorical point, nor a question of technological determinism, which is itself serial and obsolete. The emergence of parallel processing is, not surprisingly, a parallel event, which never happens in one place or time. It comes in typically piecemeal fashion, dispersed from molecular to global scale and without regard for the old differences in kind between natural, cultural, and artificial systems - between local systems of bacterial evolution, regional commerce and global telecommunications and computer networks. Parallel processors are now being integrated into the architecture of computer chips, and parallel processes are being discovered in the operations of all complex systems, even the human brain itself.

The new systems are all decentralised, lateral systems, functioning with no central governors and neither means nor ends decided in advance. Their increasing visibility and proliferation constitutes a generalised shift from serial to parallel which leaves no top-down machinery untouched. States, institutions, and corporations are equally vulnerable to its effects. This is the rise of markets over central planning, of teamwork over bureaucratic procedures and of small firms over large. And it certainly extends to the status of the academy, the wisdom of its procedures, and the authority of its disciplines. While the present system may survive for some time, intelligence is already trafficked elsewhere. n

Sadie Plant (plantsj@novell1.bham.ac.uk) is Lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham and a keen explorer of the implications of the digital revolution.