What is the university in an age of social media?

English: Education of the Virgin, attributed t...

English: Education of the Virgin, attributed to D. Velázquez (Yale University Museum) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Clay Shirky has posted an intriguing article on the future of the university in the social media age.  He argues that social-media technology, in particular the MP3 and technology to enable sharing, which has changed the music industry, is changing university education. Napster revealed how the technology of sharing and recording music was intrinsic to the business model and the MP3, and related technologies, accelerated the model to its implicit capacity.  Shirky’s argument suggests that the same logic is unfolding in the university and its intrinsic model will be accelerated to its implicit capacity. The MP3 of the education is the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC).  The MOOC solves two problems that limit higher (or university) education: cost and availability.  On the surface, his argument is appealing, yet it raises a deeper question about the university in the age of social media.  Shirky’s argues that the technology transforms university education’s intrinsic business model and university education. Does this mean the end of university as a place and an idea?

Back to the future: speeding up the logic that founded the university

The MOOC technology accelerates the process that gave rise to the university and the university system c1100 (Bologna 1088).  The MOOC is the next wave of the university’s organisational development: the post-modern or social media university.  Yet, the post-modern university, by scaling the education product through social media, means an end to education, properly understood, in the university.  The MOOC and other social media technology as they bring the business or organisational model to its implicit capacity reveal the core philosophical problem within the modern university.  Even though the administrative changes reduce the cost of “attending” a school, the deeper questions that social media reveal will remain. What is the university? What does a university mean in a social media age? What does it mean to be “educated” in the social media age? Students no longer appear to attend university questions like: Who am I? What is the best way to live?  Instead, the university appears to be a place that answers the question: What job should I pursue?

What is a university? What does it mean to be educated?

Mr. Shirky paper does not answer these questions directly. By equating information with knowledge or even wisdom, he argues that the same skills that allow us to develop, find, or extract information also create knowledge.  On the surface, this appears to be correct. You have to find the information to understand it. Yet, on a deeper level, it confuses information, or the ability to locate information, with knowledge or the understanding that becomes wisdom.  To put it differently and directly, Shirky’s argument confuses librarians for philosophers.  Knowing where the information can be found is not the same as understanding the information, or applying the information. Nor does it help one understand or choose the goals or ends to which the information is to be applied.  The argument for MOOCs rests, in large part, on the idea that the university delivers a product, a trade, which can be scaled.  The university becomes a skills factory where skills, instead of learning as a search for wisdom, are developed.  The MOOC appears to confirm the university has changed into a vocational centre.  Reason is reduced to the practical application of information. For the university, skills are the output and a job is the outcome. If a university education is job training, has the university as an idea failed? How are we to be educated?

What is the goal of a university education?

Education cultivates something. It is to cultivate the mind.  Education in its purest form transforms a student’s soul.  Obtaining skills it is not the same as an education because the individual to be something different, to be “educated” in the culture of the mind. Society needs skilled citizen and it needs its citizens to aspire to understand what it means to be human and know the best way to live. A university is to provide sustenance to the highest ambitions, which encourage the political motivation to shape the regime. Such sustenance is delivered by great teachers. MOOC lacks the potential for a teacher’s dynamic dialogue that changes a student by showing them a new vista, a way to understand who they are and their part in the world. If our university education is focused on skills transference, who will be teaching us what it means to be human?  If great teachers are reduced to a series of lectures, we misunderstand what it means to have a great teacher.  Education is not a technological monologue in which the text, the video, or the online representation in augmented reality presents a teaching.  Few generations know a great teacher. Instead, we rely upon their books and writings to learn.  We learn by reading them. Yet, that is not sufficient. We have to “talk” with the great teachers. We need a dialogue. To do this, we need guides. We need scholars who will lead us to a deeper understanding of what the great teachers or the great books mean.  The university was a place for such scholarship.

Yale as a skills factory: was Allan Bloom right for the wrong reasons?

In one sense, the article appears to confirm what Allan Bloom warned about in Closing of the American Mind.  In that book, Bloom argued that the American university was closed to learning because of the influence of Heidegger, relativism, and a vague notion of openness that seems to embody modern liberalism.  He suggested that the university education had failed democracy and in the process failed the students. In a sense, Mr Shirky’s description of his Yale education seems to confirm some of Bloom’s argument. If Yale resembles a skills factory rather than an institution that will shape a person’s soul, then the description appears to confirm Bloom’s thesis.  In describing his Yale experience, Shirky touches upon what has changed in the university and how the MOOC accelerates that change.  The MOOC both undermines the university as a place and makes it the most important asset as a social experience. In the Yale experience, students appear to receive their skills training albeit in a better location, with a “better” class of students, a better set of “trainers”, and better materials.  If those elements define the university educational “experience”, then the reason for attending the university is the experience rather than its educative content. We see a tension within the modern university exposed by the MOOC model. The MOOC’s appeal demonstrates that the university is a social experience, whether physical or virtual, and social media extends and distorts the “education” it provides. We have two universities.  The virtual university, where the MOOC focuses on the content, is defined by the potential of social media sharing.  The other university is the “social experience” based on physical place, fellow students, and secondary opportunities related to the experience and less the content. They represent the emergence of a multiversity and the disappearance of the university.

We see an exoteric university as a “social experience” containing an esoteric teaching, the university as a place where scholarship might occur. Yet, the university no longer delivers or contains scholarship. The skills factory that defines the student’s experience is replicated in the ersatz scholarship.  The university is a research factory. Instead of fundamental idea of the university as two people discussing a book together to understand the best way to live and the best political order to achieve it, we have something else. The university has become an “education factory” where research is produced on an academic assembly line.  The pursuit of profit, rather than the pursuit of knowledge, drives the university.

Social media challenges the university as a place and an idea.

The problem of technology, in the form of the social media, and the technological, in the social media ethos, challenges the university because they represent a changed understanding of what it means to be human. In that sense, it allows us to see nihilism effect on the university’s intellectual and moral unity.  If the MOOC erodes the modern university, as a corporation, business model by a technological logic, then that work was prepared by nihilism’s fragmentation of the university’s intellectual unity.  As Alasdair McIntyre wrote, Newman’s idea of a university’s unity is no longer what holds a university together.  Nihilism and technology have hollowed out the university and reduced it to a physical place that offers a “social” experience rather than an education. We see people “trained” or “habituated” into something commonplace and routine.  At best, education is now a process that shapes the character and soul of students to lesser goals. If the university has no higher goals than providing a physical place where people attend, rather than a place where minds meet to explore what it means to be human and the best way to live, then has it become hollow? Perhaps the university is no longer a place that offers guidance or sustenance to the highest ambitions (intellectual or otherwise) because the students have been hollowed out before they arrive and they come to be filled by the experience, any experience, of which location is a part. Location also means more than a physical place.  The university attracts and retains researchers by its location as a place of scholarship. In the corporate terms, its “offer” can be defined as its money, its location, and its community. The more the university promotes research and virtual collaboration, the less it becomes a destination or a location. The research model, that supports most major universities, encourages universities to be transient entities. They are shell corporations filled by researchers attracted by promises of money, grants, and positions. Research is no longer bound to a university in the way that scholarship has been.  The researcher can go anywhere, work from anywhere, and find money anywhere.  In that sense, universities are no longer destinations with students are no longer attending for the education and most access is virtual. Teaching caters to the MOOC, and research driving the academic business model means teaching needed to generate scholarship or scholars needed to inform great teaching is no longer available. In a sense, we have moved deeper into Plato’s cave through technology. Without scholarship, there is no teaching. If teaching is reduced to delivering a course then there is no need for scholarship. We only need research to sustain the content and bolster the university’s corporate coffers. What remains is the university as a social experience. Yet, where does one find scholarship? Where does one go to philosophize?

A divergence between the university and the regime emerges. The university is no longer animated by a central unity, a quest for truth that set it apart yet embeds itself within the regime as a counter balance to the political regime, which is unified around central political beliefs.  Without the challenge and dynamic tension between regime and academy, created by scholarship, the unity of the regime begins to homogenise as students leave to serve the regime’s truth rather than pursue truth.  The decline of the university is hidden by its corporate changes so that it appears outwardly healthy, with corporate endowments, awards, and national championships, yet, inwardly it is without purpose or significance.

In time, the disunity within the academy will undermine the regime because the regime will no longer refresh itself from within by its own citizens.  Instead, the regime will have to rely upon external stimuli, such as foreign wars and threats, to maintain any unity through a dynamic tension between the regime and the world.  As the university is no longer a place for philosophy, that implicit challenge at the heart of any vibrant regime, except in some few, rare, places where political philosophy exists, the regime is no longer educated regarding its previously self-evident truths.


Heidegger as harbinger for the modern university’s fate.

When the intellectual unity disappears, only the university’s physical space remains. As Heidegger warned, the university is no longer a place for scholarship. The scholar, who pursues the truth, has been replaced by the researcher who provides a research “product”. The university is a business to attract and retain researchers. Moreover, that research is another product to be packaged and sold.  As Heidegger wrote in the Question on Technology “The Age of the World Picture” p.125,  without unity, the university is no longer produces scholars.

“Hence the decisive development of the modern character of science as ongoing activity also forms men of a different stamp. The scholar disappears. He is succeeded by the research man who is engaged in research projects. These, rather than the cultivating of erudition, lend to his work its atmosphere of incisiveness. The research man no longer needs a library at home. Moreover, he is constantly on the move. He negotiates at meetings and collects information at congresses. He contracts for commissions with publishers. The latter now determine along with him which books must be written (Appendix 3).

The research worker necessarily presses forward of himself into the sphere characteristic of the technologist in the essential sense. Only in this way is he capable of acting effectively, and only thus, after the manner of his age, is he real. Alongside him, the increasingly thin and empty Romanticism of scholarship and the university will still be able to persist for some time in a few places. However, the effective unity characteristic of the university, and hence the latter’s reality, does not lie in some intellectual power belonging to an original unification of the sciences and emanating from the university because nourished by it and preserved in it. The university is real as an orderly establishment that, in a form still unique because it is administratively self-contained, makes possible and visible the striving apart of the sciences into the particularization and peculiar unity that belong to ongoing activity.

If the social experience is an education, it is an education of a lower sort. Focusing on the social experience, education does not attempt to awaken or instil the highest human ambitions. If the university can no longer teach a moral truth, the belief in the truth of philosophy, then what is selling? In the United States, are we surprised that Enron, Lehman Brothers and the financial crisis occurred when the universities have left a moral vacuum because the love of truth has been devoured by the love of gain? When the university’s unity based on scholarship, a search for truth and wisdom in a community of scholars, disappears, scholars disappear.  When scholars disappear, education is reduced to transmitting information and skills. When this occurs, liberal education, the goal of the university education properly understood, let alone philosophizing, properly understood, can only occur by happy coincidence.   When scholars do emerge, it is in spite, rather than because of the university.  As neither the MOOC nor the university as a corporation will revive scholarship, then where are the scholars going to be found?

Despite this challenge, some may argue that the problem is insignificant.  Students are already formed, and full, before they arrive at university.  They do not need to know what it means to be human because they already know what it means. They attend university to answer the question: what does it mean to be human?  Instead, they attend for skills training and job placement. In that sense, the question has been “answered” by the regime as it defines what it means to be human for the student. We then have to wonder what will fill their souls and make them capable of fulfilling their highest ambitions and needs as human beings. They may be educated to be dutiful and obedient daughters or sons, but what type of human beings, what type of citizen, will they be?

Social media and the possible rebirth of the academy?

Two possibilities need to be considered regarding the university’s future. The first is the claim that scholarship is still occurring within the university but in graduate school.  In other words, the education in liberal education occurs when leisure is available. Yet, this only presents a more refined version of the education experience rather than offering a liberal education.  By that I mean, the focus may be on scholarship, it may be more educative than social, but the core idea is training or skills development.  In this case, graduate school becomes advanced skills training rather than a search for wisdom or knowledge.

The second is that the virtual academy can renew or review the university education as scholarship.  In this alternative, a new hybrid version of the university emerges where the advantages that social media allows for accessing and sharing knowledge gained by scholars supported and nurtured by universities.  Yet, this too seems to assume, at least at this technological stage, that the sustained dialogue needed for the liberal education can be developed.  At present, the technology seems to encourage more of a monologue rather than the sustained dialogue for the pursuit of wisdom. However, the future may require the emergence of a new virtual academy to renew the university and renew the relationship between scholarship, place, and the full liberal educational experience.

What if the university cannot be renewed?

Today’s academics succeeded because they became researchers rather than scholars. Can they usher in a new age of learning? If a new age of learning is to emerge, it will require scholars.  As they are unlikely to be in the academy, the question is how they connect to it and students find them.  Can a university or a virtual academy attract them and will the scholars want to join?  If it is too late to connect scholarship to a place that allows for the educational experience, then we may face a future where liberal education, properly understood, and all it signifies for Western civilisation is no longer viable. The liberal regime becomes problematic without a liberal education as it becomes closed to philosophy. When it is closed to philosophy, it lacks the dynamic tension, the search for truth, that animates it. If the university has become Plato’s cave through technology, what are the political consequences for a regime unable to develop scholars and pursue the truth?  .  For the citizen, if a liberal education is no longer possible, then the question is who will teach us what it means to be human?  If we cannot answer that question adequately, how can we understand what is the best way to live?

Perhaps it is time we get educated.

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About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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6 Responses to What is the university in an age of social media?

  1. Universities are not a complex but just a sort of melting pot where we find knowledges to be skilled, knowledges to be minded, ways for jobs, funds for research, a place as a teacher, a place where we are able to become an adult, and so on. There are libraries some times, with books but often it is more useful to search into the web and find the state of the art for free or not. We seek for a job but does a University the best place to be skilled for the peculiar job I want to do? And Industry is searching people for common jobs and for peculiar jobs.
    Universities must be destructed. And we have to build Technical Institutes for jobs with the best teachers we find. Teachers with the love for skilling young people. We have to build more Research Centers opened to the world through social media. Skilled young people must be authorized to explore papers wrote in laboratories even if they are not researchers. And philosophers must be in the middle of these Institutes and laboratories not only in person but also by the way of social media. But also we have to open Industry in the same way.
    In my idea, social medias are just the way to linked more people, more agencies, more industries, laboratories, classrooms. The goal is exchange of knowledge, ideas, … And we have to specialize Schools as places where we can obtain a diploma. And universities are places where we can learn how to think, how to manipulate knowledges from different areas for understanding world and generate new knowledge. Universities must be the places also where connoisseurs with diploma and these without diploma can challenge each others.
    The next of University is the challenge between connoisseurs with diploma and connoisseurs without diploma.

    • Thank you for the engaging comments. Yes, I agree the issue will be around those with and without diplomas. I wonder how we will look at the social media university in which location has a different status as a way of endorsing the skill of the student rather than the status of the institution. Perhaps social media will reveal intellectual pedigrees and reinfoce it for others.

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