This Visible College

What does the future hold for higher education? How is American academia changing under the impact of continuous technological transformation?

My previous column presented several scenarios in order to think through transformations to one aspect of the academy, scholarly communication. In this column we'll explore another part of higher education using only one scenario — but it's a doozy.

"Class begins when the classroom door closes." This image is enshrined in many practices, much popular memory, and even campus policies. But the concept may well be turned inside out in the near future as several trends coincide, altering the ways we teach and learn. That shut door is about to be wrenched open and our closed classes drawn into a global, visible college (compared to the invisible college described by David Staley and Dennis Trinkle1).  

None of these supporting trends is mysterious or surprising:

  • Social media
  • Mobile computing
  • Open content

Social media dates back to web developments preceding Tim O'Reilly's 2003 coinage of "Web 2.0" or perhaps earlier, to Ward Cunningham's 1994 creation of wikis and the first practical realization of the read-write web.2 Mobile devices are all the rage in 2011, yet Mark Weiser started explaining his theory of ubiquitous computing in the 1980s.3 Open educational content (OER) in its digital form arguably appeared with the first digitization projects and has recently gathered an impressive head of steam.4 Education has paid increasing attention to each of these on multiple levels, from professional development to course redesign to campus infrastructure support.

When these three trends combine, though, the synthesis surpasses each individual trend. What they do is turn the classroom inside out.

Three Forces Already in Play

Consider, first, the power of mobile devices for media capture and sharing. Phones (smart and feature), laptops, netbooks, tablets, smartpens, and others all afford various forms of audio and/or video and/or image recording. It is increasingly trivial for students to record classroom activities and share them, from a Facebook status update to edited HD video uploaded to YouTube. Faculty and classroom staff have access to the same technological affordances. Indeed, some campuses either make such media transmission available on demand (webcast.berkeley) or mandate and then automate the process. Several recent stories have dramatically demonstrated the possibilities of the latter, with controversial or exciting classes reaching a global audience via YouTube.5

YouTube and iTunes already host a growing number of publicly accessible, well-produced educational videos and audio files. That content may not fulfill the licensing requirements of open content, but it can serve many no-cost needs, and plenty of other material already appears under such licenses. MIT, Yale, Carnegie-Mellon, and other leading universities have already published curricular content as open educational resources (OER), licensed explicitly to be used and remixed in teaching. Additionally, the United States Department of Education launched an RFP for new OER, funded for up to $2 billion: the awkwardly named but historically ambitious Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program.6 Other open content materials sprawl across the web, from the long-established MERLOT archive to social media content shareable under Creative Commons licenses: FreeSound, part of Flickr (182,853,387 images as of June 9, 2011), dig.ccmixter, many blogs, parts of the Internet Archive, and more.

Social media has passed the point of being The Next Big Thing and is now merely A Very Big Thing, or something like the web's default setting. We web users create and share media, comment and tag others' work, edit, embed, and remix. Not everyone does all of these, of course, but most of us participate in some form, and consumption is widespread. Facebook, to pick one example, passed 500 million members some time ago and is approaching the one billion members mark. It is, at root, a platform for user-generated content.

Educational uses of social media are diverse and widespread. Alex Halavais described one aspect of social media:

Blogs provide an electronic version of the coffee house and the academic conference, allowing for open and observable discussion and debate among near-strangers.7 [emphasis added]

It is normal, now, to consider media social. Education is increasingly influenced by that practical assumption.

Everything I've described is happening now. What happens when these trends continue to grow and cross-pollinate?

The Door Opens

What once happened in the classroom behind closed doors increasingly occurs on a global stage:

Australian university lecturers are resisting putting recorded lectures online because they fear students will mock their off-the-cuff flubs in YouTube mashups and social networking posts.
But, despite this, university student representatives believe that students, with an ever increasing workload, should be able to have full access to all lectures - some believing it should be mandatory.8

Students and instructors can share open content using social media because OER is licensed for precisely that kind of use. Mobile devices expand sharing by increasing the number of opportunities to do so. Mobile devices also enable the capture and sharing of other, non-OER classroom content, with social media the logical, easiest platform to use and with the widest reach.

Imagine a few years on when these three forces have developed further and continue to reinforce each other. Students, faculty, and campus administration capture, and then share, class activities. Any netizen can access classroom events from around the world, across the curriculum. Lectures, discussions, questions, interruptions, announcements, awkward moments of silence — all are available to anyone with a networked device. Facebook conversations start in the world, stream into a class, and then feed back out again, forming conversations with unpredictable boundaries.

A learner in a Chicago classroom and a learner in Paris can consult the same OER document, then find each other through advanced Twitter search and compare notes about how their respective instructors parse difficult problems. A teacher in Lyons rages at his students, who document his outburst with audio and video, then find emotional support from friends in Morocco and Louisiana — all within an hour. Sophomores brooding on their junior year schedule scope out potential instructors by their many media representations, shared by themselves and others. Grad students on the job market research target colleges by browsing the interiors of their classrooms. Senior faculty members assess tenure-track colleagues' performances in the classroom without saying a word, without physically being present, and those junior faculty teach with a greater consciousness of being observed. The world of education approaches ubiquitous surveillance and total access at the same time.

One objection to this worldview is that some education will remain immune to it. Distance learning, for instance, often replicates the physical classroom's constraints online, with class participation restricted to registered learners and staff. E-reserves are predicated on limited access, as are many paid databases (JSTOR, LexisNexis, etc.). The TEACH Act requires faculty wishing to claim fair use to digitally recreate the physical classroom's restrictions in time (the semester) and space (the specific student group). Much pedagogy is predicated on a protected, safe space for faculty and students to risk expressing ideas they might not hazard publicly. Classroom observation often requires following formal procedures.

Strong precedents and habits support these practices, but all will probably be reconsidered. Learners (and staff) can easily create social media content streams paralleling closed ones, as with backchannels. Proprietary content and presumably restricted discussions can all leak out to secondary discussions through paraphrase, capture, and copying. Business models and policy templates will come under immense stress. Perhaps their best protection will be relative obscurity, a classic problem of search: With so much available material, not all receive due attention.

This scenario also constitutes a privacy nightmare. This imagined world has all kinds of surveillance, and nobody in formal learning can maintain any expectation of private space. Unless technological trends reverse and, simultaneously, a mass revolution in attitudes occurs, this will simply become an accurate description of reality. The classroom will shortly be turned inside out and the Panopticon will become the norm, with privacy the exception. Perhaps some consolation can be found in that the world at large is heading in this direction. It was in 1999 that Sun's cofounder advised us that "You have zero privacy anyway... Get over it."9 Alternatively, netizens, students, and instructors might simply relax their expectations, as David Brin argued: If we can all be surveilled, we can all be embarrassed.10

To understand this brave new classroom, we can learn from the library. For years librarians have grappled with their own version of this inversion, seeing library functions migrate beyond physical walls. Indeed, a slogan coined in 2005, around the same time Web 2.0 started growing into a planetary force, spotlighting not library as place, but (every) place as (a) library.11 Libraries facilitate access to patrons anywhere. Similarly, teachers increasingly make learning experiences available to any connected learner, willingly or not. Thus education needs all kinds of professional and policy responses to support the classroom. We can imagine changes to teacher training in graduate school, new professional development content, increased campus media capture support, new privacy policies, intellectual property policy revisions, reinterpretations of FERPA, and new licenses and negotiations for non-OER materials. And that's just for starters.

If the above scenario comes to pass, every classroom potentially will be connected to every place and become a virtual place for any connected person. Closed doors will be outmoded, and the invisible campus will become the visible college.12

  1. David J. Staley and Dennis A. Trinkle, "The Changing Landscape of Higher Education," EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 46, no. 1 (January/February 2011), pp. 16–33; see pp. 22–24.
  2. Sir Tim Berners-Lee's vision was always about a two-way web, with users reading and writing documents back and forth.
  3. EDUCAUSE Quarterly's sister journal was kind enough to publish my first article on mobile education way back in 1994: "Going Nomadic: Mobile Learning in Higher Education," EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 39, no. 5 (September/October 2004), pp. 28–35.
  4. See Taylor Walsh, Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities Are Opening Up Access to Their Courses (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011); Toru Iiyoshi and M. S. Vijay Kumar, eds., Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008); Larry Johnson, Alan Levine, Rachel Smith, and S. Stone, The 2010 Horizon Report (Austin, TX: The New Media Consortium, 2010); and Hal Plotkin, Free to Learn: An Open Educational Resources Policy Development Guidebook for Community College Governance Officials (Creative Commons, 2010).
  5. See Walsh, chapter 6. For mandated and automated capture, see Jack Stripling, "Video Killed the Faculty Star," Inside Higher Ed, November 18, 2010.
  6. See for the announcement.
  7. Alexander Halavais, "Scholarly Blogging: Moving Toward the Visible College," in Uses of Blogs, Axel Bruns and Joanne Jacobs, eds. (New York: Peter Lang , 2005), pp. 117–126; see p. 124.
  8. Ben Grubb, "Teachers' Online E-Learning Mocking 'Fears'," Sydney Morning Herald, May 11, 2011. Note the embedded quotation marks.
  9. Polly Sprenger, "Sun on Privacy: 'Get Over It'," Wired, January 26, 1999.
  10. David Brin, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1998).
  11. Council on Library and Information Resources, "Library as Place: Rethinking Roles, Rethinking Space," CLIR report, February 2005; and Nancy Davenport, "Place as Library?" EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 41, no. 1 (January/February 2006), pp. 12–13.
  12. Staley and Trinkle, "The Changing Landscape of Higher Education."