Forward to the Past – Medieval University Strikes Back

I first started writing this post over a year ago, but it has sat as an unfinished draft for a long time.

I found myself wondering whether universities are going to experience a (likely painful) rebirth, one that leaves many in a very different shape going forward but with surprising echoes of the very earliest of medieval universities (unlikely as that may seem). It is a while since I read Charles Homer Haskins’ The Rise of Universities,but recall some of the details. Before universities came into being, anyone wishing to study would have to seek out a tutor or master and pay to join his classes. Over time certain towns (such as Bologna) became known for having many tutors, and hence attracted increasing numbers of students. In Bologna, the students who traveled to the town to study formed societies in order to be able to obtain citizen-like rights for living in the city and used these societies for collective bargaining with tutors over how much tutors should be paid and what they should teach. Thus the first European university was formed by the students themselves. (As per usual, Wikipedia has more on this)

When the university was first formed, students would individually and directly pay for their tuition – not to the university, but to each individual tutor. The tutors formed their own association, and over time a form of balance emerged – but with the students in control, as they were the ones paying for services.

Today we have a mix of private and publicly funded universities, but where students generally have very little control – but the emergence of a wider range of options may change that once again. We are also seeing systems emerge which take things back to before the formation of universities: where tutors relied on their individual reputations to attract paying students, without the existence of a university structure to set prices and pay.

Coursera and MITx are where Stanford and friends and MIT are making individual courses available (for free just now) to students worldwide – allowing anyone in the world to learn from the subject experts at these august institutions. These activities are important charitable ones for leading private (and normally quite expensive) universities to justify their charitable status, and help with promoting the institutions and fund raising. And make high quality courses available online for all, of course. In the UK, the Open University still maintains Open Learn, but they haven’t yet turned these into  courses with certificates from the university upon passing yet (AFAIK). They also do not use video based lectures, but the Open University do, however, have huge numbers of videos online on iTunes U.

Many other universities have been posting video lectures over recent years, but the packaging into courses with online assessments and certificates for successful completion/passing mean that these newer courses are becoming more and more like a free alternative to attending university – and one where you can pick and choose your topics and tutors from a growing range of online providers. And the providers may not even be universities.

Some of the pioneering work in developing Coursera is due to Sebastien Thrun, who left Stanford to create his own company, Udacity. Complete a Udacity course and you get a certificate signed by the instructors. As in Bologna before the university came into being, the value of the award is based on the reputation of the tutor (or perhaps the Udacity ‘brand’ value), not on some university seal.

Where Udacity is slowly building up the available range of courses, using only tutors and courses that Udacity deem suitable, Udemy are trying to become the eBay of online learning: anyone can create a course, and anyone can sign up to take courses. Tutors can set prices on courses, and Udemy take a cut of any fees. To attract in users Udemy also provide free courses (including hosting copies of many Creative Commons licensed courses from the likes of Stanford and MIT), and allow users to create free as well as commercial courses.

On Udemy or on personal websites powered by WordPress, Moodle or any of dozens of other possible CMS, tutors will have to rely wholly on their own reputation, while those on Coursera or Udacity will benefit (at least initially) from brand value association. Student led sites which help students navigate the options, to share experience alongside helping form study groups, are already emerging. Aiqus is just one, itself built using freely available open-source software.

As publicly and privately funded free higher education courses become increasingly available, as students become increasingly aware of these options, it will be harder for many existing universities to justify their costs and expense. Top universities will be able to rely on their reputation for some years to come – and a few appear to have found that offering courses for free can help enhance and build that reputation. But not all universities will necessarily survive being reborn into the new age of free and cut priced higher education that is approaching.




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