If students stop coming

In a follow-up to a previous blog post on “the online course tsunami” Mills Kelly of George Mason University speculates on what may happen to the academic labour market if MOOCs (massively open online courses) gain real, long-term traction:

If general education is to be delivered through whatever means (online only/hybrid) seems most cost effective and/or universities opt for a competency model such as I proposed in those long ago posts on the free economy and higher education, then we will eliminate the need for large numbers of junior and/or contingent faculty, because our students will be able to present credentials that demonstrate their mastery of what is currently called general education. Someone, somewhere, will be making money on these courses or course-like options.

This is only one of the possible outcomes that Kelly is discussing, but if this scenario would become real, “tsunami” is no exaggeration of the impact on the entire landscape of higher education (and with it, research).

Update: Kelly has now published a third part in the series focusing on the potential impact on upper-level courses if many students take their introductory courses via MOOC providers.

Libraries without books

David A. Bell of Princeton has a thorough piece on the future of libraries in the New Republic, where he argues that major change is unavoidable:

This technology cannot simply substitute for the great libraries of the present. After all, libraries are not just repositories of books. They are communities, sources of expertise, and homes to lovingly compiled collections that amount to far more than the sum of their individual printed parts. Their physical spaces, especially in grand temples of learning like the NYPL, subtly influence the way that reading and writing takes place in them. And yet it is foolish to think that libraries can remain the same with the new technology on the scene.

It is a balanced, well-informed analysis and Bell is probably as right as anyone can be in assessing the way forward for libraries, but I feel very sad at the thought of physical books gradually being pushed to the sidelines and even “phased out” entirely. A world that means a lot to many is on the brink of disappearing.

Twitter’s path

Like many others, me included, Orian Marx is worried about the direction in which Twitter seems to be heading. In a comprehensive blog post (via @ayjay) that is a good, if somewhat depressing, read for anyone who cares about the service, he writes about its past, present and (potential) future:

I have had a love / hate relationship with Twitter for four years. As a technologist, it is impossible not to be enamored with the transformative effect Twitter has had not just within my industry but the world at large. As an entrepreneur and perhaps an idealist, it is impossible not to be embittered by the trajectory upon which Twitter has set itself as a company. […]

I think Twitter will continue to spread FUD until what’s left of the ecosystem remains wilting in the carefully arranged flower beds of its walled garden, foregoing the legacy of all the good ideas that got it to where it is today.

While I hope he is wrong, I am afraid he will be proven all too right. Twitter has now reached the point where they need to start making a profit, but like so many other web services they have chosen to make their users into the product they sell rather than the customers they serve.

Along with Facebook’s failed IPO and their, as well as Google’s, serial privacy violations, Twitter’s recent actions are just the latest indication that we are entering a critical new phase in the (admittedly short) history of social media companies. After several years of explosive user growth, which has also brought with it large amounts of investor funding, many of them now face increasing pressures to generate revenue in a market where “free” is the norm. Rather than giving users the chance of paying for services, they try to build their business exclusively on ad networks.

When that happens, openness quickly gives way to attempts at control in a modern enclosure movement. Except that today, the sheep being enclosed — or shut out — are you and me.

Blogs — a return to seriality?

Speaking of academic blogging, Kathleeen Fitzpatrick just posted a piece on “Blogs as serialized scholarship”, where she discusses to what an extent and in what respects blogging is a new form of scholarly exchange or reminiscent of old ones:

The divergence between the direct, communal kinds of exploration we undertake in a seminar and the discrete, closed form of the journal article mask their common origins in the letter-based correspondence among scholars in the early Enlightenment. The first modern scholarly journals came into being as a means of broadening and systematizing such correspondence, and in the process, gradually replaced a sense of ongoing exchange with one of formal conclusion.

In this sense, today, when a scholar with a blog writes a bit about some ideas-in-process, receives some feedback in response, returns with further ideas, reiterates, and so on, we can glimpse once again the seriality that has always been at the heart of scholarly production.

Interesting argument. I have worked quite a lot with such 18th century scholarly correspondence and agree that there are obvious parallels to blogging (although the speed of exchange is very different today, of course).

Primers on blogging and online learning

Yesterday I came across two good, thoughtful blog posts that each summed up one important aspect of digital humanities practice. The first is Jeffrey McClurken’s primer on “Forms of online learning”, aimed at people who might be interested in the topic but “are not part of the ed tech world” (i.e., people like me). Essentially it is an ordered, structured list of different types of approaches where each is characterised very briefly and a few pros and cons are given.

Although McClurken calls it a draft, it provides an excellent overview of a very diverse range of forms that are often, mistakenly, discussed as if they were one single “thing”. Also well worth reading is Jason Heppler’s post on “What I’ve Learned as an Academic Blogger”, based on his experience of running a blog of his own for four years. I found it particularly interesting and helpful to read his advice on the very day I launched this site, but I could also relate it to my previous experience of academic blogging (in Swedish) for almost two years.

Most of Heppler’s points I agree with, such as the importance of writing regularly and not to procrastinate by fiddling with the design (I am the first to plead guilty on that score, though). Others I rather hope than am convinced he is right about, for example that you can write about many different things and do not have to stick to one topic. I intend to do just that here, but I am also fairly certain that it will make fewer people read the blog. Like Heppler, however, I am more interested in quality than quantity, so as long as there are at least a few readers it is a compromise I can live with.