Thursday, July 4, 2013

Open or closed?

There's a fascinating interview with Harvard professor Clayton Christensen in the Economist that I would like to quote as food for thought, Clayton Christensen: Still disruptive. Christensen is the man behind the concept of disruptive innovation from his 1997 book The Innovator's Dilemma and has some radical views about the role of universities in the post-MOOC world. It is not the technology that is disruptive it's what they enable people to do with it. MOOCs are opening up educational opportunities for millions of people who would otherwise be excluded from higher education. Technology is making mass education possible and affordable and will inevitably affect enrollments at traditional universities. Christensen claims that we are likely to see universities going bankrupt in the near future as competition increases.

However the part of the interview that interests me most concerns research, the main focus of the academic world. In a world already drowning in content we keep producing more and for increasingly small audiences. Christensen questions universities' investment in research which seldom has much impact outside the confines of a narrow research community.

"We are awash in content that needs to be taught, yet the vast majority of colleges give a large portion of their faculties’ salaries to fund research.
The problem is the research that most of them generate isn't useful to anyone except other academics. In business there are five ‘A’ journals in which you have to publish to get promoted to tenure. In one of those five the average article is read by 12 people. If only one in every five research universities stopped doing research, society wouldn't be impaired in the least."

Harsh words there and many will object. But for me the main point here is the dangers of the closed academic system producing ideas and results that remain behind the walls of copyrighted academic journals. In such silos research becomes an exclusive commodity for a restricted audience. However he also offers the promise of increasing openness in education, enabling wider participation and stimulating more meaningful research.

"Almost always great new ideas don't emerge from within a single person or function, but at the intersection of functions or people that have never met before. And most universities are organised so you don't have those intersections. They are siloed. Universities think people come up with great ideas by closing the door. The academic tenure process, where you have to publish to journals which are very narrow, stands in the way of great research."

Read the article: Clayton Christensen: Still disruptive.

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