If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, is it a duck, or is it a simulacrum of the duck? Trapped inside that old saw of induc(k)tive reasoning is a fundamental question about “duckness”: in just what characteristic, exactly, does the quality of being a duck consist? Appearance? Sound?
By way of analogy, a similar thought experiment is afoot in higher education. As traditional, brick-and-mortar universities explore new web-based/distance learning alternatives and new web-based/distance learning alternatives explore the possibilities of degree granting and accreditation à la the traditional brick-and-mortar university, both sides and plenty of third-party pundits are hashing out the question of just what, exactly, is the constitutive and defining quality of the university educational “experience”. Does the essential element consist in the rigor of the curriculum or in the chance for virtually unlimited interaction with peers? Is it the quality of the instruction? The chance for one-on-one engagement with professors? Could the degree itself, in fact, be the defining element of a university education? Or is it a process of intellectual socialization that bears no more direct relationship to the paper degree than the training of a world-class athlete bears to a piece of colored metal on a fancy ribbon?
Getting back to the simpler world of ducks and things duck-like, one can say that it is much easier to agree on whether something qualifies as a duck if we already have a well-established and agreed-upon idea of what a duck is. Unfortunately, the question as it applies to higher education is much more complicated than spotting webbed feet and bills and feathers. That said, the pressures currently in play on both sides of the debate about the university (and its online equivalent) may be pushing us toward a resolution.
For the sake of argument and convenience, we can roughly categorize the exploratory forays made by traditional universities into distance learning as “top-down” approaches in contrast with the more “bottom-up” approaches that projects as diverse as P2PU
, the Kahn Academy
, and the University of the People
are taking to the question of web-based higher education. We have frequently discussed the top-down efforts in this space, giving particularly attention to the University of California’s developing distance learning initiatives
. Generally speaking, the top-down approach of the traditional university is driven by a combination of perceived financial necessity and technological possibility and has in its favor the resources represented by a diverse body of content experts and established instructors, a nationally or globally recognized brand, the imprimatur of accreditation, and the ability to grant a degree with an established value. On the other hand, strong institutional resistance to change, a reluctance to risk devaluing the brand or degree, and the difficulty of dealing with the complex variety of stakeholders in the traditional university all tend to work against the top-down model.
What the more bottom-up approach lacks in institutional resources may well be compensated for through increased flexibility and a greater openness to risk and experimentation. The bottom-up initiatives see a tremendous market (indeed, a global need) for low-cost, effective higher education, and they are coming up with a variety of peer-driven delivery and assessment models. What the open-access P2PUs and Kahn Academies of the world may ultimately most lack, however, is the status of accreditation and the ability to grant degrees.
Shai Reshef’s University of the People, which was recently written up in the Chronicle of Higher Ed
, is looking to buck that trend and be the first tuition-free, open-access university to grant bachelor’s and associate’s degrees and have American accreditation. And if UoPeople, as it’s called, makes that status jump, it will still not look quite like a duck, but it will be accredited like one. And among the many likely results of a success like the one that Reshef and UoPeople hope for, not the least significant, surely, will be increased pressure on the traditional universities to move more aggressively into the distance learning and (more) open access markets.
Were that to be the case, we might well see the top-down and bottom-up approaches converging on some middle ground of web-based education, at which point the simulacrum of the thing and the thing itself would be virtually indistinguishable. At that point, any distinction beyond looking like a higher ed duck and being accredited like one might cease to be relevant.