Bill Gates is quoted today in a post on TechCrunch as saying that higher education needs to be less “place-based”. The post goes on to suggest that Gates thinks that “technology is the only way to bring education back under control and expand it”.
An interesting assumption here, especially for environmental education and higher ed: that the physical, the first-hand, the experiential will take a back-seat to the placelessness of the web and the promised access to “the best lectures in the world”. I’m not about to get all Chet Bowers-esque here and suggest that computers, the Internet and the ecological crisis are so intrinsically linked that we enter into a double-bind to use these technologies to engage with this crisis. I do think differently and find the notion of self-education / EduPunks as particularly interesting development in higher ed. As a consequence, I believe that there is possibility in this particular “reform” movement, informed by educational resources including on-line “open” courses, for technology to re-define some of the relationships of power (i.e credentialism) that exist between institutions and learners. If this is what Gates is referring to in regards to technology, then I’m all for it.
It is telling, however, to examine the cannon of open courses that are being offered. Relevant for my approach to teaching and learning, it appears as though there are no natural history of X courses on offer. True, this is likely due to the paucity of courses being offered in these kinds of topics1 in the first place. But the kind of teaching that I am interested in in higher ed is distinctly situated in place.
The notion of being less-place based is (obviously) threatening to my sensibilities, but it also continues to mark the evolution of what education ought to be for2: competitiveness in the (job, economic) market. It furthers the notion that education isn’t a process, but a product and that if you have access to the “best” lecturers, that you will have the best product—you—out in the market. Admittedly, it is hard not to get sucked into this perspective: I am, for example, at the end of my PhD and looking out at what’s next. As I formulate this next stage, “getting a job” appears to be high on the horizon. It is telling that my foremost concerns are not a cultural relationship with the more-than-human—they’re all about if I can pay rent.
Perhaps its not surprising then, in a capitalist economy, that education becomes about reproducing that system and that one of the world’s richest men is a proponent of a further abstraction—away from place—of higher education. I’ll suggest that my concern here (after figuring out how I’ll pay rent) is that while there certainly is possibility in the freedom of placelessness in higher education learning, there is too much at stake for an educator like me, dedicated to students coming to know the more-than-human. That it is possible for any discipline to take learning completely on-line, absent of any kind of materiality (e.g. hands-on learning, a greeting from a classmate, sitting all together in a lecture hall / seminar room) already suggests that Universities have already begun the process of wringing out the liveliness of education. And learners need more, not less, liveliness.
- And here we go with the power of institutions, again. The natural history course that I taught at York for three years couldn’t be offered this year without being put on the official course list. As a (transient) PhD student, my faculty was not going to do that, so it simply wasn’t offered. [↩]
- And here is where Chet and I get along quite well. [↩]