Saturday, May 07, 2005

Radio Summary


Well, it's all said and done. The conversation flowed reasonably naturally, and I think a lot of good things were said. Certainly those present enjoyed it. The content became a critique of Academy's lack of engagement with technology, and why this might have been. (For an overseas audience - this post is meant in a particularly Australian context) As I see it, the reasons are three: economics, fear and loathing.

Economically, it's hard to make money out of the Internet. If information is free, why should people pay for it? If, for example, excellent courseware were simply free, would the Universities get so many students? This is perhaps especially true of an area like philosophy, which may be studied simply to stimulate the mind rather than to get a job. It has the potential to be seen as a pleasant pastime, rather than a course of study worth investing in.

For a traditional university, opening the doors to information can look like a bad idea. This has its closest parallel in the open-source world of computer software, where commercial companies paint downward-trending graphs to argue that giving software away eats into their profits. In truth, however, the flexibility of open software and software standards have allowed more agile development, allowing smaller companies to compete, and ultimately improving life for everyone. Universities differ from this in that they are a small oligopoly, protected by regional interests and high barriers to entry against any serious competition. Many mountains will have to be moved before they see the light.

The fear of the internet carried by universities is one of lack of control, both in terms of input and output. If students are able to gain wider access to information, one no longer has control over the content of that information. At one level, this might be legitimate concern over the students learning from bad sources, but at another it is a fear of the difficulties of detecting plagiarism, losing control over the ideas they recieve, having to deal with students with a broader experience base - in short it looks like a whole lot of work.

The loathing of the internet is, hopefully, only a generational one. Many lecturers struggle to properly manage their email, yet alone having the mental objects in place for understanding user accounts, blogs, web-pages, online identities, information distribution channels and so forth. For many of these people, research means the books in the library, and the journals to which they publish. Efforts like wikipedia, while accepted amongst tutors, are hated for their free nature and ad-hoc publishing regimes. Open-access journals are given the throw-aways of elitist publications, access to which is granted only through affiliation with a University, appropriate qualifications, or a not insignificant subscription fee.

The life of a lecturer is one of pursuing tenure, gaining "points" from publishing articles, teaching subjects and signing off on postgraduate theses. In that world, the Internet has no place, no representation. There is no "president of the Internet", and no place where one can campaign for its rights.

As traditional forms of information distrubution have moved online - budgetary reports, commissioner's reports from government, news from the major parties, the treasury, newspapers - the Academy has remained stagnant. The technical barriers are trivial, and this can be seen as nothing other than a refusal to engage. While the Academy to some extent sets the rules, they are also subject to them. Increasingly, they are marginalised into producers of job-tickets, vocational educators. "Pure research" as it was once called has no place in this new world, because it is has not moved to take its place alongside the rest of the modern world.

Australian Universities have been warned.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

heh. An example of a comment on my marked essay - "I'm unfamiliar with your references". My reply, "they all come from the university journal database"

5/07/2005 07:08:00 PM  

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