Could education (higher education in particular) be about to follow the path journalism found itself on, starting just under a decade ago? Could digital possibilities be on the verge of ushering in a new paradigm reflective of what happened to the newspaper business as a result of the rise of the blogosphere?
I doubt it.
Colleges, after all, are not newspapers. Their structures, like their status in society, are completely different. They have separate places in law and in custom, and are modeled to meet needs specific to unique societal expectations. Neither is simply a business unlike other businesses simply because the widget is different.
Because of First Amendment constraints, journalism has never been able to impose any sort of certification on itself. That is, anyone can set himself or herself up as a journalist and there is nothing anyone else in the profession can say about it—aside from pointing to their own greater training or experience, if they have it. Starting a newspaper, by the same token, requires only the resources, not anyone’s permission.
When the blogosphere erupted into national consciousness, it did so because, suddenly, anyone could start an online newspaper, and for nothing. Thousands, then millions took advantage—and ‘traditional’ journalists started to see themselves pushed aside. No longer were they the primary conduit for news—not even for ‘breaking’ news. Other sources were now available, at the click of a button.
Superficially, that may seem to be something of the same place colleges and universities are in today. Suddenly, with Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCs) and other easily accessible avenues to learning appearing and gathering a great deal of publicity, it can seem that what happened to journalism is now happening to education.
But there are massive differences between the two situations. For one thing, journalism found itself faced with new and revolutionary forces from outside of the profession itself, forces the likes of which had never before been seen. As anyone who was involved in the alternative-press movement of the 1960s can tell you, starting a newspaper, before the digital age, was not easy. Even with the advent of ditto and mimeograph machines—and offset presses—it took a great deal of time and effort to produce and distribute a paper. What could suddenly be done from behind a desk in a day, even as late as the early 1990s (just ask the producers of ‘zines), took dedication to research, to writing, to design, and to hours and hours of scrounging up a little bit of money, a smidgen of publicity, and distribution beyond family and friends. All of these, by the early years of the new century, were now easy. Even the writing was, especially as errors could be corrected even after the product had seen ‘print.’ The financial barriers between the professionals and the amateurs had, for the most part, disappeared. [See my book The Rise of the Blogosphere for more on this.]
The MOOCs, the online classes, discussion groups, wikis, and other aspects to education don’t present the same sort of break with the past. Certainly not in a financial sense. It has long been possible to get an education in America without resorting to our colleges and universities, without having to pay for it. We still do have a gigantic network of public libraries (though it is declining) along with million upon million of books easily available even elsewhere on any topic imaginable. ‘Self-learning’ has been an American tradition for two centuries now (more: it certainly goes back to Benjamin Franklin, if not before). It was always something the individual could do; the resources were there. No one hand to depend on outsiders to deliver but anyone could easily get what they needed for themselves. The autodidact has been a source of pride for America for centuries. If there was an ‘autojournalist,’ it was the letter-writer—something else entirely.
Beyond that, education has one thing journalism does not have:
Back where I come from we have universities, seats of great learning—where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts—and with no more brains than you have…. But! They have one thing you haven’t got! A diploma! (The Wizard of Oz)
Certification. The success of American journalism is based on lack of a certification process. This allowed the profession to grow on its own as the country grew, and to develop its own methodologies without interference. The ‘self learning’ movements grew (and shrank, and grew again) in much the same way. But, along the way, people started realizing something else was also needed. It wasn’t enough just to study, one had to prove one had learned something. All sorts of processes for certification grew—the bar exam for lawyers, college degrees, licensing exams, apprenticeships. Only journalism could not impose its own–or even allow one to be imposed on it.
Because certification is such an important part of our American structures of higher education, colleges and universities have moved down a road different from that of journalism, which always risked direct competition with self-made and self-imagined upstarts. Because certification is such an important part of our American structures of higher education, colleges and universities are able to move with confidence into ‘self learning’ without feeling the threat that journalism felt from the blogs. In fact, they can expand into these new areas without feeling that they are robbing Peter to pay Paul. They have no reason to fall into the defensive posture professional journalism took for so long in face of the blogs—and they are not doing so.
There are quite a number of other reasons that education will not travel journalism’s road (which is not to say, however, that the impact of the digital will not be extraordinary on education, just that it will be different), but I will close with only one more.
Though many today want to believe otherwise, colleges and universities don’t depend upon product for their existence—and they shouldn’t. They depend on process and on certified outcome. And these, no matter how people may argue otherwise, are not products. A diploma is not something traded, as a product is, but is something gained (and something that cannot, then, be traded away). Though someone does, indeed, pay for the education, the certification is not dependent upon payment, but upon performance evaluated continually through the process of coursework (and more, in many cases). And it is dependent upon guidance.
The structure of American educational institutions (education for any sort of certification, certainly) requires that students work under the supervision of faculty and not simply, as in ‘self learning’ and (far too often) in journalism, on one’s own. If not done this way, the certification or diploma becomes meaningless. Too often, in the future, it will be shown to indicate nothing. Businesses (and other institutions) know this, valuing the degree precisely for the learning it represents, learning done within a web of supervision and even institutional certification. This is quite different from the situation in journalism, where the value is in the use of the product, not the producer.
I do hope that the impact of the digital age on education will be tremendous. All I know, however, is that the impact will be its own, not a replication of what has gone on with journalism. The differences between the two professions and institutions makes this clear.