In chapter four (“Computer Science”)  and Chapter five (“Independent Study”) Kamenetz presents two views of how technology might change higher ed.  Chapter 4 is the “evolutionary” scenario, in which technology doesn’t dismantle the university as we know it, instead becoming a new (and presumably better) means to the traditional end of a degree.

Several analogies are made between education and the music industry, starting with a nod to Bowen and Baumol’s 1966 book Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma in the opening paragraphs of the chapter.  Since I was a music major once upon a time,  I’ll stay in that frame.  Kamenetz points out how the ease of digital distribution has made more music available to more people at lower cost. She acknowledges that the analogy with education isn’t perfect, indirectly quoting Candace Thille of Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative – “It’s not just about content delivery,….If it had been, open courseware efforts like MIT’s would have solved the problem.”(90).

However, if you extend the analogy, things get more complicated for Kamenetz. One of the key trends she identifies in the introduction is the idea of unbundling, the idea that services that the present day university provides together (instruction, library, credentialing, networking) will “unbundle”.  However, in discussing the music industry, she passes by another big trend without noting it.  Kamenetz writes, ” Contemporary composers can record an entire symphony from their bedrooms.”  What she doesn’t mention is that what those bedroom musicians can do is less about unbundling than vertical integration.

The aspiring garage band of the pre-digital era could make lots of music. What they couldn’t do is record it, market it, and distribute it.  The march of technology meant that the members of the band can also now be the recording engineer, design the album art, duplicate the CD’s and build the website that markets it all. This allowed small entities to compete head to head with the large conglomerates.

How far does this analogy extend to educational resources? Kamenetz mentions a CMU developed tutoring technology (91)  There’s no footnote, but I think she might be referring to  the Cognitive Tutor Authoring Tools.  At the moment, these tools use either an Adobe Flash or Netbeans (Java) IDE.  While perhaps many CMU faculty members know enough Java or Actionscript to use them, I don’t think that’s true of of most instructors I know.  The same can be said, to some degree, of developing video segments for a course.  Most instructors don’t have a background in video production.

At least given the present state of instructional technology, the demand for technology enriched course materials is most likely to be met by the CMU’s,  MIT’s, and other institutions that can bring a staff of technologists and designers to bear on the challenge of producing instructional materials. I wonder if technology in its current state is pushing curriculum design the opposite direction it pushed the music industry.  Instead of every instructor creating his or her own course, will expectations of high tech interactive tools push everyone into choosing from the same set of course materials provided either openly by big institutions with open courseware initiatives or less openly by publishers, as the various skill sets required for content production get bundled together at fewer and fewer institutions with the resources to support them? It seems as if they might.

Kamenetz also mentions the National Center for Academic Transformation and its efforts in course redesign.  I’ve had the opportunity to attend a couple of NCAT workshops, and the statement that always seemed to raise the most faculty eyebrows is the assertion that, to be economically efficient, one must redesign not just a section, but an entire course.  To an instructor used to making his or her own curricular decisions, this often comes across as an attempt to create a one size fits all solution

Kamenetz does finally tackle a possible future for verifying student learning when she looks at Western Governors’ University, which separates assessment of learning from instruction. It is perhaps the strongest real world example of unbundling Kamenetz has yet shown us.  My own sense is that this is a big first step in allowing those who don’t need instruction to have their learning and skills acknowledged. That said, there are many people for whom it won’t work well, but in some sense, the entire chapter is a look at how the lecture model dominant for hundreds of years might be gradually replaced by a number of routes to a degree.

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