As preparation for the session “Emerging Reality: Making sense new models of learning organisations” at this week’s CETIS Conference (which is a session hosted by the TELMap Project), I have created the following scenario to try to make real some plausible drivers/issues/etc. The session will be debating the plausibility of these and other issues and hence their potential shapers of future learning organisations. I will emend this posting once the outcomes of the workshop are published.
The scenario is pure fiction, an informal speculation about something that might happen by around 2020-5.
What is a “Society of Scholars”?
A Society of Scholars is based in one or more large old houses with a combination of study-bedrooms, communal cooking and social spaces, a library and a central seminar. Students and some of the Fellows live there while many Fellows live with their families and study there.
There are no fixed courses but a framework within which depth and breadth of scholarship is guided and measured. This framework is validated by an established University, which awards the degree and provides QA (all for a fee). The Network of Societies of ScholarsTM has additional ethical codes and strict membership rules.
The physical co-location is a central part of the Society, combined with the wider (virtual) network of peers.
Societies of Scholars sprang out of an initial “wild card” experiment where a small group of progressive academics with experience of inquiry-based learning pooled their redundancy payments from one of many rounds of staff-culling. A few sold their houses.
Their idea was to strip out the accumulation of both central services and formality of teaching and learning setting and to get back to basics while reducing cost and being able to do more of what they enjoy: thinking and talking. In doing this they hoped to attract students who were otherwise being asked to pay ever higher fees to endure ever more “commoditised” offerings and suffer poor employment prospects. The promise of high wages to pay off high debt is elusive for many who follow the conventional route. Graduate employment and student satisfaction are worse for those who opt for the newer “no frills degree course” offerings, which have cut costs without re-inventing the educational experience.
For several years they struggled to attract students but gradually a few gifted students managed to develop ultra-high web reputations started to attract more applications. The turning point was the winning of an international prize for work on “Smart Cities”, which led to a media frenzy in 2018. This triggered a spate of endowments of new Societies by successful entrepreneurs and the establishment of satellite societies to Cambridge and Oxford Universities in the UK and ETH Zurich in Switzerland with others quickly following (all recognising the threat but also the early-mover opportunity).
Character of a Society of Scholars
Societies are highly reputation conscious as are the individuals within them. They are highly effective at using the web, what we called “new media” in the naughties and in media management generally.
With the exception of assessment, Fellows and Students undertake essentially the same kind of activities; the Students strive to emulate the attitude and work of the fellows. Both divide their time between private study, informal and formal discussion. Collaboration works. There is no “Fellows teach Students”; all teach each other through the medium of the seminar. All consider “teaching the world” to be an important (but not dominating) part of what they do.
The selection process plays a key role in shaping the character of the Society. Students are admitted NOT primarily on the basis of examination grades but on evidence of self-discipline, self-awareness and especially self-directed intellectual activity.
Course and Assessment
There are no specified courses and all Students follow a unique pathway of their own. Fellows offer guidance and almost all Students piece together a collection of topics that are identifiable (e.g. similar to a conference theme, a textbook, etc). There is no fixed minimum or maximum period of study.
Societies typically focus on 3-4 disciplines but always adopt a multi-disciplinary perspective, for example computer science, electronic engineering, built environment and social theory was the combination that led to the “Smart Cities” prize.
Online resources are exploited to the fullest extent. Free or cheap MOOCs (massively open online courses, especially the form pioneered by Stanford University and udacity.com) are combined with the for-fee examinations offered alongside them.
Wikipedia is considered to be a “has been”; Society members (across the Network) and others collaborate on DIY textbooks using a system build on top of “git” (permitting multiple versions, derivatives, etc see GitHub for a “social coding” example) and a decentralised network of small servers. While being widely useful this activity is also a valued learning activity with the side effect of promoting coherence in the study pathway.
Assessment is complicated primarily by the idiosyncrasy of all pathways but also by the need to connect achievement to the breadth/depth framework. An award is typically evidenced by a mixture of: externally taught and examined modules; public examinations of the University of London; a patchwork of personal work (a “portfolio”); contributions to the DIY textbooks; seminar performance.
Demand and Expansion
Societies of Scholars are niche occupiers in a much wider higher education landscape. Demand is no more than 5% and supply only about 3% in 2025. There is a feeling that graduates of the Societies are the “new elite”.
While some politicians call for the massification of the Society concept, society at large recognises that they need a special kind of student: more of an intellectual entrepreneur. The rise of the Society of Scholars has, however, started to change the way society understands (and answers) questions like: “what is the purpose of education?”; “how does learning happen?”… The long-term effect of this change on the face of education is not known yet (2025).
Employers in particular have understood what Societies offer and, while graduate unemployment for those following a conventional route to a degree remains close to 2012 levels, Society graduates are highly employable. Employers value: creativity, good communication skills, media-savvy people, multi-disciplinary thinking, self-motivation, intellectual flexibility, collaborative and community-oriented lifestyle.
This is a summary of some of the implicit or explicit assumed drivers/issues embedded in the scenario and which determine the plausibility of it (or alternatives). They are intentionally phrased as statements that could be disagreed with, argued for, …
- Physical co-location and (especially intimate) face-to-face interactions will continue to be seen to be an essential aspect of high quality education. Students who can afford (or otherwise access) this will generally do so. Employers will value awards arising from courses containing it more highly than those that do not. Telegraph newspaper article.
- Graduate unemployment will be an issue for years to come. Effective undergraduates will find ways to distinguish themselves. HESA Statistics
- Wikipedia (and similar centralised “web commons” services) are unsustainable in their current form. As the demand from users rises and the support from contributors and sponsors wanes (it becomes less cool to be a Wikipedian) a point of unsustainability is reached. One option is to monetise but another is to “go feral” and transition to peer-to-peer or decentralised approaches. Digital Trends article.
- Universities and colleges will increase the supply of course and educational components, disaggregated from “the course”, “the programme” and “the institutional offering”. Examinations, Award Granting and Quality Assurance are all potentially independent marketable offerings. David Willets article on the BBC (see “Flexible Learning”)
- Cheap large-scale online courses are capable of replacing a significant percentage of conventional teaching time. The “Introduction to AI” course demonstrated this: see http://is.gd/JOseb.
- Employers are conservative when it comes to education. While employers bemoan narrow knowledge of graduates, poor “soft skills”, etc, their shortlisting criteria continue to favour candidates with conventional degree titles and high grades from research-intensive universities. They will generally fail to take advantage of rich portfolio evidence.