chapter  16
11 Pages

“Outlearning”

ByJohn Hartley

Universities are still organized as if print is the prime technology of learning: they still tend to cluster buildings around libraries and activities around “papers,” these being what readers and researchers consult, examiners set (for entry, ranking, and graduation certification), and professional journals publish. The scarce commodity of the modern era of specialist expertise has “the paper” as its currency, so much so that we still use the term to describe artefacts that are now routinely electronic. In this context, what are the prospects for the long-held “mission” of universities,

namely “advancement of knowledge” and “education of the public”? The print-based system took several centuries to institutionalize and stabilize, so it is perhaps no surprise to find that, when confronted by the emergence of mass communication and broadcasting in the twentieth century, universities sought as much to minimize as to enhance the impact of these new media on their own systems and on the population at large, seeing “mass” communication as a threat to knowledge – not as an evolutionary dynamic in its growth. Are they making the same mistake in response to digital and networked media (even as they adopt some of its affordances to support existing activities)? The productivity of “new technologies” that have been able to exploit the abstraction of signification from the page, and to extend the growth of knowledge among networked populations, is a long-term evolutionary challenge to universities, despite the “unworthy” provenance of social networks in market-based

entertainment media. Look to the commercial internet – not the public education system – for radical advances in digital literacy, distributed expertise, consumer productivity, and networked learning. Despite the increasing ubiquity of digital media, even in developing countries (in China, over 420 million people used the internet by June 2010),3 there is a growing disconnect between lay populations and elite knowledge institutions. In universities, relatively little attention has been given to consumer demand for

knowledge, as opposed to disciplinary supply. The “market” for university research is largely business-to-business (b2b) – restricted to companies and governments – and tenure committees – rather than being for the general population, who are regarded as business-to-consumer (b2c) clients at best, apt to get what they’re given (or sold); which is what we call teaching. The b2b function is high-cost, high-prestige, tenuretrack; while the b2c function is massified, outsourced to casual staff, and underresourced. Compared with the “academic freedom” enjoyed by tenured researchers at R1 (US research-intensive) universities, teaching is declining towards knowledge of the helots, by the helots, for the helots. This is in fact where “we” came in. Richard Hoggart founded contemporary cultural studies on what he saw as a “portent” of unwelcome change – the satisfaction of the demands of the “directionless and tamed helots of a machine-minding class” by commercial entertainment media.4