Vanguard, laggard or relic? The possible futures of higher education after the Epistemic Revolution
First Monday

Vanguard, laggard or relic? The possible futures of higher education after the Epistemic Revolution

The early twenty–first century networked information economy has generated new communicative fields and literacies, and new forms of knowledge production, sociality and creative expression. The emergence of decentralized techno–fields, such as Facebook, Twitter, Second Life and virtual gaming communities, on teaching, learning, institutional hierarchies and sources of authority, presents both problems and opportunities. This article claims that the current moment represents an Epistemic Break in the Academy, and this piece traces some of how this is so. In doing so, we argue that as educational products and experiences contend with other multi–mediated forms of communication, significantly more attention must be paid to the aesthetic, functional and emotional elements of multimedia design creation and modification of course materials, as these materials vie for the attention of Digital Natives. The conclusion suggests both practices and policies needed for higher education to successfully compete for student attention in the current media intensive environment.


The current epistemic break
Epistemic Revolution Factor 1: Disruptive technologies
Epistemic Revolution Factor 2: Post–textual knowledge representation, production and reproduction
Organizational responses to Epistemic Factor 2: The importance of visual and multimedia design
Implications for policy and practice
Conclusion: Vanguard, laggard or relic? The future of knowledge production in the age of distributed networks




If we use the yardstick of current demand to assess the state of higher education, the present and near future appears flush for colleges and universities. Applications have ballooned and the percentage of U.S. nationals with college degrees has doubled since the late 1960s. By this measure, all appears well with the organization of services and knowledge on campus. But there are other, less comfortable frames for viewing the current moment. In the wake of steep declines in state funding, intensified global competition, demographic shifts and the effects of disruptive technologies, are traditional modes of teaching and learning in a transitional moment? Will they be first supplemented, and then displaced by teaching and learning in virtual and networked environments? Recent events suggest that this may be so. For example, the credit crash of 2008–2009 accelerated structural changes as it plunged the global economy into a severe recession. As Wolf has noted, there are a series of predictable concerns that arise in such situations. For example, if education is the “lifeblood of economic growth” because it spurs “creative destruction” through innovation and individual attainment then when the nation-state is under economic and socio–structural duress, occupational and professional classes often ask about what they can do for their country’s status and economy. Concurrently, nation–states often pass legislation and begin projects designed to grow their “creative classes” (after Wolf, 2009). The size and capabilities of professional classes remains an urgent and persistent issue, for most nation–states. How have nation–states and institutions of higher education responded in the recent past?

Prior to the current economic crisis, the curricular and institutional responses of higher education to these questions, in both elite and mass forms, across the globe, have been a mix of three initiatives: First, the (curricular, brick–and–mortar and geographic) expansion of established colleges and universities. The second initiative is the birth and expansion of new private schools. Spanning across both initiatives is the growth in e–learning content and delivery systems. One motive for such strategic actions has been articulated by Jordan’s Queen Rania Abdullah. Discussing the role of education in bridging the aspirational “Hope Gap,” she emphasized the significance of technology in education, via “initiatives such as computerizing education and the establishment of technology centers in isolated and less–privileged areas” (Abdullah, 2002).

But even as the push to increase the numbers and competence of the world’s college and university graduates gains steam, many countries are coping with mismatches between the skill sets of graduates and the kinds of jobs (and/or entrepreneurial opportunities) generated by a global economy, an economy driven by disruptive technological effects. For example, in a number of developing countries, colonial educational systems were installed to produce graduates who would increase the docility and utility of the colonized, for the exclusive benefit of colonizers. Colonial educational systems institutionalized a top–down, bureaucratic, state–centered, asymmetrical set of practices and goals that have been inadequate in responding to contemporary challenges. Recognizing this situation, developing countries have sought to change or reform their educational system to prepare graduates for a turbulent global market. Central to ongoing reform efforts is the drive to foster the innovative, cost–effective use of technology and information. Hence, the frequent emphasis on the connections between innovation and information, as articulated by former South African Minister of Science and Technology, Mosibudi Mangena, who, at the opening of the First Africa 2006 conference, called for “the importance of fostering a strategic African–European partnership in information society technologies … to optimally harness the potential of knowledge and innovation as instruments to promote sustainable development” (Mangena, 2006).

Central to both education and economic competitiveness is the availability and use of the Internet, and the dynamic assemblages of technologies developed within that platform. A number of factors determine the adoption and use of these Internet–based technologies, at the level of the nation–state. These factors include per capita GDP, political liberalization, cost structure and technical and physical infrastructural support. Given the wide variance in these variables, there’s an uneven continuum of educational and technological development and deployment across the globe. Wide chasms in technological density and competence are evident between nation–states (from the hyper–technological South Korea to mid–level penetration in the U.S. to technologically backward states, such as Myanmar and North Korea). Enormous variance is also normative within almost all nation–states. William Gibson’s aphorism remains an accurate summary of the situation: “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed” (Gibson, 1996).

U.S. and Western European institutional responses to rapid and disruptive change has been variable, sometimes disastrous, not infrequently the subject of critiques. We add our voices to the mix below.



The current epistemic break

In this paper, we argue that current conditions for the Academy represent an epistemic rupture, a term coined by Gaston Bachelard, and used by many others, including Foucault and Bourdieu. As Bourdieu and Wacquant put it,

“Epistemological Rupture [consists of] the bracketing [off] of ordinary preconstructions and the principles already at work in these preconstructions. [The term] presupposes a rupture with modes of thinking, concepts and methods that have every appearance of common sense … .” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992)

And what are the current preconstructions? Network theorist Yochai Benkler puts it this way:

“The decision point is whether we will have a much more radically [and globally] distributed capacity to create knowledge, information and culture, and participate in the creation of knowledge, information and culture, or whether we will have a replicated and [tweaked] industrial structure to information and knowledge production. [This] 20th Century [industrial] model [has been] relatively highly capitalized in contractual and hierarchical relationships within firms … based … on the sale of information and culture as goods, with a small number of players controlling a relatively limited set of creators, a stark separation between producers and [relatively passive cultural] consumers … .

[We] are now … in a much more permeable and fluid … cultural environment where the difference between producers and consumers is much more blurred, while this [preconstructed industrial–era] category of users [remains] central to everything we do … .” (Benkler, 2009)

Given the legacies of colonialism and industrialism, the need to reshape hierarchical systems of education based on class, caste and obsolete rituals of subordination, in the South (or to tackle the legacies of organizational industrialism, in the North) matters if these educational institutions are to transcend what are now clearly maladaptive legacies. Or, alternatively, after Benkler, we could phrase our concerns differently, as follows. Do our children face a future where traditional discourses and practices (such as lecture–and–text–based instruction, delivered by content experts, and at specific times in buildings that require physical attendance) have been but minimally adapted to accommodate new technologies? And, if so, will such minimal adaptation create an educational experience that reinforces entropy (after Benkler, 2009)? How educational practices and institutions respond to socio–technical change may well make all the difference between a future that is productive and sustainable and one that is dystopian. The forces at play can be described, albeit incompletely, as follows.



Epistemic Revolution Factor 1: Disruptive technologies

The information revolution, fueled by the increased power of computers and the intensive satellite-based networking of smaller, cheaper, and ubiquitous multifunction telecommunications devices has resulted in (among other things) the mass digitization of texts, sounds and images; all hyperlinked, indexed, consumed and remixed across stable and emerging platforms across the Internet. However, not all of these innovations are truly disruptive. For example, the process (and product) of publishing an article remains substantially identical to print submission processes, albeit the publication’s format has moved to HTML or PDF. Cope and Kalantzis note that

“… the Internet–accessible PDF file makes journal articles widely and cheaply accessible, but its form simply replicates the production processes and social relations of the print journal: a one–way production process which ends in the creation of a static, stable restricted text and still image … . [This] shift, large as it is, does not produce a change in the social processes and relations of knowledge production … .” (Cope and Kalantzis, 2009)

As Cope and Kalantzis rightly claim, initially, new technologies are routinely deployed to do old things in new ways. (for example, in U.S. classrooms, PowerPoint presentations replaced Kodak slide carousels in the 1990s). These adaptations are not disruptive. However, just as repressive and/or risk–averse governments attempt to intensify traditional modes of surveillance and control via these new technologies of control and visibility (at the same time “the street finds its own uses for things” — Gibson, 2004). New unintended uses for technologies may disrupt established orders. New applications or assemblages of technologies may empower democratic voices, as was the case when wireless networks were instrumental in organizing and reporting on the 2009 Iranian post–election protests. What is disruptive about new technological ensembles is their still emerging capacity to create, represent and transmit traditional and new objects of knowledge in post–Gutenbergian formats (beyond how late twentieth century text has been, over the last several generations, increasingly supplemented by radio, television, film, VHS and DVD video products). Early twenty–first century forms and formats are different because they produce, utilize and share of new forms of knowledge–representation, unrepresentable in traditional formats: Interactive video, virtual models created, reassembled, reused and modified by faculty and students, often in simultaneous rhythms, 3–D displays of concepts and data. Already ubiquitous in mass–market communication products that are integral parts of student life (such as interactive video games, iPhones and virtual worlds, such as Second Life), traditional pedagogical formats, constrained by place, temporality and text, may soon be seen as an increasingly antique regression, particularly among better–heeled contemporary college students. This possible perception of growing irrelevancy of traditional modes of content–delivery is linked to Epistemic Revolution factor Two.



Epistemic Revolution Factor 2: Post–textual knowledge representation, production and reproduction

An Executive Summary from a 2009 Chronicle of Higher Education research paper reports that

“… the traditional model of college is changing … hybrid class schedules with night and weekend meetings … online learning … [part–time] study, tak[ing] courses [concurrently] from multiple [colleges and] universities … . The full–time residential model is getting too expensive … .

Students will increasingly expect access to classes from cellular phones and other portable computing devices … [They] may opt to monitor class meetings online and attend whenever they want … . Classroom discussions, office hours … lectures, study groups and papers will all be online . . . Colleges will need to offer [these options] in addition to face–to–face instruction … .” (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2009)

None of this should be surprising, if you consider the following facts about the media predispositions among 18–to–24 year-old adults: 89 percent of this demographic, in the U.S., are online. And, 12–24 year–olds, spend 4.5 hours a day viewing screen media, excluding games (Rideout, et al., 2005; Dretzin and Ruskoff, 2009). Nor is this phenomenon limited to developed countries. For example, Hashem’s study shows that in the Middle East the majority of adolescents use personal multi–function mobile communication devices between 60–300 minutes per day (Hashem, 2009).

Generation M’s “life world” consists of, in no small part, concurrently engaged textual and extra–textual forms of representation, often in dynamic and multiple forms, assembled in novel ways that construct identity and communication in still–developing techno–cybernetic nets of relations and functions (Rideout, et al., 2005). From Facebook to Second Life, and SMSing to YouTubing, the result is a generation that takes a whole set of communicative formats, strategies and artifacts (such as the über–multifunction cell phone) as the foundational ground for identity and communication, in ways that did not exist a few years earlier. In this communicative field, however, traditional strategies for the transmission of knowledge don’t simply disappear. They are, however, re–framed in a mix of textual, photographic, audio, film and digital formats. When new forms and fields of literacy emerge, they do so in interactive relationships with preexisting representational forms, from text to photography and film. Pedagogical practices can be assembled into powerful mixed–media formats. Media formats and products can be both the medium of instruction and the object of critical analyses. However, such engagements are usually partial and intermittent, at best. Obstacles to fuller engagement consist of the following: First, institutional actors may be risk–averse. New technologies create new risks. Secondly, key institutional actors may value institutional consensus over innovation, particularly during turbulent times, where tamping down anxieties is often paramount. Third, it may well be difficult to incorporate new modes of teaching and learning with existing social and bureaucratic roles and work flows. Fourth, deterred by the learning curve involved with new technologies, novel pedagogical practices are often embraced slowly, retrospectively and to limited effect. Finally, immature technologies may be inappropriately adopted, and the requisite training may be lacking. Overall, these factors retard innovation. Frequently, the result is that engagements with emerging and often novel technological assemblages are opportunities lost. Experiments that might meld new sensibilities with the old are never attempted. To reverse this kind of outcome might well require organizational and perceptual changes not limited to the following.



Organizational responses to Epistemic Factor 2: The importance of visual and multimedia design

“Design should be mastered as a liberal art before it is considered as a business tool. Great design comes from an artistic or cultural impulse [and] starts by creating meaningful stories with a POV, not by building a bulletproof business case. Great design creates new culture [and] is about meaning first, the market second … .

Design … should be human centered, based on observed, real user needs and improve organizational performance … . For nonprofits or governments, this means more effective ways to … serve constituencies … Design should not operate in a black box: Methods [must be] … repeatable, predictable, and scalable.

Good design starts with a clear point of view based on facts … Design should be based on an existing culture … We challenge our students to experiment, by using hypotheses … .” (Klinker and Alexis, 2009)

Regardless of how the value of design is conceptualized (as art or commerce), the centrality of design remains unquestioned. Well–designed objects and processes are concerned with maximizing the following qualities: Perceived Ease of Use (PEOU), Perceived Usefulness (PU), security, trust, cognitive absorption and the positive social presence of others. All of these qualities are basic elements for successfully delivery of content (Benbasat and Barki, 2007). For Bruce Sterling, the key aspects of design are specific and well–defined: Well–designed products and services are functionally transparent, understandable to users, and sport low “cognitive loads” and equally low “opportunity costs” (Sterling, 2008). These are the bottom–line transactional features for Anthony Dunne’s idea of the typical user: “My default mental model of a user is a tortured existential soul [who is] drifting through a complex, technologically mediated landscape” (Dunne, 2006).

In terms of the academic lifeworld, there are at least three major sets of such “users,” so to speak, that are sensitive to these issues of low opportunity costs and equally low cognitive loads, in dealing with the digital design and delivery of information: Faculty, staff and students, although for different reasons. For example, disciplinary Ph.D.s, bound for college classrooms, aren’t taught basic visual literacies and intermediate design skills as a necessary complement to their content mastery. Yet they have an audience of students and institutional clients who grow up enmeshed within expertly designed consumer products and signs, and, as a result, take functional, elegant and design–dissolving behavioral, iconic, and informational environments as a kind of birthright. Not surprisingly, students may well respond negatively to indifferently designed products and services (which include such things as visually illiterate syllabi and multimedia content, as well as poorly designed academic and registration Web sites, including functionally rigid course management systems). Given the large personal, familial, state and societal investment in education, this is not a desirable response, for practical and political reasons, and inevitably leads to the following questions: Where are the obstacles? What factors need addressing?

In part, what the emerging networked, hybrid mediated world has de facto produced is an erosion of the boundaries that have separated institutional identities and functions (marketing, public relations, pedagogy, student services, etc.). Discrete disciplinary hierarchies are coming apart, inadequate to the challenge of crafting and delivering high quality multimedia content. This inadequacy is a mandate for organizational adaptations, such as the following:

EF2: Generally, faculty members craft materials in relative isolation. If they require assistance, they get help individually, from technical support personnel. Instances where course experiences were intentionally and collectively fashioned by teams of Web designers, graphic artists, audio visual personnel, and content providers are (apparently) rare. While brilliant ideas and innovations often emerge from individuals, the kind of institutional scaling necessary to tweak, harmonize and deploy elegant and effective mediated educational products requires the following:

EF2.1. Recognize that educational experiences compete with other sorts of intermediated products and services (from entertainment to open source learning), and, as a result, educational content has to be media–rich, intentionally designed, open–ended enough for spontaneity, self–expression and discovery. Content platforms must be crafted by teams, with technical, practical, and artistic input from relevant skilled personnel. This requires changes in professional roles, and a growth in decentralized and horizontal systems, as well as in how each stakeholder conceptualizes the relationship to the process, and to other stakeholders. Implicitly, such notions presuppose that effective organizations will have increasingly dynamic and porous boundaries with semi–autonomous workgroups;

This model also assumes testing, independent feedback with beta testers and focus groups, in a process of continuous input, refinement and improvement …

EF2.2: As Ubuntu Linux founder Mark Shuttleworth makes clear, “large changes are only possible when [teams that produce these proposals show that new practices] have the potential to deliver radical improvements.” Goals and outcomes should be compelling enough to entice stakeholders to alter mindsets and routines (Schindler, 2009);

EF2.3: Differentiation. In order to claim a real and positive difference, fundamental differences must be simply explained and then concretely embodied. For example, claims such as “We’re a leader in technology and online learning” requires more development than the use of the BlackBoard Course Management System or the mere existence of campus wi–fi. Specific and durable problems must be addressed, such as the infamous “teacher bandwidth” conundrum;

EF2.4. Significant products of the education experience, such as the MIT Open CourseWare initiative, the Social Science Research Network (SSRN), Wikipedia, or the Moodle Course Management System (CMS) should be shared with larger communities as a public good.

The opportunities for educational institutions lie in the details of design and content delivery: In Hertzian tales, Anthony Dunne makes an important claim: “Design [as a profession and practice does] not engage with the social, cultural, and ethical implications of the technologies it makes so sexy and consumable” (Dunne, 2006). Educational environments could offer rich opportunities for developing good design, exciting possibilities, new fields of sociality, and the ability to save time, and enhance teaching and learning, all while having some fun. Cost, ease, and economic or personal gain, the reasonable extension of trust, and the relative security of these interactions — these are key factors in explaining how everyday artifacts, such as the iPhone, or applications, such as FaceBook or Twitter, become popular. At the same time, the social, political and economic effects of pedagogical and consumer applications can become the target for important critical questions, the kind that Dunne suggests.



Implications for policy and practice

IPP1: Reconceptualize Intra–Institutional Boundaries and Functions: Possibilities within multimedia content delivery allow for experimentation with content production and circulation beyond the hierarchies of disciplines. Institutions have an opportunity to move beyond the “silos” that separate IT, videographers, Web designers, and content providers from the intended producers and consumers of knowledge — engaged student and faculty users. Institutions should emphasize the development of interdisciplinary teams devoted to interactively producing the best experience possible [1].

IPP2: Recognize that it’s software, created through community participation. Learn from the success of the open source software movement: Study, learn, create partnerships and recruit (personnel) from some of the spectacular organizational and product successes of this sector. The successes of the Mozilla Foundation’s Firefox or South Africa’s Ubuntu Linux have important usability and organizational lessons for the Academy [2].

IPP3: Revise definitions of and pedagogy about literacy, creativity, and knowledge production and circulation, to encompass new forms media and communication [3].

IPP4: Teach faculty basic visual design literacies, in Ph.D. programs so that faculty communication products are relevant to the perceptual set of students [4].

IPP5: Develop K–16 teacher preparation modules and professional development classes to enable K–16 faculty and administrators to bridge the mediated epistemological gap between the generations.

IIPP6: Deliberately stagecraft some simultaneous content for production and dissemination through different delivery systems (live–in–person, streaming, video bytes, podcasts, flash videos, etc.) in an integrated way.

IPP7: Ensure that onerous copyright and patent laws do not retard the public production of indigenous and recombinant products and shackle knowledge production, reproduction and circulation. The aggressive expansion of public cultural, scientific and technical communication into corporate property rights (copyright and patents) represents a profound and long–term threat to innovation and growth, particularly for the developing world [5].



Conclusion: Vanguard, laggard or relic? The future of knowledge production in the age of distributed networks

In Coase’s Penguin, Yochai Benkler discusses how two older forms, managerialism and neoliberalism, for (and explanations of) economic production now share organizational and social space with an emerging early twenty–first century mode of production. Writing in the Yale Law Journal in 2002, Benkler called a new, third mode of production “commons based peer production” (Benkler, 2002). “Its central characteristic,” Benkler explains, “is that groups of individuals successfully collaborate on large–scale projects following a diverse cluster of motivational drives and social signals,” rather than responding to management dicta or reacting to the surface noise of markets. Benkler goes on to explain that information and/or culture has become the dominant product and the necessary physical capital investment for informational productivity (computers, netbooks, the multifunction cell phone)is widely dispersed. The result is that the capacity and the authority to act have been radically decentralized and questions about new forms of legitimate authority emerge (Benkler 2002; 2009).

In a series of articles and lectures, Benkler explains some of the key tensions and questions that this new mode of production brings to higher education in the developed world (Benkler, 2002; 2008; 2009). First, how will institutions effectively negotiate increasingly permeable boundaries with elements of the extra–academic social world, in such a way that extends the range of faculty and student activities while maintaining the necessary academic integrity of institutions? Secondly, how might institutions restrain an indiscriminate administrative risk–minimization reflex, limiting the desire for centralized control when such control may unduly dilute learning experiences or environment? Finally, how will institutions address the technical and design problems content production and delivery, in a manner that acknowledges that higher education has a new role in a world where knowledge production has been decentralized? How to successfully manage these three factors is beyond the scope of this essay, but an acknowledging the importance and significance of these problems is not.

For developing countries, particularly those with incomplete communications and knowledge infrastructures, such problems will post–date more immediate issues, such as providing sufficient infrastructure, affordability, and access. Sandhya Rao describes the current digital divide between the developed and developing world as an issue of structural inequity. For Rao, there’s more than enough evidence, generated by scholars working in academic and NGO venues, to conclude “that not having access to new technologies may result in the country lagging behind in socioeconomic development” (Rao, 2009). These inequities limit the social, political and economic lives of billions of people.

For the developed world, the networked information economy, even as it sits upon a severely damaged or even “broken” global economic system, presents new opportunities for colleges and universities. Adapting to widespread changes in communication platforms (such as blogging, vblogging, tweeting) is also an opportunity for mining new ways to enhance and extend in–depth participation of internal stakeholders. For external stakeholders, such as NGOs, governments and corporations, it is a way to engage with formal knowledge communities in a hybrid form of distributed knowledge production known as “crowdsourcing,” one of a series of still emerging modes of cultural and communicative action, authority and creativity. These ways must extend far beyond the “command–and–control” habits of IT design and implementation (Whitworth and Friedman, 2009).

For colleges and universities, a sustained commitment to flexible and expert design, testing and implementation of online formats, informed by the successes of the open source movement, and consistent with Sterling’s notion of producing communication formats with low cognitive loads and low opportunity costs, is the critical task, once infrastructure is in place. Flexible communicative vehicles may well be known by their fruits. They facilitate collaborative efforts that allow participants to be both active consumers and producers. As might be inferred from the success of South Africa’s Ubuntu Linux, ambitious design projects may well require a strong and responsive executive, one that exercises power in such a way as to create opportunities for collaboration and creative and productive action from the edges of an organization (Whitworth and Friedman, 2009).

Engaged in a collective reimagining of the present and future, creative collaboration is our best chance to leave a positive legacy. We cannot allow our children to live in the heavy detritus of outdated practices and platforms. As official institutions of cultural production and reproduction, colleges and universities could be part of the vanguard, watching, listening, recognizing, inventing, redeploying and extending new practices and platforms, all the ensembles that are so evident in the everyday communication practices of the young. But institutions can take other routes, such as taking the role of the laggard and “playing it safe,” while extra–educational institutions or collective actors take the necessary risks and reap the rewards. Or, alternatively, colleges and universities might resist the accelerating pace of change, risking relevance and ultimately, viability. Our educational institutions, are they in the vanguard? Or are they laggards? Or, worse yet, are they devolving relics? If William Gibson is right and the future is already here but not evenly distributed, all three outcomes are already present, although unevenly dispersed across and within nation–states. Our productive future is tied to recognizing, embracing, interrogating and designing appropriate and responsive communicative platforms that incorporate the productive potentials of disruptive technologies. Collectively, we can design, test and implement platforms of freedom, cooperation, dialog and inclusion. Or we can design platforms of exclusion, defending formats that are rigid, backward in generationally specific ways, unresponsive and monologic. The values incorporated into design and implementation processes and embodied in communicative routines, are exercises in power. As a generation, we will be judged by what potentials became manifest, and what potentials remained latent, on our watch. Let us leave an open, active and exciting communicative field to our children, to our students, to the future. End of article


About the authors

Dion Dennis is an associate professor of criminal justice at Bridgewater State College (Mass.). He teaches courses on emerging technology, new forms of property and equally new forms of social control; neo–liberalism and twenty–first century policing and corrections; and, justice, media and crime. His essays and reviews have appeared in CTHEORY, Postmodern Culture, Education Policy Analysis Archives, Academic Exchange Quarterly, Rhizomes, Culture and Agriculture, Fast Capitalism, and First Monday, as well as in new and reprinted form in several print anthologies.

Jabbar Al–Obaidi is an associate professor of communication studies and media technology, chairperson of the department of communication studies of Bridgewater State College, and the coordinator of the Middle East Studies Program. His research focuses on media and culture, instructional technologies, media literacy, media ethics and practices, teaching and learning in the age of digital media. He is the author of Media censorship in the Middle East (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2007). His interest also includes producing documentary films. He teaches undergraduate course in the area of media and communication theories, media technologies, methodologies, and intercultural communication. He also teaches a graduate course of communication, information, and management.



Thanks to Virginia Rivard for her valuable editorial comments, as well as for her editing and proofing.



1. The Open University in the U.K. has institutionalized this approach, in the form of the OU Learning Design Initiative. A participant, Andrew Brasher, in his blog, describes and defines the object and processes, in part, as follows: “Designing learning activities is inherently messy, creative and iterative, and that choosing the best combination of tools, resources and tasks for a particular context is difficult … In the Open University … design is typically carried out by teams composed of people with a variety of specialist skills including academics, programmers, graphic designers, editors and project managers.” See the blog entry “CAL ’09 Poster Text,” at

Additionally, a graphical and process-oriented representation of Brasher’s text is also available at, as part of a discussion and evaluation of the learning design platorm, CompendiumLD (, which one of three strands of work undertaken by the OU Design Initiative. Finally, for an extensive and impressive slide show presentation on the OU Learning and Design Initiative process and its successes and problematics, see

2. The open source movement has several important lessons for academia and the developing world. These are as follows: A. Open source projects and practices are often relatively decentralized and democratic. Large projects, such as Ubuntu Linux, already incorporate design teams as the constitutive element of production and testing. (Therefore, they can model and adapt pre–existing organizational forms practices for academia). B. Open source efforts often exhibit what Benkler calls a new mode of production, “peer–based commons production.” At this historical juncture, arguably, this is the sector that is most innovative. Peer–base commons production has also been resistant to the stasis that comes with monopoly and command–and–control organizational forms. For the pedagogy of active learning, “peer–based commons production” also holds considerable promise as a methodology: Students actively working on “real–world” projects in a collaborative manner, within burgeoning social networks. These may even be platforms that they have created or extended, as students. (Consider the birth and development of Facebook).

C. For the developing world, open source models have already produced a rich variety of customized Linux distributions (usually from the base of a major distribution), tailored to the local linguistic, cultural, religious and technological context. With this preexisting phenomena in place, we can reasonably anticipate that the ethnocentric coding of one culture’s mapping onto learning platforms, icons and processes will be supplanted by platform, interface, process and content modifications that are suited for specific cultural and technical ecologies. D. Open source platforms often de facto encourage resource independence, weaning developing countries from the quasi–colonialism inherent in expensive product licenses and/or widespread software piracy. They may well run on less resource–intensive hardware, extending the life of hardware, enhancing sustainability, creating support positions (paid and unpaid) and buttressing nation–state identity (the last can be seen in such phenomena as the Turkish Linux distribution Pardus). Finally, they have the promise of extending the possibility of learning into areas underserved by educational institutions, if telecommunications infrastructure continues to expand.

3. This is a project well underway in the E.U., with countries such as Norway taking the lead in legally defining new literacies and competencies. The experience in the U.S. is decidedly more mixed, with a palpable ambivalence on many college campuses, where there is a broad Boomer–based class of the professiorial and administrative “Teyve’s” who actively resist revising and expanding definitions of literacy.

4. A similar ethos is embedded in part of a mission statement on the Open University Learning Design Initiative site: “Our methodology consists of four interconnected facets: understanding design — through gathering empirical evidence about design, visualising design — as a means of articulation and representation, guiding design — through appropriate scaffolds and support, and sharing design — to inspire and encourage uptake and reuse.” See

5. The tussle between global corporate quasi–monopolies and the “creative destruction” that is often the product of open source efforts has many implications for the global production and circulation of knowledge. The consequences are complex, contingent and still unfolding.



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Editorial history

Paper received 10 August 2009; revised 22 February 2010; accepted 14 March 2010.

Creative Commons License
“Vanguard, laggard or relic?" The possible futures of higher education after the Epistemic Revolution” by Dion Dennis and Jabbar Al–Obaidi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–Noncommercial–No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Vanguard, laggard or relic? The possible futures of higher education after the Epistemic Revolution
by Dion Dennis and Jabbar Al–Obaidi.
First Monday, Volume 15, Number 3 - 1 March 2010

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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