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UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education 2009, and the University of the People

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UNESCO’s World Conference on Higher Education 2009 being webcast.

An overview can be found at Inside Higher Ed, including reference to a new 22-page report, Trends in Global Higher Education – Tracking and Academic Revolution.

Incidentally, one of the authors, Philip Altbach, has raised good questions about the marvellously ambitious, free, global online university, the University of the People, which launched this year with a fanfare from the UN and is currently accepting enrolments for September 2009 and seeking volunteers.

The courses offered at this early stage fall within three programmes, and are modular. Study is technology-dependent, but technology use is modest, drawing on established tools like facilitated discussion forums and email.

This is an exciting and potentially cataclysmic development. UoPeople is run on an altruistic, technology-dependent and technology-enhanced, peer-learning model, with no tuition. If it works it will be proof of concept of these ideas in higher education.

I’m not sure what you think of the promotion so far, but I am missing an ethos (apart from the obvious and admirable one that education should be free and available to all). Learning is not solely about grasping facts – in order to make use of them you need certain attitudes and values, for example creativity and a critical, unprejudiced mindset. Currently these kinds of concerns are absent from the UoPeople’s identity.

The first hurdle for UoPeople, however, is gaining accreditation. Quality is not a concern which comes through strongly on the site. You’d imagine confidence, expressed as accreditation, would sink or float the initiative. Clearly, with learners shaping their own experiences and with no way, currently, to verify that the student who is assessed is the student who claims the credit (a long-standing problem for distance learning which is also true for established forms of learning), the idea of accreditation will need a rethink. But because I know little about accreditation I’ll stop there. I am rooting for UoPeople and hope it becomes a superb learning institution.

UoPeople blogs (mostly community-building and not related to learning), tweets (more relevant to the matter university learning), and YouTubes. The Facebook area is active with ‘fans’ from all over the globe.

P.S. Dispiriting that there are no women on the advisory board. I also hoped for more in the way of educational theory, given the huge departure from established university models. But in fact, despite widespread concern with metacognitive skills, established universities give little away about this either and I wouldn’t want to set a higher standard. Better watch the vids.

Update – relatedly, get your brains round this: The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, a freely available report from the Massachussettes Institute of Technology. I thought it was visionary – the part which most stood out was on Wikipedia:

“To ban sources such as Wikipedia is to miss the importance of a collaborative, knowledge-making impulse in humans who are willing to contribute, correct, and collect information without remuneration: by definition, this is education. To miss how much such collaborative, participatory learning underscores the foundations of learning is defeatist, unimaginative, even self-destructive.”


Written by Mira Vogel

July 9, 2009 at 17:55