Thursday, 21 June 2012

Yesterday, the BBC portal carried a most interesting story, revolving around the new joint Harvard/MIT programme for online education ( The gist is that, after more than a decade of various experiments with “online” or “long-distance” learning by "lesser" universities, the heavyweights of the higher education world are throwing their hats into the ring, in what is likely to be a huge gamechanger.

The Harvard/MIT gamechanger is the following: once these and similar universities enter the online education business, this will no longer be the province of shady, letterbox universities or decent university “cash cows.” Online teaching will include the best of the best and, once the best of the best become available to the world, the world will not settle for less. The masses will be able to watch star professors previously available only to a select few, for little or no money. What are the implications for the rest of higher education, the non-Harvards of this world? How will Harvard itself change?

Online teaching is a reality. There are no technological impediments to having millions, perhaps billions of students across the world watch the same lecture and there have been none for a few years now. Just as with any YouTube clip, any online movie, one can watch a university lecture. It is merely the content that changes and the internet is, for most intents and purposes, content-neutral.

The true game-changers of the future are two: the quality of the teaching (top-notch professors becoming seriously involved) and the idea that maybe, just maybe, these top-notch professors will be teaching real degrees online. For now, the Harvard/MIT online lectures do not lead to a qualifying degree but that is likely to change once the scheme gathers pace. The stakes are enormous: with potentially billions of students worldwide, even the wealthiest universities will not be too shy to try to cash in.

The implications for the non-Harvard/MITs are evident: weaker universities will suffer, or, rather, their top professors will. With English as the lingua franca of today, the position of local “giants” in many fields will become untenable. Given the choice between one's local prof and a Nobel laureate-it is obvious which way the chequebook vote will sway. Once Ivy League online lectures become qualifying degree courses recognised worldwide, the domination of the local prof will be over within a single degree cycle. Is that good or bad? The answer is: both. 

It is good in the sense that billions of people will have access to world-class lecturers and that local mediocrity will lose its (often foul, sometimes downright evil) fiefdoms. Today, even very good universities count themselves lucky if they can get top-notch professors for a third of the courses that they have to provide. In the future, it will be top-notch for everyone. On the downside, diversity of opinion is likely to suffer: the fewer the lecturers, the fewer the opinions. 

But wait-the sceptics cry! Online teaching is unlikely to displace face-to-face teaching in our lifetimes, for at least three reasons. While a lecturer can easily lecture a million students, he cannot assess them nor usefully interact with them. Thus, first and foremost, even if the technological challenges entailed in preventing cheating are overcome, multiple-choice and similar mechanised tests have their limitations, especially in liberal arts/social sciences, where there is not always (or even most of the time)-a right or wrong answer. Second, even if a million students could speak to the lecturer, they could not possibly all pose their questions within a reasonable time-frame. Last but certainly not least, if online courses by Harvard/MIT professors become available globally, at very little cost, the astronomical fees charged by these universities “offline” will no longer be justified-ergo, these universities would be committing suicide if their online education programmes really took off.

The first two issues can and will be overcome and the future of higher education may well be determined by the way in which this is achieved.

The obvious solution for the assessment/interaction problem is to “franchise” the Harvard/MIT courses to local universities. Commercial risk would be borne by the local university, while reputational risk would be borne by Harvard/MIT. This is the archetypical franchise, that has been around at least since McDonald’s and probably longer. In a fast-food franchise, the franchisor provides the recipes, the design and, usually, some of the foodstuffs. It is also in charge of the global advertising campaigns, with oversight over local advertising campaigns. It provides training and local agents that control the franchisees in any given area. The franchisees are then in charge of actually providing the food to the customers, paying local taxes, utilities, salaries and the like. The franchisors earn money through franchise fees, which are usually either fixed or proportional to sales, or a mix of both. The same general model could be applied to universities in the online era. What Harvard/MIT could do is to sell a “package,” which would include, ideally, a set of audiovisual materials, a programme and the right to use their brand, to universities that meet certain criteria. They would also run the global advertising campaign, train local “staff” and supervise them at a regional level. The franchisees, i.e. the local universities, would provide the physical space and, most importantly, trained tutors. These tutors would mark exams and hold tutorials.

A possible evolution of this process that could backfire on Harvard, MIT and their like is that the great university professors will become independent and sell their courses on the open market. The maths are easy: if one lecturer speaks to a million students, even if he were to charge just one dollar per student per course, that course would be worth a million dollars. These are economies of scale and the top professors would start to behave like top athletes, with a single and unrelenting focus: bums on seats. Very soon, of course, individual professors would realise that they cannot handle royalty collection or quality control for millions of students by themselves. Thus, big institutional players would emerge. These could be either the established universities of today, or a whole new breed of businesses, which would specialise in bundling top-notch courses and then distributing them to what would, again, eventually, become a franchise system of some sort. In this scenario, much like what we see today in professional sports or music, the best of the best of the best would get stock options in the new companies, perhaps even retiring from teaching to take a management position.

As regards the third problem-what to do with actual Harvard/MIT students that are paying top dollar for their “offline” education-this is a non-issue or, rather, an issue that would resolve itself. Initially, those Harvard/MIT students that study on campus would have the advantage of having physical access to the best lecturers. This advantage would be furthered by the initial existence of different degrees (there would be “real” Harvard degrees versus “franchise” Harvard degrees, with a large, albeit narrowing price differential). That advantage would wither away, however, as the best lecturers would become too busy designing and producing better and more lucrative courses. With time, these lecturers would have less and less time for research as well and thus a whole new breed of “superlecturers” would emerge, distinct from other university professors. The latter would, if successful, fall into one of two categories: great (but socially inept) researchers and great tutors. The “superlecturers” would be a peculiar professor/model/actor hybrid and their expertise would be found in conveying, rather than creating knowledge (although a great deal of comprehension would still be required-mere actors would not suffice). The survival of researchers would be secure, as somebody would still have to do the “hard science.” The great tutors would be either aspiring superlecturers or socially functional (but not top-notch) researchers with time to spare. Eventually, the term “university” would become an utter misnomer, as what little is left of universality today would finally vanish, through a stratification of both staff and institutions. Superlecturers would work for course design firms (education franchisors), researchers would work with research firms (this process is well underway, with ever-closer and more fruitful "partnerships" between academic research and big business), while lecturers/assessors would find their niche with the education franchisees.

When all is said and done, following the present uncertain, transitional era, with the advent of online teaching higher education will finally come to terms with market principles, in a way that need not sacrifice quality. The best lectures would become available to all, albeit with a premium for better tutorship/assessment. Top lecturers would match the commercialisation and high earnings of top researchers, while rising global demand for higher education would secure the future of tutors/assessors. The only challenge will be how to preserve plurality, once teaching is concentrated in the hands of the superlecturers. It is likely, however, that this challenge will be met by the openness of the internet (provided it stays open in the future) and the existence of a multitude of local tutors, who will inevitably put their own mark on the centrally approved course materials. University tutors have proven themselves capable, time and again, to evade even the toughest totalitarianism; faced with a financial incentive to keep their franchises going, the course franchisors are likely to exercise only light censorship. As research becomes ever more separated from teaching and as research results become ever more widely available, it is unlikely that superlecturers will become the new "Ayatollahs."

Sunday, 13 May 2012

The Ego Trip of the False Individualist and the Sour Seeds of Revolution (Part Two)

As regards yesterday's individuality, one must limit the argument, at this point, to Western or quasi-Western democracies. Though we like to think that we are oppressed, mankind has more opportunities for individual expression than ever before! Just twenty years ago, there was NO internet. Accordingly, there was NO Facebook and NO YouTube-no outlet where we could express ourselves for all the world to see. Today, we have all of the artistic tools at our disposal that we had twenty years ago-PLUS some that we did not. If we speak about the oppression of government, twenty years ago, could we just “log on” to a web site and download the text of the budget of our country? Could we read the annual report of any major company in the world? Could we access libraries halfway around the world at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen?

Granted, there are several social groups that suffer unabated oppression in many countries. I have in mind, first and foremost, the LGBT population. In some African and Asian countries, sodomy is still a capital offence. In some Central European countries, the LGBT population is unable to hold a parade because the police refuses to secure a “high-risk event.” In many developing states (and some “rentier states”) today, society still gives women a “raw deal.”

Turning to the West or Western-oriented countries, has it ever been more “okay to be gay”? Has it ever been more okay to wear individual clothes, individual hair, speak in an individual dialect or even language? If you feel that YOUR individualism is suppressed, try turning back the clock a few years!

Granted, individualism in Western society still has two significant adversaries that are alive and kicking: the Church and the Corporation. The Church wishes us to observe a certain “moral code”, while the Corporation acts in a similar way, the main, if not only, difference being that instead of threatening us with God-they threaten us with our paycheck-or, rather, the prospect of its absence. Unlike the State, however, in modern-day Western society, both the Church and the Corporation can be abandoned by the individual. In other words, “we have exit,” as they say in economics and some branches of political science. Indeed, it is one of the most fundamental duties of the modern state to enable the citizen to be free in his religious beliefs-or the absence thereof. Thus, citizens (and revolutionaries in their ranks) are right to be wary of any legislation that reduces the degrees of separation between Church and State. In this respect, however, one can poin to very, very few retrograde steps taken by Western countries, in living memory. This is not to say that “exit” is easy all or even most of the time. Yet, one must not forget that, just a few generations ago, there was no “exit” to speak of.

The Corporation is a different “ball game”, to some extent. The very tangible prospect of poverty on Earth, obvious in its abundance, is, for most people, far more intimidating than the intangible prospect of Hell in an Afterlife that may or may not exist. Thus, it is incumbent on the State to ensure that sufficient economic diversity exists, so as to allow employees to find employers that would tolerate greater individuality. In a competitive environment, employers should be wary of making their “codes of conduct” too oppressive, lest they should lose the best employees. There are legitimate grievances in this respect but again, by and large, one can point to more successes than failures in this respect, in the last century or so.

Amazingly, therefore, one will find relatively few revolutionaries that clamour for greater competition in the economy-an outcome that would lead to greater competition between employers and thus better options for individuality in the workplace. Rather, they criticise competition and similar “neoliberal projects” that “rob man of his dignity.” Even fewer revolutionaries openly oppose the Church or, more pertinently, the slow but evident erosion (in some countries at least) of the barrier between Church and State. Instead, who do the revolutionaries target? First and foremost, the State (including the shadowy powers that seem to dominate it) and the “mass media”, also allegedly dominated by the State and those who dominate the State itself.
It is here that we arrive at the crux of the matter: how “individual” is our “individualism”, really?
Let us throw in, at this point, a few soundbites that fuel today's revolutionaries. Wikileaks-Julian Assange-YouTube-Facebook-Twitter-The Global Financial Crisis-Anonymous-The Eurozone Crisis.

What do all of these soundbites have in common? They are soundbites. Thus, we ALL know of them and we all THINK that we also “know” about them.
We were all shocked by the images of abuse by American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. How so? We all saw the same YouTube clips! We've all heard of CIA interrogation techniques of dubious constitutionality-from Wikileaks! If, by some unfortunate stroke of internet-deprivation you've missed the YouTube clips or the Wiki “leaks”, the BBC, CNN and other “mass media” networks made sure you were “in the loop” too! The various “financial crisis” stories were spun beyond all spinning, beyond Newton's laws of dynamics even, by the same “mass media”. The gory details, the scariest scaremongering stories were left in the safe hands of YouTube and the various online “whistleblowers”-whom we ALL saw.

I ask you then, my dear reader, how “individual” is your information about current events? How are YOU escaping the “bondage” of “mass media”?

This is not to say that the internet is not free or decentralised. Far from it. The real question is: what is the point of all this decentralisation, when we all use it to perpetuate the same stories? If, for example, we believe that one or more of our Facebook friends has missed the latest “financial crisis” news, YOU and I, my dear reader, will reliably push the story right in front of his or her face and make sure everyone stays “in the loop!” We peddle the stories to ourselves and to each other. WE are the mass media, in its most perfect form: operated not only for the masses but also BY the masses themselves. Imagine what Joseph Goebbels could have done if he had social media in his time! Stories with catchy titles, such as: "New research shows Jews love money more than Aryans do" or "Skull found in Bavaria belongs to the first Aryan Man in Europe." Copy, paste to wall, share with friends. Then, through repetition, the story becomes the "TRUTH." "We all saw it. Not in the big media outlets but ONLINE."

I do not mean to belittle the revelations of Julian Assange or the importance of letting the world know about the mischief of bankers. Nor do I think there is a Goebbels out there who is running the popular news stories. I do believe that, thanks to the internet, many secrets from the past saw the light of day and it is good that they did.

My point is entirely different and it is that there is very little individuality in all this. With every day that goes by, the human race is more and more akin to a collective being. The collectivism induced by the internet has surpassed, by far, the wildest dreams of Orwell, Huxley or Stalin. And yet today's revolutionaries join groups in social networks in order to organise their “revolutions,” while seeking salvation from “hackers” whose slogan is: “we are legion; we are anonymous.” The transparent, truthful individual is rescued by a countless mass (legion), which does not reveal its identity (anonymous). I think the paradox eludes no-one.

From the die-hard liberal (in the old, English sense of the word, not the socialist or French sense), my previous comments will elicit a cynical grin of familiarity. In the eye of the liberal, all revolutions eventually boil down to a basic instinct of the masses to collectivise and conform. Why should the revolutions of today be any different?

The answer is: they need not be but they can be. 

Saturday, 5 May 2012

The Ego Trip of the False Individualist and the Sour Seeds of Revolution (Part One)

From the No-Globals, through the Occupy Wall Street Movement, on to the Stop ACTA Movement, the revolutionaries of our time are not linked by a common thread. They are linked by a common rope, off of which only a few individual threads succeed in peeling off.

The slogans and the publicly manifested roots of today's mass protests are well-known. There is a struggle. A struggle against a faceless, nameless, new world order (although the New World Order is a name, it is not the name of any actual order, much less a definition or description thereof, novelty not being, in and of itself, substance). 

According to revolutionary legend, that new world order (or New World Order) seeks to dominate and enslave the human race. It aims to crush hard-earned and battle-won human rights. It desires the elimination of privacy and individuality. Just like Huxley's nightmarish Brave New World, it wants to make us all the same or, at best, all the same within a given social class. “Conform”, “comply”, “fit in” are the keywords of the oppressive global regime-or so the revolutionaries of our time would have us believe.

I do not seek to prove or disprove any conspiracy theories in this essay. I do not know whether there is a New World Order or what that term means-if anything. I do not claim esoteric knowledge of the workings of a “secret elite” that may or may not rule the world. What I do know, as do all of my readers, are the external manifestations of the world that we see today.

One of the most visible external manifestations is that of youths claiming to fight for individuality, against an anti-individualist regime (this regime is either nascent or currently in power, depending on the version of revolutionary lore that you adhere to). Thus, we have individualists on the one hand and anti-invidualists or conformists on the other. This is our mise-en-scène.

We shall not examine, for the purposes of this essay, the truth behind the allegedly all-mighty, obscure, tenebrous, New World Order. Logically, however, if the New World Order exists, being an all-mighty, obscure and tenebrous organisation, it hides the truth about itself-quite successfully. Indeed, the inability of the revolutionaries to unveil the whole truth about this alleged organisation (or state of affairs) is one of their loudest battle cries. We shall not attempt to unveil such truths here. We shall examine instead, the character of those clamours for individuality and claims of the existence of the New World Order-without disputing their veracity.

For the sake of argument, therefore, let the New World Order be our shady antagonist. Let us then cast the modern revolutionary, as we know him, in all his transparency (which proudly distinguishes him from the shady antagonist), as our-protagonist. The revolutionary is, therefore, our main character, as it were.

Now let us examine our protagonist's main claim of superiority over the antagonist: his individuality. We know who he is, we know what he believes and what he believes is different from what the "masses" have been "misled" to believe. These are our protagonist's defining features.

Our protagonist informs his opinions through non-mainstream sources. Though not mainstream, all of these sources dwell, essentially, on the same story: of an oppressive, tyrannical, anti-individual regime that seeks or has already attained global dominance.

The oppression follows, generally speaking, along the same broad plotline, which usually begins with a shady elite of bankers or moneylenders of some sort. In the more anti-Semitic versions, it begins with Europe's medieval Jewish moneylenders, or protobankers, so to speak, established in Venice (operating on wooden tables, banchi, thus the Italian banca and the English “bank”). In the less or non-anti-Semitic versions, it begins with medieval Christian protobankers-most commonly, the Medici family or the Knights Templar. The protobankers, Jewish or Christian, never walk alone and they are intertwined with the Freemasons (sometimes portrayed as part of the same plotline as the Knights Templar, i.e as as an organisation dating back to the Medieval period and at other times as an organisation that emerged in the Enlightenment Period-the official foundation period of what is today known as Freemasonry).

These bankers and Freemasons used their money and their arcane skills to foster false revolutions in France, Italy, the United States and other countries. Under the pretext of democracy, they destroy the sovereign rule of kings and gradually create puppet regimes. Democracy, heavily dependent on campaign finance and characterised by a constant turnover of rulers, is easy prey for the bankers and Freemasons, who have the two vital advantages that elected politicians lack: money and permanence. Currently, the story goes on, we find ourselves in the final stages of the bankers/Freemasons conspiracy, where their dictatorial intentions are laid bare. According to the conspiracy theorists, the greedy banking system is on the verge of collapse, the democratic United States are overtly creating institutions of “oppression”, such as FEMA and Homeland Security. Civil rights are curtailed and the bankers take more and more from the masses. This, more or less, is the standard “revolutionary” plotline of our times. Some versions, found mainly in the United States, distinguish between “good Freemasons” (such as Thomas Jefferson) and the decadent, greedy, corrupt kind of today. Thus, while the Freemasons of the 1770s had good intentions in creating the United States, today there is a different breed, apparently, that tramples on all the “traditional values” of the “Founding Fathers”. The paradox involved in having an institution so permanent, so devoted to its causes as the Freemasons do a hundred-and-eighty degree turn and destroy their greatest creation is, of course, conveniently ignored.

So, what do these New World Order oppressors want from us? To work hard, obey orders and hand most of our money to them, no doubt? That is what the conspiracy theories essentially boil down to, at least the ones that are limited to human motivations (we shall ignore, for the present purposes, those conspiracy theories that revolve around alien races, lizard kings and other extra- or super-human phenomena).

In order to be unquestioning and to surrender our hard labour to the New World Order, however, we must be made compliant. In order to become compliant, we must lose our individuality. Monkey see-monkey do and we will be none the wiser. How does the New World Order achieve that? Through control of mass media, is the revolutionary's reply. As the revolutionaries rightly infer, it is to control of the mass media that all or most of the world's grievances can be traced back. The wars of today, as some like to put it, are “information wars.” On this very blog, I, the writer and you, my dear reader, are, willingly or unwillingly, “soldiers” in that “war.”

Enter the modern-day individualist revolutionary. His historical task is to free us from the bondage of “mainstream media” and unveil the “truth” behind the “lies” of the “regime.” Such “truths” are revealed, it seems, every second, on millions of web pages and blogs-just like mine. While once, my dear reader, you were blind, now you can see. You can realise and develop your full potential and escape the shackles of oppression cast upon you by the moneylending/deceitful New World Order.

Here we arrive at the two gaping voids in the revolutionary plotline and the main point of the present story. The first void is: what was stopping us from being “individuals” yesterday, prior to our blogosphere-induced enlightenment? The second void is: how “individual” is our newly-found “individuality”, really?