Sunday, June 28, 2009

MacArthur foundation: The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age

Mike Caulfield emailed last week to point out the MacArthur Foundation report. No disrespect to Mike (he's a good bloke) but I had never heard of the MacArthur Foundation and its reports before, I supposed its a big deal publication in the States?

And then George Siemens mentions the report too, this time to highlight the inadequate literature review. I loath reading PDFs that are so obviously written and formatted for print first and foremost, so it was a real struggle to find the motivation...

20 or more pages into it and I'm not familiar with anything or anyone mentioned in it, which makes me feel a little uneasy.. the general direction it suggests as the future is something I keep a watch on, it is the domain I exist in and am helping to make happen, or so I like to think anyway. Why is this report so foreign in origins?

So I was curious to see the sorts of things that informed it. I skipped ahead in search of links or references.. nothing!; notes: an interesting array of mostly journal articles; and then the clincher - collaborators: Almost entirely academics based in US universities! Not a single blogger, networked intellectual, or practitioner outside the US.

Aint that classic - what an echo chamber academia is - especially US academia. I would be more forgiving if the report was titled The Future of Learning in North American Institutions, but its written for a "global audience" with "global authority" but with VERY narrow perspective. I'd sooner accept the future of learning institutions written by the incredibly insightful Binyavanga Wainaina!

Now, to my respected networked colleagues who happen to be Americans, this is not a slight at you or your national identity, its more to point out an extremely irritating thing about American academia generally, it needs to use its resource reach back into the long tail A LOT more!

The contributors to this report are entirely people from within the (US) 'institutions' making very predictable predictions. (I thought we were agreeing that the future of institutions will come NOT from within the institutions anyway?)... Ironically, almost all the visioning this report makes about the future comes not from primary sources from throughout the 'network' they celebrate, but from their own secondary and tertiary sources of peer reviewed, print published papers. This report is proof in itself that the future they predict is in fact a future far far away from them. As George points out, they still don't know about Google search!

The American centricity it is a bit of an issue actually, especially for us here in Australia and New Zealand. Because of the over whelming outputs from the US, it is very difficult to find work that has parallels with the Australian or New Zealand experience. What is the future of networked learning in a country with more than 2/3rds of the population not connected to the Internet? I reckon America must be similar, but perhaps her institutions deal more with wealthy classes than in Australia and New Zealand...

Once again, please read Illich for a better future.

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Graham said...

I think that one interesting aspect is that North America tends to generate these sort of reports from philanthropic organisations with deep pocketed benefactors, while Australia tends to pool stuff from Goverment agencies (think MCEETYA and Not saying that one is preferable to the other - both are open to manipulation by policitians or people with political agendas - but it is another example of the disconnect between the American view of the world and ... the rest of the world.

Leigh Blackall said...

Good point G, that is a significant difference.

We know in Australia NZ that our institutional work goes to where the money is. We put in funding applications to what ever the agency is at the time. Through this our governments can influence and control the direction of development.

I suppose in the US, the private sector is to a large degree where the money is (philanthropic as they say). One one hand it would seem a good way to go about development, letting one private play off against the others, trying to exert their 'philanthropic' influence over development of one sort or another. Yet more free market idealism that doesn't take long to discover the worms under the surface.

I think I prefer our centralised model. The devil you know so to speak.

Chris Harvey said...

I remember rms won an award from the McArthur Fellowship. People would ask me how he makes a living and its one of the things I mention, I vaguely remember someone saying it was worth 4 million but this article says otherwise.

Stallman wins $240,000 in MacArthur award

lol check out the date.

Interesting post and comments so far, in my experience with things like this sometimes all it comes down to is whether the people with the money like you or not.

Trey said...

Excellent stuff. Great to know that scores of people in the US take philanthropic activities seriously.

Mike Caulfield said...

I agree with the thrust, that MacArthur is not joining the conversation, but instead co-opting it, and building an alternate history.

I have to differ a bit on the reasons though. I'm in America, and apart from the Seely Brown reference I'm not sure I know the people that they are referencing. And I know an awful lot of people in America working on this stuff.

The gap between nations is small compared to the gap between the journal-centric world of the foundations and the world of the edublogs and open education conferences. It's not about American or not American -- it's about whether a foundation wants to give credit to a bunch of edubloggers pounding out ideas for free when their whole premise for survival is that they fund the brilliant set of people.

I think Seely Brown is deserving of credit, but if you want to know why he was quoted on pro-am stuff and not say Brian Lamb or Teemu Arina, it's not that Brown is an American -- it's that he's on MacArthur's board. And also that he's on the board of Amazon, etc, so he's connected in that circuit that big foundations swim in.

Publications matter too. Bharat Mehra is quoted, because the citation rate in journals is very high ( whereas Philipp Schmidt, who has done some great thinking on how to address the digital divide, is a blogger. If it's not in one of "the" journals, and if it isn't the cited by dozens of people in other journals, it doesn't count as far as they are concerned. The fact this is totally counter to their very paper's thesis hasn't dawned on them.

So I think that, more than anything else, is the division you are seeing -- bloggers are still considered "dirty hippies" by the foundations -- and those are the people we both know, and the people that had found their way to this point long before MacArthur did.

The Catbird said...

An excellent and insightful article! For more about the plundering of the MacArthur Foundation and other mega-wealthy non-profit foundations, please visit...


The Catbird