What is it about a crisis that causes people to get creative and think expansively? And just how bad does a crisis have to get before we start seeing new possibilities?

It’s possible that I’m still stuck on a metaphor for distributed networks, the haunted image from RAND Networks in the late 1960s developed in response to possible communications shut-downs after a nuclear crisis:

by Paul Baran
by Paul Baran

In a recent interview with Wired magazine, Paul Baran discussed his vision of how the new technology might be used. “Around December 1966, I presented a paper at the American Marketing Association called ‘Marketing in the Year 2000.’ I described push-and-pull communications and how we’re going to do our shopping via a television set and a virtual department store. If you want to buy a drill, you click on Hardware and that shows Tools and you click on that and go deeper.” While residing on the other side of the spectrum of emergency-planning, this prediction of Baran’s foretold the future of home shopping, not the future of education or crisis management. But Baran clearly would have been aware of Marshall McLuhan’s work, and I am also interested in these seldom-cited projections of possibilities onto television as the precursors of the Internet.

The general interest I hold about technology is in the close examination of crisis, and specifically dismantling debt. The word “crisis” by itself does not mean much – Jean Anyon would say that it’s abused about as much as the word “awesome” (missing you, Jean!).

Much of my desire to explore these issues of higher education in the wake of economic crisis and student loans comes from the book DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education (2010) by Anya Kamenetz. Concerns about quality and affordability in the new mainstream of higher education are addressed head-on, and any prior assumptions about traditional hierarchies and categories dissolve. She wonders if given diversity in  “human capital and meritocracy, race and class – can we build a system that works for everybody?” (Kamenetz 2010). Kamenetz believes that there are several trends guiding the transformation of higher education, including:

  1. The 80/20 rule: Most of the growth in higher education over the next century will come from the 85 percent of students who are “nontraditional” in some way—say, older, working adults or ethnic minorities, and will increasingly will attend the 80 percent of institutions that are that are “nonselective,” meaning they accept the vast number of applicants, in mainstream universities as well as community or for-profit colleges.

  2. The Great Unbundling: also describes a movement to de-couple university-achieved accreditation as “the great unbundling,” in which the logic of digital technology will compel institutions to specialize and collaborate, find economies of scale and avoid duplications. Cutting edge sciences and traditional liberal arts will flourish alike

  3. Techno-hybridization: because studies have shown that students do a better job collaborating online if they meet in person even once. This has been traditionally-called “blended learning, too.

  4. Personal Learning Networks and Paths: Self-directed learning will become increasingly important. Despite plenty of demand for the traditional collegiate experience, these will become only one of many options and entry points.

Reading that same book by Kamanetz last summer was crucial in formulating some of my personal theories about informal learning in museums. If possible future systems of learning will include mentors, peers, colleagues, and unbound opportunities to stretch one’s abilities or test personal theories – how can such relationships be replicated online? On thing is clear: the future response to an unending “crisis” in education must be open to more systems of alternative learning.

Other sources to examine this semester are just as pressing beyond Kamanetz’s book – as the dawn of my own personal “sunrise” semester into finally addressing my dissertation research head-on is also rising. This comes with the territory of leaving a full-time job to teach and become a full-time student for the first time in nearly twenty years, and so I am looking at some sources with renewed, wide-eyed interest:

The Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age (2012)

Theorizing with Friedrich Hayek in “Forests, Trees, and Intellectual Roots” by J. Bradford DeLong, and Hayek’s 1945 essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” from The American Economic Review.

And most importantly of all, a big break through: an archive I found that includes documentation about the hit TV show Sunrise Semester at New York University this week. Sunrise semester was a ground-breaking television show that first aired on CBS in 1957 and ran for over twenty years, attracting over 1.6 million eyeballs a day at its peak. The catch? It ran at 6:30am on weekday morning, and eventually lack of funding – coupled with a network push for entertainment and “morning news,” eventually led to the show’s demise.

I am slowly amassing a course list of the show’s earliest broadcasts, and some of the topics included philosophy (like a ten week class on Existentialism and Realism, all the way in 1958), biology, foreign languages, and mathematics.

It is possible that NBC also had a show similar to this called “Continental Classroom” which was on from October 6, 1958 until December 18, 1964.

I have hit an incredible set of archives from NYU this week that makes me certain that Sunrise Semester is the big sleeper hit in distance learning – and will fill the historical gap between early correspondence courses in the late 1890s (such as the Independent Correspondence Course aimed at miners and draftsmen, founded in 1896). Just all notes and scribbles. The best kind.

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