The Digital Future of the University – Stiegler

Towards the end of last year, Mediapart (a cross between an association for co-learning and an online publisher concerned with digital media) published a blogpost by Bernard Stiegler concerning the role of digital technologies in the ongoing transformation of the university. This line of argument will be familiar to those that follow Stiegler’s work (especially if you read French) and if you have read some of the short pieces by Stiegler that I have previously translated concerning MOOCs and participatory education. What is heartening, especially if you are already in the open education conversation, and are a wee bit cynical about the hyperbole surrounding MOOCs, is that Stiegler argues for a debate around how to foster and open out education, not how to monetize it. As ever, the fundamental (pharmacological) relationship between ‘human’ and ‘technology’ is at the heart of the issue for Stiegler. As he argues in the final paragraph:

The question is not whether or not we should develop MOOCs in France (it is obviously necessary): it is to drive a dynamic for the rethinking of the relationship between knowledge and its media [supports] (of which MOOCs are a possible dimension) with the universities and academic institutions, and which, through research, will redefine their role in this new context.

Again, an argument that thoughtful practitioners of ‘open education’, like Martin Weller, will be very familiar with.

The sharp-eyed reader will pick up something else from this article too. The Institute for Research Innovation (part of the Pomipdou Centre in Paris), directed by Stiegler, are now using their online tools for collaboration ‘in the wild’. So, the vidéolivre that Stiegler points us to, towards the end, is more sophisticated than the embedded YouTube video and is a kind of online mini-course (unfortunately, only in French) hosted on the Digital Studies website (on which you can read the ‘call for Digital Studies‘ in English). Another interesting tool mentioned is Polemic Tweets: a kind of add-on to twitter through the use of basic syntax (much like RT, MT, etc.) in order to amplify, disagree with or question things (see the explanation in English here). For example, you can see the use of these tags in combination with the documentation of a recent conference Entretiens du Nouveau Monde Industriel [#ENMI13] (something like: ‘Investigations into the New Industrial World‘), where there is a recording of the video stream with annotations that temporally synchronise tweets (with the hashtag and ‘polemic’ syntax) in a timeline below — worth a look, here.

This starts to get at some of the pedagogical tools Stiegler and IRI are offering as a means of beginning to think about what it might mean to ‘rethink knowledge and its relationship with its media/supports’ within the domain of (open) education. It is in this context that one might read the article that follows…

As usual, original French and clarifications are in square brackets. I am indebted to Patrick Crogan (former colleague, translator of some of Stiegler’s work, and a speaker at the conference mentioned above) for his proof-reading.

The digital future of the university

07 November 2013, Mediapart

The digital constitutes a new épistémè: it is the very nature of knowledge in all its forms that will be affected. This technology will function for our epoque in the same way that writing did for antiquity (and it is in this way that we can say that it put antiquity into decline). This was suggested thirty years ago in The Computerisation of Society:

“From the moment that Sumerians wrote the first hieroglyphs on wax tablets, they embodied, probably without realising, a decisive mutation of humanity: the appearance of writing. Yet, it was this that changed the world.”

It is inconceivable that universities and large research organisations do not have at their core of their concerns and the top of their priorities the digital transformation of knowledge: the deployment in all disciplines, as in all dimensions of human existence, of what Clarisse Herrenschmidt has called reticular writing clearly constitutes the major challenge for 21st century knowledge.

As for online university courses, they have become at Harvard small private online courses, which has led Robert Lue to suggest that “we are already in the post-MOOC era“. This statement testifies to the fact that the transformations at the sidelines of education are the visible effects of the mnemotechnical milieu of knowledge, which is in the process of changing its nature, is upsetting [bouleverse] knowledge itself, from research all the way through to the most elementary aspects of education.

Whether we consider these issues from massive open online courses, small private online courses [both in English in original], or the many other already existing or possible models of digital education they all constitute a major issue. But this issue logically comes after research and digital studies—which the Minister, and the National Research Agency under his purview, have furthermore adopted in their agenda under the name of ‘digital studies’ without which this could have remained unnoticed.

It is only possible to implement new forms of education related to the development of digital technologies and to experience them collectively on the condition that they are designed and practiced in a close and explicit relation with a policy for researching the deeper layers of epistemic becoming and the new disciplinary epistemologies required by digitisation. Without such a structured and openly acknowledged connection, the initiatives taken in all areas alongside [established] education can only emerge as superficial fashions and effects, subject as ever to all of the ebbs and flows of media excitement in the contemporary world: they always seem to belong to an age that has already been superceded by the lastest novelty in an area where there is no lack of imagination–sometimes at the risk of lacking reflection, if not knowledge.

The university appeared a little over one thousand years ago, conditioned then by the copying of canonical texts, which led to the interpretation that is engendered in the process of copying, which experienced a second era with the republic of letters created by the printing press, which originated in the university of Berlin, and which lasted until the 20th century.

In 1993 the university entered a new age, with the arrival of the web making reticular writing accessible to all. It is this important, if not massive and amazing, fact that necessitates the development of digital studies. Whatever its form, knowledge is a form of memory shared by a community, according to the rules practised, and sometimes explicated and theorised, by that community: which is thus, in general, a community of peers. These scientific and critical knowledges appeared with alphabetic writing, which, in all its forms, creates a mnemotechnical and techno-logical milieu that conditions [conditionne] the development and transmission of knowledge based in peer review.

Neither for knowledge in general or scholarly institutions in particular, are the written alphabet, the printed word, data, algorithms and digital networks simple mediums of education or research: these are the domains [milieux] of knowledge in which is founded the open and constant criticism of the rules of interpretation in which the knowledge formed by these communities of peers consists.

The digital deeply transforms such forms of knowledge principally because it constitutes a new means of recording [surface d’inscription] and publicly formalising the debate between peers by which all rational disciplines are constituted, through conflicting interpretation and scientific controversy. The characteristics of the digital (automation, speed of calculation, vast planetary access, cooperative networks, new processes of formalisation, new models, visualisations, interactions and simulations etc.) constitute new possibilities for knowledge, for significantly widening accessibility to more diverse audiences, which will redefine the conditions for equal access to knowledge [qui redéfinissent les conditions de la parité], which also involves the requirements for certification as a form of legitimation.

Peer-to-peer, which is increasingly discussed since the advent of software and websites described as P2P, appeared over 27 centuries ago with the first land surveyors [géomètres]. This is why amongst the announcements made by the minister for higher education and research, the most significant was the support for research into the impacts and opportunities of the digital in the development of knowledge as a form of emancipation [comme de telles parités est la plus significative]. The digital mnemotechnical milieu makes possible and requires new heuristics, new hermeneutics, and new epistemologies which must foster teaching and pedagogies in which the purpose is precisely the enrolment of the maximum number of students into these communities of peers.

From the infinitely big (astrophysics) to the infintetly small (nanoscience), physics is reconfigured by digital instrumentation through mathematics and statistics notably in the guise of “big data“. Linguistics is under the effect of what Frédéric Kaplan has called linguistic capitalism. Geography is in the era of geographical information systems and GPS, through which territory becomes functionally and normatively digital. Genetic biology that made possible computerised biostations, etc. No form of knowledge escapes the new demands [nouvelle facture] of the contemporary mnemotechnical milieu configured by the categorisation machines that are networked computers.

This digital categorisation totally redefines the conditions of production of the rules of categorisation, which form the foundation for what is ultimately knowledge produced through peer review: this is a fundamental point that it is not possible for me to develop here, and it is for this reason that the reader can consult a short interactive video [vidéolivre] which has been prepared to complete this article, and which focuses more extensively on these concerns in order to illustrate how the Institute for Research and Innovation (IRI), which I run, designs and practices investigations of these issues.

This interactive video—designed to become a social book [in English in original], by which I mean a support for a network of readers constituted as a community of plural interpretations-is one example amongst many (such as polemic tweets, also developed IRI and implemented by Mediapart in the recently organised debate about the rise of the National Front), which are all new forms of editorial media that have emerged since the arrival of the web.

These digital media will become new apparatuses [dispositifs] of public debate which always come from university learning, and with which it is essential to enrol and involve the students as much as possible. For over a thousand years, universities and research activities as well as the teaching thereby developed were made possible originally by manuscripts and then by printed books. Which is why a thesis, regardless of the discipline in which it is submitted, is always presented as a book. This situation will fundamentally change in the course of the coming years. This does not signal the disappearance of the book: it means that, like the knowledge they carry, they will transform.

New conditions of publication, disputation [confrontation], certification and editorialisation of knowledge are coming into place. They correspond to new regulations and new methods for heuristics, interpretation, teaching and pedagogy, which are arising, forming and capturing the 21st century épistémè. This is taking place through a dynamic process that the public authorities should strongly encourage, pushing academic institutions, industry and the markets to cooperate in the production of a long-term vision—which must be a vision of the role of France in Europe in the 21st century.

The question is not whether or not we should develop MOOCs in France (it is obviously necessary): it is to drive a dynamic for the rethinking of the relationship between knowledge and its media [supports] (of which MOOCs are a possible dimension) with the universities and academic institutions, and which, through research, will redefine their role in this new context. This is a good question for which it is not only healthy but essential that a public debate is held—providing that the grounds for that debate are not the claim that everything should be left to the market nor the denial of the very need for such a debate.

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