Where do institutions come from?

Like those in favor of an Invisible University or a 21st century revival of an Invisible College, I'm looking forward to higher ed becoming free of institutions. I see the moniker "Invisible University" as a transition term like "iron horse" and "horseless carriage". Once the replacement technologies become widely used, I expect we'll drop the word "university" from our label for the higher quality and lower cost post-secondary educations getting realized. The term "university" has already been tainted by diploma mills and corporate training functions which use the label to glamorize their offerings. I suspect it will be dropped easily when the time comes.

In order to realistically anticipate how institutions could get substituted, I believe it's essential to answer the question: Where do institutions come from? If we don't understand why they exist and how they persist, we are susceptible to wishful thinking and grandiose claims of superiority. Institutions are famously durable amidst societal upheavals. They have contradicted predictions of their demise throughout history. It's only when their reasons for persisting gets undermined that they collapse.

  1. Institutions exist for the sake of private paperwork. Their structures support the documenting, distributing, reviewing, credentialing and filing of voluminous amounts of written and printed paper for select eyes only.
  2. Institutions depend on the exercise of authority. They arrange the command and control of large numbers of personnel who lack authority themselves and depend on authorities to decide direction, prioritize actions and evaluate outcomes.
  3. Institutions serve their own survival, perpetuation and fortification. They defend themselves against aggression on the outside and traitors within in order to maintain their existence or to impede changes.
  4. Institutions serve an abstract public according to a legislated mandate. They cannot serve exceptional cases, individuals or special interests without violating that mandate.

There are countless college majors in academic subjects and degree programs for becoming licensed professionals that fit these institutional parameters "hand in glove". These pursuits get studied by going through printed material in sequence. I anticipate that institutions of higher ed will persist to serve this portion of the educational spectrum as it has in the past.

There are many other studies that are taking on the opposite characteristics. These pursuits can easily defect from institutions while getting better served through collaborative dynamics in distributed networks. The characteristics of these kinds of studies include:

  1. Open source expertise that has been digitized so it can be easily replicated, annotated, tagged, stored, searched and mashed up into new documents.
  2. Communities of creative authors using tools on the web while gaining credibility through their personal transparency, value creation and reciprocation
  3. Collaborations intended to disintegrate after intense exchanges and discoveries of new possibilities, collaborators and projects
  4. Community activism and outreach programs that: give individuals personal attention, accommodate their unique situations and respond to their particular requests. 

The pursuit of these studies will appear to undermine the reasons for institutional existence. Credentials on paper will be replaced by credibility in social contexts. Learning from books will be obsolesced by learning from peers, multi-mediated conversations, and collaborative productions. Authorities will get regarded as potentially toxic while interactions with fellow authors will yield more educational value. Serving the interests of other learners will yield far more competency and comprehension than complying with course requirements. Getting feedback from those served will prove more significant that getting grades, extra credit and bonus points from instructors. More educational value will be realized at a far lower cost. Institutions of higher ed will become elitist and nostalgic fashion statements.

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