By Gavin Moodie

The ‘year of the mooc’ or massive open online course in 2012 was very annoying. Hypers of online education made wild predictions or promotions such as ‘The end of the university as we know it’ and in 50 years there will be only ten universities left in the world.

Hypers arrogantly ignored all the previous extensive expertise and experience of online education, even ignoring earlier extravagant claims such as that by the management guru Peter Drucker who in 1998 forecast or advocated that:

Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It is as large a change as when we first got the printed book.

(Drucker, 1998)

Similar claims were repeated frequently during the year of the mooc, usually without acknowledging their antecedents.

slide1At least the parallel with the Gutenberg revolution is verifiable, unlike many other of the hypers’ claims. But unfortunately, while historians of printing have acknowledged the importance of the issue, none had investigated systematically printing’s effects on education.

I discuss these issues in my book published recently by Palgrave Macmillan Universities, disruptive technologies, and continuity in higher education: the impact of information revolutions. 

It turns out that printing had modest effects on universities. Within 50 years of Gutenberg’s introduction of printing in 1450 universities dispensed with cursorie or cursory lectures in which bachelor graduates studying for their masters read core text out for undergraduates to copy to take extensive notes.

Universities and their colleges had established libraries during the manuscript era because books were so rare and expensive that few university faculty could afford the books they needed for their work. But printing made books so available for faculty that they didn’t need to borrow them any more, and libraries fell into disuse. It wasn’t until the 18h century that university libraries revived, no longer to deal with a scarcity of books, but to manage the profusion of books that had become so numerous that few scholars could own all that they needed.

But expository lectures or lectures cum questionibus remained, the curriculum was not changed dramatically by printing, and summative assessment was still by disputations in Latin, as was teaching.

While printing transformed society generally, the new technology was absorbed into existing university practices rather than revolutionized them. This is because, as important as printing was, it did not essentially change universities’ core activities of extending, testing and transferring knowledge.

Big changes were introduced to universities during the early modern period not by the technology of printing, but by a revolution in the way knowledge was extended and tested – the Scientific Revolution.

Universities gave mathematics more importance as a core discipline of the new method from the 18th century, natural philosophy developed from auxiliary studies or parts of general education to independent disciplines of physics, astronomy, and chemistry which were studied in their own right, and biology was established as a separate discipline in 1802.

Lectures persisted but universities introduced practical classes, and more broadly lecturers illustrated propositions from experience rather than from ancient texts.

Possibly the biggest change in early modern universities was in their summative assessment, from its medieval form of oral, individualized, public, and collective disputations of questions in Latin to written, standardized, private, and individual answering of questions in the vernacular. Some of the changes in assessment were consequences of the changes in curriculum and pedagogy brought about by the Scientific Revolution, some depended on printing, but others were due to universities’ increased size and other broader changes.

I conclude that educational change isn’t the direct result of technological change. But neither is technology irrelevant to educational change. Rather, I argue that educational change involves the interaction of 3 factors: financial, technological, and physical resources; the nature, structure, and level of knowledge; and the methods available for managing knowledge. I conclude that the current digital revolution will not revolutionize universities unless it revolutionizes the way knowledge is advanced, validated or learned.