I read with interest this morning an article by Thomas Frey called The Rise of the SuperProfessor, in which Mr. Frey forecasts the emergence of a class of elite professors who "consistently demonstrate excellence, passion, and clarity, throughout their academic careers" and who brand themselves and market their teaching excellence to the world, unencumbered and unsupported by the towers of academia. The superProfessors manage this rise, of course, through the affordances of the Net (thanks to Bon Stewart for my new favorite term, affordances, and to her excellent session in Change11). Mr. Frey notes the usual examples: Stanford professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, edX, the Minerva Project, the University of the People, iTunesU, Khan Academy, Learnable, Udemy, Codecademy, and Udacity. As I was reading, it dawned on me that I had seen this same transition before, but in churches, and I think that a quick look at what's emerging in traditional Christian denominations might be instructive for institutions of higher education.
Over the last 30 years or so, lots of SuperPastors (if you see an uncomfortable similarity to the term SuperProfessor, well … ) have discovered that they do not have to rely on a hierarchical denomination to build a whopping big church; rather, they can leverage those two great networks—the interstate superhighways and the information superhighway—to build churches that are as big as most state universities. Denominations have existed for centuries to provide local, usually small, congregations with the material, logistical, and organizational support that a small congregation could not provide itself. The local congregation needed an official denomination to sanction rituals, bless ministers, provide policies and procedures, print hymnals and Sunday School material, and so forth. In return, the local congregation sent financial support to the home office. But SuperPastors such as Rick Warren at Saddleback Valley Community Church in Lake Forest, CA, and Joel Osteen at Lakewood Church in Houston, TX, have discovered that they can get all of the logistical and material support they need without the encumberance of a centuries old hierarchical structure. They have swapped encumberance for affordance, and it works. These churches are wildly successful, at least in economic terms. According to a Forbes article, the top ten megachurches earned $8.5 billion dollars in 2009.
The point for me is that SuperPastors are learning that hierarchies are not an efficient way to deliver a message and build a community around that message, regardless of the message. Sebastian Thrun seems to have come to the same conclusion. He has a gospel that he wants to preach to the masses, and he has figured out that Stanford University is just too limiting. The MOOCs that Siemens, Downes, and Cormier have delivered over the past few years demonstrate the same principle: that a dedicated group of SuperProfessors can assemble sufficient infrastructure to build and sustain educational enterprises that do not require a traditional hierarchical institution. Even if they preserve their ties to an organization, they don't require them (many of the megachurches preserve their association with a denomination, but everyone knows that the denomination needs those megachurches more than the churches need the denomination). The Internet itself can provide all the material support, sanctions, specifications, and transactions necessary to create an educational institution. Or a church.
I see Connectivism as an ideally positioned concept to help higher education transition from a hierarchical model to a network/rhizomatic model. And the rhizomatic university will come about. I think it's a certainty. I'm just troubled by who will become the first Jan and Paul Crouch of online higher education.
And I'm just a bit annoyed that these conservative ministers have made the shift to the rhizome before we liberal educators have. I thought we were supposed to be the more flexible and open-minded. Imagine that: conservative Christian pastors as pioneers of post-structuralism.
I need a drink.