"Generative scholarship" spurs new questions, evidence, conclusions, and audiences. The Web could be a particularly fertile home for it.
Breathless talk of innovation and deep skepticism about its promises charge the atmosphere of higher education. Major universities and new consortia promote massive open online courses, TED talks dazzle with possibilities, and investors dream of enormous profits. For others on our campuses, however, excited references to "disruption" evoke memories of other recent innovations: the imposition of external assessment, the turn to adjunct faculty, the intrusion of boards into the educational mission, the retreat of public investment.
Both sides have a point. The new technologies do, in fact, promise a great leveraging of what our universities have to offer. And the plans offered so far do, in fact, risk diminishing the full impact of what universities can provide. The two sides thus far are largely talking past one another, even as MOOCs gather momentum.
ronically, the advocates and skeptics of online teaching might find common ground by thinking more boldly, beyond the terms of the current debate. The skeptics might ask whether the new technologies cannot offer useful amplification to our scholarly work of discovery; the advocates of the new technologies need to think more directly about how to reach broad audiences while also fostering meaningful conversations across the disciplines and bridging a division between teaching and scholarship.
Two crucial parts of higher education that have received little attention in the debates thus far—the humanities and the creation of new knowledge—can help advance those conversations.
Two examples from my own field, history, illustrate the possibilities. The History Harvest project, begun by William G. Thomas at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and now also including James Madison University, plans to use a MOOC to create an online community to gather original research on local history, with undergraduate students leading the history harvest. This is an ingenious way to tap into the power of large audiences, often across broad spaces, to create new knowledge.