Emblematic image of a Rosicrucian College; illustration from Speculum sophicum Rhodo-stauroticum, a 1618 work by Theophilus Schweighardt. Frances Yates identifies this as the “Invisible College of the Rosy Cross”

There is a little history lesson in this post, but the history is what leads me to think that the time is right for a new “Invisible College.”

The original Invisible College was the Rosicrucian College, identified by Frances Yates as the “Invisible College of the Rosy Cross”. It is sometimes described as a precursor group to the Royal Society of London. It consisted of a number of natural philosophers and may have also included some prominent figures who would be later connected with the Royal Society.

This idea of having an “invisible college” can be found in German Rosicrucian pamphlets in the early 17th century and another playwright of Shakespeare’s time, Ben Jonson, referenced it in several plays.

It was a group of scholars meeting to discuss and learn, but without actual courses, degrees or a campus of buildings. Sound like anything you see happening in education today?

In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, it is noted that a group of natural philosophers meeting in London from 1645 was identified as the “invisible college” by Thomas Birch, writing in the 18th century.

It might remind some readers of other more concepts of “expert communities” such as Epistemic communities or Communities of Practice.

The concept and the term was applied to a global network of scientists by Caroline S. Wagner in her book, The New Invisible College: Science for Development. In the book, Wagner argues that a shift from big science to global networks is creating new opportunities, especially for developing countries, to tap science’s potential. Don’t try to create 20th century scientific establishments and centers of learning, but use global networks of leading scientists to focus on research to address local problems.

My own thought is that some combination of online learning, MOOCs, alternative and personal learning networks – and maybe even “degrees” in some new format – may create a new Invisible College without buildings or a home campus that grows and travels from place to place as it is needed.

The concept is mentioned in Clay Shirky’s book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. And it has found its way into fiction like The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown and Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco.  It was the inspiration for the humorous Unseen University in 13 fantasy novels by Terry Pratchett (such as Unseen Academicals).

For now, the Invisible College (which I find preferable to the Invisible University, which smells stronger of degrees) is fiction and fantasy. Of course, both and are already owned by people who have parked those URLs for the time when… Well, you know. Uh huh.

cross-posted to Serendipity35