Film was one of the great inventions of the nineteenth century. For a century and a half, it was developed and improved, innovations such as colour and moving pictures were made, and photographers used it in artistic and creative ways.
Then came digital imaging, and within a few years of its going commercial the film industry completely disappeared except for a few specialist niches. Large muntinational companies whose business was tied to film and who hadn’t seen the change coming were swept away.
Could the same happen to universities? I believe that this is not unthinkable, and therefore the time to think about it is now rather than later.
Certainly changes are coming to universities, driven by a combination of technology and social attitudes.
Massively open on-line courses
If you haven’t yet heard the acronym MOOC, you soon will. A couple of weeks ago, as the closing talk in our workshop on Combinatorial Probability and Statistical Mechanics, we were treated to an insightful talk by Robert Sedgewick, which is what started me thinking. The slides of the talk are here, and are worth reading.
Sedgewick is the author, with the late Philippe Flajolet, of the bible of analytic combinatorics, and also teaches computer science at Princeton. His introductory algorithms course has been turned into a MOOC, and he is doing the same with a course on analytic combinatorics based on the book. The title of his talk was “Analytic Combinatorics for the Masses”.
The talk was about more than simply the mechanics of the production of such a course; he told us his views on the underlying philosophy. Central to this is his picture of a course as a three-legged stool; the legs are textbook, web content, and course. I will quote in detail:
- A textbook for use by students to learn and study the details of the subject
- A course that encourages a community of scholars [my italics here] to learn together
- Web content for use by students to explore and interact with the material.
Item 2 suggests that perhaps universities still have a role.
He also makes a crucial point. Students ask “How much does it cost?” The answer is, it must be free. Then they ask “Can I get credit?” The answer is no, you have to pay for assessment. Then they ask, “If the course is free, what am I getting for my fees?” The answer is, in Sedgewick’s words, “We make sure that you learn as much as you are able; and we certify that you did so.”
Another day, another think tank report
This week, a report was released by the Institute for Public Policy Research. Written by Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly and Saad Rivzi, it has the dramatic title An avalanche is coming, subtitled “Higher education and the revolution ahead”.
I have serious reservations about this report, written by educationalists and suffering the defects this seems to entail. But, to start with the frivolous: Sedgewick says “There’s a tsunami coming” and (earlier, as is logical) “Seismic changes are afoot” – it would be nice if they would coordinate their metaphors!
The burden of the Barber report is that the ten functions of a traditional university (which they list as outputs (research, degrees, city prosperity), people (faculty, students, governance and administration), and programme (curriculum, teaching and learning, assessment, and experience)) should be “unbundled”, and that technology and social attitudes will bring about this change. Organisations other than universities will become involved in some of these functions, and will do it as a for-profit business.
What do I think?
I ploughed through this documentation to help focus my thoughts.
The purpose of a university
The traditional purpose of a university is twofold: research and teaching. The two activities, in many cases, support each other.
But this traditional purpose is under threat already, before we even begin to think about new technologies and social attitudes: many universities now see themselves as businesses, and their role is generating money; research has come to mean getting big research grants, and teaching to mean hitting the buttons that input to league tables (notably the National Student Survey in Britain) so that attracting students will become easier.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if MOOCs could allow students to learn for the sake of knowledge?
The coming of MOOCs
The Internet has had profound effects on business of many kinds. For example, the existence of eBay has provided platforms for many people to do business with the world when formerly they would have been restricted to their locality. (The Barber report says, “Kepler, a start-up in Rwanda, pairs free online courses with in-person facilitators to deliver arguably better content at lower cost than any traditional university in the region.”)
Similarly, MOOCs will allow anyone anywhere in the world to teach a course using material from Princeton, MIT, or Stanford.
Universities in the lower rankings will have two things to do, as outlined by Robert Sedgewick:
- They will add value to the free material on the Internet, by providing the students with tutorials, classes, and opportunities for face-to-face discussion (some of which might be traditional lectures supplementing the MOOC material);
- They will assess the students’ understanding of the material, and certify this understanding by awarding qualifications.
A cottage industry based on existing MOOCs seems entirely feasible.
Throughout my career, I have been struck by the tension between teaching and examining. When I teach my students, I am doing my best to get them to understand the material, to have insights like the ones I had when I was learning. But when I examine them, I set them to jump through some rather artificial hoops such as repeating definitions or reconstructing solutions to problems similar to coursework. You cannot ask more in an exam of just two or three hours.
This will be further called into question by the appearance of smart drugs, which temporarily enhance the students’ ability to recall, and perhaps even to reason. In elite sport, the use of performance-enhancing drugs has grown enormously despite the efforts of administrators and scientists. If they can’t control the problem by throwing money at it, it is unlikely that universities will be able to do so.
I guess my strongest-held belief in all this is that, until we find a better method of assessment, the model will have serious problems. I can, at a stretch, examine 300 students who have taken my course; there is no way that I can examine 30000 students.
Are we missing something?
In traditional university education, students spend three or four years at a time of life crucial for their personal development, in an environment where (ideally) they are encouraged to reflect on questions going well beyond the course material they are learning. The long university vacations give their brains the chance to internalise (in a way that we don’t really understand, but is certainly real) their experiences and the ideas they have been considering.
This is expensive. Politicians have tried to cut the length of a university degree by having the programmes run throughout the year and pushing the material into the students’ brains in two years. Cheaper for the students, cheaper for the government, so everyone wins, right?
If the avalanche sweeps these pressures away, I would be glad. But I don’t see how these unquantified effects can be achieved without having the students in the environment provided by a traditional university.
Change is coming – but whether it will be an avalanche, a tsunami, or just a storm in a teacup, is quite impossible to predict.
Appendix: On the Barber report
Recently I discussed two books on problems in the Australian university system: Donald Meyers’ Australian Universities: a Portrait of Decline and Richard Hil’s Whackademia. The first, by an engineer, seemed more soundly based in reality than the second, by a sociologist.
Meyers rightly criticises educationalists for failing to understand modern neurological research on how we learn, and to accept as dogma that students should learn by discovery. This simply doesn’t work in the STEM subjects; students cannot and should not be expected to discover things over which Archimedes and Newton struggled for years.
The Barber report is full of the same educationalists’ worldview. They do not understand the importance for science of getting the details right. Barber is proud of the fact that he can use Google to find the names of the three Karamazov brothers, but the report credits Crick and Watson with the “identification” of DNA, and talks of the “exponential growth” of something-or-other. (This after citing the increased demand for graduates in the STEM subjects.) Oh dear. They describe the (British) Open University as “age-old”: what does that make me??
More worrying are statements like
The new student consumer is king and standing still is not an option.
The equation of students with consumers occurs very frequently in the report. They also say that a business school “confers prestige” on a university.
In an eloquent passage they say,
In his deeply reflective book, The Old Ways, Robert MacFarlane quotes a master sea-captain talking about learning from watching the rolling surface of the sea: “You need to look for disturbances,” he says, “be alert to unforeseen interactions.” This is good advice for those who lead universities in the 21st century.
This suggests to me that perhaps the old ways are the best!
They say “There is little distinction between being [in a large lecture] in person or [sic] watching on video.” Well, I lectured to 280 students last semester; I encouraged them to ask questions in the lecture, and many of them did. Have you ever tried asking questions of a video recorder?
And listen to this:
The learning experience of the future blends life-size visual communication via telepresence with collaboration technologies that significantly enhance the way faculty, students and alumni interact.
(To be fair, they didn’t write this, though they quote it approvingly.)
All this is a pity, since they have some good points. Here are a few:
- It is a classic error of strategy to calculate the risks of action but fail to calculate the (often greater) risks of doing nothing. [I would have said "sometimes" rather than "often".]
- The reputations of some of the new for-profit providers have been tarnished by high dropout rates […] it would be a mistake to think that the innovation itself will be diminished by these abuses.
- Increasingly, teaching in a university is seen as a necessary, laborious task to generate revenues for research.
- Consultancies, for example, create incentives in which individual consultants are driven by organisational goals. Universities cannot (and should not) do the same. [My gloss on this is below.]
Ultimately, the whole report must be taken with a large grain of salt. It is published by a think-tank, and the authors work for an aggressive academic publisher – two of the organisations who stand to benefit from “unbundling” of higher education by snatching business from universities.
Yesterday’s paper contained a report saying that UCAS will not release data on applications for university places broken down by institutions until the autumn. This is said to be because some universities’ applications have fallen so far that releasing the data would start a flight of students away from those universities. (If you are paying 27 grand for a degree, you don’t want to do it at an institution which is going down the plughole.)
Change might come sooner than we think, and driven by something more mundane than new technology.