Universities: Healthy or on Last Legs?

Related to the recent post on the death (or otherwise) of Universities, Bill Kerr pointed me to this post by Eugene Wallingford – “Revolution Out There — and Maybe In Here“. Eugene is similarly worried if Universities have had their day:

Were I graduating from high school today, would I need a university education to prepare for a career in the software industry? Sure, most self-educated students would have gaps in their learning, but don’t today’s university graduates? … What if I worked the same 12, 14, or 16 hours a day (or more) reading, studying, writing, contributing to an open-source project, interacting on-line? Would I be able to marshall the initiative or discipline necessary to do this?

In my time teaching, I have encountered a few students capable of doing this, if they had wanted or needed to. A couple have gone to school and mostly gotten by that way anyway, working on the side, developing careers or their own start-up companies. Their real focus was on their own education, not on the details of any course we set before them.

There are more points than just these – a worthy read. I also have seen a few students such as those Eugene describes. But not many. There are some concerns that in the UK schools are not doing a good enough job of helping children develop into this kind of self directed learner. See here for just one recent story.

In fact, I spend a part of many of my modules pointing out to students that there is more information freely available on the web than I can teach them in the hours given. I encourage them to go well beyond the material in class. I try to give them a useful set of links to get them started. And the best students either take the hint or are already ahead of me on this. The average student however… is much like the average student from my own days. The availability of material has not significantly affected human behaviour in this regard.

I ask them to view the material we cover in class as the start, as a beginning, and to use this only as a base for further exploration and learning. A proportion focus instead on the pass mark – on doing what is necessary to pass and try hard not to learn anything if they can help it. To a student whose goal is the pass mark, what use is the wealth of free material on the web? Something to crib from or cut-and-paste if it helps minimise the time spent on coursework?

In The End of Education, Neil Postman quotes an article by Diane Ravitch which looks forward to a time when todays wealth of knowledge and experience is instantly available anywhere. Quote of a quote of Ravitch:

In this new world of pedagogical plenty, children and adults will be able to dial up a program on their home television to learn whatever they want to know, at their own convenience. If Little Eva cannot sleep, she can learn algebra instead. At her home learning station, she will tune into a series of interesting problems that are presented in an interactive medium, much like video games”

Well, the content is definately out there on the web. Statistics don’t appear to be showing the significant improvements in numeracy that we might hope for. Why-ever not? Neal’s comment on this scenario?

“Little Eva can’t sleep, so she decides to learn a little algebra? Where did Little Eva come from, Mars? If not it is likely she will tune into a good movie.”

Until we replace students with martians, I suspect universities will have a role to play. There is no shortage of role-models that ably demonstrate that you can do well without a university education. John Harrison or Alan Sugar for example. But today, as in the past, many of these people are quite simply exceptional individuals. Meanwhile, students will continue to try to learn software development by enrolling on courses and doing what is required of them rather than immersing themselves creating software at home and online and by becoming software developers without the extrinsic motivation of a semester deadline.

A large part of me hopes to be proven wrong.

But Eugene’s closing comments are also worth noting:

People come to us eagerly, willing to spend out of their want or to take on massive debts to buy what we sell. Some come for jobs, but most still have at least a little of the idealism of education. When I think about their act in light of all that is going on in the world, I am humbled. We owe them something as valuable as what they surrender. We owe them an experience befitting the ideal. This humbles me, but it also Invigorates and scares me, too.

Its in this light that I also think that there is a real challenge for universities to meet, a challenge that may well be unmet by most.

4 thoughts on “Universities: Healthy or on Last Legs?

  1. Bill Kerr

    All the content is now available and that is a huge shift from the past. So the main job of all educators (uni, school, parents etc.) is mentoring. Good teachers are far better mentors than computers but in the future computers will get better and better at mentoring all sorts of things

    Alan Kay discussed these issues wrt the dynabook in his 40th anniversary presentation. I transcribed part of it here but well worth watching the whole thing

    1. What are powerful ideas?
    2. How can they be learned with the aid of computing media?
    3. Can this work with human mentors?
    4. Can it work with computing mentors?

    Trying to take a longer term strategic view with this comment

  2. Daniel Livingstone

    Those are great links, thanks.

    Meanwhile, we have a situation just now in the UK where there are many figures showing declining performance in maths and science at schools – most significantly declining uptake by students, often because these are percieved as being ‘hard’.

    So much of the technology of the dynabook is now with us and commonplace, but it isn’t yet having the impact that Alan Kay has been reaching for all these years.

    How long do we have to wait? And will students be able to choose between being mentored by the computer or switching over and being entertained?

  3. Bill Kerr

    hi daniel,

    Same situation in australia wrt maths and science, eg. aspiring primary teachers who cannot do grade 5 maths (source ) – shocking!

    You also echo my thoughts about the problematic struggle between entertainment and education – btw alan kay is also a big fan of Neil Postman, who was a member of viewpoints research before his death (oops, I did a search and found out that I already mentioned that to you)

    Yes, I do see these as two vital problems that need more discussion and action.

  4. Daniel Livingstone

    Think we agree on far more than we differ here.

    Eugene’s closing points I didn’t really discuss, but he is right to be concerned about the quality of higher education. Quality in HE in the UK in the past number of years has focussed much more on the technical meaning of quality (paperwork and process) than on what the students actually experience – lectures, tutorials, labs and supervision/mentoring.

    Improvements in the first do not neccesarily relate to improvements in the other…


Leave a Reply