Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Natives have landed

This is a momentous month in Tertiary education, but it will be another five years before people notice exactly how, and what it means.
This month, in campuses all over the world, the first cohort of true digital natives are arriving, children who never lived in a world without web. The web became a publicly available service on August 6th 1991, and this is the first year where a substantial proportion of the new cohort were born after that date. They were four when eBay and Amazon was born, nine when the dotcom boom crashed, and ten when Wikipedia was born. When they turned to adolescence, Facebook and Bebo were waiting for them.
They are the first generation who always went online first when looking for information. Facts, for them, are things to be retrieved in seconds, not memorized or held in a revered old head. The limits of geography are to them a fading anachronism of the old days, slain by Ryanair and Skype. Their social networks connect them into an extended collective mind. New ideas flash across it, flower and die in hours. It's long term implications are unknown.
Much has been written about this generation web, generally by older academics, who don't hold with That Sort Of Thing, (whatever it is this year) or starry eyed prophets who see revolution on the wires, any minute now. Both will be shown to be wrong as this new generation transition to adulthood and find their own voices. They will be a generation like no other before them. Handle with care, and expect to be surprised.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Book Review: A History of the University in Europe Vol 1

You must know the past to see the future, so to the library I went. I've been reading Volume 1. of "A History of the University in Europe" edited by Walter Ruegg. For completeness sake, I'm posting a short review here, if you'll forgive me for going off piste a little, both in topic and style.

The Book is dull, scholarly and thorough.

It paints a richly detailed picture (or, perhaps, collection of jigsaw pieces) of the emergence of the European University in the high middle ages, describing how they emerged from the fog and assumed their more modern form. Chapters by different authors provide a fairly high level of detail about what is known on the subject. Sometimes it's too much detail, and because of that, and the multi author nature of the book, no grand narrative emerges to keep the pages turning. In fairness to the authors, it probably wasn't intended to be a page turner. I'd been hoping to get an idea of why Universities spread and survived so well in the period, but that picture isn't drawn, although there are clues. I'll have read the other three volumes in time, but I'm not looking forward to it.

Interestingly, the book views the University as a distinctly European institution, and dismisses any precursors from outside out of hand. I'm not an expert on medieval history, but that seems rash and Eurocentric, given that as European institutions were coming out of the murk, some fairly sophisticated institutions of higher learning existing on the other side of the Mediterranean in the Islamic world. Strangely, the very old institution in Constantinople, unarguably in Europe, and a University in all but name, is not mentioned at all. It seems improbable that European developments were not informed by those places. I suspect that the operating definition of a University was very much framed by form rather than function, which excluded other matters of importance.

To be fair, the book notes that little is really known about the ecosystem in which the universities fitted into.  What came before? How did they relate to the cathedral schools? Before attending, what kind of education did students have? There is a survivor bias here, Universities survived and kept their records, and bred scholars interested in researching their origins. Other institutions did not survive, and left little trace.

Other issues, significant factors, like the Medieval Warm Period and population increase, which drove European society forward to the point where the Universities could grow, get scarcely a mention. The High medieval period was an exciting time, you could call it 'Europe's false start' - cut short by the Great Famine and Black Death in the 14th century, but the book doesn't really give a good sense of the historical context. It's very much a fact basket book.

Nevertheless, the book is full of fascinating titbits and snippets, which illustrate how little has changed. For example, the tendency of lecturers to simply read through a body of notes and have students write them down, it seems, came from a time before printing when getting a book copies was an expensive proposition. Thus, students preferred lecturers to read the text so they could write it down.

Other insights show how little has changed in 800 Years:
  • On Meetings: "Little is learnt and the time needed for study is wasted in meetings and discussions" Phillippus de Grevia, on the new Universities, c1220AD.
  • On Student/Landlord disputes: Some of the earliest church documents pertaining to Universities relate to bishops laying down the law to limit sharp practices by landlords gouging students.
  • On Fees:  "Science is a gift from God, and cannot be sold" argued the medieval church. Teachers disagreed. The fees/no fees debate clearly goes back a long way.
No mention of University rankings in Volume 1, which covers to 1500AD. They appear to be a more recent torment.

Overall, a detailed and thorough work, full of tantalising snippets of information, but weak on context and big picture. Worth reading if you are interested and your local library has it, but I wouldn't have rushed out to buy it, or keenly read it if my interest was only casual.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

How to put Universities out of business

A University isn't a business, but it operates subject to the same laws of supply and demand, in the same ecosystem, even if its objectives aren't profit. So long what it produces is valued by society, and no competition exists, Universities will survive, regardless of what torments their governments or administrators put them through.

So what do Universities produce that we need so badly? Graduates.

Why do we need those again? It all comes down to employers. By looking at a resume and noting the institution, subject and grade, a prospective employer gets a vast amount of information about a students intellect, knowledge base and approximate character without the expense of an interview. A candidate pool of millions can by pre screened down to dozens with a few dozen characters of text.: BSc (UCC Geol) 1H, PhD. It's beautifully compact, ten to the tweet.

Now, imagine for a minute if Universities didn't exist. The Martians arrive one day and carry them off, leaving nothing but some empty real estate and a few torn flyers for the freshers ball. What would happen then?

Employers would have a problem. How could you filter for people with specific skills, aptitudes and background. How could you figure out who had grown up a bit, and who hadn't? Can't interview them all, it would take too long and cost too much.
The resumes would be like novels, full of odds and end. Imagine how many bits and pieces you would have to do to be, for example, a Vet? At the very least, you'd have to thoroughly read the resume, decide on the virtues of whatever courses they took, whatever work experiences they had, volunteer activities and so forth. It would be tedious and slow. Inefficient.

But this is the 21st century. Now we have machines for that kind of work, don't we?
If I wanted to put Universities out of business, I'd find a faster, cheaper way of filtering candidates for employment. Some way of tracking and assessing the true value of what a potential candidate has done and matching it to closely to potential employee needs. Stripped of the false simplicity of a degree, I could match personality and aptitude test results, more domain specific education at a much more granular level than a monolithic degree. Such a system would select candidates for interview who would be a much tighter fit to my needs than the gross level degree filtering. If we can unzip genomes and read from them useful information, surely we can unzip peoples life experience and map it to the right jobs and careers.

From the student perspective, instead of spending four years chunking through a monolithic primary degree, people could do a more varied mix of things, and have the same system advise them closely on what they aught to be doing to match whatever employment or career path they might be interested in. Instead of a degeee being a thing entered blindly at one end and exited traumatically after big bang finals, with hope and a scroll, it becomes a lifelong process as they student (and never, truly, a graduate) accumulates useful experience to steer them towards whatever they want to be.

Universities can be at the centre of this new model, if they move fast. They are well placed at the centre of a the education web, with strong established brands, considerable (if, presently, overstretched) resources and a strong incentive.

But they probably wont. They are too close to the current model to see anything different as anything other than nonsense, or a threat to be poo poo'd. There is a reason Amazon isn't called 'Waterstones' or 'Barnes and Noble', and eBay isn't called Buy and Sell. It takes an outsider to see the potential, and act on it. Someday, soon, someone will do this. The first few efforts will fail, for mundane reasons. These things happen. You can then dismiss the model, until one year, the applicant numbers start go top off, and then go down, little by little, until one fine day someone who is perhaps now only a middle ranking lecturer find the hard choice is the only one and turns out the lights.

At least you'll have some good real estate to sell.

Related Posts:
21st Century Assessment: The University of Farmville
The Qualifications Arms Race

Monday, September 13, 2010

University Rankings are Dinosaur Racing

I don't care about rankings, and neither should you. University Rankings are a bit like Miss World. Every year, people who purport in public not to take an interest in such nonsense surreptitiously tune in to how well they match up to the templates of Academic Beauty: Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge. Most find that, unlike Miss World, the well balanced rack of Nobel prize winning assets required to reach the top is not so easy to procure.

Academics, of course understand clearly the dangers of such simplistic rankings. But if giving a simple score measuring how closely a thing matches an unattainable ideal is folly, why do we do exactly that each year, giving 1st class honours to those whose minds, we find, most resemble our own. As you sow, so shall ye reap.

Some of the metrics that go into the rankings are worth considering. Just like Miss World might inspire one to maintain a healthy BMI, behind the University rankings there are some well considered metrics and KPI's that any University leader should be on top of.  But if University rankings were like Miss World, the ideal of beauty would be Eleanor of Aquitaine, or perhaps a muse of Rubens. The 'winners' are those who models have been successful in the past - often the quite distant past. It's a backward looking indicator, and those chasing purely rankings are chasing yesterdays dreams and ideal. It's like dinosaur racing.

Ignore the rankings. Think about what your institution needs to look like when you retire, or when you children or grandchildren attend. If you try to be like everyone else, you won't stand out from the pack in the global market. Find a different vision, chase a different dream. If some measure or KPI helps you do that, create your own ranking scheme, with metrics that are important for your own vision. Then strive to be the world number one at that. Take Coco Chanel's advice:
“In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.”

Monday, September 6, 2010

Are teachers necessary?

At Tertiary level, are teachers necessary?

It seems like a stupid question, but often stupid questions have interesting answers, if it is only that we understand the conditions that make it a stupid question, and whether those conditions might change. History has a way of undermining assumptions so that yesterdays stupid question is tomorrows front page surprise.

Teaching is facilitating or catalysing learning. If you teach at tertiary level, it's worth reflecting on how much of your time is spent actually doing that. Strike out the hours spent on college politics, bureaucracy and course management, research, lecturing and any marking that isn't properly formative with feedback and how much time is left for real teaching? Probably not so much.

Students have gotten used to that, and often teach each other. It's an open question how central that peer to peer learning really is, and how important it is to have a present guiding hand (see my MOOC post and comments thereon for some points on this), but it's fair to say a good slice of what you learn, you learn from trying to figure something out with the person next to you.

Advocates take that idea one step further. If teaching is the part of education that doesn't scale, and if tertiary education is becoming unaffordable, as it has for many, especially in the US, who needs it. The web has changed the game. Why endure third rate lecturers when you can find first rate ones online for free. Why pay extortionate rates for textbooks when the web is awash with free content. Why go to the cost and expense of physical attendance when you can find peer groups online in just about anything. If you really want to pay money for accreditation, there's any number of online for profit providers, like University of Pheonix, who will gladly take your money. Anya Kamenetz's book DIY:U  (see my review) competently summarises a lot of the thinking in the field, but the ideas go back a long way, at least as far as Illich's 1971 book, Deschooling Society.

It's generally been a fairly left wing idea, with Birkenstocks on it's feet and a chip on it's shoulder. But it's origin has no relevance to it's quality. Even if it is a terrible idea, it can still be important and influential (consider, for example, much of Economics as a wellspring of influential, profoundly bad ideas). It's also an idea that might find allies beyond it's left wing originators. To those who see teachers as 'Salary Costs, Fixed' finding a model for teacherless learning will surely be compelling. If it can be done, they'll find a way. Business models that cut to the bone, pile high and sell cheap tend to do very well, and bring things to people who couldn't afford them otherwise. You might hate Ryanair, but are you going to take the Bus instead? Somebody, quick tell Africa tertiary education is important, but they can't have it until they can afford tenured professorships.

Can it work? It works all the time for informal learning. Lack of a teacher is practically a definition of informal learning. The web has certainly made it possible to learn a lot more informally than before, while at the same time extending the reach and firepower of 'hyperteachers' like the Khan Academy into an informal space. We've slowly cottoned on to the idea that maybe a not so good Youtube right now for free is better than a really great class next year sometime.

But can informal, teacherless learning conquer all?

My current opinion is no (but I'm ideologically fickle - change my mind). I've had some excellent teacher catalysed learning experiences as a student, (generally from Postgraduate teaching assistants it must be said). Probably one of the most important elements of teaching is contriving situations (assessments, labs and so forth) where the student fumbles through and learns something on the way, often without any direct intervention at all. My most significant learning experience was one of those, 53 days of field work, entirely alone, but addressing a challenge first imagined by some long forgotten Professor. More on that in another post. That kind of teaching, the creation of learning experiences, can often scale very well indeed. If I wanted to make teachers redundant, or catalyse more learning with the ones I have, I'd look hard at that.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Can MOOCs make learning scale?

One of the big challenges of education is that it doesn't really scale well. At primary and secondary level, pupil teacher ratios are political hot potatoes with good reason. At big ratios students don't get individual attention. Bump classes up beyond any small number and the teacher can't keep a handle on who is or isn't up with the play, can't dip down and interact one to one with the students to work through a difficulty. They can't teach, basically. They fall back on lecturing and crowd control.

Lecturing now, is a different story. Lecturing scales really well. You can lecture a million almost as easily as 10. People (usually lecturers, as you would imagine) often mix up lecturing, as the signature pedagogy of the University, with teaching. Ideas like iTunesU and are great for disseminating lectures, but that isn't teaching and learning. It should be called iTunesLectures, not iTunesUniversity.

Technology has not, so far, been able to solve this problem. People in technology circles who have never taught anything, and evidently, haven't learned much either, often miss this point. The same webtech wheezes that have ripped up conventional media can't rip up Education. Education isn't media.

MOOC, or Massively Open Online Courses, are one fair effort at leveraging technology to make education scale. There's a good paper about the format and the issues involved online now "The Ideals and reality of participating in a MOOC" which gives a good overview of the model, and the issues encountered. It's worth a read. Basically in a MOOC the course is online, it's somewhat unstructured, the format uses pretty much any kind of web tool you can think of to facilitate a big networked conversation on the topic. Courses can have thousands of participants, some for credit, other not, some engaging, some not. The first instance ran in 2008, led by Stephen Downes and George Siemens, key thought leaders in the field.

Personally, I found the format hard to engage with and commit to, but that's probably more to do with me than it. I'm slow to pan the format, because it's early days, and only a handful of MOOCs have run, but the paper linked above seems to resonate with my concerns about it. I don't think it's going to solve the problem as it stands, but it's probably as close as we've gotten.

Learning comes, in part from a dialogue.  That dialogue is one to one, between someone who knows a lot about it, and someone who wants to know a lot about it. Lecturing (or reading) is only half of it, it's a monologue. It's often hard to ask questions in a lecture, impossible in a book.

A core part of the concept of a MOOC is peer to peer learning, through dialogue. But it's a dialogue between 2000 people who all know a little bit about the topic, with the course leaders piping in from time to time. It's as likely to confuse as enlighten. A big online course, with some lecture/readings, some student chats is a good effort at a fusion, but even the most hyperactive educator isn't going to be able to run around and engage with more than a few dozen students, or have any clear idea of who knows what.

I think perhaps the MOOC a stronger model for the humanities, where there is often no single clear answer (I squandered my college years in the hard sciences, where we pretend there is). It's certainly a better model than everyone sitting in a lecture hall taking notes. On balance, until something new comes out on the technology side, it's probably one of the best models around for mega scale cost effective learning. If you teach in University, get on one if you have a chance, and see how they work. If I hear of another coming up I'll let you know.