Friday, February 25, 2011

Plagiarism in the 21st century

There has been much hand wringing on the web lately over plagiarism. Today, Silicon Republic highlights the story of two young entrepreneurs who have brought the Write my Assignments business model to Ireland. Yesterday, we hear of a German Minister who may have plagiarised chunks of his PhD, and allegations of plagiarism levelled at Saif Gadaffhi's LSE Thesis ('The Role of Civil Society in the Democratisation of Global Governance Institutions" - I kid you not), and last year the Chronicle featured a tell all piece by a paper writer for hire ("The Shadow Scholar")

This business model is one of the web's many surprise gifts. It was always possible, but only the internet provides the speed to quickly locate someone who will, for the right price, put together your assignment for you. Tools like TurnItIn cannot beat the model when the work is original. They cannot know who wrote it.

Some say we should respond by teaching ethics, as if ethics is something that could be taught in a university lecture to 19 year olds. This is fantasy. The fact is now, that like it or not, services like this are always a click away, and when students have the right combination of stress and money, they will be used. A rich, lazy kid might use them all the time. A hardworking one, fighting for a grade and on the edge of breakdown, might use one once, in a dark and guilty hour. By the time my daughter goes to college, I expect there will be software capable of writing the papers at negligible cost - the sons of Watson. Hand wringing over ethics cannot close the door technology has opened. We must deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.

The underlying issue is a broken assessment design.  Handing out essays and paper assignments was always a fairly cheap way to do assessment. You can come up with an essay title and scratch out quick rubric on your way to the lecture, and your students will never know. Essays are a pain to mark, but it can be done in relative peace later, or outsourced to a hungry Postdoc. But assessment, I am told, comes from a latin root which means 'To sit beside'. To sit beside a student, and develop a good understanding of their knowledge, strengths and weaknesses is a difficult and time consuming thing, impossible in large classes. You can grade an essay without even knowing their name - indeed, for highest stakes, you are supposed to.

Perhaps students getting others to write their papers is ok? Managing outsourcing is an increasingly important skill. Knowing what to outsource and to whom isn't always easy, nor is judging the quality of the work unless you know the domain.

You can probably still get away with the assignment model for low stakes, formative assessment.If your students are dumb enough to pay someone else to write a low stakes formative assessment paper for them, really, a University Education isn't their calling. You'll catch them at exam time.

Ironically, in this electronic age, conventional proctored exam models remain immune to plagiarism, and have much to recommend them. Even if open book, or open web, they will still test the capacity of a student to assemble an original coherent written argument without assistance.

But there are plenty of alternative models. Making students do a presentation instead of an essay is more likely to trip up people without original work, especially if there is time for Q and A. You can require the other students to submit their assessments of the presentation and grade those too - a good opportunity to help students learn to examine the work of others critically.

Team projects are also a good one. The effect of external support is diluted, and likely to be easier to detect (no conspiracy is stable beyond one member) and larger, more complex projects are harder to outsource, especially if evidence of process (weekly team meeting reports, etc.) must be produced.

But at a deeper level, maybe the form of the output is the problem? Why should our credentialling system focus so heavily on measuring a students ability to write something? Should it not rest on their ability to do something, create something or even achieve something?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What is Watson? Strong AI and Higher Education

Watson, for those of you who have spend the last week under a rock, is an IBM computer which soundly trounced two long standing human champions in the US quiz show Jeopardy last week. The Watson story is a good hook for me to jump out of mundane Higher Education policy and get back to some bright splangly futurism!

Watson is one of the newest incarnations of a weak AI - an artificial intelligence with limited scope and capacity, below human levels. These are increasingly abundant things. They beat us at chess, decide on our creditworthiness, keep our cars going, or even drive them for us, trade on stock markets and so on. A great many human jobs only needed 'Weak AI' levels of function anyway, and they have simply vanished, or were never created. Our world economy runs on a vast network of invisible switchboard operators, filing clerks and so on, invisible in the machines. There would be billions of them, but for the machines.

Strong AI - Artificial intelligence on a human equivalent level is a different matter. Like Moon holidays and Aircars, Science Fiction promised it to us a half a century ago, and it never came. Moon holidays and Aircars were disbarred by economics and physics - they could be made to work, but never at a useful price. But the same forces, economics and physics, that stole these dreams from us brought Moore's Law. This rule of thumb predicts the doubling of the available processing power, at a given price, every 18 months. That makes strong AI inevitable. You can argue when, but not if.

Strong AI will mean the end of Universities as we know them, but perhaps also their rebirth as we dreamed them. To understand why, we need to unpack the economics of first decade or two of a world with strong AI.

One fine day, in our lifetimes, IBM, or HP, or some tech giant unborn, will unveil a strong AI. It will be able to pass a Turing test, and will do so for our entertainment on Oprah, The Late Late show, or wherever. It will hold it's own at Go, write a technically competent Sonnet and then quickly fade from the news cycle. Kurzweil predicts a date of around 2029, others later (there is a famous bet on it). It's development will have cost it's company around US$100 million in today's money, that being about as big a budget as a high risk project can justify and sustain. Most of that cost will have been payroll, the hardware will only be a fraction of that, perhaps US$10m (the Watson hardware will cost you about US$3m).

Let's assume that strong AI is about equivalent to a new graduate. It will have relative strengths and weaknesses compared to us 'meatbags' of course. It can read the manual quickly, but might not be so good at charming potential clients. But it probably won't sleep, take holidays, lunchbreaks, or gossip by the water cooler either, so in terms of raw hours it should be about 10 times as effective as a human. If we take a graduate salary of say, $30,000, and an initial cost for a strong AI hardware at US$10m, it's not economic. But Moores law will halve the cost of that power every 18 months. So in a decade or so, a strong AI is going to be cost competitive with a graduate hire, with a hardware cost of around US$300,000, equivalent to the first year wages of ten graduate hires that do the same work.

There many, many assumptions here. I haven't factored in software licensing (Open Source Strong AI anyone?), recruitment and training costs. I've not considered overheads for the humans or AI's, or AI downtime (will AI's need to spend 8 hours powered off a day sorting out our memories as we do?).  Nor have I considered out year salaries beyond year 1. It's all order of magnitude guesses, but with exponential growth in available power, an order of magnitude error makes only 5 years difference. I'm dancing past an enormous debate on whether Moore's Law will hold or not, and taking the probable outcome it that it will.  Early in the second decade after you see a strong AI interviewed on the telly, it will be a cheaper alternative to hiring human graduates.

Now, a human graduate takes 4 years to train (on average, assuming a short MSc after a 3 year degree), and another year before that to get college entry exams sorted out. That only leaves five years after graduation to earn back the cost of your University education, if a strong AI exists before you start. Even allowing a few years slack to uptake of AI's, unless you are already in college when you see that strong AI launched on the news, don't bother going. If you planned to do so to help you get a job, it's too late. Even if you get a job,  you won't make your degree investment back in time before you are replaced. At best you'll spend a couple of years as a human buddy to an AI, until the HR AI figures out that your presence is no longer reducing the error rate, and you are gone. They'll hire a human to fire you. There's a sensitivity subroutine. They're nice like that.

You can still go to college, but go to have a good time. Study Fine Art, or Ancient Persian. Whatever interests and stimulates you. Do Social Work, or Teaching - people centred jobs will be the last to go. Chase your dreams. Learn to Paint, or dance. Meet people. Make friends. Study comparative literature, and sociology. Forget about Business, or IT, or Law, or any of the bankable professions of the olden days. You can't compete.

Our Universities long and often stormy relationship with practicality will be at an end. No longer will they need to bow before Mammon, and produce MBA's and degrees in Marketing or computational Finance. They will return to our dream of them, playgrounds of the mind, where we pursue knowledge for the joy of it, for it's own sake, and not for profit.

(The end of our day to day involvement in economic life may, of course, present other difficulties, which remain out of scope for this blog).

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Tertiary21 Manifesto for Higher Education

If I was a political party, what would my higher education manifesto be? Have spent the last two posts poking at the Hunt Report and the Higher Education Policies of the political parties contesting the upcoming general election, isn't it only fair that I nail my colours to the mast and say what I would do to (for, even) Higher Education when I'm inevitably appointed by mass acclamation as planetary despot-for-life.

I've spent almost four hours working out the detail of my proposals (by my estimate, double the time spent by most of the main parties) I'm entirely open to suggestions for improvements or for odd incentives my framework will create. In a short posting I need to keep it high level - I recognise that every sentence of this probably needs many pages of operational policy to flesh out the details and smooth out the fish hooks.

Firstly, all higher education institutions need to be entirely autonomous, as non profit entities. I don't care what they teach, who they hire, what they charge, whether they grant tenure or not. Off you go. Enjoy yourselves.

Of course there is a catch.

Funding will be a state supported student loan model, largely following the Browne Framework. I'd love to simply make it free for all, but I haven't got the money. What I will try to do is make it a cheaper system, through other reforms, turning the screws to drive adoption of new, open learning paradigms. Full economic fees for an Arts Degree are €10,000, which is ridiculous. More on tackling that later.

A state run loans system does give me a bunch of handy levers. I can set some courses at zero (or inflation only) interest if we a short on graduates, or even write down loan balances for people who go on to do necessary, but underpaid jobs like teachers and nurses (that is, if actually paying them decently in the first place remains untenable). Loans will be drawn down module by module, and should be straightforward to access, not means tested.  Income levels for repayments need to be set so that you are only repaying the debt your education actually helped you earn more than a comparison group that didn't borrow or study.

There are lots of potential fish hooks to be watched for. We'll need some provision in the system to ensure people don't abuse it by failing module after module. Loan levels for some modules will need to be capped if the employment outcomes aren't panning out. There will be an incentive in the system to create expensive, cool sounding modules ('Outdoor Adventure Instructors' say) that will draw students, but not, once the job market is saturated, actually help them all that much professionally. We'll need a way of handling dropouts and partial completions.

Funding for living costs is a genuinely thorny issue. We need to support poor (sorry, economically disadvantaged) people who actually get as far as third level and want to study full time. At the same time, we want to discourage people from becoming eternal full time students, living on loans they will never repay.  While cheap loans for tuition go to what is, for now, a small controllable group of Higher Education Institutions which were already state funded, cheap loans for living expenses get spent and go straight into the economy - it's potentially very expensive, and much more macroeconomically active. There's no easy one paragraph answer to this issue. It's going to take some very delicate policy work to find a good solution. We can figure it out, but not over a weekend, and not in a mid length blog post.

I can also set conditions which must be met for a given module to be eligible for loans. You're not going to like them one bit.

To be eligible for loan funding, all of a modules material - course outlines, lecture content, slides, handouts, booklists, marking rubrics, sample papers, marking rubrics, teaching plans, who will teach it (and their qualifications for doing do) - must be open access, available online under a creative commons licence, ideally free for non commercial reuse (ie the other non profit HEIs can nick it). Course will change from run to run, so planned future variances must go up there too.

If you are not familiar with the ideas of open education, there are a couple of recent pieces in the Irish Times and the Times Higher Ed, or you could read DIY U, or take a look at people like David Wiley , a leading US advocate.

Here are a few rationales for Open Education at Third level in Ireland:

  • Taxpayers have paid for the material, and are entitled to see it. Virtually every piece of higher education teaching content in the state was developed with taxpayers money. You are entitled to access it. Public money should not be used to create private assets.
  • People not attending the course can benefit from open education materials. You might not be able to pay to sit the module, but you might still learn a bit by reviewing at the material online. The feedstock of a knowledge economy is knowledge, and the cheaper and more abundant it is to access, the better for everyone.
  • It shifts the value proposition of a module away from a content driven, transmission model, and on to genuine teaching and assessment. You can't really charge a four figure sum for a lecture based module where the lecturer interaction is limited to a Postgrad marking an essay or two. Either the costs must drop, or the institution must deliver real worthwhile teacher interaction and assessment, or provide access to specific equipment or facilities that justifies the cost.
  • By placing such a mass of courses online, it establishes Ireland as a central node on the global landscape of higher education. Freely available higher education online will speak with an Irish accent. If you liked the TCD course on Genetics online, why not come on over and do the degree in it here? If you like those Tyndall Institute nanotechnology modules, maybe you should take to them about doing some R&D for you company.
  • The Open access requirement will discourage for profit providers. They will be less willing to enter the market if they have to give away the goods. I'm uneasy about government backed loans supporting for profit higher education institutions,  as it hasn't worked out well in the US or elsewhere. This will give them some pause.

Making the content available for free will reduce the inventive for new module development, so we may need to put a funding mechanism in place to provide seed capital for creating new material. I'm conscious also that dumping a weak module online simply creates a weak online module, and there is a long road from there to full, true open education, but the first step on the road is as important as the last. The material can be improved upon over time, and having it in the public domain will create a strong incentive to do so. If it isn't good enough to show in public, how can it be good enough to teach in private? If we believe higher education is a public good, then it must be public. But it must also be good

A fair proportion of the material put online will, of course, be rubbish. But at least we can all see that now. An open rating and reviewing system, both for the module material, and the lecturers and course delivery, will fairly rapidly sort the wheat from the chaff. Outstanding material and teachers, of which we have many, will rise to the top.
For qualities sake, I would also add a requirement that the module materials get a peer review every few years, which will be published too in the same place online. This means potential students can balance their own opinion of the materials, with scholarly and module graduate perspectives before making their decision to use that module. The peer review can also ensure the modules dependencies (prerequisite or follow modules) are appropriate. Weak modules will wither in the sunlight, and good ones will blossom.
With this model, I can ensure reasonable course quality with relatively little bureaucracy, and empower people to make up their own minds on whether a module is worth doing or not.

We will, alas, need some bureaucratic oversight, targeting audits on modules that are unusually expensive, or have unusually high (or low) completion rates or uptakes, or are getting strange reviews.

Have you noticed there is nothing in this framework so far to stop an individual, or any organisation, designing a course, having it peer reviewed and accredited, putting it ip, running it for free for a cycle to get open reviews, and being eligible for state loan support? Well done. Keep it to yourself.

Deep Modularisation
Underpinning the points of Openness and Quality is an ideal of Deep Modularisation - the Bologna Process taken to it's logical extreme. The Module is now the critical unit, not the degree. Education, and credentialling, can be acquired in module by module chunks, as needed, from any institution, not just in degree sized chunks at the start of a career, when you don't know what you'll need to know. It makes lifelong, distance and part time education the logical central paradigm, and the idea of full time degrees a less logical one. These kinds of changes take a generation to work their way into the mindset, but if we change the framework in which we imagine higher education, that mindset change will come in time.

Deep modulatisation also opens the potential for a module to be more than simply a classroom led learning event. Many of the best learning experiences for students are outside classrooms (In my degree, I learned the most useful things on Fieldwork) and we can open that out further, recognising prior learning and other, non classroom structured learning experiences within the module framework. Could we, for example, use a loan funded module to support an international relations student to work for an NGO like Concern for a bit? I'd certainly like to hear a case made for it. Let's get creative - if it's good, real learning, I'll back it.

Universities will complain to me that this will shift people from accessing full degrees into accessing learning piecemeal. I will understand this is 'people will no longer buy our big expensive things and want smaller, cheaper things instead' which is exactly what I have in mind. I've been rattling on about how the quantum of learning is changing to smaller, more agile units. Deep modularisation recognises this reality.

Modules, of course, can still be stacked up into degrees, just like now, and modules will have prerequisite modules. No point in taking Quantum Mechanics 201 unless you have nailed a bunch of mathematics modules first. But tracing the web of modules down, there is a logical first module, for a 'prime learner, unlearned' which would have no formal prerequisites, and, as an entry level module, it should be possible to complete entirely by distance, just turning up in person for an exam (remote proctoring is, and will remain, technically dicey). So, in time, by picking off the bottom rung prerequisites online first, you can access higher education without bothering with the Leaving Certificate rat race, broadly seen as destructive of minds and (perhaps) lives, at all.

This should be straightforward. We need three main bits:
A body to administer the student loan and funding systems, it's all straightforward  stuff. In New Zealand, the Social Welfare system looked after that, it's just a bookeeping and payments/repayments management exercise. A couple of years ago, I'd just have tendered this job out to a bank or two to manage. Now, maybe not, but I'm not paying for a whole new agency from scratch for it, not with your taxes.
We'll need a good policy shop to get all over labour markets and outcomes and understand which modules we need to set at zero interest or incentivised in some way, and which we don't need to worry so much about where that sits in government doesn't matter (and, indeed, we can encourage independant research on the matter) once it's good.
Then we need a quality management agency. Their role is to make sure the modules are good, and deliver the learning outcomes they are supposed to, and manage module development grants and so on. They'll also need a rather bloody minded team of cost assessors, who can audit modules and make sure the list price bears some reasonable relation to the cost of delivering them.

Philanthropy and Endowments
I'd like to give Higher Education institution's a little bit of autonomy. After all, if they rely almost completely on loan funding, they haven't really got any independence, even though it is largely students who will control who gets the money. Independence is economic or illusory. Since their administrators will spend most of the next 15 years crying over these reforms we should throw them a bone.
We'll need to make sure that the tax incentives are strong for donations to long term institutional endowments, rather than buildings or isolated, piecemeal scholarships. I'd love to set up our existing Higher Education Institution's with a nest egg, like the US Land Grant system, but I don't have any land. Perhaps there might be something else, a little slot of RF spectrum perhaps, that we could transfer to them on a 100 year lease to give them the potential for revenue. It might be something that seems valueless to us today, as a publicly held good, but having title to it would create an incentive for them to find a valuable use for it. I'm open to ideas. This is a long term strategy, all the more reason to start right away.

That, in a nutshell, is it. An open, actively managed education system supported by government backed student loans. There are, of course, heaps of operational policy issues to address is detail, and whole areas like research and innovation policy, and international education, that I have left off for brevity, as as they sit outside a core educational scope, but I'll happily work out those details for you if needed.

I advocate the system for two reasons:

Firstly, most obviously, I believe it's substantially better than current arrangements. Some of the changes are fundamental, but, like many systems, the state of higher education is strongly dependant on it's history, and it has evolved itself into a dead end, with too much junk DNA from it's 1000 year history. Only an aggressive reform can set it free, and get it moving onwards and updards again. There is much good in our higher education institutions, and we can help set that good free.

Secondly, I think these changes are going to happen anyway. Global higher education systems will look like what I've described by about 2030. Ireland can lead the change, get in ahead, and put our higher education at the head of the global pack, or we can follow, and fall further behind. Leadership carries risks, and demands courage and audacity, but will bring great rewards for our children, and ourselves.

What do you think? 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Election 2011: Reviewing the Party Higher Education Policies

This is the second long post in a series of three on Irish Higher Education Policy and the forthcoming election.

Ireland faces a General Election on February 25th. Higher Education policy isn't going to be a decisive issue in this election, but since it's our beat, I'm going to take a posting to briefly review the main parties policies on the topic and give my take on whether or not they make any kind of sense at all, in terms of helping Irish Higher Education meet it's future in some coherent way. Other bloggers will no doubt weigh in on the topic shortly ( Von Prondzynski has already begun his series on it) but the more the merrier. I'm going to work off whatever formal policy documents are on their website, rather than trying to slog through recent media stuff. If I have missed anything significant, do please let me know, and I'll happily amend.

Fine Gael:
Their position is likely to be government policy in two weeks, so their policies merit the closest scrutiny. They have a 32 page paper ("The Third Way") from March 2009, and a 20 pager on International Education, so they've at least thought about the issues in some depth.

They note upfront that "The challenges facing the third level sector include, but are not only about funding" which is a smart start, since so much of the thinking has been all about the money. That said, when you get into details, there isn't all that much daylight between them and the Hunt Report, except with regards to the money. They talk of moving the sector away from sole reliance on state support, which is funny, because when they got were in government last time they got rid of fees and created that reliance.

Their funding reform proposals centre on a graduate tax. The pros and cons of this have been talked over heavily online since Vince Cable floated it as an option in the UK last summer, so I'll not reprise them. It's not the worst model on the table, but I don't think it will work. Graduates already pay more tax on higher earnings, and if their earnings aren't higher, why should they pay for having been sold a pup. A Graduate tax will further encourage our best graduates to go overseas. I know we could, in theory, hit them for taxes while abroad, but it's quite impractical to do so in reality. Of course, depending on the details of the implementation, the functional differences between a graduate tax and the loan funded model can become merely semantic.

FG also mention philanthropy as a funding source. While noting that it's not a great time for philanthropy, they argue that tax barriers to it need to be sorted out, and that higher education institutions should be encouraged to make best use of philanthropic donations. That seems reasonable, and encouraging the development of endowments along the US model is a smart strategy, for the very long haul. Pity we don't have any land to grant as a basis for an endowment, as was done in the US. I wonder if we have any decent RF spectrum we could give them instead, or have we auctioned it all to cronies?

In a section on 'Meeting National Goals' the speak of the need to make sure new courses map to real employment and labour market opportunities - talk sure to raise squawks from the Arts Faculties of the Nation. They suggest that before any new course is launched, an industry and labour market survey should be carried out. Personally, I like this idea, but I know many academics feel that 'market research' is a dirty, commercial activity, and will cripple any idea that isn't very practical sounding.

Otherwise, there isn't much that is very different from the Hunt Report. As in Hunt, sectoral reforms are proposed to for tidying up the governing bureaucracies. FG propose sector governance fall to a new  Technology, Skills, Innovation and Higher Education Department, which sounds like a reasonable grouping, moving Higher Education out of the main Education department, where it is a poor relation. They did something similar in New Zealand when I lived there, forming the Tertiary Education Commission (I worked there on a short contract in it's early days). out of bits of the NZ Ministry of Education and a few other agencies. It seemed to work out ok.

As in Hunt, there is much talk of Accountability. FG talk about a fairly major Audit exercise, both on the financial side from the Comptroller and Auditor General, and on the quality side. It sounds pretty full on, but I take the view that if there is nothing to hide, there is nothing to fear. If nothing else a nice clean audit might silence the ongoing mutterings in the public domain about academics, workload and waste.

There is some other decent stuff there - they actually mention web based instruction, for a whole paragraph, as a means to increase contact hours. The propose an overarching umbrella University for all the Institutes of Technology, an idea I like better than assembling two or three 'Technological Universities'. I think an Irish National Institute of Technology could approach an internationally meaningful critical mass we are too shy of here. Equality of access and funding for part time students also gets a mention, as does improving Access for the disadvantaged, but that's motherhood and apple pie - who could disagree with it.

The document on international education is also thorough and competent. It merits a review of it's own, but we'll pass on it just now since it's a bit of a side issue, since all parties who have anything to say on it seem to align on "Copy New Zealand"

Overall, FG have turned out solid effort, showing good attention and consideration to the material, although lacking in imagination. A 2.1 Grade from me.

Likely to be the junior partner in Government, so their Higher Educational Policy should be important. Now, where is it? A search on 'University' in their policy set turns up one document (on biofuels). There's a dozen bullet points down on Page 14 of their innovation strategy, but it's all about international education. There's a Labour Youth Budget proposal document (Is that official party policy?). There's some stuff on Ruari Quinns Blog about Higher Education, where he ironically enough says the Hunt report 'lacks detail' and 'is vague'. 

Finally, I find a page in their main manifesto.

They say they are opposed to the formal reintroduction of fees, but the document is silent on how to resolve the sectors deepening financial problems [Update: They say it is impossible to abolish the student charge. So they are opposed to fees, but say it is impossible to get rid of them. Refreshingly honest of them]. There is a bit of talk about Audits, a word on centralising the administration of grants (sensible, FG says this too) and, strangely, no mention of Accountability, which is the policy buzzword of the year for higher education.

Interestingly, Labour have a whole policy piece on a scholarship plan for students from the BRIC countries - a sort proto Irish Rhodes Scholarship to help develop links with them. It's a nice idea, but they've written more on this one idea than everything else I can find on higher education put together.

Overall, this is a terrible effort from Ireland's third largest political party.


Fianna Fail 
FF policy will probably shift considerably over the next few years, as in opposition Michael Martin freshens up the lineup and positions. There's not much to go on in the main manifesto, in which the word University appears precisely zero times. There's promise of a Higher Education Labour Market Fund  - promising €20m to help the unemployed access higher education, and they say they are committed to funding 156,000 higher education places overall - no talk of how, or how well.
Based on lack of material, I'll have to assume that the Hunt report is their position moving forwards. I reviewed that in detail in the last post, and won't repeat myself. I gave it a 2.1 grade as competent but unimaginative. The funding model mooted is a loan based approach. By proxy that gives Fianna Fail a 2.1 Grade, although with the caveat that Hunt isn't formally their policy, and since they sat on it for six months before releasing it, it might not align well with their thinking. So, a 2.1, but resubmit an original work before election 2015.

The Green Party
Again, as with Labour, no higher education policy document. There's a general 50 step plan for education overall, which is up to step 24 ("Provision of health and nutrition classes for all parents of children starting primary school"). Down at step 13 they talk of fully implementing the McIver report on Further Education (from 2005, not available online). Funding wise they talk about a loan scheme to help full time students with living expenses, and when in government they made much of opposing the reintroduction of third level fees. So no clear ideas on how to fund the sector then, although their first point (of the planned 50) is to fund the education sector adequately, somehow. They also have the points on streamlining students supports and grants and making things easier for part time students, but there isn't anything notably different there to FG.

As with Labour, I'll have to fail it, for lack of substance.

Sinn Fein:
I'll quote their policy in full:
"Education and training to be an entitlement for all made possible by adequate grant-aid and support mechanisms,and the provision of focused access programmes for schools that currently have a low take up of third level places."

38 Words.

[Update and correction: Buried in the main manifesto another few dozen words, committing them to free education at all levels, as well as reform of the grants system. It's still too little to scrape a pass from me. I hear reports of an education policy being launched - I will update this post if it contains anything of note.]

So, I'll have to give it to Fine Gael for a competent, if unimaginativeness effort. FF well second place, but only on a technicality - must resubmit an original work. Greens, Labour and Sinn Fein: Fail. Overall, a deeply disappointing body of policy work from our political parties.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Thoughts on The Hunt Report: The National Strategy for Higher Education

This is the first of three planned posts concerned with the specifics of Irish Higher Education Policy. Due apologies to my overseas reader.

'Doing nothing is not an option' says the preface of the report. You got that right, at least.

The recently released and widely discussed National Strategy for Higher Education, known in Ireland as the Hunt report, addresses the future of Irish Higher Education for the period to 2030, which places it top dead centre in scope for this blog. Because of a busy January, I believe I'm the last blogger or columnist in the country to read and comment on it, so here I go.

Overall, there is some sensible stuff in there, but the report misses a couple of very fundamental things, largely through excessively conventional thinking. You can't plan to 2030 with conventional thinking. I'd give it a 2.1 grade overall, but barely. If we could deliver everything in this report, we would be a long way down the track, but it should have been much better.

The report cites 5 high level objectives (Page 29) which are alright as far as they go. Ensuring equity of access is one key issue which isn't emphased enough at this level, but overall, the high level objectives are, as is usual with such documents, the subset of things no one could really disagree with. The recommendations are somewhat meatier, and are summarised, section by section on page 17 of the report pdf. I'll spin through them section by section.

Teaching and Learning
Eight solid sensible recommendations here, nothing objectionable, all motherhood and apple pie. There's an emphasis on putting teaching and learning at a parity of esteem with research (Recommendation 3) which is long overdue, and down in Recommendation 8 an aspiration that teaching staff should actually be qualified and able to teach. Sensible things are said about getting the quality assurance systems up to speed, ensuring the system is flexible and open to accommodate part timers, people switching around, crediting prior learning. There is a very strong recognition of the need to open up higher education into an ongoing, lifelong process, fitting around peoples work and lives, rather than as a finite and bounded undergraduate experience. I've written about that before. The report is strong on this, and it needed to be. This section seems to implicitly recognising the need to atomise the system and rebuild around a smaller quantum of learning, which I'm all in favour of. Unfortunately, it's implicit, and perhaps I'm reading too much into that.

What's missing? While they say the system needs to be characterised by flexibility and innovation,but there's no specificity. There's nothing explicit here at recommendations level about open access or open educational resources. Indeed down on page 52, the report cites that 'large group teaching will remain the bedrock of instruction in higher education'. Lecture halls in 2030? Really?While it goes on to concede that podcasting and online discussion will supplement that (to 2030? Could we be a bit more ambitious here?) the focus in the language and thinking is fairly instructor centric, not learner centric.

Four major recommendations here, all seem very sensible, but the most important, and perhaps least probable in the current economy, is actually funding up research to 3% of GDP. I also like the recommendation about improving between the public sector, private sector and Universities. Certainly our Academics would, I believe, significantly benefit from some off campus work experience.

Engagement with Wider Society.
The reports recommends this should occur. Engagement with wider society isn't really something Universities in Ireland do a whole lot of. Society sends a steady flow of first years and money and that's pretty much all the engagement there is. There is the occasional 'Town and Gown' bunfight, which are generally seen as an opportunity to panhandle graduates and grandees.

While the overall idea of increasing higher education's engagement with the wider society is fine and good, this is a bit of a 2.2 grade section. The underling text is very soft on tangibles. One obvious pathway to engagement, via open educational resources on a large scale, is missed out completely. The report reads like they haven't heard of it, which is alarming to me.

Internationalising Higher Education
Again, a very soft section. Basically, the report notes it is happening in a big way, and Irish institutions need to get with the programme. The thrust of the report is of this as an opportunity for Irish Universities to attract overseas students, collaborate and so on. As ever here, it misses the big point. International Universities will, to 2030, increasingly attract the cream of the crop from Ireland, and international players will enter the irish market directly. This is a clear and present danger to the existing institutions in Ireland. There is a real danger of them being sidelined as bigger, global players take the smart and monied students out of the Irish system. Scraping a pass on this section, I'm afraid, for failing to warn us of danger.

System Governance
Again, to my eyes, nothing to see here. It's all fairly straightforward and sensible administrative changes. Some commentators have argued that the tighter management of Universities proposed here is inappropriate. That may be so, but so long as they are solely funded by the state, Universities have no real freedom anyway. Freedom is economic, or illusory. So long as the state is the sole funder, close management is reasonable. The smart thing, would be not to have the state as the sole funder.

Developing a coherant Framework for higher education in Ireland
This is one of the sections that people got slightly excited about. It makes a strong push for amalgamation and consolidation in the sector, especially among the Institutes of Technology. Ireland has too many small tertiary institutions. While I don't think scale is everything (not many students at CalTech or Insead) individual disciplines do need to have a critical mass of staff and students to use equipment effectively, to support enough staff to maintain full expertise and so on. Irish Higher education has in recent years had a centrifugal tendency, where every key marginal constituency felt that it's own University was warranted. This report, and the burst of interest it has triggered in mergers in the sector is for the good. Also good is the commitment to create no new Universities (although the 'Technical Universities' term is ambiguous). The magic title ' University' has too long been a fetish. Remember some of the finest Tertiary institution's in the world are not formal Universities: America's Institutes of Technology and France's Grand Ecoles are the crown jewels of their countries higher education sectors. It is no shame to be an Institute of Technology. I've written on this in more depth last week (On Scale) so I'll not repeat myself further.

Sustainable and equitable funding model
The first recommendation (number 22) talks about reviewing current academic contracts and says 'accountability' a lot. It's contributed much to a local brouhaha about academic freedom and tenure. I'm inclined to come down in favour of accountability and clarity. If academics don't present themselves well to the taxpayers who support them, they can expect this kind of prodding and poking. Those with nothing to hide, have nothing to fear?

Recommendation 24 is perhaps the most important. It proposes a shift to the student loan driven model, as has become the standard in the english speaking world. This is unsurprising, and probably necessary, although it presents well known problems, all of which we will have to rediscover here. With increasing numbers and costs, deferring the costs to future taxpayers and earners if the obvious, if lazy choice.I've commented previously on the UK's Browne Report funding model, and I shan't repeat myself, since we'll wind up with something similar.

Overall, this section faces the reality that you can't simply expect to increase enrollments and improve quality in the same system without lots more money, but it misses completely the idea that the solution isn't necessarily finding more money elsewhere, instead of changing the paradigm. Again, I'll give it a 2.1. It's workmanlike, unimaginative stuff.

Of course, with reports like this, the answer you get depends on who you ask. With that in mind, the composition of the panel is interesting. I don't know any of them in detail, there's a heavy weighting towards Higher Education industry insiders - current university presidents and so forth. These guys will have a strong background and investment in the conventional higher education industry. It's would be a bit like the Pentagon asking McDonnell Douglas and Boing to sit on a think tank about it's future aircraft needs: Big expensive ones. I think a 'self licking lollipop' is the technical term.

There were a couple of IT industry people on the panel too, and while I'm sure they're sharp as tacks, I can't imagine they had much time to think deeply on the issue. Generally, if you want a conventional answer, ask conventional people. The report would look very different if they had put a Stephen Downes,  Donald Clark or Steve Wheeler on the panel to present some fresh insight.

Overall, I feel the panel limited  the reports thinking. For example, there's a bounding assumptions that the skills we need can only be delivered via conventional higher education. For contrast, consider how much of Isreal's high tech entrepreneurs learned the soft skills critical for entrepreneurship in the IDF, and how many other great success stories of our time didn't get a Higher Education at all. Higher Education isn't the only show in town for shaping can do, innovative, entrepreneurial people. Unless you ask a panel of University Presidents, of course.

There are other annoyances. The report seems to take technology as a static non factor, something students are to be educated in, but not with. Learning technology revolution? No, apparently not this side of 2030, according to these guys. It's still your grandfather's University. Similarly, no talk of reorganising our crazy system of entry to Higher Education, although to be fair, it was probably (but incorrectly) set out of scope.

My final vote - it's a great effort, full of good strategy to see Ireland through the 1970's and 1980's and, once fully implemented it will leave the sector well placed to take advantage of the 21st century.

I know everyone wonders why they sat on the report for half a year - but actually, they didn't. Closer to 35 years, judging by the content. Good effort fellas. Better luck in the repeats, eh?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

On Scale: Rightsizing Universities

What is the right size for a University? Why are they the size they are? What drives them to grow or shrink?

The question comes to mind from the recommendation in the recently released Irish National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 (known on this isle as 'The Hunt Report'). The report recommends clustering, collaboration, consolidation and amalgamation of existing institutions to produce institutions of 'appropriate scale', and has accelerated a wave of merger talks between higher education institution's in Ireland.

My immediate reaction to this was very positive. Bigger is better, isn't it? Ireland, like many places, has had tendency for higher education institutions to spawn in every key marginal constituency. Some of our institutes of technology are tiny, and many of our Universities have departments with teaching staff in low single digits.

There are heaps reasons why bigger is better. Physical equipment, labs and so on, can be more fully utilised as students traipse through them in shifts, instead of expensive equipment sitting idle most days. More staff in a department, means you can afford to have real experts in each area, instead of people filling in to teach courses on topic where they might lack deep knowledge or real world experience. More postgraduates means more ambitious research projects can be undertaken. Few advances in the sciences are made by lone geniuses anymore, and even in the humanities, the intellectual spark between peers and rivals over morning coffee sharpens thinking and insight.

More cynically, a bigger institution has a bigger budget, which give more status to it's leaders. Double the student body and a lone administrator may appoint a minion or two, and become a manager. A Head of Department, her budget doubled, can afford an obsequious postdoc to do some of that tedious teaching stuff, freeing her to attend Important Meetings.

For students, a modern university is expected to have chess clubs, track teams, debating societies and so forth to provide students with a full breadth of potential experiences. The study body should be diverse, so that students can meet all manner of people and form the social networks they will draw on through their careers - people they will get drunk with, marry, and work for. You can't have those things with 100 students.

All that said, the size of the quantum of learning is, I think, the key, usually overlooked, driver. A Multi year degree is a big product, constructed of thousands of hours of teaching in a variety of disciplines. A fully gunned up University is expected to provide this product across a range if fields, from Classics to Nanotechnology. Think of them like a car manufacturer, or, better yet, an industrial combine like Siemens or Samsung. These combines make complex things, like Trains and Nuclear Power Stations, and they make a large variety of them, often with relatively few overlapping components. They have to be big to do that.

But as I've written before, the quantum of learning is changing. As we move into a modular world, with people picking up the learning they need piecemeal, as they go along, big institutions are having to learn to take their Trains and Nuclear Power stations apart to teach people who don't have time to spend four years hanging around campus, or who don't need a complete degree, at least not yet. They would be better to cherrypick modules, or at most certificate sized qualifications, from different places as their careers evolve. The size of the product is smaller, and perhaps so too should the institution delivering it.

Much of the 'economy of scale' argument, when examined in this light, falls down. The economies of scale are not at Institution level, but at departmental or, at most, school or faculty level. Whether we need two or twenty Universities in Ireland is perhaps beside the point - we only need one School of Classics.Why, for example, does Ireland need multiple French Departments. Could we not simply have one Institute of French, and attend there if our personal learning plan dictates a need for it, and, indeed, if physical presence is required (and, why indeed, should we not simply go to France and get it all from the horses mouth, but that's an argument for another day).

Many of the best respected higher education institution's in the world are specialists. Think of CalTech and MIT, Insead and the LSE. They forego a broad platform and large student numbers but still harvest economies of scale by being essentially an independent Uber Faculty of Science, Business or whatever. Many of these, granted, are postgraduate only institutions, and require a more general undergraduate degree for entry.

For another of you in Ireland may have enjoyed a visit to Corks Old English Market. It's an indoor market, full of specialist stalls of all kinds, which provide, at a competitive price, a range of foodstuffs of higher quality and variety than Tesco fare. You have to poke around a bit, and they don't deliver or take online orders, to be sure, but it's an overall richer, fuller experience. The traders benefit from a shared indoor space and a network effect from physical proximity, but operate as entirely independent businesses.

What I'm getting at here is that I think the issue of scale in Higher education institutions will be much less important in the 21st century than 20th century thinking might lead one to believe. I think the future is for a more network centric, less hierarchical institutions, where an education is assembled from a variety of ingredients, from a spectrum of smaller, more specialised providers and put together as needed, rather than coming in one large ready made packing from a conglomerate style University. These free standing entities will operate to a common standard of modularisation and accreditation, much as traders in a Farmers Market all use standard currencies, weights and measures. They will leverage network effects where it makes sense to do so, but they will stand alone, as specialists with deep expertise in their niche, not elements of a general, catch all college, trying to be all things to all people, a supermarket University in a boutique age.