“Because we’ve always done it that way…”

November 10, 2014 at 2:37 pm | Posted in waffle | 1 Comment
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The ILIaD was launched on 3 November with a conference on the theme of ‘revolutionising education’. All members of ILIaD were encouraged to submit proposals, and I decided to tackle two entrenched features of Higher Education which I think are ideal targets for revolution. The first is the shocking under-utilisation of expensive buildings and facilities that seems to reflect a model of education 150 years old; why are they only used Monday-Friday, 9am-6pm for 30 weeks of the year? I accept that is a simplified view and that research facilities and study spaces such as the Library are used much more intensively, but it is still broadly true. The second is the straight-jacket of the hourly timetable for administrative convenience rather than educational need. We get lectures that are 50 minutes long (minus the time needed to set up and settle down) which is too long for anyone’s attention span if it is ‘just a lecture’ and too short if it is to be properly interactive. And don’t even get me started about three-hour lectures without a break and the wasted time moving between lectures…

When I found that my proposal had been accepted, but was to be a 7-minute Petcha-Kucha-style slot immediately after lunch, I realised that radical action was needed. It needed to be lively enough to wake people up, but wasn’t going to have any time to really unpack or discuss the issues. Inspiration arrived in the form of Hieroglyph, a bold project by Arizona State University and an anthology of ‘science-fiction’ stories that extrapolate current technologies to offer a positive vision of the future, in contrast to the more usual dystopias.

I framed the issues using a story; a history lesson from the future, delivered online by LearnU, one of the leading commercial universities in 2050. The lesson comes from a unit on ‘A century of educational revolution in the UK 1945-2045’ and compares current (early 21st century) university practice (utilisation and timetables) with the model offered by LearnU. Their ‘learning centres’ are located in rented retail units in shopping malls that are open from 7am-midnight, seven days a week, 51 weeks a year., and include café franchises so that students can socialise easily. The educational promise is ‘learn while you earn’, an explicit recognition of the fact that most students will need to have a job to survive while they study.

Their model is an easy-to-envisage extension of MOOC technologies and pedagogies that includes small-group (virtual) seminars facilitated by (under-employed freelance) postgraduates to provide the personal and individual mentoring that good education requires. I also suggest that  assessment technologies will have evolved to the point where they can provide automated feedback on essays – although peer assessment will also be an important part of the equation for both cost and educational reasons. The net result is that LearnU can provide degrees at a total cost of around £6000, spread over two to five years of part-time study, and that around 60% of students choose to study this way for reasons of cost and convenience. What about degrees such as medicine or engineering that require expensive labs? Well, in LearnU’s view those are ‘someone else’s problem’… perhaps industry’s or whatever is left of the NHS?

Needless to say, this has had a drastic impact on traditional public universities, many of which have failed financially. The story doesn’t say so, but it is clear that some elite universities continue to thrive, providing a first-class education for those who can afford it – or are lucky enough to be be awarded bursaries. This is definitely a two-tier system, with the elite institutions perpetuating the all-important social networks of the ‘haves’. See my video ‘Different Trains‘ for another story about this. This isn’t a vision of the future that I would welcome, although it does have some good features… so not entirely a dystopia. And I see LearnU as a consortium of EU public universities and academic publishers, so for some institutions it is a route to survival and growth.

My talk included two key questions:

  • What are the factors that prevent universities from breaking out of their current inefficient utilisation patterns?
  • What will universities need to do to enable them to not only survive but thrive in a world where commercial universities can offer a degree for £6000?

By all means post your thoughts to the comments…

FOOTNOTE: In the story I suggest that the currently-controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Programme (TTIP) is the key that enables US providers to start offering degrees in the UK. This may not be true, but a 2014 briefing paper written by the European Universities Association states:

The EU and the US have embarked on negotiations designed to culminate in a major trade deal. Will it lead to unrestricted market access to higher education services? This is not the first time that the issue has arisen. The question is complex, the implications uncertain, and the answer unknown.

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  1. Sorry I am commenting rather late on this post – I have only just discovered your blog, Adam. There are lots of interesting points here, but for now I just wanted to say that I am pleased that you have picked up on the scandalous under-utilisation of educational buildings, a point I raised in my own blog several months ago: http://terryloane.typepad.com/reallylearn/2014/03/why-are-schools-locked-shut-most-of-the-time.html


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