End of the University Part II/III : online education

May 1, 2013

Oh dear. Everybody knows you should never write Paper I unless you really are going to do Papers II, III etc. Posterity looks unkindly on failed pomposity. Back in November I wrote End of the University : Part I which was about the Browne report and a naive approach to “student choice”. I think perhaps I can count The Big REF Gamble as Part II – lots of us are investing for success, hiring new staff before the REF, but we can’t all win. These are both examples of market disruption, which may force a re-structuring. You may have various opinions on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

So what about good old disruptive technology? The music business got turned upside down by the internet and file sharing, and the book business is likewise in turmoil. The disruptive technology here is the ease of copying. The reaction of entrenched commercial interests was the development of digital restrictions management. Whatever you think of that, the market structures are re-forming, and we need to get used to the idea that we don’t own works of art, we rent them – or if you like, we pay for performances. Of course the logic that follows is that payment for performance should go straight to the artist – who needs the middleman?

So can the same thing happen to education? They key thing here is not ease of copying but economy of scale. Hundreds of years ago we invented lectures so we could teach 150 students at a time instead of 5. Now we can do thousands at a time. My own university has started its own experimentation with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). My colleague Charles Cockell ran a five week course in Astrobiology. Forty-one thousand students registered, and five thousand survived the whole course. I am toying with another course idea myself, along with the boundlessly energetic Dr H. Well this is very exciting of course, but you start to wonder why anybody would pay nine thousand sponduliks for a university degree from the University of West Somerset when they can sit on their sofa and take courses from Harvard…

One answer is assessment and another is feedback, and the whole business of giving credit. Marking exams has not gotten any more efficient, and likewise the provision of individual feedback. Multiple Choice Quizzes are good, but not enough. If somebody can solve this problem, things will really change. This recent Guardian article reports the debate in California about whether MOOCs will allow private providers to move into education.

Meanwhile, it could well be that content delivery and assessment will decouple. Oh what interesting times.


Tieless in Gaza

February 7, 2013

Party at Professor P’s house last night. We were celebrating our three new appointments and bonding and stuff. Three? Well, our REF gamble is going to work, don’t you know. Of course one of those three is what our American chums call “Faculty shuffle” – or perhaps electron-hole jumping in a a semiconductor is a better analogy. Professor H went orff to Imperial; Prof L left Sussex to come here; Professor C left Cardiff to fill the hole in Sussex. Professor WT had already left Cardiff City for Preston North End, so things might get exciting in Wales.

I was a bit late because I had been gulping vino at government expense at the Scottish Parliament, where there was a reception attached to an exhibition about the Large Hadron Collider. (You can see the exhibition on Parliament TV ! Check out the “Partical Physicist”) Earlier in the day, Wommers had I understand been giving the Science and Technology Committee a pitch on how good this stuff is for the Scottish Economy. He also gave a wee speech at the reception of course, but was correctly upstaged by the (late) appearance of Peter Higgs. Yesterday I referred to Peter as being “quarter house trained” but really should have explained that Peter has  got it just right. He allows himself to be paraded around and lionised wherever this is good for science, but never loses his shyness, modesty and general nice guyness. In his speech he basically told us to be proud of the engineers who built the LHC. He did also apologise for all the work that “we theoreticians” had put them too. Wommers picked up on this but added that he wasn’t so sure about “who-ever invented supersymmetry”.

More than one person raised an eyebrow at my lack of tie at this august gathering. OK, couldn’t resist the title. Never read Milton, but a big Aldous Huxley fan. Not that I am suggesting that at the reception I was in chains and pulled down the temple and all that. Just got a few sniffy looks.  Later at Professor P’s party, Dr F said that I shouldn’t go thinking of myself as a dangerous radical, otherwise I would have worn a skirt.


The Big REF gamble

February 6, 2013

Three days in a row? Crumbs. Better do some real work soon.

Interesting but perhaps not surprising that the reactions to yesterdays Tricky Dicky post were all about University PR and Corporatism. Universities are in a tricky situation; its quite right that they should be more business-like, but not that they should be run as businesses. Education is not simply a commercial transaction; but we do have to balance the books, attract students, maintain a brand, and so on.

The public worry tends to concentrate on what the evolution of student fees is doing to the university infrastructure. (Or at least the English infrastructure; Scotland is a kind of giant experimental control…) Everybody is obsessed with bums on seats, and with the ghastly Key Information Sets etc (see this post). Market forces will mean that some thrive and some sink.

But thats only half of it. The other half of our income comes from research funding, and most of that still comes through HEFCE, SFC etc. This is why we are all panicking about the upcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF). The money we get will depend in an unknown but certainly highly non-linear way on our gradings. Universities are being very entrepreneurial about this : there has been a burst of academic recruitments, getting fresh young stars in just in time to count their papers.

If this works, you are in the money; if however your grading comes out low, you are stuffed. Stuck with a salary bill you can’t pay.

Maybe, like RBS, when some big universities fail, the government will buy 80% of them.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 131 other followers