End of the University Part II/III : online education

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.

17 Responses to End of the University Part II/III : online education

  1. Albert says:

    Funny world: we complain about teaching load and object when others can do the teaching for us. There must be a better way than lecturing to get knowledge across. Internet lectures must be even worse than classes, though: computers are too distracting. It is a bit being at a lecture while your phone goes off all the time. You know that people with an open laptop in front of them are not paying attention to the talk. I don’t think it makes much difference whether that talk comes from a lecturer or via the laptop itself. TV can be more effective – as long as it is not multiple screens.

  2. andyxl says:

    The good thing about an internet lecture is that you can stop and start and skip back as you please – just like you can with a book. The bad thing (as well as the distraction you mention) is that you can fool yourself into thinking you are thinking when actually you are drifting. The good thing about physical lectures is the ritual and theatre and social occasion : a time is specially set aside to think, when your nerves are lit up. The bad thing is that most lectures don’t achieve this ideal of course. Must be some way to get the best of all these worlds

  3. Albert says:

    You can stop and go back in lectures as well – the students just have to ask! Or you can record lectures so that students can play them back later. Make a lecture entirely non-interactive and there is no limit to the number of students you can teach. It is an adequate way to teach facts. (The drop-out rate on the astrobiology course you mention is horrendous though: does that get worse with class size or was the course over-advertised?) But for skills rather than facts, I still find the best results come from one-on-one teaching. I do this a few hours a week and it achieves more than any lecture, no matter how delivered. To complicate things, we have had some good PhD students with open university degrees. It is a slower route but seems to achieve results for mature students without traditional lectures.

    • andyxl says:

      Albert – the drop out rate was about normal for MOOCs. Anybody can register anonymously and give it a go, so naturally lots try it out but only a fraction remain serious. It would be different if people were taking it for credit as part of a structured training. So ignore the 36,000 thousand casual peekers – think of 5000 people participating in the forums, taking the quizzes, and passing. That is pretty amazing.

  4. In some ways this seems similar to the publishing industry – pay £££ for the publisher to rubber-stamp something (journal article) / pay £££ for a university to rubber-stamp something (degree). It would be quite easy to offer assessment and feedback privately, for much less than £9000 per year, but such private arrangements can’t issue degrees.

    Universities offer the opportunity for someone (body and all!) to spend a concentrated period of time living in a research community. Surely there’s something valuable about that, however much you can gain through MOOCs?

  5. “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.”

    I have to disagree with this, Guv’nor. First, while ease of copying has changed things, many people draw the wrong conclusions. The easier copying is, the stiffer copyright protection has to be. Back when monks copied books, there was no need for copyright. On the other hand, no-one could make a living selling copies of books he had written. The printing press, and copyright laws, ushered in the democratization of writing. The same thing happened with music with the introduction of recorded music. Unless copyright enforcement keeps pace with technology, we will return to a world where only those who are independently wealthy can write books, or music, for a living. It will be a poorer world.

    Yes, some people say that paying for performances is the way out. Certainly the cost of a live performance for the punter has increased much more than the rate of inflation, while the cost of CDs has increased at probably less than the rate of inflation. But this is a zero-sum game only for some people. There are musicians who write music which they can’t or won’t perform live, for a variety of reasons. If musicians (or authors of books?!) are to earn money only from performances, only a subset of what is available now will be available in the future.

    Owning not renting? This is one business model which has grown up recently, but one can still buy CDs and books and one does indeed own them (which doesn’t imply that one has the right to distribute an arbitrary number of copies). One’s children can inherit them, one can re-sell them and so on.

    “entrenched commercial interests”? Sounds like a rather non-neutral term to me. Yes, technology changes things, but I fail to see how anyone can suggest a model in which the artist is not paid, or is paid a voluntary amount, as an alternative.

    Just because something is technologically possible doesn’t mean it is morally right and that laws should be changed to allow it. With modern knock-out drops, it is possible for a person to be raped and not remember it. Does that mean that rape should no longer be forbidden, on the grounds that it doesn’t create trauma? I think not. Similarly, selling a work of art is about control; the artist agrees to let someone consume it in exchange for a fee. Any artist who doesn’t like that model is free to give his work away, or use some other model, but that should be the artist’s decision, not the decision of the person who has the technological tools to circumvent the intent of the artist.

    I have actually heard some people claim that piracy was a reaction to DRM rather than vice-versa.

    Most of the books I read, and most of the music I listen to, was written by people who, had they not been able to make a living from writing, would not have written it.

  6. andyxl says:

    Phillip – we do have to find a way to pay artists to create. But we don’t have to find a way to pay to maintain the infrastructure of publication and distribution. Personally I genuinely don’t know where copyright law fits into that. In twenty years it will all seem obvious. I hope.

    • I agree. Like with scientific publications, there is some infrastructure which is no longer necessary. In astronomy, many people want to get rid of paper journals altogether. People are not paid directly for writing papers, and the necessary infrastructure is done mostly by volunteers. However, in the case of music, I think people who have been able to make a living as musicians in the past should be able to do so in the future as well. We shouldn’t through out the baby with the bathwater.

  7. Keith says:

    If you have not read Sal Khan’s “One World Schoolhouse” I thoroughly recommend it. The book is mainly about pre-University education but he does have one chapter on the future of the University. I think the most interesting aspect of the Khan Academy is not the video mini-lectures but the automated testing. The idea of competency-based education is that everyone moves at their own pace and only moves onto the next topic after demonstrating mastery of the current one. They somewhat arbitrarily define mastery as the ability to answer ten problems correctly in a row although as Khan notes that can be experimented with. This obviously works well for teaching basic mathematics but in principle I see no reason why it should not work for parts of University-level physics. The challenge would be to write software which could automatically generate problems in each topic area. However, it only takes one person somewhere in the world to write the software and make it available on line…

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