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.