Friday, December 31, 2010

What mattered in 2010

"The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed" William Gibson famously remarked. And in 2010, it did feel that the future crept a little bit closer. In the spirit of the season, it's worth reflecting on what was significant in the longer term in 2010.

I believe I was the only blogger in the Milky Way who didn't write about iPads this year. I do think in the long run the tablet wave is indeed significant. It creates casual, mobile access to the web without the screen size problems of mobiles and smartphones, and the 'open the lid and lean forward' requirement of a laptop. That is really important, especially when combined with the continuing spread of good fast mobile networks. Tablets make knowledge properly mobile at a reasonable price point, and I think that's a significant step ahead. Progess like that, while it seems incremental, brings us closer to the next phase change in our behaviour and relationship with knowledge. Next step in the stairs is gesture controlled wearables, but probably not mainstream until late in the decade when the Tablets market is saturated and commoditised.

The Browne report, and the rapid implementation of it's financial changes was also a big story this year, with substantial local effect in the UK. It basically shifts the UK from having the current taxpayers paying for Higher Education to having future taxpayers and workers pay for it via loan repayments (and bailing out loan vehicles with tax money when they go sour). Some countries have had this model for years with loan schemes of one sort of another, with mixed results (thinking of the US and New Zealand). I suspect the UK move might finally put that model over the top as the global standard.

Also in the UK, Pearson announced they were moving to offer degree level qualifications. My perception of Pearson is as a very mature, serious operation. From Ladybird books to The Economist, they produce good stuff. I'd certainly take a qualification from them seriously.  The move represents, I think, a maturing of the for Profit HE sector. Meanwhile Kaplan, probably the most famous trailblazer in for-profit HE, seem to be having difficulties with a number of business ethics related legal cases. Early entrants to new frontiers do often tend to have, shall we say, flexible ethics, but in time the frontier grows up, a sheriff arrives and things settle down to business as usual. I think we're seeing this here.

Meanwhile, while the first world, and particularly Ireland where I write, wallows in economic mud, India and China, and the world overall continues to grow richer. In 2011 I'll really need to learn more about higher education works in these places, as it's there the future will be defined. By sheer weight of numbers as their middle classes pour into HE, how it's done in Chonqing and Calcutta becomes the world standard, perhaps wearing the European University model as a skin, if at all.

Predictions for 2011? Off the top of my head:

  • Cheap, ubiquitous tablets become a commodity and overtake the laptop as the standard information device
  • Building tempo of mergers, acquisitions and bankruptcies (or similar) in the UK higher education space as the sector shakes out the implications of the changes.
  • Universities in India, China etc continue to fight their way up the rankings and grow.

But I don't really do short term predictions...

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Book Review: The Gutenberg Galaxy

I've heard a lot about Marshall McLuhan over the years, most recently in an excellent article by Megan Garber at the Nieman Journalism Lab, so when I passed him in the library, I thought the time had come.

The basic idea of the book is that printing didn't simply alter the economics of book production, it actually altered how we think. Prior to printing, we lived in an oral culture. Ideas came in through our ears and out our mouths. Teaching methods were (it is thought) centred around discussion, dialectic and the scholastic method - very open and verbal.

After printing, the book length argument became the quantum unit of knowledge. Ideas now came in our eyeballs, and out of our hands. We became a visual culture. With that, we lost something. You can't argue with a book, except maybe by writing another one. The book becomes an eternal Authority. It establishes a monopoly, and the idea that any idea not in a book form  is somehow trivial.

The implications for the development of higher education are interesting. With the book comes the text book, and the idea that one course maps to one (or a small group of) text books which the course aims to help students understand. The book and the course became symbiotic, containerised learning blocks.

McLuhan's book also raises the idea (in 1962!) that what he called 'The Electric Age' was undoing this transformation, and putting a closing bracketed on a 500 year period of book centric history -  'The Gutenberg Parenthesis". McLuhan saw that the media of the day was moving people back from a print and book centric culture to an oral culture. We've seen it accelerate since, from the radio talk shows on to the internet, bloggers and twitter, as the quantum of knowledge gets smaller again. Later ideas like Connectivism  make the case that the knowledge doesn't really sit in a fixed, static object like a book any more, but resides in a network of connected people and resources. We've moved from an audio/oral culture with a small quantum of knowledge, to a visual/text culture with a large quantum of knowledge, and now back or onwards to a multimedia (visual and oral) mode of culture where the quantum of knowledge is small again. The Megan Garber article I linked to above demonstrates it nicely, putting short text, a piece of video and hyperlinks in one easy to digest quantum of learning. The medium is the message, as McLuhan says.

The implications for the future (and present) of higher education are substantial. The quantum of learning shrinks back down again from a book sized argument to 500 word blog post, a 6'40 second Pecha Kucha presentation or even a 140 character tweet. The quantisation of knowledge into Bologna Standard modules stops making sense again just when it has been formalised. The Gutenberg age is over, knowledge is now sized for Fedex Box, or a postcard, not a Shipping Container.

In terms of style, I was surprised to find McLuhan is a pain to read. The book opens with a lengthy discussion of King Lear as a metaphor for something or other. It all sounds clever, but like King Lear, I have three daughters. Being thus driven mad already, I didn't follow it. Perhaps on a second reading it would become clear, but there are 100 million books, and life is short. No second chances. His prose assumes an easy familiarity with folk like Kant and Heidigger which will put a some of the book out of reach for many. Some writers bring the reader along on a journey and make them feel clever. McLuhan just makes me feel dumb. And yet, when I approach a point of giving up the book for a bad job he trots out a line like "As the book market expands, the division between intellect and commerce ends". As clever, thought provoking and quotable a sentence as any I've read. That's a whole book right there in twelve worlds. It's a shame about all the other ones. It's telling that his insightful ideas on how printing created authors didn't mention how it created editors too.

Would I recommend it? If you're a humanities wonk who eats Kant and Derrida for breakfast, knock yourself out. Please. Otherwise no. He has great ideas but save yourself the time and just read the Cliff notes.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book Review: A University for the 21st Century

"A University for the 21st Century" is a thoughtful and thorough book, detailed and well considered, although it let's itself down by making a fascinating topic seem somewhat dull.

I had high hopes for this book. The author, was President of the University of Michigan for 12 years, and has clearly thought and researched deeply on the subject.

In terms of content, the book did not disappoint. While focused very much on the top end research University, Duderstadt had a clear grasp of the big issues. Even technological trends which had not yet taken form when he wrote (like Personal Learning Environments and the importance of online social networks) he seems to have been able to smell coming in the wind. His writing is detailed and thorough - the author is an Engineer by training, and it shows. The work feels like a textbook. The issues are dissected with considerable clarity - his chapter on resources and funding is a particularly clear primer on this currently hot topic.

I found the picture he presented of a high end US university interesting. From a European perspective it's easy to miss the fact that many US institutions own and operate substantial teaching hospitals, which are often themselves as large as the University itself, and are very significant health care providers. On the other side, they also operate football and basketball teams which attach huge followings and media attention. For Irish readers, imagine if University College Cork (my local) owned and operated the Cork University Hospital (currently, the connection is nominal, the hospital is state run despite the name) while also managing the Cork Senior Hurling and Football teams. The diversity and complexity of the task is daunting.

For a book written a decade ago, it's aged well. Even the technology chapter, which you might expect to be weak given the time it was written, clearly maps the same kinds of longer term trends I've written about here. Other trends, like the idea of Open Content, he certainly grasped as a general implication of the internet, even if he did not predict them in any detail (who could).

Duderstadt, alas let's himself down in the writing. Perhaps my limited attention span has simply atrophied beyond use, but the book to me reads too much like a textbook. In his forward, the author expressed the hope that the book would interest a mass audience. It will not. There are fairly well established ways of making non fiction compelling and accessible (use of narrative, personal anecdote and so forth), and Duderstadt employs none of them. Something about his writing gave me a compelling urge to get up and make tea a paragraph in. There is never a good reason to start a paragraph with 'Furthermore', as he often does. It's a pity, as it made it harder work than it needed to be, and will have greatly narrowed his readership and influence.

If your library has it, I'd recommend taking a look at it, but it will be a book to lean forward and study with coffee, rather than lean back to read with a Christmas drink. If your interest is casual, you might skip it, but if you are involved in the management of higher education at any level, the book is mandatory and will repay careful study.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Four Big Trends: Pecha Kucha Presentation

Here's a presentation I did at the Cork Pecha Kucha event on the four big trends in Higher Education in the 21st Century. The content will be familiar to some readers, but you may find it interesting nonetheless.

Pecha Kucha is a really interesting presentation format if you haven't run across it, it's worth trying. 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide, slides advance automatically. No time for Ums and Awws, and you have to cut to your main point on the slide right up front or you'll miss it. The speed also forces you to gloss the details and caveats a little. Challenging. If you haven't tried it, do.

My apologies for the lighting on this piece. I do in fact have a face as well as voice, but the presentation is perhaps the better for my appearance as a Mysterious Shadow.

Thanks to Nicki Ffrench-Davis for arranging the event, taping it, putting it online, and making me do it over again when the tape ran out halfway through my first run.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Book Review: Deschooling Society

"Classics" wrote Mark Twain, "are something everyone wants to have read, but no one wants to read". Judging by the number of copies in the library,  I'm obviously the last person with an interest in Education to have read this book, and it is a real classic. As you may have noticed, I make it a rule* never to conceal my ignorance, so I'm going to review it anyway.

As you might gather from the title, the book is highly critical of the modern educational institutions. The opening sections are a strong, and now familiar critique of the educational system as a means of institutionalising society. The criticisms are not so different from those of Ken Robinson, although Illich is intellectually a much heavier hitter, and Ken Robinson has better jokes. Perhaps the criticisms were radical when he wrote the book in 1970, but, alas, not anymore. Illich takes the critique a step further by observing that the current system convinces people that all education must come from a school (or University). This it tend to make people expect that everything must come from a bureacratic institutions - he talks about '"HEW  (Health Education Welfare)Pollution". Politically, it's all fairly left wing stuff, but Illich never slides into sloppy polemic. It's all well written and coherently argued, and he is as quick to jab at the Marxists as anyone.

The book really starts to sizzle about halfway, and I note from the markings in the library copy, most readers had given up by then (Highlighter Pen only managed chapter 1, The Underliner left me after chapter 3). Unlike many critics, Illich goes on to propose an alternative model for education, and, for something written in 1970, it's remarkably prescient in terms of where learning is really going in the 21st century.

Illich outlines a system where people connect directly, on a one to one basis, with people who have skills and are willing to teach them. He couldn't foresee the web as an enabling framework, but the system he describes is uncannily close to the Web 2.0 model of education, where deep social networks can easily connect learners into peer groups, or with experts in the field. He talks about the need for shifting education from a funnel based model, where people are given the learning that the institution thinks they need, to a web (his word, in 1970!) where people sought the learning they needed across a network, directly from experts, not necessarily teachers. He talks about giving people access to learning objects, and letting them get on with it, which reminds me of Sugata Mitras experiments enabling children in India to learn with fairly unregulated access to a computer.

 The accuracy of his vision is uncanny, and does much to explain his popularity with the connectivist/web 2.0 set. He was a Catholic priest, and such men have been canonised for lesser visions than his.

The book is full of other ideas ahead of their time. Social networks, Government 2.0, appropriate technology and hacker culture are all in there, imagined as they might be without the enabling medium of the internet  I feel I aught to read it again very carefully, to see if I can pick out The Next Big Thing.

Style wise, it's not at all heavy going, and at 116 pages it isn't an intimidating read, a couple of bus journeys, you have no excuse. If you don't have time to dig it out of the library, there's even a free eBook (all formats) you can download this very instant from and, funnily enough given the book, there's also discussion forum on Wikiversity, which is a example of exactly the kind of learning web he was talking about

His lefty/anarchist perspective might put some readers off, but if you can put up with my writing, his will present no challenge. If you are interested in a fresh view of education in society, this is an important book.

Read it.

I'll tip my cap to Steve Wheeler at this point, who brought Illich to my attention in a talk he gave to us in UCC in late 2008.

* More of a guideline, to be honest.

Polytechnic Day: Higher Education and Democracy

I am slightly off topic here, as this post relates more to Universities role in society, rather than their future per so. I hope you'll forgive these occasional transgressions.

This week (November 17th)  marked Polytechnic Day. On this day in 1973 the Greek Military junta moved to put down a student revolt on the campus of the Athens Polytechnic. The bloody events mark the start of a chain of events that eventually brought the military junta down and restored Democracy to Greece.

If you say 'Student' in a word association game, chances are you'll think 'protest' or 'riot'. It's true. As recent fees protests in Ireland and the UK remind us, students are often the first to the barracades in any civil dispute. It's a long and proud legacy, and while I might disagree with them on the issues from time to time, they keep our leaders on their toes and provide a vital warning tone that all is not well. But this is a credit to the young, not to their Universities.

There is an idea doing the rounds that Universities are a vital keystone of democracy. Frankly, I think this is nonsense. We've had universities in Europe for almost a millennium, and it is only in the last century that we've had any substantial number of democracies worthy of the name. Meanwhile, Universities tricked on (admittedly, only barely) in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and all manner of other less remarkable thugocracies. Only in Maoist China and Pol Pot's Kampuchea left nothing standing high enough for Universities and their graduates to cower behind.

Universities are fundamentally conservative organisations. They cannot exist without the approval of the state, which recognises their degrees and allows them to operate. Their graduates are usually professionals who work in the existing system and are invested in it. They have no interest in change, and often find themselves first against the wall when the revolution comes, as symbols of the old order. In their time, Universities have been seen as bastions of Christianity, Upholders of True Communism, Faithful pillars of the Aristocracy, or whatever the prevailing nonsense of the day was. To present them as upholders of Democracy is nonsense, they simply tack to the wind.

That the tides of tertiary education and democracy have risen in tandem in the 20th century is correlation, not causation. Both are tied to a deeper increase in wealth and the rise of the middle classes. It's these middle classes who send their children to University, and can afford to. It's these same middle classes who, once they they have something to lose, withdraw their tacit support for autocractic regimes and press for a transition to democracy and rule of law. Where Universities find an inadvertent role is that they bring the youth of these middle classes together in the cities, where they can meet and organise. Poor democracies, like India, are remarkable exceptions, but it is only now, as it's middle class expands, that more Indians are getting to Higher Education.

It is true that Universities can promote social mobility, but often that is as an ideal, rather than the reality. Recent news reports in Ireland, (neatly summarised by Eoin O'Dell over at remind us that even here, the land of saints and scholars, that ideal is often unrealised. It is true that universities can provide a refuge for truth in the face of tyranny, but often not for long. The pen is mightier than the sword, but swords make a very convincing and immediate argument for compliance.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Get rid of Lecturers

And I don't mean the people. Well, maybe a few (I have a little list, they never will be missed...). It's the title I'm on about.

OK it's a Pet peeve, but why do we have to call them Lecturers? Why should the job title, right there on the contract, on the business card, explicitly specify a pedagogy? It would be like calling Doctors 'Bleeders'.

For Overseas readers, most academic teaching staff in Ireland and the UK are not professors, they are officially known as lecturers. Professor is usually held as a title for heads of Department, or folk of similar gravitas and salary. Academics from Ireland and the UK love the instant virtual promotions they get when they visit America.

You might fairly say, what's in a name, but names are important signals for purpose. If you think your job title doesn't matter, fine. When I become Planetary Emperor, I'll change your job title to Idiot, and see how you like it.

Lecturing is contested pedagogy. Truly great lecturers, even merely good ones, can inspire us. The personal experience can uplift us and affect us in ways that catching it on Youtube can't. It's a monkey brain thing. On the other hand, most lecturers are about two levels worse than they think they are, on a scale of 1 to 3.  Their delivery suffers little from being speeded up 40% on playback. They sound like Chipmonks and it's an improvement. The job title implies a one way delivery of content. It's literally old school. Let's dump it.

The title also ignores what most of them really do. What about all that real teaching and mentoring? What about the research. Since many of them spend as much time on bureaucracy and meetings as lecturing, let's call them bureaucrats. It's often as accurate as lecturer.

The US title, Professor, is at least pedagogy neutral. Professing is a largely forgotten verb. Scholar is pretty good too, wrapping up as it does both the ideas of teaching and research, and with a little gravitas (Where I grew up, "You're a Gentleman and a Scholar" was high praise, usually reserved for people who had just bought you a drink). But please no neologisms like "Adjunct Knowledge Development Officer" or "Learning Catalyst".

As a (very) slight aside, if you haven't watched Donald Clark keynote from the Alt-C conference, please do. It's an excellent critique of the lecture as pedagogy, and well worth 40 minutes of your time. The pro-con lectures argument is too big to get into here, and will be settled by empirical evidence in the end. Donald will tell you all about it...

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Armageddon Game: Universities as evolving systems

Space Geeks love the movie Armageddon. There's a game they play where you count the technical errors. It's easy and fun. There are, apparently, at least 168.

Critiqing universities is just like that game. It's fun, and easy to play. I've done plenty of it on this blog, and will probably do more. But there are smarter, harder question is why these problems exist. How did Universities come to be the way they are, instead of what they could be?

No one designed Universities. They evolved, and evolution is a slow and imperfect process. 4 billion years, and I'm the best it's come up with. Basic errors get locked into the designs, which is why our retinas are stuck on backwards. Evolution gives us adaptations for situations that no longer exist. That leaves us tonsils, appendixes and monkey brains. Evolution cannot adapt to changes on a timescale faster than several generations of the lifecycle of the organism, which is why we humans are managing a planet with brains evolved for hunting bunnies and gossiping.

The evolutionary analogy is not exact. While joint ventures are increasingly common, universities have not yet been observed to reproduce sexually as conventional lifeforms do. Nor, in modern times, do Universities die nearly often enough for classical evolution to function. They're more like bacteria really. Bacteria, I hear, can pass genetic material between themselves, allowing good mutations, like immunity to antibiotics, to spread quickly. Universities do the same. New ideas, occasionally even good ideas, like Humbolt's Research University meme of the 1800s, get picked up and copied. They spread on  the pages of The Times Higher Ed, and down the policy catwalks of the OECD. Existing institutions pick up the new meme and can change their genomes, to a degree.

Core aspects of the University like the lecture evolved in response to a reasonable need at the time. Lectures made lots of sense when books were hand copied and extremely expensive. It was worth reading out the material so students could copy it down. It was a cheap way of duplicating books. The method stopped making sense in about 1500, but by then it was too late. It was physically encoded in the architecture of the campus - buildings full of sloping lecture theatres, which reinforced it's psychological and economic hold. It was also a cheap way of having one expert 'teach' an arbitrarily large class. Whether the class learned anything was their own business. Universities couldn't evolve past the lecture paradigm, no more than cells could evolve past having mitochondria.

There is a debate about the future of education which can be summarised as evolution versus revolution. Can existing institutions change and adapt fast enough over time to meet the changing requirements of society? Or will new institutions step up to fill the gap, by accident or design?

It's always tempting to bet on the incumbant. Universities have impressive pedigree and form. The capital base is massive. They captivate our imaginations. The obvious favourite. But that's how the incumbent systems always looked. The Roman Empire, The Church, The Gold Standard all seemed like they would sit forever at the centre of our lives. But they didn't.

Rapid environmental changes cause mass extinctions. If all the organisms are the same or similar, they are equally vulnerable. What lives the same, dies the same. Survival of life in a changing environment demands diversity. Where all Universities are similar, doing the same kinds of things in the same kinds of ways, they are all vulnerable to the same external shocks, be they technological, financial or social. The Higher Education sector needs to be as diverse a possible to survive. Plus, the wider the variety of institutions, the more likely it is that some will be able to take advantage of those changes, or find new niches to grow.

If I was a University scheming to survive the coming mass extinction, I would nip down to the Environmental Sciences building and collar some ecologists for tips. An obvious one is to become a switching predator. Switching predators eat whatever is handy. They aren't picky. Being a switching predator is a key contributor to the success of humans. We eat cows, roots, seals, fish, roadkill, mushrooms, berries anything. Even other humans, at a pinch. It means that we can stay alive almost anywhere. Most European universities are not switching predators. They eat an exclusive diet of taxpayers money. As we are learning, this is fine on a good year, but when the rains fail, it is simple suicide.

For profit Universities are switching predators. They work their way into new ecosystems and find a way to survive. They can eat grants, loans, direct payments, whatever is going. By dropping many of the expensive old traditions of conventional Universities, they can run a lot leaner, and survive on a lot less than grass fed public universities. They may well turn cannibal, and eat some of the weaker public universities that fall by the wayside. And as they rise red fanged from the carcass, they may well wear the head and hide as a trophy, and a disguise. But make no mistake, a leaner, deadlier creature lies beneath.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Blog Birthday Joke

This Blog is a year old today, so I'm going to step out and tell your a joke.

It's a building site in London. A Corkman arrives looking for work. A Cockney foreman challenges him on his knowledge (accents required, hence use of phonetics).

Foreman: "A'right mate, ya gotta know wot your about 'ere on the site. So 'fore I give you a job, matey, I gotta test ya wiv some questions eh. Ya gotta know ya stuff for a job 'ere."
Corkman: "A'right boy. Fire away."
Foreman: "wos' the difference, see, between a Jois' and a Gutta'"
Corkman: "Ooohh, das easy boy, dat's fearse easy. Goethe wrote Faust, and Joyce wrote Ulysses"

I didn't write this joke, but have no recollection where I heard it. It has a Niall Tobin kind of ring to it, but if anyone knows the source, I'll be pleased to find out and acknowledge it.

The creation of version localised for central Europe I leave as an exercise for the reader.

One Year On

This blog is a year old today. Thank you all for reading and passing links on. Particular thanks to those who took the time to comment, most notably those who disagreed with me. Dialogue is a far better learning mechanism than monologue.

I've covered a fair bit of ground over the year, although only a fraction of the topic has been addressed. As I hoped for, the act of writing things down has advanced and clarified my thinking on the subject considerably. It's helped to illuminate how little I know, on one hand, but also built my hunches of a year ago into better supported viewpoints.

A year ago I felt, like many, that some kind of revolution in tertiary education was just around the corner. Now I know it isn't, at least not exactly. In truth, Higher education is about halfway through a century long revolution. The four megatrends I identified early on in this blog aren't things that sit in the future, they are trends that really began in the early to mid 20th century. We are now halfway up an S curve on each of them. The revolution in higher education won't begin in 2010, or 2015. It really began sometime around 1925, and in some places will be complete by 2025. As William Gibson famously remarked, the future is already here, it just isn't evenly distributed. It will take until 2100 for that new model of higher education, the shape of which is already clear, to become global, by which time higher education will be almost universal almost everywhere.

Humans, of course, have difficulty in observing change on this scale. We are peculiarly blind to it. It doesn't help that the new models of higher education are already here, in disguise. Modularisation, lifelong learning, Open universities, distance learning and recognition of prior learning and so on have steadily crept into the mainstream in the last generation. The OU is the largest University in Europe. The Indira Gandhi Open University in India is the largest on earth. For profit entities like the Apollo group, owners of the University of Phoenix, among others, teach millions of students in the developed and increasingly the developing worlds. All use technology enthusiastically and largely eschew the traditional medieval models of the 'Universities of Place' and the paleo-pedagogy of the lecture. The distance and blended learning models they adapt are leaking back into the conventional university sector, almost imperceptibly dissolving the concept of Universities as being fixed in space and time.

Ironically, the very inefficientcy of old fashioned Universities will preserve the greatest of them. In a world where everyone can access cheap distance based higher education (because distance means nothing), the old fashioned, inefficient model where everyone travels to the same place and time becomes a luxury good. Like an expensive golf club, the very fact that it is expensive and filters for the rich and the clever will sustain it's appeal. While technology will bring affordable mass tertiary education to the world, they will all still yearn for access to the gilded rooms of the Global Ivy League, which will remain, for many, the surest gateway to membership of the global elite.

I have at least 20 years before my lastborn receives her primary degree, so this blog has a long way to run. If you'll permit me a moment of levity in the face of such a road, in my next post, I'm going to tell you a joke...

Friday, October 29, 2010

Why start College at 18?

There a nice post just up from Seth Godin just up called 'Pushing back on mediocre professors'. He says of students:

I think you have an obligation to say, "Sir, I'm going to be in debt for ten years because of this degree. Perhaps you could give us an assignment that actually pushes us to solve interesting problems, overcome our fear or learn something that I could learn in no other way..."

What he's missing alas, is that most undergraduates aren't that smart. As Ernie Balls put it in a comment on my post "Pay for outcome, not process" "Most people who attend university do so to get laid" and simply aren't thinking ahead like that. George Hook said the same thing recently, saying that only 20% of students were thinking past graduation day. The debt (or opportunity cost, in countries where fees are state paid) is a problem for some arbitrary future version of them, not a real problem for them today. It's imaginary money. They simply aren't mature enough, or sure enough of themselves at 18 to provide the kind of smart pushback that Seth talks about in his post. The herd instinct is too strong. Everyone else is keeping quiet and taking notes. Let's not rock the boat, I want a good mark.

But there are students who do exactly that - mature students. They are, to the last man or woman, exactly like that. For educators, they are pains in the neck. They understand exactly the sacrifices they must make to get the degree, and exactly what it will cost, and precisely what they want out of it. Why can't we have more of them?

The solution? Let's have no one under 25 in college. Life is long now, in the first world. Why rush out of a schools system and straight into college. Why make kids at 18 make huge decisions about their lives, incur massive set and set their future path for years? It's too young. Some can handle it, most can't, and simply make the best of the choices down the line.

Careers have extended out the other end. None of these kids coming into college today will retire in the sense their parents will until they are 80, if ever. So why not make them spend 5 or 10 years actually doing something in the real world and then, when they actually know what they want to achieve in college, let them return to do that and start their grown up careers? Wouldn't they make smarter choices of degree, and be more likely to be smarter students? And if a bunch of them found that after 5 years in the wilds, they didn't want or need to follow the herd into a college degree just yet, would that be such a bad thing? Because everyone else is doing it isn't a good enough reason.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Book Review: The Great Brain Race

Ben Wildavsky's book 'The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities are Reshaping the World' is well worth reading. Wildavsky places international education firmly in the context of globalisation. He makes the case for international education as free trade in minds and ideas and as a key piller of globalisation. In the long run, it's more important and more beneficial than the free movement of goods and money that have been the icons of globalisation so far.

The early chapters, looking at the growth of overseas satellite campusus felt a little weak to me. It's largely a story of elite institutions leveraging their powerful brands to draw in the elites of the developing world. It felt like a tale of the top tenth of a percent, globalised institutions training the next generation of Davos Man, which isn't something that I find all that relevant to the longer term future of the sector as a whole. Counterpointing the western institutions reaching out are new institutions rising in "emerging markets". Some, like Saudi Arabias KAUST, seem like towers of gold build on sand. Others, in India and China, have emerged to be real competitors to the first world institutions they in part emulate.

I found the book really found it's stride in the chapter on for profit tertiary education. Much of what is written about the for profit field is either by conventional academics, who are, on principle against it, or business writers, who are equally for it. It's rare to read a more nuanced view. Wildavsky doesn't shy from the critiques of the industry, quality and so on, but makes a strong argument that for profit higher education is filling a gap for people who cannot otherwise access conventional higher education. This is especially the case in places like Mexico, where the higher education system simply can't accommodate the demand. It's also potentially true anywhere the demand for tertiary education exceeds supply. Any academic in a non profit University who isn't seriously concerned about the growth of for profit tertiary education doesn't grasp it's implications, or perhaps is in a field where they can make the jump when the time comes.

My only gripe with the book is the style. In common with many journalists who go on to write full length book's the story is told with a shock and awe bombardment of quote, statistic and anecdote, rather than by boots on the ground narration. Every opinion seemed to be someone else's, and the the clear narrative of the authors own voice and views was hidden until the end. It seems to be a journalism thing, they are locked into the model of reportage rather than storytelling, painting the picture with little dots of fact rather than the impressionistic brush of a more narrative storyteller or a big thinker like Clay Shirky or Neil Postman. The book feels like a collection of in depth feature articles, rather than a coherent book. Nevertheless, they are good feature articles, so it's more of a personal pet peeve than a deep flaw. While I think it could have been a much better book, it's still well worth reading if you, or your institution is really thinking about dabbling your toes into the world of international education.

If you don't fancy buying the book, there's good video material from the author online at the book website and on the facebook page. There's also audio of his talk at the LSE online and on iTunesU.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Coyote Effect

Wile E. Coyote (c) Warner Bros.
When the Coyote makes his mistake and runs over the edge of the cliff, he hangs there for a little bit.
We all know he's going down. He know's he's going down. It just plays it for laughs for a few seconds and gravity takes hold.

Organisations do this too. They run off a cliff, into a place where the rationale that kept them up is gone. They hover their, legs kicking the air for while, sometimes years, until down they go, ACME rocket boosters and all. Sometimes they see it coming and slip in a double take. Sometimes not.

Know any victims of the Coyote effect?

It's really hard to tell. Unlike Wile E Coyote, the bigger something is, the longer it will hang in mid air before crashing. There's too much mass and inertia. Too many people are involved in the little details, no one can see that the ground isn't there any more. Those that can, probably don't think it's their job to tell anyone. Who would listen anyway?

In the private sector, economics enforces gravity. If customers stop coming, the balance sheet goes bad, and one fine day the boss finds he can't make payroll next week. Down she goes, without too much delay.

Sometimes, even in the private sector an organisation is so big it distorts reality around it, and can draw in other resources. Because no one really believes something so big can be broken, or can contemplate a world without it, or they believe that it's just a temporary problem, it gets bailed out by someone. This happens to banks a lot these days.

In the state funded sector, it takes a long time for the Coyote effect to kick in, Decades, perhaps centuries. For example, in Ireland, we still have an office of the Chief Herald*. Killing state supported enterprises is politically difficult. No one wants to shoot the dog. Easier to keep feeding it taxpayers money and let the next government sort it out.

Universities are particularly prone to the Coyote effect. The combination of state supports (especially in Europe), their hold on the public imagination, and their special relationship with time mean they can float in this air for a century after running off the edge of their reason for being.
Universities haven't leapt off that edge yet, but the road is winding, and there's a lot of ACME equipment strapped on just now. But if they do go over the edge, the Coyote effect means it will be some time before anyone notices. A generation at least, perhaps two. But sometimes, for the lucky, the Coyote effect is no bad thing. It can carry you over a leap of faith. By time we all realise it, the other side of the canyon might be in reach. Or indeed, they may have grown wings.

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* I know virtually nothing about this office. It may, for all I know, do something extremely important, and contribute substantially to the state coffers. I cite it as an evocative per example only, and mean it's staff no offence.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Get Rid of Graduates

I was on campus at the end of the Summer, having a coffee with the twins, then 17 months. It was autumn graduation season, and everybody's big day out. With bad haircuts and short skirts, respectively, the sons and daughters of the land were lining up in pride, and rather old and tired looking parents looked on. In 2031, I said to the twins, that will be you. They declined to comment.

Or will it? Isn't graduation silly?

I've said before that you can see your graduates as customers, or products. Now, if you see them as products, you have other issues to address as I've mentioned before. If you see them as customers, think a little about how you manage them.

So you have your customers on site for three or four years. They build this deep relationship with you as an educational provider. They meet all their friends on your campus, have some of their best and worst moments there. They lose things like innocence and virginity. They gain things like spouses and debt that they will carry with them for many years. You've built a deep institutional and personal connection with them.

Then, one day, everyone comes by for some medieval dress up, you give them a scroll in latin, and send them off. Goodbye. Have a nice life. You'll send them a graduates association magazine a couple of times a year, and their mammies will read it, if you're lucky.

Can you imagine if your favourite coffeeshop, where you've gone for years, turned you away from the counter one morning. I'm sorry, time to move on. We've sold you enough coffee. We need to make way for new customers.

The analogy is imperfect, of course, but marketers tells us it much cheaper to keep a customer than to win a new one. Shouldn't you be trying to hang on to your students, not booting them out the door with great ceremony?

The trouble is, of course, the money. By the time they graduate, they probably don't have any left, and won't have for some years. Then ten or twenty years down the line when they've made good your University foundation will phone them up and ask them for some. Is it any wonder they don't get too good a response?

The idea of University education with fixed start and end points made heaps of sense in Bologna in 1155. Students started when they showed up in town, finished when they left town. It doesn't make so much sense any more. The world is a village, and there's no way out. After they 'graduate' when they are starting new careers is just about the time when they might need you the most, leveraging networks to get jobs, needing 'just in time' learning and mentoring to fill in gaps and help them get established in their careers. Why cut them loose just then?

I don't have a ready to roll alternative model (not yet...) but isn't time to ditch the binary idea of student vs. non student and stop labelling people as 'graduates' as if declaring them to be a finished work. Isn't there a smarter way? Why should our formal learning suddenly stop in our early twenties? Google famously sets aside a percentage of it's staff time for great projects. In our so called knowledge economy, can't we set a target of everyone spending 10% of their time for formal accredited learning? It sounds like a high ideal, but let's be mercenary about it. If we all go to a Browne style model of student loans with repayments keyed to income, won't real formal lifelong learning support our former graduates in their early careers and yield an excellent return on investment?

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Bloggers Creed.

Am I being inconsistent? Of course I'm being inconsistent. I'm writing about the future. How could I be consistent? The present is inconsistent. How could future be anything else? 2010 makes no sense, in fundamental ways. The dots won't just suddenly join up in 2023. And how could an evolving set of ideas be consistent? Then they aren't evolving, they are just filling in the gaps. If I read anything more than a year old on my blog and don't take issue with my own ideas and arguments, them I'm learning nothing.

Am I being rash?Do I fire off ideas half baked, and then retreat from them when they catch flak. I hope so. This is the internet. Your supposed to throw out ideas fast and fresh, see what flies, and see what dies. If you are precious about looking foolish the next day, stick to peer reviewed journals behind steep paywalls and conventional editorialising.

Am I attacking straw men? Do I critique parodies of the University, not the modern realities. Perhaps, but then let's get the straw men burned out so we can get into the meat and muscle. And remember, if you work in the space and actually read blogs and social media, you're well ahead of many of your peers. Among academics any kind of technology assisted learning beyond eMail and Powerpoint is only just getting past the early adopters like you. Your institution might have accept credit modules from all over, and have great approaches to lifelong learning and recognition of prior learning, but there's a lot of wagons still coming up to the pass behind you. The straw men still walk.

Am I being provocative? Do I push an idea a little far sometimes? Gee, I hope so. If what I'm writing provokes nothing (not even contempt, ridicule!) then what exactly is the point? Why waste the electrons in agreeing with accepted things? The future belongs to crazy ideas. But which ones? Only one way to find out.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fee Fie Fo Fum. The Browne Report

It's out of scope for this blog to assess whether the recommendations of the Browne report are wise or fair. Many others will cover that beat from every angle and political view. Worth reading are Donald Clark, who explains how Browne misses the point, and Charlie Stross, who makes a good stab at putting it all into a larger historical context.

My question is will the recommendations fly, and if it does, will it make any difference to how Universities look in the 2020's and beyond.

My feeling is that they will fly, although I have never followed British politics closely so I'll confess it's only a hunch. The political arcana of Whitehall is a mystery to me. May it ever be so.

Where the UK leads, Ireland will surely follow, and others will take note. It's likely that when my daughter goes to college in 2023 (as of this month, she want to be a vet, by the way) it will be under a funding model quite like Browne proposes, which puts it top dead centre in scope for this blog.

What's driving the thinking in Browne, I believe, is that as attendance at a Tertiary institution slides up into the majority, it's starting to get simply too expensive for the state to support it. Governments have two choices. They can keep funding it publicly, let it go on up to 100% and accept that it will be largely rubbish because it's underfunded. It's very rare that a single purchaser (be it Walmart, or the State) with a broad pool of suppliers to choose from has not bled them white. It only happen when they are all playing too much golf together, or perhaps in Scandanavia. With China and India turning out graduates in increasing numbers, having a high proportion of graduates with fairly indifferent degrees isn't going to be much help. The big IT Offshorers can put 1,000 people on your project tommorow morning. You can't compete on scale.

The other choice is to walk away from directly funding the sector, underwrite it with cheap loans (the education is, after all, a public good, it's the least you can do) and hope that your world class institutions, now student debt funded, can produce graduates of such quality that England Inc. (or Ireland Inc.) will stay in business.

Will it make a difference? Years ago I worked in evaluation of public sector policy, and the experience left (or perhaps found) me cynical about the power of the state effecting real change in the near term. Government politicians like to claim credit, the opposition assigns blame, usually within 12 months of announcing the policy change, and before implementation has even begun. "Major Government initiative might have made a difference, or maybe it didn't, we aren't sure" isn't much of a newspaper headline, especially for an audience who have never heard of a counterfactual. By the time outcomes become clear, all but the hard core policy wonks have forgotten the original initiative. Even big initiatives (the GI Bill comes to mind) often just accelerate patterns of change that were ongoing anyway. That said, this shift probably is big enough to make a change at a generational scale, if the implementation isn't homeopathic, as public policy often is when the rubber hits the road.

For Universities, it's all good. Effectively deregulated, they can charge what they like, and need dance no more with bankruptcy. This will probably lead to some improvements in teaching on the ground. Alas, it will also lead to US style facilities inflation, with an ever nicer set of student facilities being built to entice and compete new entrants. After all, if you are going to go into tens of thousands of debt, what's a few pounds more. Besides, Student Age 19 isn't paying, some hypothetical adult he will grow into will pay in some dark imagined future.

Some TEI's will pull ahead, and engorged with fat fees will produce more appealing graduates. Some of  this will be due to better funding leading to better teaching, and some, alas, because by being more expensive they filter for the elites that elites like to hire.

Will it change the balance of course provision, casting history, classics and so on into the darkness and forcing those without independent means into more lucrative areas? For good or ill, I don't think so. When I worked in New Zealand, which has a student loan system, all the largest loans were for students who had trained as helicopter pilots. New Zealand needs more chopper pilots per capita than most places, but not that many. I recall one course had trained a substantial number of tourist submarine skippers. Vocational sounding, but they would have better off with a classics degree. Browne notes the importance of career guidance up front in the report, and having a PhD in a discipline I've never worked in, I couldn't agree more.

For students, the prospect of a big debt may deter many who might benefit, but I suspect most will suck in their guts, sign on the line and go. After all what's the alternative? The tills at Tesco? It will slow the growth of tertiary education, perhaps holding it at around the 50% level. The loan model means that people without means can still attend if they are prepared to bear the debt, so Universities will still function as engines of social mobility, which is a substantial part of their overall benefit to society. Big picture, the change isn't nearly as radical as it looks. The middle classes still pay, in loans now, instead of taxes.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

George Hook says "Your degree isn't worth the paper it's printed on"

George Hook's talk in UCC last week was only briefly mentioned in the Irish Times today, and his remarks might interest local readers. For those overseas, George Hook is one of the 'Commentariat' a journalist and media man who came up as a Rugby commentator and has a general reputation as a 'straight shooter'. He is not a University graduate, but is, I believe, married to a University lecturer, and his views would be fairly good proxy for the general public - The 'plebs' as late mother used to call them.

“Your degree isn't worth the paper it's printed on" was the session title. Much of the talk was fairly reasonable hard won advice on the value of preparation, planning presentation and communication to set yourself aside from the pack. It was the kind of thing I wish I'd heard when I was 19, but wouldn't have listened to.

In responding to an audience question, Hook was characteristically scathing of the hold that Universities have on the public imagination. Too many degrees, including many from the Institutes of Technology that couldn't possibly lead to jobs were making the tertiary a holding pen to put off reality, he said.  "There were enough people studying journalism in Ireland to staff every newspaper in the US". The number of students should be halved, he said, to better reflect the real job market for people with degrees.

This view of the degree as job training is one I've caught flak for in the past, and will again. Sure, it glosses over all the other values of a degree, and the deeper value of a well educated population to democracy, but first we must eat. That said, a lot of places do try to flog degrees which sound like they would slot you right into a job, but won't. Journalism sounds like one. I suspect a lot of people would be much better off with a good meaty Philosophy or Maths degree, that sets them up with the kind of intellectual deep, wide stance to keep them balanced as they tackle whatever the 2020's might throw their way.

"The standard for first class honours degrees needed to be brought back up to where it belonged, producing less graduates but of better quality. "

I can't argue with that. I have a first in Geology. I'm smart on a good day, I put in a bit of work in fourth year, and got lucky on a couple of papers but that should mean a 2.1. The firsts in Geology belonged to the Rock Whisperers. There are many like me in other fields.

Of University presidents, he said "They think they are Multinational CEO'[s, but they are really big school principals" and said their salaries should be halved to reflect that.

I'm ambivalent on that one. You pay peanuts, you get monkeys. That said, any kind of CEO pay package should, I believe, the tied in hard to hitting specific goals. I'd pay them less day to day, but put the difference into a golden handshake that they have only an even chance of hitting. But then, of course, you have to set smart targets and find good independent people to review that. Easier said than done.

Many students, he said, condemned themselves to failure by not planning ahead. Less than 20% of students, he felt, were really thinking about what was going to happen to them after college. Students needed to be prepared for that fact that while they must work after college, they might not earn. He advised the crowd that they should consider voluntary work to gain experience after college. I couldn't agree more.

Future wise, his remarks overall give us a clue as to what many voters are thinking. Our economies are in recession and the substantial population without degrees suffering perhaps more than the graduates. In such a climate, voters will support spreading the pain as widely as they can, to lighten their load. There is a political window opening for reintroducing third level fees. The UK, if they adopt the Browne Report, is going to jump out that window, and I expect Ireland to follow suit.

Finally, I'll note that the talk was arranged and hosted by UCC Entrepreneurship and Social Society, one of many vibrant student societies on campus. Groups like that were a massive part of my own education in college, rounding me out as a person and helping me make many useful mistakes in a fairly safe box. I'm continually amazed that I've never once read anything about them in the broad and vibrant online debate about University Education. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Mission

What are Universities for? Humans are tool using primates. What kind of tool is a University, and what sets it apart from the other tools in the box.

There seems to be two answers to this. One is Utilitarian, what we use Universities for, and the other Idealistic, their self defined mission. To the utilitarian, we chiefly use universities to educate us and test our mettle so we can compete with the all the other tool using primates for jobs, spouses and so forth. At a larger scale, we also use them as general purpose knowledge factories, coming up with useful tools for our future and insights into our past.  I've written from this viewpoint extensively before and am somewhat partial to it, so I won't repeat myself.

The Ideal, as I understand it, is that Universites create and spread learning. 'Where Finbarr taught, let Munster learn" as goes the motto of my alma mater. By research they learn things no one knows yet. By teaching, they help students learn things they don't know yet. It's a passionate, messianic mission, to be a flamethrower of knowledge, setting the world ablaze.

The two answers don't really align all that well, (and both leave out other things, for the sake of clarity) but neither answer is wrong. This isn't arithmetic. The real world is messy. We can hold misaligned, conflicting ideas in our head and put them all to good use.

I was recently doing some thinking on behalf of a training company. Their mission is very different to the Universities, and very clear. They must make money. If the owner felt his capital and talents would be more profitable making biscuits instead of training, then to the kitchen he would go. Profit, in the near and longer term, is the measure of success. It's lovely, sure, that everyone enjoys the work and learns things, but that is secondary. The profit makes creating and protecting something of commercial value central. You need great teaching materials, and you need to protect their copyright. You need good trainers, and you need to deliver learning in a way you can bill for. The learning is a little candle, an arc welder. Hot and bright, perhaps, but kept somewhat hidden, except for paying customers.

True Universities are not for profit. Because the language of business leaks over, their leaders often forget that. Business Minded Managers, trotting out outdated MBA speak and talking about the balance sheet rise to the top, which spawns Reactionary Idealists in the ranks, who forget the mundane, utilitarian purpose on which to which their light of learning must shine, and frown on incursions of the practical. The language and ideas of business can be a powerful tool to make Universities work better, but the bottom line is different.

One of the really great things about the open educational resources movement (OER) is that is makes sense only when you remember The Mission, and sounds insane when you think you are a business. It's like a litmus test. Do you make all your teaching material available to the general public? If you are a for profit training company, no way. If your mission is to spread learning as much as possible, then, yes, obviously. How could you not. If it isn't good enough to share, it isn't good enough to teach with. Do you publish your research in expensive journals read by the few, or make it free for all to read? If your mission is to spread learning, it's a no brainer. It has to reach the widest audience. Are you wary of putting your teaching up on Youtube? So you should be, if you are in it for profit. You would only put up a sample of the good stuff, for marketing. Not for profit? Put every last minute of it online. St. Paul would have used a creative commons licence for his letters if he had one to hand, and so should you.

Universities need to keep the lights on and pay the wages, but that's a means to an end, not the end in itself. If they could make the light of learning blaze the brighter without those things, they should. A University balance sheet belongs closer to bankruptcy than any private business could bear. Training companies turn knowledge into cash. Universities turn cash into knowledge. Both should maximise the conversation ratio, using all means at their disposal, and neither should finish the year holding much stock.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Pay for outcome, not process.

Universities are funded, more or less, for bums on seats. Whether it's paid for by the taxpayers or parents, fees are paid for time present on the premises, It's paid just like day care, but without the Lego.

But what we're paying for - time on campus - isn't what we want to buy. What would happen if Universities were paid for outcomes? What if Universities were paid a balloon payment for each employment outcome, weighted in line with the graduates starting salary. 

Suddenly, pointless degrees that are cheap to deliver but go nowhere are a liability and go out the window. Universities fight tooth and nail for the best and brightest that can be placed quickly. They need to be sharp, and make sure they are teaching the skills employers really need. The careers office moves to the centre of the institution, instead of stuffed into a far corner beside Classics. The Alumni network is no longer simply a set of people to shake down for checks - a lead on a good jobfor an undergrad would be worth much more.

Life skills like communication become central, as they greatly enhance the saleability of the student. Even student activities, often funded but ignored, but a key aspect in rounding out a good saleable CV, take on a new importance.

Timing would become critical. If you have a bright girl in second year who could get a good job, should you try to place her, or convince her to stay for another year, to get a better salary. There are options at the bottom too. Taking in disadvantaged students in large numbers, and making them employable might help the bottom line considerably. Outcome payments could be weighted to favour placing disadvantaged students ('fixer uppers' if you will) over easy to place smart kids from good homes.

The institution that would be produced would be as different from the university of today as the shark from the whale, a lean mean beast ruthless in it's hunt for the best careers for it's students. Would I send my daughter there? I might. Would it be a more effective use of taxpayers money? You bet.

In a sense, this happens for research already. Departments and Institutions which fail to turn out demonstrably good outputs tend to find it hard to  win grants and sustain their funding down the line. Good results help to win the next grant, and success build on success. There are very few disciples which avoid this and manage to produce large amounts of unneeded research ("I have a little list, they never will be missed") but they are the happy exception.

It's a radical idea, but being radical is not itself a fault. Like most such ideas, the devil is in the details. There are a number of obvious problems, which I shall leave as an exercise for the commenter.  But at least it would align what we want - people with useful skills who can find a place in the world, with what we're paying for, and remove the incentive to underfund potentially expensive courses which lead to decent careers, and shortchange important skills, while supporting cheap degrees that shift hundreds of people from lecture hall to exam hall for four years, to no obvious benefit to anyone except keeping them off the unemployment rolls.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Do you see your students as products?

Do you see your students as products? It's ok, really, I'm not going to judge. Lot's of people see it that way. You can use whatever metaphor you like if it helps you get the job done.

Lot's of Universities, implicitly or implicitly, see students as products. School leavers go in, get their school educated heads deprogrammed, learn new stuff, grow up a bit, and go out the other end, ready to take their place in the knowledge economy. You can see Universities as the coal mines and steel mills of the information age churning out the raw feedstock of the knowledge economy.

If you see them as products, that's fine, but maybe you need to follow through with that idea a little bit and see where it takes you.

Firstly, the three and four year production line is a bit long, don't you think. Moves towards shorter, compressed degrees are a step to rectify this. If you feel students need the time to mature, fine, but is that part of what your University is good at? Maybe they can mature better someplace else? If you do want to mature them as well as educate them, is the campus/lectures model the best one? Shouldn't you be giving them credit for other things, like engagement with college life, clubs, societies and so forth?

It doesn't take a Lean Six Sigma guru to figure out that your physical assets, lecture rooms and so forth, are lying idle all weekend, much of the evening and substantial chunks of the year out of term. Summer schools, evening classes and so on help a bit, but some institutions run on two 11 week terms! I can't see Toyota running a plant day shift only for less than half a year for very long. Of course, you'd need to take on an extra shift or two, but that big campus probably costs as much as a semiconductor fab, or a pharmaceuticals plant. There's plenty of people trying to get in. Sweat the asset.

And what about market research? What employers 'buy' your graduates. Exactly what ones. No generalities, names and phone numbers. What do they think of them. You run lots of focus groups with the big employers, don't you? Don't you? You hardly you turn out something that costs tens of thousands of euros with no market research?  We'll, at least you follow up with the graduates every year to see exactly what they are doing and feed the data back into your course design. Don't you? I know they are hard to find, but we have this Facebook thing now, so it's no problem.

I could go on, but see where I'm going here. If you need the mental exercise, take any manufacturing paradigm you fancy and apply to the University. Enough of the insights will be relevant to make it worthwhile.

Seeing your students as products is a powerful, if impolitic, metaphor. Maybe it should prompt you to looking at how great products are really made in the 21st century, and what valid lessons can be taken from that to how your University churns out graduates. Of course, the 'student as product' metaphor breaks down in a bunch of ways, for starters, there is the mismatch between whoever is 'getting' the product and whoeever is paying for it, but that's a whole other post for another time. Just because the metaphor is imperfect doesn't dismiss the ideas it prompts.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Book Review: Cognitive Surplus

Clay Shirky is one of the best communicators around when it comes to how the web influences and changes society. Because the web is at the sharp end of a wedge of disruptive forces working to remodel Tertiary Education, Shirky is a must read.

The basic premise of the book is that we have heaps to leasure time in the first world, most of which we spent watching TV, because there wasn't much else to do with it. Now we have the web, and by connecting up this time, even a tiny amount of it can create extremely useful things. Wikipedia is the poster boy for this. It took about 100 million person hours to create, estimates Shirky, which is about as much time as the US spends watching TV ads. Such a tiny proportion of the available human 'down time' connected up by the web, can achieve remarkable things.

Shirky also talks about the end of what he calls 'Gutenberg Economics', where content is produced by a small number of professionals to a high standard and pumped out, one way to the masses. Everything from the Bible to Survivor is like this.  Much of what we assume is a given (like newspapers being big sheets produced each day, or degrees taking four years) are simply accidents of history, structuring content to suit the producers. We are now entering a post Gutenberg model, where anybody can produce content. It's not as good overall, but there is a lot more of it. He cites Lolcats (funny cat pictures with captions) as  the entry level here. They aren't very good, but they put people over the threshold from being passive consumers on the sofa, to creating something they can share with the world. Some of them will work their way up to better things, and overall the bar is raised.

The consequences for education are obvious enough. Even poor quality content, right here and now - Lolcat Education - is better than great stuff that is not accessible, locked away in a 20 credit hour course. Creating and sharing something - anything -  is better than simply consuming lectures. The good stuff will rise to the top. The conventional University system, where professionals produce education content in a capital intensive fashion and push it out in degree sized chunks is textbook Gutenberg economics, and has no special claim to be able to resist the changes than anything else.

Overall, this is an excellent read, well worth buying, especially if you haven't thought or read much on the area. Having read 'Here Comes Everybody', Shirky's earlier work, seen the TED talks and being fairly up with the play in the field, nothing in the book blew me away, but it was still worth reading to help draw together the ideas. It's a fairly light read. Shirky is a skilled narrator in start contrast to much of the overweening verbosity retched out by many academic 'writers'. If you aren't interested in his content, it's worth reading for a lesson on how real pros right non fiction for a mass market.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Natives have landed

This is a momentous month in Tertiary education, but it will be another five years before people notice exactly how, and what it means.
This month, in campuses all over the world, the first cohort of true digital natives are arriving, children who never lived in a world without web. The web became a publicly available service on August 6th 1991, and this is the first year where a substantial proportion of the new cohort were born after that date. They were four when eBay and Amazon was born, nine when the dotcom boom crashed, and ten when Wikipedia was born. When they turned to adolescence, Facebook and Bebo were waiting for them.
They are the first generation who always went online first when looking for information. Facts, for them, are things to be retrieved in seconds, not memorized or held in a revered old head. The limits of geography are to them a fading anachronism of the old days, slain by Ryanair and Skype. Their social networks connect them into an extended collective mind. New ideas flash across it, flower and die in hours. It's long term implications are unknown.
Much has been written about this generation web, generally by older academics, who don't hold with That Sort Of Thing, (whatever it is this year) or starry eyed prophets who see revolution on the wires, any minute now. Both will be shown to be wrong as this new generation transition to adulthood and find their own voices. They will be a generation like no other before them. Handle with care, and expect to be surprised.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Book Review: A History of the University in Europe Vol 1

You must know the past to see the future, so to the library I went. I've been reading Volume 1. of "A History of the University in Europe" edited by Walter Ruegg. For completeness sake, I'm posting a short review here, if you'll forgive me for going off piste a little, both in topic and style.

The Book is dull, scholarly and thorough.

It paints a richly detailed picture (or, perhaps, collection of jigsaw pieces) of the emergence of the European University in the high middle ages, describing how they emerged from the fog and assumed their more modern form. Chapters by different authors provide a fairly high level of detail about what is known on the subject. Sometimes it's too much detail, and because of that, and the multi author nature of the book, no grand narrative emerges to keep the pages turning. In fairness to the authors, it probably wasn't intended to be a page turner. I'd been hoping to get an idea of why Universities spread and survived so well in the period, but that picture isn't drawn, although there are clues. I'll have read the other three volumes in time, but I'm not looking forward to it.

Interestingly, the book views the University as a distinctly European institution, and dismisses any precursors from outside out of hand. I'm not an expert on medieval history, but that seems rash and Eurocentric, given that as European institutions were coming out of the murk, some fairly sophisticated institutions of higher learning existing on the other side of the Mediterranean in the Islamic world. Strangely, the very old institution in Constantinople, unarguably in Europe, and a University in all but name, is not mentioned at all. It seems improbable that European developments were not informed by those places. I suspect that the operating definition of a University was very much framed by form rather than function, which excluded other matters of importance.

To be fair, the book notes that little is really known about the ecosystem in which the universities fitted into.  What came before? How did they relate to the cathedral schools? Before attending, what kind of education did students have? There is a survivor bias here, Universities survived and kept their records, and bred scholars interested in researching their origins. Other institutions did not survive, and left little trace.

Other issues, significant factors, like the Medieval Warm Period and population increase, which drove European society forward to the point where the Universities could grow, get scarcely a mention. The High medieval period was an exciting time, you could call it 'Europe's false start' - cut short by the Great Famine and Black Death in the 14th century, but the book doesn't really give a good sense of the historical context. It's very much a fact basket book.

Nevertheless, the book is full of fascinating titbits and snippets, which illustrate how little has changed. For example, the tendency of lecturers to simply read through a body of notes and have students write them down, it seems, came from a time before printing when getting a book copies was an expensive proposition. Thus, students preferred lecturers to read the text so they could write it down.

Other insights show how little has changed in 800 Years:
  • On Meetings: "Little is learnt and the time needed for study is wasted in meetings and discussions" Phillippus de Grevia, on the new Universities, c1220AD.
  • On Student/Landlord disputes: Some of the earliest church documents pertaining to Universities relate to bishops laying down the law to limit sharp practices by landlords gouging students.
  • On Fees:  "Science is a gift from God, and cannot be sold" argued the medieval church. Teachers disagreed. The fees/no fees debate clearly goes back a long way.
No mention of University rankings in Volume 1, which covers to 1500AD. They appear to be a more recent torment.

Overall, a detailed and thorough work, full of tantalising snippets of information, but weak on context and big picture. Worth reading if you are interested and your local library has it, but I wouldn't have rushed out to buy it, or keenly read it if my interest was only casual.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

How to put Universities out of business

A University isn't a business, but it operates subject to the same laws of supply and demand, in the same ecosystem, even if its objectives aren't profit. So long what it produces is valued by society, and no competition exists, Universities will survive, regardless of what torments their governments or administrators put them through.

So what do Universities produce that we need so badly? Graduates.

Why do we need those again? It all comes down to employers. By looking at a resume and noting the institution, subject and grade, a prospective employer gets a vast amount of information about a students intellect, knowledge base and approximate character without the expense of an interview. A candidate pool of millions can by pre screened down to dozens with a few dozen characters of text.: BSc (UCC Geol) 1H, PhD. It's beautifully compact, ten to the tweet.

Now, imagine for a minute if Universities didn't exist. The Martians arrive one day and carry them off, leaving nothing but some empty real estate and a few torn flyers for the freshers ball. What would happen then?

Employers would have a problem. How could you filter for people with specific skills, aptitudes and background. How could you figure out who had grown up a bit, and who hadn't? Can't interview them all, it would take too long and cost too much.
The resumes would be like novels, full of odds and end. Imagine how many bits and pieces you would have to do to be, for example, a Vet? At the very least, you'd have to thoroughly read the resume, decide on the virtues of whatever courses they took, whatever work experiences they had, volunteer activities and so forth. It would be tedious and slow. Inefficient.

But this is the 21st century. Now we have machines for that kind of work, don't we?
If I wanted to put Universities out of business, I'd find a faster, cheaper way of filtering candidates for employment. Some way of tracking and assessing the true value of what a potential candidate has done and matching it to closely to potential employee needs. Stripped of the false simplicity of a degree, I could match personality and aptitude test results, more domain specific education at a much more granular level than a monolithic degree. Such a system would select candidates for interview who would be a much tighter fit to my needs than the gross level degree filtering. If we can unzip genomes and read from them useful information, surely we can unzip peoples life experience and map it to the right jobs and careers.

From the student perspective, instead of spending four years chunking through a monolithic primary degree, people could do a more varied mix of things, and have the same system advise them closely on what they aught to be doing to match whatever employment or career path they might be interested in. Instead of a degeee being a thing entered blindly at one end and exited traumatically after big bang finals, with hope and a scroll, it becomes a lifelong process as they student (and never, truly, a graduate) accumulates useful experience to steer them towards whatever they want to be.

Universities can be at the centre of this new model, if they move fast. They are well placed at the centre of a the education web, with strong established brands, considerable (if, presently, overstretched) resources and a strong incentive.

But they probably wont. They are too close to the current model to see anything different as anything other than nonsense, or a threat to be poo poo'd. There is a reason Amazon isn't called 'Waterstones' or 'Barnes and Noble', and eBay isn't called Buy and Sell. It takes an outsider to see the potential, and act on it. Someday, soon, someone will do this. The first few efforts will fail, for mundane reasons. These things happen. You can then dismiss the model, until one year, the applicant numbers start go top off, and then go down, little by little, until one fine day someone who is perhaps now only a middle ranking lecturer find the hard choice is the only one and turns out the lights.

At least you'll have some good real estate to sell.

Related Posts:
21st Century Assessment: The University of Farmville
The Qualifications Arms Race

Monday, September 13, 2010

University Rankings are Dinosaur Racing

I don't care about rankings, and neither should you. University Rankings are a bit like Miss World. Every year, people who purport in public not to take an interest in such nonsense surreptitiously tune in to how well they match up to the templates of Academic Beauty: Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge. Most find that, unlike Miss World, the well balanced rack of Nobel prize winning assets required to reach the top is not so easy to procure.

Academics, of course understand clearly the dangers of such simplistic rankings. But if giving a simple score measuring how closely a thing matches an unattainable ideal is folly, why do we do exactly that each year, giving 1st class honours to those whose minds, we find, most resemble our own. As you sow, so shall ye reap.

Some of the metrics that go into the rankings are worth considering. Just like Miss World might inspire one to maintain a healthy BMI, behind the University rankings there are some well considered metrics and KPI's that any University leader should be on top of.  But if University rankings were like Miss World, the ideal of beauty would be Eleanor of Aquitaine, or perhaps a muse of Rubens. The 'winners' are those who models have been successful in the past - often the quite distant past. It's a backward looking indicator, and those chasing purely rankings are chasing yesterdays dreams and ideal. It's like dinosaur racing.

Ignore the rankings. Think about what your institution needs to look like when you retire, or when you children or grandchildren attend. If you try to be like everyone else, you won't stand out from the pack in the global market. Find a different vision, chase a different dream. If some measure or KPI helps you do that, create your own ranking scheme, with metrics that are important for your own vision. Then strive to be the world number one at that. Take Coco Chanel's advice:
“In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.”

Monday, September 6, 2010

Are teachers necessary?

At Tertiary level, are teachers necessary?

It seems like a stupid question, but often stupid questions have interesting answers, if it is only that we understand the conditions that make it a stupid question, and whether those conditions might change. History has a way of undermining assumptions so that yesterdays stupid question is tomorrows front page surprise.

Teaching is facilitating or catalysing learning. If you teach at tertiary level, it's worth reflecting on how much of your time is spent actually doing that. Strike out the hours spent on college politics, bureaucracy and course management, research, lecturing and any marking that isn't properly formative with feedback and how much time is left for real teaching? Probably not so much.

Students have gotten used to that, and often teach each other. It's an open question how central that peer to peer learning really is, and how important it is to have a present guiding hand (see my MOOC post and comments thereon for some points on this), but it's fair to say a good slice of what you learn, you learn from trying to figure something out with the person next to you.

Advocates take that idea one step further. If teaching is the part of education that doesn't scale, and if tertiary education is becoming unaffordable, as it has for many, especially in the US, who needs it. The web has changed the game. Why endure third rate lecturers when you can find first rate ones online for free. Why pay extortionate rates for textbooks when the web is awash with free content. Why go to the cost and expense of physical attendance when you can find peer groups online in just about anything. If you really want to pay money for accreditation, there's any number of online for profit providers, like University of Pheonix, who will gladly take your money. Anya Kamenetz's book DIY:U  (see my review) competently summarises a lot of the thinking in the field, but the ideas go back a long way, at least as far as Illich's 1971 book, Deschooling Society.

It's generally been a fairly left wing idea, with Birkenstocks on it's feet and a chip on it's shoulder. But it's origin has no relevance to it's quality. Even if it is a terrible idea, it can still be important and influential (consider, for example, much of Economics as a wellspring of influential, profoundly bad ideas). It's also an idea that might find allies beyond it's left wing originators. To those who see teachers as 'Salary Costs, Fixed' finding a model for teacherless learning will surely be compelling. If it can be done, they'll find a way. Business models that cut to the bone, pile high and sell cheap tend to do very well, and bring things to people who couldn't afford them otherwise. You might hate Ryanair, but are you going to take the Bus instead? Somebody, quick tell Africa tertiary education is important, but they can't have it until they can afford tenured professorships.

Can it work? It works all the time for informal learning. Lack of a teacher is practically a definition of informal learning. The web has certainly made it possible to learn a lot more informally than before, while at the same time extending the reach and firepower of 'hyperteachers' like the Khan Academy into an informal space. We've slowly cottoned on to the idea that maybe a not so good Youtube right now for free is better than a really great class next year sometime.

But can informal, teacherless learning conquer all?

My current opinion is no (but I'm ideologically fickle - change my mind). I've had some excellent teacher catalysed learning experiences as a student, (generally from Postgraduate teaching assistants it must be said). Probably one of the most important elements of teaching is contriving situations (assessments, labs and so forth) where the student fumbles through and learns something on the way, often without any direct intervention at all. My most significant learning experience was one of those, 53 days of field work, entirely alone, but addressing a challenge first imagined by some long forgotten Professor. More on that in another post. That kind of teaching, the creation of learning experiences, can often scale very well indeed. If I wanted to make teachers redundant, or catalyse more learning with the ones I have, I'd look hard at that.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Can MOOCs make learning scale?

One of the big challenges of education is that it doesn't really scale well. At primary and secondary level, pupil teacher ratios are political hot potatoes with good reason. At big ratios students don't get individual attention. Bump classes up beyond any small number and the teacher can't keep a handle on who is or isn't up with the play, can't dip down and interact one to one with the students to work through a difficulty. They can't teach, basically. They fall back on lecturing and crowd control.

Lecturing now, is a different story. Lecturing scales really well. You can lecture a million almost as easily as 10. People (usually lecturers, as you would imagine) often mix up lecturing, as the signature pedagogy of the University, with teaching. Ideas like iTunesU and are great for disseminating lectures, but that isn't teaching and learning. It should be called iTunesLectures, not iTunesUniversity.

Technology has not, so far, been able to solve this problem. People in technology circles who have never taught anything, and evidently, haven't learned much either, often miss this point. The same webtech wheezes that have ripped up conventional media can't rip up Education. Education isn't media.

MOOC, or Massively Open Online Courses, are one fair effort at leveraging technology to make education scale. There's a good paper about the format and the issues involved online now "The Ideals and reality of participating in a MOOC" which gives a good overview of the model, and the issues encountered. It's worth a read. Basically in a MOOC the course is online, it's somewhat unstructured, the format uses pretty much any kind of web tool you can think of to facilitate a big networked conversation on the topic. Courses can have thousands of participants, some for credit, other not, some engaging, some not. The first instance ran in 2008, led by Stephen Downes and George Siemens, key thought leaders in the field.

Personally, I found the format hard to engage with and commit to, but that's probably more to do with me than it. I'm slow to pan the format, because it's early days, and only a handful of MOOCs have run, but the paper linked above seems to resonate with my concerns about it. I don't think it's going to solve the problem as it stands, but it's probably as close as we've gotten.

Learning comes, in part from a dialogue.  That dialogue is one to one, between someone who knows a lot about it, and someone who wants to know a lot about it. Lecturing (or reading) is only half of it, it's a monologue. It's often hard to ask questions in a lecture, impossible in a book.

A core part of the concept of a MOOC is peer to peer learning, through dialogue. But it's a dialogue between 2000 people who all know a little bit about the topic, with the course leaders piping in from time to time. It's as likely to confuse as enlighten. A big online course, with some lecture/readings, some student chats is a good effort at a fusion, but even the most hyperactive educator isn't going to be able to run around and engage with more than a few dozen students, or have any clear idea of who knows what.

I think perhaps the MOOC a stronger model for the humanities, where there is often no single clear answer (I squandered my college years in the hard sciences, where we pretend there is). It's certainly a better model than everyone sitting in a lecture hall taking notes. On balance, until something new comes out on the technology side, it's probably one of the best models around for mega scale cost effective learning. If you teach in University, get on one if you have a chance, and see how they work. If I hear of another coming up I'll let you know.