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.