Amid all the hoo-har about MOOCs and the will-they won’t-they debate over their impact on university business models, a piece by Tom Friedman caught my eye the other day on the rise of the ‘celebrity professor’. The stimulus for the Friedman article was a conference he attended last week hosted by Harvard University and MIT where academics and administrators from these two elite US universities discussed the rise of online courses and the ramifications for residential colleges and universities. One outcome, as Inside Higher Ed reports, is that MOOCs are certainly prompting some faculty to pay more attention to their teaching styles than they ever have before.
Friedman notes that not every academic is likely to generate a rock-star following following their entry into MOOCdom, but he issues a grave warning to the rest us mere mortal when he states:
This slide deck I presented at a senior leadership conference at Griffith University last week.
The essence of my argument is that the higher education sector is entering a perfect storm with the problems of student indebtedness, budget deficits and graduate unemployment looming large, combining with the disruptive innovation from the non-university private sector providing what appear to be viable alternatives to a traditional university education.
The solution, I believe, is to ‘mainstream the disruption’. To sit back and continue with business as usual would be a courageous decision (to borrow from Sir Humphrey Appleby).
There was a star-studded round table session at the World Economic Forum at Davos last week entitled ‘RevolutiOnline.edu: Online Education Changing the World’. The session was moderated by Thomas Friedman, and the speakers included Larry Summers (former Harvard President), Bill Gates, Peter Theil (Founder’s Fund), Rafael Reif (MIT President), Sebastian Thrun (Udacity), Daphne Koller (Coursera), and a 12-year-old Pakistani girl who has been taking MOOCs.
The video recording runs for 68 minutes which is longer than the average attention span these days, but it is pretty compelling viewing.
After almost a decade away in the corporate world, I don’t think I could have picked a better time to return to mainstream academia. Universities are changing — largely because of external pressures it must be said — and I can sense an openness to new thinking about pedagogy that wasn’t in evidence before. A key driver, I think, is the ubiquity of technology.
Whether we are talking about desktops, laptops, tablets or hand-helds, access to ICTs is no longer strictly the realm of the geek. Walk into any classroom in a university these days and its like a technology park. The big question, of course, is the extent to which all this hardware is actually serving to enhance learning.
My friend Larry Medina sent me a link today to Mark Cuban’s latest blog post entitled The Coming Meltdown in College Education & Why The Economy Won’t Get Better Any Time Soon. This is the latest in growing list of commentaries on the subject going back a couple of years now. There are cool infographics on the issue (see here, for example), and even a wikipedia entry, testimony, perhaps, to the seriousness with which this matter is being treated. Cuban — for his part — certainly doesn’t pull any punches. Take this segment for example:
At some point potential students will realize that they can’t flip their student loans for a job in 4 years. In fact they will realize that college may be the option for fun and entertainment, but not for education. Prices for traditional higher education will skyrocket so high over the next several years that potential students will start to make their way to non accredited institutions.
While colleges and universities are building new buildings for the english , social sciences and business schools, new high end, un-accredited, BRANDED schools are popping up that will offer better educations for far, far less and create better job opportunities.
As an employer I want the best prepared and qualified employees. I could[n’t] care less if the source of their education was accredited by a bunch of old men and women who think they know what is best for the world. I want people who can do the job. I want the best and brightest. Not a piece of paper.
The competition from new forms of education is starting to appear. Particularly in the tech world. Online and physical classrooms are popping up everywhere. They respond to needs in the market. They work with local businesses to tailor the education to corporate needs. In essence assuring those who excel that they will get a job. All for far far less money than traditional schools.
I read a great piece, Jailbreaking the Degree, in TechCrunch the other day (courtesy of Meetali Mukherjee).
In essence the author — @davidblake, founder of Degreed — makes the point that a university degree continues to be the most meaningful ‘unit’ of education in the eyes of employers, notwithstanding its inherent inefficiencies (e.g. compulsion to study courses irrelevant to one’s interests or, indeed, those of a prospective employer), yet it need not be so, or at least not in its present form. Sadly, online education providers have yet to make any serious inroads into the higher education monopoly controlled by universities because, as @kevincarey points out, while the business models of these institutions may be different, ‘their product — traditional credentials in the form of a degree — is not’.
I do have an anecdote, though, dating back to 2003 when @joannejacobs and me tried out a group blog for the first time with an MBA class (we published a paper on the subject in AJET the following year). In this class, one individual developed quite a following because of the high quality of their posts. The person in question had a Chinese name and I’m ashamed to say that — at this time — I did not know if they were male or female. It was quite a large class, and it only ran for six weeks, so I didn’t get to put a face to everybody’s name. At the end of the term, the mystery blogger — a mainland Chinese woman — stayed behind at the end of the last class to personally thank me for allowing her to participate! She was a very intelligent individual who had not been game enough enter into the verbal jousting with the group of extrovert Australian males that had tended to dominate proceeedings during in-class discussions.
The lesson I learnt from this is that, online, everyone has an equally loud voice. Importantly, people get to contribute who might otherwise not, and others in the group benefit considerably from their insights.
This classic clip from a Father Guido Sarducci stand up routine was shown a couple of times as a conference I attended recently. Unfortunately, this caricature of the extent and depth of learning at university is not too far from the truth. Ideally, learning experience should translate into competence, but so long as assessments focus on testing memories rather than skills, the probability of this happening remains low.
This problem has become particularly acute in recent times as the gap between university curricula and the knowledge and skills required in a digital age has widened. It has been a hot topic in India for a while now, but as a quick Google search demonstrates, it is a global problem.
The solution? Well, Father Sarducci may have the right formula. Start by asking what a graduate should be able to do once they finish.
Hopefully, this should take longer than five minutes.
I have blogged about Singapore’s FutureSchools projects in the past, and this latest clip from Edutopia would seem to indicate that serious progress is being made. The true success of this initiative, of course, will be the extent to which these practices will be rolled out to all schools in Singapore, and in this respect, professional development will be critical.
An interesting point to emerge from this video is that the approach taken to professional development in the FutureSchools project is to embrace the same participatory learning culture they are nurturing in their classrooms. Using technology, there is group peer observation of class sessions with the dual objective of learning from one another and providing constructive feedback.
More formal education and training in the use of ICTs in the classroom (in K-12 or higher education) is not that widely available. The Asian International College in Singapore is aiming to fix this with the launch if its Postgraduate Certificate in Education (Digital Pedagogies) this year.