Tag Archives: university


What would further education look like if it was run more like Wikipedia? That’s the question asked by a chap called David J Staley at the Educause conference in Anaheim, California last week, who thinks it’s a pretty good idea [via SlashDot]:

First, it wouldn’t have formal admissions, said Mr. Staley, director of the Harvey Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching at Ohio State University. People could enter and exit as they wished. It would consist of voluntary and self-organizing associations of teachers and students “not unlike the original idea for the university, in the Middle Ages,” he said. Its curriculum would be intellectually fluid.

[ Those of you who’ve read Zen & The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance may be reminded of Phaedrus’ University… ]

And instead of tenure, it would have professors “whose longevity would be determined by the community,” Mr. Staley said, and who would move back and forth between the “real world” and the university.

Universities “seem to be becoming more top-down and hierarchical at a time when more and more organizations are looking more like networks,” said Mr. Staley…

Not everyone agrees with Staley, of course:

“… he clearly understands Wikipedia about as well as he understands universities. That is, not very well. Wikipedia is peculiar. Its brilliance is in its peculiarity. It’s also more static, intellectually conservative, and elite-governed than most people believe.”

Valid points, but I think the problem is due to Staley using a specific institution as a placeholder for a more general set of ideas and methods; yes, Wikipedia is flawed (just like any human institution), but its underlying principles are symptomatic of a phase change in the way we look at organisation, which is what I suspect Staley was getting at.

We’ve discussed further education’s increasing unsuitability-for-purpose before, and much of that unsuitability comes from the rigidity of its hierarchical approach to both organisation and the categorisation of knowledge; a more open, flexible and fluid system might not produce the same numbers of people equipped with expensive pieces of vellum, but I suspect it would produce a lot more people with knowledge that was actually useful to them in the chaos of the contemporary economy. That said, until you manage to convince employers to hire people on the basis of their actual skillsets instead of their paper qualifications, you’re going to struggle to convince academia to abandon the business-like model that it currently operates under.

Interestingly, this chimes with a UK-based project I’ve been invited to get involved with, which I will discuss further when it’s more fully developed…

Bill Gates sez: screw university, study online

In case any of Mister Gates’ lawyers are reading this, the above headline is a deliberately overstated paraphrasing (it’s how we write on the intertubes, y’know). But the nugget of truth is there: Ol’ Bill spoke at the Technonomy conference last week, and suggested that in another five years or so, more people will be studying online than in universities and colleges [via SlashDot].

I presume he means colleges and universities in the US, though I’d suggest that “first world” nations like the US and the UK will actually have the slowest rate of take-up for online study, as university attendance has the weight and kudos of long tradition to prop it up. But as distrust of the higher and further education systems grows, and more and more new graduates come to realise they’ve put themselves deep into the debt hole for a piece of paper that makes little or no difference to their employment prospects, a shift to what we might call “entrepreneurial learning” is pretty inevitable. Take me as an example: I build websites for a living, but have never had so much as a minute of formal tuition or education in the field; I just googled my way into it, found out what I needed to know as I needed to know it.

But the more important factor here is motivation: as the cost of formal education soars, people will think more carefully about why they’re studying. A degree is much less a means to an end than it used to be, and much as I’ve repeatedly considered doing a degree by distance learning, it’s for the satisfaction of the accomplishment rather than any illusion that my employability would be significantly enhanced. Hence “entrepreneurial learning”: skills and conceptual frameworks acquired with purpose in response to direct needs, rather than abstract knowledge sets accumulated toward a set of targets that may well have no equivalent in the employment marketplace.

The bad side to this, of course, is the lack of clear metrics for employers as to what a potential employee knows. But from anecdotal evidence that’s as least as old as I am, that’s been a problem with the existing system for some time. Perhaps we’ll see a return to competency testing in job interviews? The rise of a sort of zaibatsu-apprenticeship system? A greater percentage of freelance workers in a greater range of industries?


This week’s Zeitgeist was brought to you by… growing mistrust of the American higher education system, and of higher education in general! First of all, the business world wakes up from the hangover of the economic collapse and starts wondering whether the ubiquitous business degree was a root cause of the indulgences of the night before [via Bruce Sterling].

The truth is that the relevance of the technical training allegedly offered by the MBA was always overblown. The idea that there is some body of knowledge pertaining to business management that can be packaged up and distributed to the business universe in two-year course-lets—well, it sounded good about a century ago, when it was first conceived. Maybe it still had merit when the schools were turning out only a few thousand graduates per year. But it certainly stopped making sense well before the schools achieved their current level of production of a whopping 140,000 or so graduates per year. The empirical evidence on the contribution of the MBA to individual career performance seems to bear this out—mainly because it doesn’t exist. In fact, if the relevance of an M.D. to the performance of doctors were even half as unsubstantiated, we’d probably be fantasizing about tossing a few physicians in jail, too.

The other truth helpfully revealed in the throes of the crisis is that ethics and integrity and social responsibility aren’t just optional extras for good business management—unless by “management,” you mean “looting.” Managers don’t need to be trained; they need to be educated—in the sense of “civilized.” Unfortunately, a business degree isn’t just irrelevant to that purpose; it’s positively detrimental.

Next, The Economist wonders why vocational education is still so frowned upon, even though it would be demonstrably more useful than college degrees [via TechnOccult]:

America has a unique disdain for vocational education. It has supported such training since 1917; money now comes from the Perkins Act, which is reauthorised every six years. However, many Americans hate the idea of schoolchildren setting out on career paths—such predetermination, they think, threatens the ethos of opportunity. As wages have risen for those with college degrees, scepticism of CTE has grown too. By 2005 only one-fifth of high-school students specialised in an industry, compared with one-third in 1982. The share of 17-year-olds aspiring to four-year college, meanwhile, reached 69% in 2003, double the level of 1981. But the fact remains that not every student will graduate from university. This may make politicians uncomfortable, but it is not catastrophic. The Council of Economic Advisers projects faster-growing demand for those with a two-year technical-college degree, or specific training, than for those with a full university degree.

Meanwhile, down in Chennai (formerly known as Madras), the (degree-carrying) head honcho of Zoho (a software-as-service outfit) explains why he makes a point of not hiring programmers with degrees [via SlashDot]:

We started to ask “What if the college degree itself is not really that useful? What if we took kids after high school, train them ourselves?” I talked to a lot of people internally, and one of our product managers introduced me to his uncle, a college professor, who he thought might be interested in hearing me out. As I shared our observations on recruiting, he shared his own experience in over twenty years teaching Mathematics and later Computer Science. It turned out we shared a common passion. He joined us within a month to start our “AdventNet University” as we very imaginatively called it. This was in 2005. He went to schools around Chennai to recruit students. So as not to distract anyone from their existing plans, we waited till the school year ended, went to several schools to ask for bright students who were definitely not going to college for whatever reason (usually economic). We then called on those students and their parents, and explained our plan. We started with an initial batch of six students in 2005, who were in the age range 17 or 18.

That proved to be an outstanding success. Within 2 years, those students would become full time employees, their work performance indistinguishable from their college-educated peers. We have since expanded the program, with the latest batch of students consisting of about 20, recruited not just from Chennai but smaller towns and villages in the region.

And finally, the quasi-legal funding schemes of derugulated Russian universities could be taken to represent an expression of “spontaneous capitalist neoconservatism” – one that other European institutions are keen to copy, even though the evidence shows that an increase in private funding actually leads to a decline in educational quality:

Public universities of the continental Europe (France, Germany) have 8-10 per cent of their budgets coming from non-public sources.[1] Certain UK universities, which are often used as a didactic model by advocates of reform, receive up to 28 per cent of their budget from endowments, tuition fees and other publicly independent sources. Russian universities do not provide the public with statistics of this kind, with excuses such as calculation difficulties or appealing to the principle “it depends on what is taken into account”. Nevertheless, in private discussions administrators of several large public universities and departments indicate a proportion of “around 50 per cent” from private sources, which corresponds quite well with expert estimations of 45-55 per cent given in the early 2000s. Even if university managers always love to get more from the public budget, last year’s State programs and State institutional grants, unknown in the Nineties and even in the first half of the current decade, may result in some indigestion syndrome among university structures.

I’m not sure that mistrusting the value of a diploma is a new thing – my father used to joke about how one should “hire a fresh graduate, while they still think they know everything” – but these questions sure fit in neatly with the current trend for wondering where we went wrong, and whether we might be able to avoid doing it again. Whether we’ll actually make the changes we need to (or even recognise them) remains to be seen, natch.

Dead Institutions Beat: home-study degrees on a shoestring

Will the university be the next institution to fall to the onslaught of the internet? Probably not just yet, but the brick-and-mortar halls of learning are going to suffer badly against start-ups like StraighterLine, which offers online PhD-designed all-you-can-eat higher education courses… for just $99 a month. [via MetaFilter]

StraighterLine is the brainchild of a man named Burck Smith, an Internet entrepreneur bent on altering the DNA of higher education as we have known it for the better part of 500 years. Rather than students being tethered to ivy-covered quads or an anonymous commuter campus, Smith envisions a world where they can seamlessly assemble credits and degrees from multiple online providers, each specializing in certain subjects and—most importantly—fiercely competing on price. Smith himself may be the person who revolutionizes the university, or he may not be. But someone with the means and vision to fundamentally reorder the way students experience and pay for higher education is bound to emerge.

In recent years, Americans have grown accustomed to living amid the smoking wreckage of various once-proud industries—automakers bankrupt, brand-name Wall Street banks in ruins, newspapers dying by the dozen. It’s tempting in such circumstances to take comfort in the seeming permanency of our colleges and universities, in the notion that our world-beating higher education system will reliably produce research and knowledge workers for decades to come. But this is an illusion. Colleges are caught in the same kind of debt-fueled price spiral that just blew up the real estate market. They’re also in the information business in a time when technology is driving down the cost of selling information to record, destabilizing lows.

Here in the UK we have something called The Open University, which operates under a pretty similar distance-learning/subscription system… but not at that sort of bargain price-tag.

Decoupling quality higher education from temporal and financial restrictions is potentially a very disruptive technological step – not just for the US or other Western countries, but for the whole world. Those restrictions are what has traditionally deterred or prevented the less privileged from competing on qualifications in the employment marketplace, and outfits like StraighterLine could theoretically help reverse (or at least stabilise) the widening gap between the world’s rich and poor.

Of course, the prospect of even more people with degree-level qualifications might well devalue them even further, at least temporarily; the sheer number of courses here in the UK has left the job market saturated with unemployable graduates who have little to show for three years’ work (or partying) but a big chunk of debt. But if people who really want or need a practical or in-demand degree – and, more importantly, who are willing to work hard and quickly to get it – find themselves able to bypass the old institutions, I’m guessing we’ll see a lot less people going to college or university as a way of deferring the initial plunge into employment; free markets work in interesting ways.

2020 – Varsity’s end?

empty university lecture hallUnless they start to adapt quickly, colleges and universities could become irrelevant in little more than a decade. So claims Professor David Wiley, at any rate, using arguments that should be familiar to die-hard internet denizens and futurists:

America’s colleges and universities, says Wiley, have been acting as if what they offer — access to educational materials, a venue for socializing, the awarding of a credential — can’t be obtained anywhere else. By and large, campus-based universities haven’t been innovative, he says, because they’ve been a monopoly.

But Google, Facebook, free online access to university lectures, after-hours institutions such as the University of Phoenix, and virtual institutions such as Western Governors University have changed that. Many of today’s students, he says, aren’t satisfied with the old model that expects them to go to a lecture hall at a prescribed time and sit still while a professor talks for an hour.

Higher education doesn’t reflect the life that students are living, he says. In that life, information is available on demand, files are shared, and the world is mobile and connected. Today’s colleges, on the other hand, are typically “tethered, isolated, generic, and closed,” he says.

It’s the “open everything” argument, of course, but it’s given a certain extra weight in this instance because Wiley lectures at Brigham Young University, a small private university owned by the Mormon church; if they can see the writing on the wall and admit to it, then change is definitely afoot (although Wiley makes the point that establishments like Brigham Young offer “a religious education and the chance to meet and marry an LDS Church member”, which is effectively a kind of social network attraction, albeit a non-technological one). [via Technovelgy; image by Shaylor]

I’d go a few steps further, though. Wiley suggests that “universities would still make money, though, because they have a marketable commodity: to get college credits and a diploma, you’d have to be a paying customer.” I’m not sure how things stand in the US, but here in the UK we have a saturation of graduates with qualifications that are either oversupplied or effectively irrelevant to obtaining a job (in parallel with a decline in the number of science and engineering graduates); as further education has become much more expensive (as a result of the government’s efforts to make it available to all, ironically) its final product has become devalued. What most employers want now is experience and demonstrable ability – two things that a diploma does not guarantee in any way.

So perhaps we’ll see a return to something like the old guild apprenticeship system, wherein people work for a company at the same time as they take an assortment of modular courses with direct relevance to the job in question, moving up the ranks as they gain – and demonstrate – the specialist knowledge and skills required, at the pace which best suits them. There’d be nothing to prevent someone learning beyond their discipline if they so chose, or spending a lifetime in pursuit of academic achievement.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’m put in mind of “Phaedrus’s university” as described in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (yes, I do have a hippie streak, as if you hadn’t guessed), the most important component of which is the way it decouples education from coercion, obligation and standardised achievement metrics. Pirsig’s ideas were considered pretty radical in their time, and largely dismissed as unworkable; in the light of the ever-growing ubiquity of the web and free content, maybe it’s time to take another look.