Sunday, June 14, 2009

The impending demise of the university

Don Tapscott, who is a business executive, author of more than a dozen books on technology, president of a think tank, and a part-time professor in a university school of management, implies a fairly provocative claim in this article: The impending demise of the university.

Actually, he stops short of predicting outright the demise of universities, but he does begin with this:
For fifteen years, I've been arguing that the digital revolution will challenge many fundamental aspects of the University. I've not been alone. In 1998, none other than, Peter Drucker predicted that big universities would be "relics" within 30 years.

He cites various social, economic, and technological trends that could support such a prediction. I tend to agree with the idea that significant changes lie ahead for universities as we know them today – changes larger in magnitude than have occurred in the past 50 years, at least, even if not ultimately catastrophic ones.

There will probably, in 50 years, still be universities around not too unlike the ones we know now. However, I would guess they will probably provide education to a significantly smaller part of the population than they do today.

I won't outline all the details of the argument; they're in the article. I just want to focus on a few key points.

Tapscott is fairly critical of the model of professors lecturing to large halls full of students:
The broadcast model might have been perfectly adequate for the baby-boomers, who grew up in broadcast mode, watching 24 hours a week of television (not to mention being broadcast to as children by parents, as students by teachers, as citizens by politicians, and when then entered the workforce as employees by bosses). But young people who have grown up digital are abandoning one-way TV for the higher stimulus of interactive communication they find on the Internet. In fact television viewing is dropping and TV has become nothing more than ambient media for youth — akin to Muzak. Sitting mutely in front of a TV set — or a professor — doesn't appeal to or work for this generation. They learn differently best through non-sequential, interactive, asynchronous, multi-tasked and collaborative. [emphasis added]

(Aside: Tapscott clearly is not a master of English prose.)

In fact, Tapscott is not saying anything new or surprising here. It's true that young people today have grown up amid much more ambient media than existed, say, 50 years ago. However, large lectures were not especially appealing to most students even 50 years ago – or probably ever.

We should recall what has traditionally been considered a better model for higher education, as expressed a few years ago by the Provost of Drexel University:
When asked to describe his ideal of higher education, President James A. Garfield described it as then Williams College President Mark Hopkins sitting on one end of a log with his student sitting on the other end. This image of the learned professor imparting the wealth of knowledge of culture and history, arts and science, to his student and protégé evokes images of Aristotle and Plato and the Akademia in Athens. Akademia – to Plato a place, a city park, in ancient Athens. To us a word that describes what we are about, what we do for others and ourselves, and what we can be.

It's no accident that Plato depicted Socrates as teaching through dialogs with his students. Obviously, that has not been economically feasible in most lower division courses (or many graduate level courses) in universities for a long, long time. Tapscott does eventually point out that technology may be able to make something like this interactive model viable more broadly in the future.

Tapscott decries what he calls the "industrial model" of education:
The basic model of pedagogy is broken. "Broadcast learning" as I've called it is no longer appropriate for the digital age and for a new generation of students who represent the future of learning.

In the industrial model of student mass production, the teacher is the broadcaster. A broadcast is by definition the transmission of information from transmitter to receiver in a one-way, linear fashion. The teacher is the transmitter and student is a receptor in the learning process.

Here's a paper (PDF) that gives some background on what Tapscott means by "industrial model":
The academic profession and academic institutions, as they exist in America today, were born of the 19th-Century importation of the model of the "research university" from Germany. The founding of Johns Hopkins on the German model (1867) and the appointment of Charles William Eliot (a strong proponent of the model) as president of Harvard (1869) are usually cited as definitive events of this movement. This German model introduced the idea of the university as a site where knowledge is "produced," as a research "factory" or "powerhouse," and it embraced the advancement of knowledge – that is, scholarly productivity – in specialized fields of investigation as its central goal. The metaphors of production, manufacture, and power reflect the origin and location of this academic model in the industrialized society and economy of Western Europe.

Tapscott believes that the exposure young people have had to the Internet and pervasive media has motivated them to demand a different approach to education. It's possible that this is true, but most reasonably intelligent students for many decades have felt the same way. Quite possibly students are better prepared to handle a different approach now. Speaking of today's students, Tapscott says
They're used to multi-tasking, and have learned to handle the information overload. They expect a two-way conversation. What's more, growing up digital has encouraged this generation to be active and demanding enquirers. Rather than waiting for a trusted professor to tell them what's going on, they find out on their own on everything from Google to Wikipedia. [emphasis added]

Tapscott seems to think that it's professors themselves who prefer the broadcast lecture model. The truth is that some people do enjoy presenting lectures, and some of them are very good at it. However, most lecturers (in my experience) are not very good at it, even when experts in their field. They may talk too fast, or too slow, lack organization, and can be just plain boring. This is quite likely an indication that the professors themselves don't enjoy preparing and presenting lectures. They'd rather be doing research, or even interacting personally with students. However that may be, Tapscott offers this advice:
The professors who remain relevant will have to abandon the traditional lecture, and start listening and conversing with the students — shifting from a broadcast style and adopting an interactive one.

I suspect most professors wouldn't have much objection to this approach – if only their employers could afford to pay current salaries at a much lower student-teacher ratio.

Economics is really the crux of the matter. Universities could not afford to make the change, nor could students (or their parents) afford to bear the cost. So here's where technology comes in: The solution is for those teachers who most enjoy lecturing, and do the best job of it, to have their lectures digitally recorded and made available on the Internet. This is not rocket science, now that high-speed Internet is spreading rapidly (though not rapidly enough), and practically every student has (at least in Western countries) Internet access. The only barriers now are economic, and the willingness of universities to adapt.

It's true that students give up some interactivity with the lecturer when not physically present in the same room. But when professors are freed from the chore of preparing and presenting live lectures, they may instead use Internet tools to interact with their students in models that are much more like a Socratic dialogs or Mark Hopkins on a log.

Tapscott has some additional recommendations as to how professors should change their style:
Second, they should encourage students to discover for themselves, and learn a process of discovery and critical thinking instead of just memorizing the professor's store of information. Third, they need to encourage students to collaborate among themselves and with others outside the university. Finally, they need to tailor the style of education to their students' individual learning styles. [emphasis added]

Has the point about the benefits of collaboration among students, and between students and knowledgeable teachers and experts, been made enough yet? No? Then Tapscott makes it again:
Some leading educators are calling for this kind of massive change; one of these is Richard Sweeney, university librarian at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He says the education model has to change to suit this generation of students. Smart but impatient, they like to collaborate and they reject one-way lectures, he notes.

And once more for good measure:
Another fixture of old-style learning is the assumption that students should learn on their own. Sharing notes in an exam hall, or collaborating on some of the essays and homework assignments, was strictly forbidden. Yet the individual learning model is foreign territory for most Net Geners, who have grown up collaborating, sharing, and creating together online. Progressive educators are recognizing this. Students start internalizing what they've learned in class only once they start talking to each other, says Seely Brown: "The whole notion of passively sitting and receiving information has almost nothing to do with how you internalize information into something that makes sense to you. Learning starts as you leave the classroom, when you start discussing with people around you what was just said. It is in conversation that you start to internalize what some piece of information meant to you."

In point of fact, collaboration among students on homework assignments was not always strictly forbidden in the past. Wise educators (which doesn't necessarily mean all educators) have (as far as I can tell) always been quite aware that good learning goes on when students confer with their peers – especially peers who may have achieved a better grasp of the subject – or when students get together in groups to work on assignments. Good educators have always encouraged such things. (Tests should eventually sort out who has really learned something and who hasn't.)

I think there are two ideas that pretty much sum up this whole discussion. One is multi-way interaction (as opposed to reliance solely on 1-to-many lecturing). The second, not unrelated, is collaboration among educators and students, and especially among students themselves.

I also think it's pretty clear some ways the modern Internet is able to facilitate the implementation of both these ideas. Namely, things like: video lecture series, social networking tools, constantly improving search tools, online and open-access books, journals, and reference materials, collaboratively made encyclopedias, and on, and on....

Let me conclude by referring to something I wrote about two months ago, that is Clay Shirky's diagnosis of the impending demise of traditional media journalism. (See here.) Near the end was this:
[T]here is one possible answer to the question “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.

Journalism has always been subsidized. Sometimes it’s been Wal-Mart and the kid with the bike. Sometimes it’s been Richard Mellon Scaife. Increasingly, it’s you and me, donating our time.

In other words: collaboration among consumers of information.

Interesting parallel, wouldn't you say?


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Anonymous melior said...

They learn differently best through non-sequential, interactive, asynchronous, multi-tasked and collaborative.

Yeah but, Marshall McLuhan said it in complete sentences.

6/15/2009 08:27:00 PM  
Blogger Charles Daney said...

I think I indicated that Tapscott might not be an exemplary writer.

6/21/2009 08:57:00 PM  

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