Don Tapscott on the Demise of the University

by Andy Polaine on June 4, 2009

in General

Don Tapscott has a piece in Edge today called The Impending Demise of the University. In it he takes the same line that I have been for some time in Designing Education’s Future, The Future Isn’t What It Used To Be as well as the idea that Google isn’t making us dumb, smart is changing. (Not that I’m saying Tapscott nicked my ideas, of course, but rather than great minds, etc., etc.)

The basic issue is that traditional education is broadcast – you tell a group of people to be in a certain place at a certain time and spray information at them. This is something that really hasn’t changed since the Victorians stopped beating kids and putting them down mines and stuck them in classrooms instead. The dressing has changed, but the pedagogy hasn’t. The culture of students has changed radically, however.

From the Edge piece:

Universities are finally losing their monopoly on higher learning, as the web inexorably becomes the dominant infrastructure for knowledge sweeney both as a container and as a global platform for knowledge exchange between people.

Meanwhile on campus, there is fundamental challenge to the foundational modus operandi of the University — the model of pedagogy. Specifically, there is a widening gap between the model of learning offered by many big universities and the natural way that young people who have grown up digital best learn.

The old-style lecture, with the professor standing at the podium in front of a large group of students, is still a fixture of university life on many campuses. It’s a model that is teacher-focused, one-way, one-size-fits-all and the student is isolated in the learning process. Yet the students, who have grown up in an interactive digital world, learn differently. Schooled on Google and Wikipedia, they want to inquire, not rely on the professor for a detailed roadmap. They want an animated conversation, not a lecture. They want an interactive education, not a broadcast one that might have been perfectly fine for the Industrial Age, or even for boomers. These students are making new demands of universities, and if the universities try to ignore them, they will do so at their peril.

When my colleagues and I wrote a paper about dispelling some myths of online education we touched upon some of this and it has guided our views ever since. I always had the feeling my other colleagues were mildly interested before mildly dismissing it as a fad and moving on. But a set of converging issues – declining student numbers, rising fees, an aging population, private institutions and more – are a very real threat to universities who are already closing down large departments and becoming ever more mainstream and homogenous. Although many academics scoffed at the idea of McDonald’s offering A-Levels the danger for them isn’t a dumbing down of education, it’s that McDonald’s end up doing it far better.

Many universities are already looking pretty empty on campus because they simply don’t offer a decent learning environment. Instead they’re intent on building grandiose teaching spaces, which nobody turns up to.

My prediction is that it is a race between two generational shifts – the student body and the faculty either expiring or retiring. Universities are notoriously slow at cultural change and tend to promote the dead wood. The prognosis doesn’t look healthy.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 john colette June 5, 2009 at 1:23 am

Andy – there has a rise in the notion that the “new generation” are now web enabled and this in turn influences their learning styles – and this is true. What is under discussion in the scrutiny of higher education is the applicability of the model universities promote vis a vis other alternatives that utilise technoogy.

On the recent discussion of the Union Square Venture “Hacking Education” conference http://www.unionsquareventures.com/2009/05/hacking_education.html the notion was promoted that a Brazillian guy became a tolerable artist in the production of “Anime Music Videos” through using the web. It further extrapolates that the pedagogy, progressive and staged instruction, community of scholarship and reflective / critical practice were all enabled by the internet. This was used as a case study to indicate the replicability of these elements from traditional learning sources – or to indicate the broadgathered [not broadcast] access to these particular opportunities for an individual who is geographically and culturally remote from alternative sources of learning.

Does this replace the university?

I don’t think so – in the first instance, there will always be the autodidact who can muster the equivalent of a degree in philosophy from reading Kant & Spinoza at the public library. The fact that there are communities of interest and some degree of peer pedagogy around – in this example – Anime Music Video is hardly surprising. it is the internet after all.

Deviant Art is not an art school.

So the provision of discernment and quality is an important aspect in the pedagogy of universitites – and that is where they are failing. You’re right – the lecture model is largely a throw over from the nineteenth century, however it is in style more than its performative aspects that it is rendered quaint.

Most lecturers have no formal qualification in education, and many have no real experience in public speaking of any kind – it is assumed in the academy that proficiency in a specialist area – usually substantiated or in fact elevated by “research” will allow the individual to present 10 hours a semester of relevant [and interesting?]material to a waiting audience of students.

Some lecturers would bore your socks off in a hallway conversation.

Again – might have worked 100 years ago – but most of those laptops in the lecture theatre are using facebook on wi-fi – not taking notes.

At the heart of the organisational miasma of universities is the area that you identify at the end of the post – the clunkiness.

The planning cycle is annual at best – so to change something takes a year. To run a course for instance. To change a degree program more like two years – and it has to pass through elaborate and staged committee structure to ratify the abstraction of the program – with no real oversight of its application. So you spend two years changing “Photography one” to “Lens techniques one” – with an accompanying blurb about what the course entails – and a group of academics – none with any discipline [or real management] experience – overlook the course outline and the program schema – and pass it [or not] when they meet.

After this – there is no audit, follow up or quality assurance of the process. Is the course any good? is it relevant? Maybe they hand out a broad metric based multiple choice assessment at the end of term to survey student satisfaction. Maybe.

What’s the result? Nothing. I never saw ANYONE at university mentored about their crap teaching – and I saw some crap teaching.

Meanwhile – the university bases its performance on the “research” it undertakes – inquiring into higher and more esoteric questions that are in some sense useful to extend the field of knowledge – but it has no relevance to the individual’s capacity to effectively teach undergraduates or first level postgraduates, and this, face it, is the main business of Universities.

At the heart of it is the ability to make the experience relevant, engaging and timely for people learning – and this is still what good courses and good teachers do. Technology is a great way to add in flexibility. efficiency, examples of practice and to enable peer modelling in the learning process – stuff the internet does well to varying degrees [also without ANY oversight on structure and quality].

So what do Unis do?

Behave like businesses – start to organise their operation the way you might run ANY business – respond to change – respect the market – innovate and compete.

Use technology to enhance – really enhance – the delivery of material [see last point above].

Take risks – allow shifts in curriculum and programs – make them more modular and student focussed. Everyone says they are doing this but they proscribe a series of staged prerequisites so that programs are less flexible. This is a default way of siloing degrees and maintaining student numbers in courses that are just not that good.

if you make the courses and the earning environment more of an ecosystem, the rubbish will drop off the vine. [And a few soft options will rise to prominence].

But that’s all a bit hard for Universities – and so they maintain their way of working – and as you note – are becoming increasing out of step with the way people actually learn.

I’ll stop now.

2 Andy Polaine June 5, 2009 at 7:09 am

John – You know I share your pain here. And I also gave up writing a course about emerging mobile technologies because it was going to take so long to get it through three committees (two of which were useless) that everything would have moved on by the time it started. The choice was write a good course outline but then have to completely change it or one so vague as to be useless to the students but give me room to manoever.

Universities are scrambling to prove their research mettle because governments are pushing that way with the stick/carrot of funding. But this is happening in an environment where the best research is coming from bottom up activities – collective, pro-am, open-source, etc. As we have seen with software (at least, though mountain bikes are the famous hard example), it’s hard for big entities to compete with that.

At the same time they’re out of step with educational practices, as you explained. It’s the converging forces of these and other aspects of cultural change that make this so dangerous for higher education institutions. None of them seems like a big threat on its own, but they will coalesce and prove to be a huge problem. (They are already).

I don’t think universities are going to disappear, but their role and relevance will change. The worst case is that they just won’t be very important to anyone outside academia anymore. Whilst you’re right that auto-didactic learning has always been with us, what has happened with unis is that they have sold out their mentoring part in order to service a learning business that has become more about training. Students pay X dollars and expect to get Y skills that will earn them X x 10 dollars when they leave. That’s a misguided view of learning, but one that I can completely understand from the student’s perspective. If they perceive that they can get that elsewhere without paying the dollars, that spells massive trouble for the unis.

In many respects teaching, learning and research are a given (or should be). The core of a university’s value is based on the shaky ground of reputation. Previously, employers and others believed that someone with a degree from, say Harvard, had worth because of Harvard’s reputation and the notion that its ratification and examination processes are a way of measuring that value in graduates.

Obviously reputation comes from somewhere – a mix of PR spin and smart graduates going into the workforce with Harvard degrees. Of course that’s a very slow process – places that have great reputations can be rubbish once the students get their because the graduates and teachers who made the reputation 3-5 years ago aren’t there anymore. So it can take another 3-5 years before that reputation starts waning. As soon as the logo on the diploma loses its value, the whole system can quickly fall apart.

If all of this sounds like the recent financial crash, it should be no surprise. The finance system – everything from credit ratings to banknotes themselves – are promises of reputation. As we’ve seen, it can all go wonky very quickly when it tips in the wrong direction. Banking systems operate at a very fast pace, which both exacerbates the problem but also offers an opportunity for fast correction (but not when it finally hits the physical world). It’s hard to see how most higher education institutions would cope with something even happening at a 1/100th of that speed.

3 Phil June 17, 2009 at 2:01 pm

What is a sweeney?

“Universities are finally losing their monopoly on higher learning, as the web inexorably becomes the dominant infrastructure for knowledge SWEENEY both as a container and as a global platform for knowledge exchange between people.”

4 Andy Polaine June 17, 2009 at 4:57 pm

I think he means knowledge repository or know-how.

5 Phil June 18, 2009 at 9:28 am

I think he put it in there as a joke or by mistake. The sentence makes more sense without it.

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