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.

Written by