Chris Lloyd has a nice piece on the future of universities and academics on the conversation. The issue of how the internet and, more broadly, the revolution in information communication and delivery, will affect universities has been a significant topic of debate all year. For example, see here and here. However, I don’t think that on-line course delivery will spell the end of our current undergraduate institutions. Rather it will change the way they operate. The reasons are simple:

  1. Good students learn from other good students. There will be a role for universities to facilitate interactions between students and to help students interact, both virtually and face-to-face. Problem based learning is an example of this.
  2. Undergraduate educators will be more like mentors than lecturers. Their role will be to assist learning and guide students. They will be one of numerous resources available to students.
  3. Large lectures, to the degree they exist, will involve feedback to students on material they have worked on (on the internet) before the class (automatically graded with feedback to the Professor), together with real-time questions and feedback in the classroom. Even large classes will need to be interactive. The best undergraduate educators are already doing this. But …
  4. Most large classes will disappear to be replaced by smaller tutorials. Any economies of scale in presenting material will be exploited through the internet, not by crowding hundreds of students into a lecture theatre. This means that…
  5. Most ‘teaching’ in universities will not be done by research academics. Research academics may hang around undergraduate institutions to add their name and reputation to the institution but they will have little effective role in teaching.

How do we get to this new world? As I have suggested before, a good first step is to break up our existing universities to separate out undergraduate and graduate education. Research goes with the latter. Like Chris, I think there will be a lot fewer research academics and only the best researchers will find a role in the research/graduate universities of the future. Undergraduate education will require professional mentors/educators – not researchers.

A couple of final points. At present our universities survive on foreign students paying high fees. Will this flow of revenue continue if a Chinese or Indian student can get a Stanford or MIT qualification at home? I suspect that many overseas students will still want to spend some time in a western/hybrid country like Australia and will want work experience after they earn their degree. This means that twinning programs and programs that provide overseas students advanced undergraduate education, a ‘western’ experience and work experience, will grow.  And demand at the graduate level for one or two-year professional courses may continue to grow.

Second, many academics will fight these changes because they will not like them. Australian academics get paid to do research – it is about 40% of their salary. In the future, most of these academics will not be paid to do research. And research is fun. So many academics will fight tooth-and-nail to hold on to the current system.

13 Responses to The future of universities

  1. Kien says:

    Reminds me of the Macquarie Applied Finance Centre program I did. Every course had an electronic chat room. Pure teaching. Presumably the research is done at Macquarie University. 

  2. Rabee Tourky says:

    With the help of a good internet connection a current student should be able to go through all three stages of education:
     
    1. Acquiring a broad basic knowledge.
     
    2. Choosing a field of specialization. Obtaining enough knowledge of this specialized field to arrive at the point of current thinking.
     
    3. Making a first original contribution to mathematics within this chosen special area.
     
    In practice, many of the more subtle aspects, such as a sense of taste or relative importance and feeling for a particular subject, are primarily communicated by personal contact. [Paraphrased from  http://www.math.harvard.edu/graduate/index.html
     

  3. Tinos says:

    “Good students learn from other good students.”
    I don’t think so. Poor students learn from good students. I think it is a fact that, on average, students learn more when poor & good students are coupled together.
    I’m undecided with regards to separating research and teaching. A lot of researchers are terrible teachers; but then a lot of teachers are terrible teachers. At least researchers would probably be smarter.

  4. Robert Merkel says:

    A couple of points here:
    1) if you employ fewer researchers, you’ll get less research.  Yes, there is a fair bit of box-ticking research that goes on at universities, but not all of it is.
    2) If you make being an academic less fun, you’ll either have to pay more, improve working conditions, or accept inferior quality teachers.  When the money is already mediocre compared to what’s on offer outside (and it is in my field, and probably yours) you have to offer some kind of hook.  If you take away the “freedom to spend time doing research” hook, what are you proposing in its place?
     

  5. Paul Frijters says:

    Stephen,
     
    interesting thoughts, but they echo the prophesised demise of the ‘office’. People predicted that all these expensive workplaces would give way to people working from home, connected to the others in their organisation via the internet. Despite the fact that the cost savings on that one far outstrip the cost-savings of internet-learning, it hasn’t happened.
    Why haven’t offices disappeared? My best guess is that they are there to overcome a cognitive fallacy: people find it hard to motivate themselves to do work if they are not around others whom they think do work. For many, home is full of distractions they cannot resist, but the workplace is full of people monitoring them a bit on a minute-by-minute basis. Hence they do more work. It is thus a lack of self-control that the modern office relies on.
    What about major lectures and such? Same self-control issue, probably worse: many students who could watch the online lecture dont watch it at all. They simply spend the hours doing something else that demands their time and learn less. Those that show up at the lecture are mainly there for entertainment and the pre-commitment effect of being there and having nothing else to do but listen to the lecture.
    I hence think the predicted death of the big lecture is grossly exaggerated.
    Similarly, I disagree with the idea that research will become the domain of the few. In recent decades the opposite has happened and I expect that trend to continue. Mainly this is because our societies have become more complex and thus there is greater demand for simplified representations from many different perspectives, i.e. more research.
    What I do agree with is that undergrad will, in Australia, become researcher-free, though I think the reason is more because high-status people do not want to do low-status jobs and administrators want to boss the teachers around, ensuring the low-status of teaching. That is a phenomenon particularly strong in Australia though and probably not sustainable in the long run.

  6. Stephen King says:

    Thanks for the comments. Some responses:

    Using the internet and digital resources will involve ‘sticks and carrots’. For example, if you want students to do work before a class, it needs to feed into grades (when that happens the experience at Monash is that most students do the on-line testing – even if it is only worth 10% over the whole semester or about 1% per test!)

    Clearly face-to-face will not disappear (so I agree that universities will not disappear due to internet learning). But I think that the mode will change. Large lectures are a terrible way to get interaction so I suspect that large classes will move to smaller groups run by moonlighting grad students/professional undergraduate teachers (I should note that this has been the Harvard system for first year economics for more than 20 years).

    I doubt that there will be more government-paid university researchers. There may be more people doing quasi-research/translation jobs outside university (e.g.mining scan-data for retailers). So my view is that there will be fewer university researchers. But they will have ‘better’ jobs at present as they will be involved in dedicated graduate institutions. 
     

  7. David Marks says:

    Stephen,
    You’ve highlighted previously than in order to expand undergraduate education with the existing system of teaching-researchers would require 10-25,000 additional world-class researchers.  The gap I’m not quite seeing how to fill is, under the alternative proposal, where will the “professional undergraduate teachers” come from?
    Currently there are very few careers in Australia for undergraduate teachers.  Most non-research teaching-only positions are on a casual basis.  Where will all these specialist teachers come from if there is so little incentive to pursue an undergraduate teaching career above outside options in government, industry, research, etc. which are more likely to provide earnings stability and the potential for career progression (and, for some so driven, greater social status)?
    So I’d be interested to understand, given the stickiness of existing institutional arrangements such as casual teaching, particularly in the face of funding constraints, how you would address the market for teachers as part of this proposal.

  8. Alex Burns says:

    Stephen,
     
    The New Yorker‘s Ken Auletta has a piece this week on Stanford’s growth plans that also examines these issues.
     
    There’s already a significant difference in research cultures between Go8 and other universities. For instance, the emphasis at ‘dual sector’ universities is increasingly on pedagogical/teaching-oriented research. For researchers, a greater focus on the research program, track record, and attracting competitive grant funding.
     
    Some universities are already making the changes you suggest to enhance the international student experience.

  9. Rabee Tourky says:

    In all honesty where does one start with this. I hate making these kinds of long term predictions. So I’ll make short term predictions based on the same issues:
    1. Great accessibility to finer information will lead to greater need for human to human learning; not less.
    2. Comparing what you got from a good library a decade ago with what you get now from the internet, we see that the information has far more noise in it now. So there is an argument that students are likely to be less informed with the internet relative to lecturers than without the internet but with a good library with physical books and a good librarian at the desk. Demand for guidance through face to face interaction-learning will likely increase. 
    3. A university is a learning community. Physical presence and interaction seems to be important for both lecturers and students.
    4. Super large classes are crazy and have been crazy for a long time. They are like mega-church services; you preach and not lecture in them. Nevertheless, large classes can be more useful than online videoed lectures. There is still a feeling of human interaction with the preacher/lecturer.
    5. I am toying with the idea of transitioning from large lectures in micro at UQ with smaller classes that “emphasize hands-on, interactive, collaborative learning.” The idea is to replicate this:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/13/us/13physics.html?pagewanted=all
    Notice that Eric Mazur is very distinguished and he’s involved in first year core physics learning. 
    The problem here Stephen is that moving from large lectures to small groups will increase not decrease the demand for top academic researchers.
     
     
     
     

  10. Stephen King says:

    Rabee. Agree with almost all you said. Peer based learning (Mazur) involves good students learning from good students. My post partly discusses the idea of the inverted classroom as well as PBL. There are lots of great ideas that should be used in undergraduate teaching in Australia. And they will be – by professional undergraduate teachers. They will not be involve top researchers except at the periphery. As I have noted before, there are simply not enough top researchers in Australia to provide large class mass teaching for undergraduates far less small class teaching. And the undergraduate teacher will (as you note) have a ‘librarian’ role for the internet. But again, this is not a researcher role but a professional teacher. This will be a good thing for undergraduate and graduate education (the latter will be where the top researchers do teach). We would not require ‘top researchers’ to teach small classes at high school. Why require it at the ‘advanced high school’ that we call undergraduate education? 

  11. Rabee Tourky says:

    Well Stephen, your post seems to be advocating the article in the conversation, which makes predictions about what’s going to happen sixty years from now. When I read that, my thoughts were: No sixty years from now we will not all be living in Antarctica because the rest of the earth is a boiling inferno.
    Further, as we both know this is presently a very hot topic for VC selection committees. I had someone distribute to me an essay from top guys at a university north of the Gold Coast about the importance of competing against the multicampus University of Phoenix. I mean, when I visited JHU in 1999 the admin there were sure that within a decade we will all be facing UoP as our main competitor.
    The way I see it, the demand for good researchers will continue to be lead by the demand for good university teachers. They go hand in hand. Universities that manage to translate good research into great teaching (face to face) will emerge as the best universities.
    We may well introduce outlandish plans for Australian universities. Because we are small, outlandish can sometimes dominate. But as far as I can tell,  there are some who have a solid teaching-learning instincts in Australia. Just look at the Australian Qualifications Framework; a great step forward that indeed needs support.
       


     

  12. David Marks says:

    Running into moderation difficulties from some locations…

    Stephen,
    You’ve highlighted previously than in order to expand undergraduate education with the existing system of teaching-researchers would require 10-25,000 additional world-class researchers.  The gap I’m not quite seeing how to fill is, under the alternative proposal, where will the “professional undergraduate teachers” come from?
     
    Currently there are very few careers in Australia for undergraduate teachers.  Most non-research teaching-only positions are on a casual basis.  Where will all these specialist teachers come from if there is so little incentive to pursue an undergraduate teaching career above outside options in government, industry, research, etc. which are more likely to provide earnings stability and the potential for career progression (and, for some so driven, greater social status)?
     
    So I’d be interested to understand, given the stickiness of existing institutional arrangements such as casual teaching, particularly in the face of funding constraints, how you would address the market for teachers as part of this proposal.

  13. Rohan says:

    Stephen, Interesting ideas. I think Robert makes some key points 1) Research is a form of payment, and 2) it is complementary with teaching, (including, I think, undergrad teaching).   By 1), as Robert argues, if you don’t pay with research time, then you will have to pay more to even have a chance of getting the same quality employee. However, by 2), you lose the substantial benefits of complementarity which links into Robert’s low quality point.   I think the following example illustrates the concern: Suppose academics are replaced by tutors who service some Nobel-Laureate-taught internet course. It is hard to see how you can induce the kind of interest and effort in teaching that you have now (as imperfect as it might be). In my experience this is done by selection of the right ‘types’ of academic, and the fostering of an atmosphere of passion about, and commitment to, the subject. Both of these type-attributes are are highly complementary to research… which is one big reason why we do it.   On top of the adverse selection problems from removing research for undergrad teachers are moral hazard problems: Ownership of a course induces investment in it. Being given a curriculum on a platter isn’t so inspiring. With everyone at a ‘King undergrad university’ on a teaching-only contract, would tutor/academics ever learn more than the bare minimum to satisfy the teaching contract? How then would they answer the curious student’s subtle questions? And who would be able to choose who to hire and to judge their performance?           

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