Turning education inside out

It always struck me how inefficient universities were with most efforts going into lectures which were inherently a broadcast medium – so much so you could go and get the tapes of the lectures. Meanwhile, tutes were usually a bit of an afterthought and a place where grad students might pick up some pennies for taking a tute. That seemed to be playing to the institution’s weaknesses rather than its strength. It seems so obvious that a physical university would concentrate on the tutorial stuff, given that the rest of the stuff can be outsourced, increasingly for nothing.  And it’s not just outsourced to lower costs, but also to raise quality. Why not take one’s lectures from the best lecturers in the world. And if they’re making videos for the world, you should be able to afford money to make them really good – if you need special effects to get across some point or some other footage, you can commission it and broadcast it to the world.

Anyway, now someone’s doing some similar rearrangement of school. Like the guy says, it’s odd that we teach units so that only the best kids really understand them, and then we move on. And it’s odd we don’t try to get kids helping each other more. And the other thing that makes great sense here is the system of rich data behind it.  Seems pretty exciting to me. And who’s funding it? Not an education department but (as I understand it) Silicon Valley philanthropy.

Thanks to WordPress being too clever by half, I can’t work out how to embed the video, so you’ll have to click here if you want to see it.

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aidan
aidan
10 years ago

Cambridge (and Oxford?) have always had a tutoring system as the basis for learning. I think the reason it isn’t universally copied is that it is more expensive.

Cathy
Cathy
10 years ago

You may want to look at Robert Talbert’s experiences with teaching college maths with what he calls the “inverted classroom“.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

one important reason for the continued dominance of the personal lecture is the herding effect of lectures: people show up because others show up and they pay attention because others pay attention and because someone of flesh and blood stares at them if they are not quiet and attentive. Watching a video doesnt have those advantages, with or without sound effects.

TimT
10 years ago

If you were familiar with some of the kooky software uni’s have been using to broadcast lectures, etc, you might be a bit more sceptical. :)

Corin
Corin
10 years ago

I think it is safe to say that post-grad courses – often online – are as you say focussed on the reading side and tutorial (often online) rather than classes as they don’t exist formally. I suppose when one is working it is often better to be able to do the coursework independently but for graduate level students, they often get most from ‘being at a university’.

I did my College of Law (stupid post grad qualification before admission) for example online in 2001, so that model has been around for a long while.

Knowing people who went to Oxford colleges those tutorial systems look great but they are incredibly hard work, often a 1000 or 1500 paper assessed every week in every subject. Aussie students would never do that much reading and writing unfortunately, nor would the lazy lecturers mark that much stuff.

Still it is one argument for deregulating fees at the very pinnacle universities, so there is an adequate resource to make that kind of learning and tutoring available to the Top Guns. I mean every university now has a law or economics course, but it is rare that the students emerge with more than the basics, which is especially important for top public servant posts for example, let alone those who want to pursue careers in the private sector. I think it is fair to say that the best students are taking scholarships abroad to get that experience.

c-sez
10 years ago

If you want to watch a slightly longer take on this issue, I recommend Donald Clark’s keynote at the ALT-C conference last year. Blunt, humorous and occasionally sweary.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tbl-xXF8NPY

All these changes require learners to be more self-motivated, and for those providing the canned learning opportunities to make those approaches more engaging. I don’t think either of those is a bad thing.

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

“Still it is one argument for deregulating fees at the very pinnacle universities, so there is an adequate resource to make that kind of learning and tutoring available to the Top Guns”

Even if that sort of money was available, it’s rather unlikely it would ever be put into that. What you’re really saying is that universities would spend around 10 times more on teaching than now (probably more in fact) if given the possibility to attract a very small number of students that can pay the fees and want what is on offer. The most likely place most of the funding would go is research, which is what keeps top universities at the top and is probably the biggest factor in where new students want to go if there is more than one choice for the course they want to do (teaching quality has almost nothing to do with this).

“nor would the lazy lecturers mark that much stuff.”

I think I know very few lazy people — most people have no idea how much the average lecturer does thanks to the monolithic bureaucracy and the fact everybody is obliged to do everything. Everyone, for example, gets to sit meetings, committees, do marketing, do administration, counsel students etc. and all of this takes time. If you just wanted staff in some areas (probably most) to mark all day, you’d have to pay vastly more — the salaries already arn’t competitive in many areas given the amount of drudge involved. There’s a reason universities in Australia have the oldest workforce of any major area, and it’s not because people are sitting around doing nothing and because it’s easy to get people to replace them.

SJ
SJ
10 years ago

And who’s funding it? Not an education department but (as I understand it) Silicon Valley philanthropy.

This might not be as good as it sounds:

Dissent Magazine, Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools, in case you missed it, is an amazing piece of journalism for a couple of reasons, even beyond the relevance for the Washington D.C. “incorrect-to-correct” scandal with high-stakes testing USA Today reported. First, the differential power under extreme inequality comes into focus, where public policy is geared towards the influence of select billionaires. (Per Walzer, inequality in the economic sphere creates inequality of power and influence throughout the public and policy spheres.)

Second, it shows how big foundations wanting to achieve very targeted goals corrupt the normal checks and balances of scientific research. I’ve been told that you can’t understand the problems here until you understand how the Gates’ funding of malaria studies prevents effective peer review and criticism among professionals, which the Dissent article covers.

Third, this:

In November 2008, Bill and Melinda gathered about one hundred prominent figures in education at their home outside Seattle to announce that the small schools project hadn’t produced strong results. They didn’t mention that, instead, it had produced many gut-wrenching sagas of school disruption, conflict, students and teachers jumping ship en masse, and plummeting attendance, test scores, and graduation rates. No matter, the power couple had a new plan: performance-based teacher pay, data collection, national standards and tests, and school “turnaround”…

Reminds me so much of the book Anti-Politics Machine by James Ferguson (that link is to a great online review). As the “development” fails it reifies and expands the power of the same group of experts and expertise that now will find yet another development program to try and implement while ignoring the political life – of poverty, incarceration, and isolation – that surrounds failing schools.

Tel
Tel
10 years ago

Paul – yes a good point, going to the way in which unis are still unable to simply rely on student’s desire to learn. Sad but true I guess.

They could start (drumroll sounds) failing people who don’t know the work. Yeah, radical idea, but someday it might catch on.

Second, it shows how big foundations wanting to achieve very targeted goals corrupt the normal checks and balances of scientific research.

True but big government does much the same thing. The only answer is diversity (including diversity of publication routes and peer review methodologies). With more diversity out there, people will have more opportunity to explore alternative teaching techniques and some of those might work.

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

Slightly off-topic but I’m sure Nick will love it:

trackback

[…] being in how they engage students with each other and with tutors. This is what’s happening in the Khan academy which is only at school level, so given that one of the problems cited with doing away with live […]

Antonios
10 years ago

Hey Nicholas, just thought you’d be interested in this article on the Khan academy and education in general:

http://m.wired.com/magazine/2011/07/ff_khan/all/1

Very interesting stuff.