The end of the UK university? – II

Stewgreen dropped me a link to an ABC chat on almost the same subject as my previous article on the end of the UK university.

ABC The Science Show: Will online learning replace the university campus?

Here is the transcript:-

Teacher: What is two times eight?
Student: Sixteen.
Teacher: Three times two?
Student: Six.
Teacher: Three into eight?
Student: Twenty four.
Teacher: Four into two?
Student: Eight.
Teacher: Good. Four into nine?
Student: Thirty six.
Teacher: Very good Shivani.

Robyn Williams: Well, not quite. The joys and perils of teaching kids maths and science. We’ll have the winners of the Prime Minister’s prizes for science teachers in a minute. I’m Robyn Williams.

MOOCs, yes I said MOOCs. That’s Massive Online Open Courses. Universities online for free, millions have signed up, and some vice chancellors, like Professor Jim Barber from the University of New England Armidale suggests they may transform, even obliterate many campuses.

Jim Barber: I venture to say that everyone listening to this broadcast has been brought up with the idea that a university is a place. You ‘go to’ university after completing high school in order to further your studies. The nation has invested, and continues to invest, billions of dollars in these places under the assumption that it’s necessary to duplicate all of this infrastructure around the country if Australian students are to receive the best education possible.

But MOOCs demonstrate that much of this capital expenditure is unnecessary and that this generation of vice-chancellors really ought to stop lumbering their university balance sheets with superfluous lecture theatres and burdensome depreciation costs. This is not to say that all university campuses are a thing of the past.

There will continue to be demand, mainly from school leavers, for a campus to ‘go to’, but the traditional form of on-campus study will be only one of the educational options on offer in future and probably not the dominant one. Moreover, the form that university campuses take will be very different from the fully self-contained model that most of us take for granted today.

Campuses of the future are more likely to be widely dispersed nodes of activity connected by broadband and distributed all over the world. This diaspora in cyberspace will accelerate along with advances in hardware and software that blend the virtual and the material. Some have even argued that the distinction between virtual and material will disappear altogether.

Robyn Williams: Jim Barber in Ockham’s Razor a couple of weeks ago. Plenty of Australian universities are keen, especially the University of Melbourne. There was Glyn Davis, Melbourne’s Vice Chancellor, giving a MOOC grin in the paper this week, but Jim Barber is clear about the implications.

Jim Barber: The question for universities could soon become; what is the role of bricks and mortar in a world where students can now live and move, interact and experiment in a network cloud? Soon there will be no compelling reason to think of universities as places at all.

Robyn Williams: Professor Jim Barber is Vice Chancellor at the University of New England Armidale. Well, one Vice Chancellor in our region disagrees. She’s Professor Harlene Hayne from the University of Otago in Dunedin.

We’ve just broadcast a program about MOOCs, how they’re going to take over the world and how old-fashioned campuses are going to be redundant. Do you have a view on this?

Harlene Hayne: Yes, I do.

Robyn Williams: And what is your view?

Harlene Hayne: Well, I think the first thing that we need to get straight is that there certainly is a place for MOOCs probably in the tertiary sector, but I don’t think that there is any risk of the MOOC movement making universities obsolete.

Robyn Williams: But surely when you’ve got the question of cost, of infrastructure, which is gigantic, and the increase in the number of young people wanting education, economic pressures, won’t they get results that might move in the other direction?

Harlene Hayne: I guess the issue is whether or not they’ll get results and that’s the real big question. If you actually look at the data on MOOCs you can see that they are not very good for first-time tertiary learners. Sometimes people can learn really well online, but those people tend to be people who’ve had prior experience, who already have a degree or have a profession or have a skill. It’s very difficult to take a young person directly out of high school, plug them into a computer and expect that they are going to learn very much from it, no matter how good the program is.

Robyn Williams: There is a dropout rate which is enormous. I think it’s something like 80%. But isn’t that a dropout rate of people who would have not really gone in for tertiary education anyway?

Harlene Hayne: Well, it’s quite possible. I’m not exactly sure who signs up for MOOCs and why they drop out, but I do know that the retention rate here at the University of Otago is very high, it’s in the high 90s. So whatever we are doing here is actually helping students to learn and to stay engaged in the learning environment. And I suspect that even some of our best students would very quickly become bored by learning exclusively online.

Robyn Williams: What do you think really are the advantages of being on a campus with young people of your own age?

Harlene Hayne: It depends. In terms of life skills, being on a campus is invaluable. When we survey the employers who hire our graduates, what they value most is the verbal communication skills and the problem-solving skills and the social skills that our students come with because they’ve actually lived in a community with other young people for an extended period of time. So I think it’s very, very difficult to replicate that by putting a bunch of young people in their own flats or homes around the city or around the world, they are just not going to gain those kinds of skills.

But I think the other issue that is really important, and this comes from my background as a developmental psychologist, is that humans actually require human interaction in order to learn. We know this from the time that babies are born, that they learn best in the company of others, and that never changes across our lifespan. So I think that the MOOC movement has really underestimated the importance of the social environment that is created by the community of scholars that is a university, and that will never be replicated by just plugging kids into a computer.


The first thing that I have to point out is the predictable denial :

but I don’t think that there is any risk of the MOOC movement making universities obsolete.

Let me translate this:

The job I do is so special that no machine could do it.


I am a human, and there is something special about the way humans work that cannot be replaced.**

To which the answer has always been the same:

When you automate, one does not do the job as a human would, but instead one changes the job to make it suitable to automate. In other words, the way we teach has probably got far more to do with fulfilling the needs of teachers in providing what they deem a “nice” place to work and a socially rewarding job, as it has to do with the needs of the student.

Take away the human teacher – one doesn’t need the socially rewarding job that humans need, and the whole method of teaching can change to one that no human teacher could ever tolerate. It all comes down to that same old feeling:

you couldn’t do my job that way, because I couldn’t do it that way.

Second fallacy:

And they also show the second fallacy of automation:

because early trials – although lower cost – are not as perfect as humans, this is taken as proof that they could never replace humans

The typical reaction of humans is to search for fault in their competitors and highlight it so as to increase their own self-esteem. This might work when the competitor is another human – who has very little competitive advantage and will always have less experience. But it doesn’t make sense, when the competitor is a 40 year old system of teaching, which has advanced so much in those mere 40 years that it is starting to out compete a system of human teaching which is thousands of years old. Computer based learning will improve rapidly and we will see huge changes. So, early “failings” are not a good indicator of whether it will replace humans. Instead, any success at all, is a good indicator that to a considerable degree that it will.

**For anyone who has never worked in manufacturing – that’s an in-joke. The “something special” – is a moody person, whose quality changes with that mood, who costs an arm and a leg to run and with whom, half the work is trying to get them motivated to do what they are being paid to do, rather than improving the work they do.

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4 Responses to The end of the UK university? – II

  1. lleuadci says:

    Anything heard on the ABC ‘Science’ Show should be taken with many many grains of salt. Host Robyn is famous for using his position to label climate sceptics as paedophiles and holocaust deniers. The ABC makes the BBC look honest on matters of AGW.

    • The irony, is that they claim a minuscule rise in temperature, which has not shown any noticeable harm, is such a threat to modern society that we must destroy all industry. But then when they talk about themselves, they can’t see are in denial about the massive change under their own noses which is already affecting them and is going to massively impact on them.

      Like lambs to the slaughter.

  2. stewgreen says:

    Not all BBC has gone to the dogs, there was an informative prog about the new face of school maths teaching. They realised maths isn’t difficult, it was their teaching systems that confused the kids. Now they dropped all the technicalities like calling it quadratic equations and matrices and use practical examples and let the kids have a choice of how they approach, rather than lock them into one approach.. It seems it really works, kids now love maths instead of fear it.

  3. Pingback: What we really learn in college… | Paul's POV

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