So what are you in university for?

Why does a student go to university? Is it to pursue deep learning in the company of other committed students and brilliant faculty? Or is it to get the passport to a job, in the form of the degree parchment? As in a number of countries students are having to put their hands in their pockets to pay for their tuition, the question as to what exactly they want to buy is becoming more directly relevant. If the customer is paying and the customer is king, we had better give them what they want. Whatever that is.

One way in which this question is being thrown into relief is through the growth of online university courses that can be accessed fully for free. The latest initiative of this kind is Futurelearn, which is providing free online access to courses from 12 UK universities, including the Open University. Another similar initiative, Coursera, was launched earlier in the year, and according to its website it has over 2 million students taking courses from one or more of the 33 partner universities. Furthermore technology giant Apple has been pushing its iTunes U concept for a while, with some success – and it is now available through a special iPad app. Individual universities – such as MIT – have also got into the game.

So, if you can take the very best courses from the very best universities for free, why bother ‘going’ to university in the traditional sense? There are a several reasons, in fact, including the absence of a campus experience and real interaction with fellow participants in the educational journey. But another critical reason – the critical reason I would think – is that these programmes do not give you a degree.

As in so many other sectors of modern life, the internet is changing the assumptions of higher education, but it is not yet clear what is emerging at the other end. Clearly there are also business questions: if you are offering free access to courses, how is that being funded? And the answer generally is through advertising. But the biggest question is whether free online courses, without certification, can find a market, and more particularly whether they will destroy the existing ‘market’ for university degrees. Probably not, because the formal qualification is still the key objective for most. But if this gets more and more expensive, and the return on such an investment gets less obvious, some may begin to think again. But then, perhaps there is another model altogether, that combines technology-smart methods with employment-aware content, affordable cost and secure quality assurance, with a degree at the end. That may be the golden ticket.

It’s an interesting world in the digital age.

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13 Comments on “So what are you in university for?”

  1. V.H Says:

    Hmm. I’ve just ended a course with Coursera. They have profound issues mostly around a profound lack of thought in what precisely they are about. Basically what was done in teh course I took was to assume I and the other 150,000 were in a nearby annex to the main campus. Yes the course was excellent. Yes the teaching was excellent. But had I been in the upper peninsula of Michigan away from a town I wouldn’t be in any better a position to get the set course work.
    It was very much like being at NUI,Galway back when things were expanding and the bookshop wouldn’t even attempt to supply the course books for Prof Xxxxxer or any other one semester fly-by-night leaving the students bewildered to aspects that they couldn’t draw from what they could get in the Hardiman.
    Coursera is very very near. Its provision is weighty and was so from the very first. I would see its position as providing the life-long-learning we heard so much about that the traditional cannot do without vast resources.
    As to the model. Once fixed, it’s pretty much fire and forget. The course can be run til eternity with updated being inserted and if the prof’s stay away from flairs and afros or shoulder pads the yellowing of parchment will stay away.

  2. Steve B Says:

    If there is no recognised tangible outcome from taking such courses/modules, i.e. a recognised qualification or them being widely accepted as an entry qualification for further study, they will never gain acceptance and be of questionable value other than perhaps to those taking them.
    The long established and accepted Open University’s participation is an interesting development though which perhaps adds credibility and a possible means to validate such courses in the longer term.

    If and when taking a collection of such modules/courses leads to ‘tangible, comparable and accepted qualifications’ then the mainstream educational establishments’ could be in deep trouble.

    Until such time they can perhaps be seen as a marketing tool for the institutions involved although one which should be watched carefully.

  3. lisdigimedia Says:

    I have been participating in a MOOC run by Stanford. It is free and works largely on peer evaluation with very little input from professors or teaching assistants. It is not accredited. I was fortunate to find interesting collaborators to work on a team project but not everyone does. Both the commitment and experience of participants varies widely. The OU accepts participants without prior experience but does not then ask them to assess others.

    I think it would be beneficial to make the course slightly less open – asking participants to describe a potential project and/or have a certain level of experience.

    Can self-assessmnet and peer assessment lead to certification? It would have to be carefully managed and monitored which of course would be labour and cost intensive.

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    ‘Why does a student go to university? Is it to pursue deep learning in the company of other committed students and brilliant faculty? Or is it to get the passport to a job, in the form of the degree parchment?’

    Why the either/or choice? Various surveys and studies have shown that although career and future earnings are the predominant reasons for going to university they are by no means the only ones. It is interesting that of the ten reasons to choose Harvard University ‘career opportunity’ is the very last:
    Also, the idea that ‘the student is a customer and the customer is king’ is a rather pernicious concept and a highly contested one particularly in a country like Scotland which constructs a great part of its national identity in terms of a different public HE ethos compared to the rest of the UK.

    The impact of new technologies on education and universities is a hotly debated topic these days and doom and gloom scenarios abound, like the one depicted in the following piece, aptly entitled ‘The End of the University as We Know It’. Here the issue of the university degree which, as mentioned in today’s post, is not given by the new programmes is not regarded as an insurmountable problem in that: ‘Harvard and MIT have announced that “certificates of mastery” will be available for those who complete the online courses and can demonstrate knowledge of course material. The arrival of credentials, backed by respected universities, eliminates one of the last remaining obstacles to the widespread adoption of low-cost online education.’
    My main objection to the arguments in this piece – which is really worth reading ( as it is an exemplar of many – is that it is based on a narrow but very powerful techno-deterministic logic, to put it simply technology *dictates* the agenda and we cannot but to accept its disruptive potential. I would argue that HE is NOT a business exactly like any other and yet comparisons are drawn in the piece with the music industry or even with online dating (!) in order to corroborate the credo that similar business models might apply.
    What is lost in these kinds of arguments is sight of the role that universities play in many communities, as this author puts it: “To champion something as trivial as MOOC’s in place of established higher education is to ignore the day-care centers, the hospitals, the public health clinics, the teacher-training institutes, the athletic facilities, and all of the other ways that universities enhance communities, energize cities, spread wealth, and enlighten citizens,” …”Not only is it not about the classroom, it is certainly not just about the direct delivery of information into people’s lives. If that’s all universities did, then publishing and libraries would have crushed universities a long time ago.”
    Also, Cathy N. Davidson (certainly not a luddite) persuasively argues: ‘Making courseware “massive” may dangle the eventual possibility of trillion-dollar profits (even if they have yet to materialize). But it does not “fix” what is broken in our system of education. It massively scales what’s broken.’
    One of the most lucid accounts of the current situation is by Mark Johnson in his recent blog post #FutureLearn and Past Technology, when he writes:
    When we look at MOOCs, we do not see emancipation. We see a manifestation of repressive social structures that have become technologised. We see powerful institutions that are looking for new ways of hooking customers into their products and making money. They will tell us “it’s the future”. But the point about really exciting things is that nobody needs to be told “it’s the future”.they already know.
    And he concludes: ‘ For some reason, Universities have been unable to match the excitement of the early internet with regard to teaching and learning. …I think the reasons for this are complex. Partly, it is because our theories of learning (particularly the dominant constructivist theory) is deficient in explaining the gamut of the human experience of learning. The fact that these deficiencies have not been explored academically is connected with disciplinary pathology and the organisation of Universities themselves. The fact that new exciting educational technologies haven’t emerged is to do with an absence of theoretical development. What has taken its place is corporatism, technological “fadism”, and the unremitting forces of marketisation. The only way out is better critical thinking and better theory.

    Status quo is not an option for universities, however falling prey to technological faddism would be a great mistake, universities need to do what they do best, help us to make sense of our exciting digital world by way of fostering critical thinking!

  5. Aidan Says:

    I am currently doing my fourth degree through the Open University and my goal with my current studies is to get a recognized, validated qualification. The disadvantage of the free courses for me is that they don’t offer a degree and they are not necessarily set up to test you.
    However, a motivated person who does not need a degree can leverage these materials to learn and may well be able to learn more quickly than a brick university student who has other priorities in life. This experiment by Scotty Young where he did the MIT Computer Science degree courses in one year was really impressive:
    Many people would never have the motivation to do what he did but I certainly know from my own experience of learning languages that a syllabus is really useful as well as having tests you can use. However, very little of what you need is necessarily linked to the physical university. My Spanish teacher lives in Denmark and I live in Holland but we do Skype lessons which are much more effective than classes in a large group in a university ever were.

  6. Alan Fekete Says:

    It is a corruption of the language to say that participating in a MOOC subject that uses material from Stanford is “taking a course from Stanford”. The students paying high tuition at Stanford may indeed watch the same lectures and do the same quiz questions, but they also can go to office hours and speak to the professor one-on-one, they get a large amount of close attention from a teaching assistant (who is usually a PhD student working at the cutting edge of the field) who gives them detailed feedback on their work (not just once when it is graded, but if desired the feedback can be formative, repeated as the student develops their ideas), and in most cases they get assessed on a diverse set of types of task [including some like large scale design or analysis tasks that are very open-ended, and not amenable to automatic grading nor to peer-assessment, but rather need close consideration by someone who already understands the material and the norms of the field]. Universities need to do a much better job of articulating the educational value they provide (which is not mainly transmission of content). See the wonderful blog post by Amy Bruckman

  7. no-name Says:

    The QS survey of business courses offered internationally excludes part-time MBA programs from the analysis — this decision is informed by employer preferences: “QS’ objective is to provide a resource to help prospective MBA students identify the business schools from which employers most actively recruit” (Nunzio Quacquarelli, QS Global 200 Business School Report 2012, p. 7).

    One may well debate whether this perception of employers applies to first degrees, as well. However, it is difficult to see why the difference in hiring preferences would be visible at the post-graduate level and not at the undergraduate level, just as it is not obvious why the preference would hold for the sphere of business alone and not other disciplines, also. Employers, in general, will continue favor candidates whose degrees were validated in person by universities, over those who are able to document their participation in a series of online modules.

    If these new means of access to intellectual content increase public engagement with scholarship, so much the better; books, radio and television have also enabled ample autodidactic activity. If the general public becomes so engrossed by online modes of access to scholarly content that they use their smart phones and like gadgets to extend that engagement rather than inform each of their acquaintances that they’re “on the train”, then the community, in kind, will become a more pleasant place.

    Arguably, universities would do better to spend less time arguing that they provide a uniquely valuable service to the community (there are some in the world who become very suspicious of those who self-proclaim their excellence, preferring instead to deal with those whose excellence is manifest) and more time endeavoring to advance knowledge and to share knowledge with others.

    Despite the cognate forms, universities would serve themselves and the community greatly by ceasing attempts to be universal post-secondary level education providers; correspondingly, niche third-level education providers would do their students a greater service by continuing their specialisms than by pretending to be universities. One should be able to trust that staff in, for example, restaurants, have been formally educated in their trade (imagine a world in which one no longer has to wait ages to be served while a prospective diner at another table monopolizes staff attention through an explanation of all the relevant ramifications of the word “vegan”, or provide other forms of training that should have already been assimilated by the staff). This can be achieved if specialized third-level institutions are given the remit to foster excellence in trades like hospitality, journalism, business management, carpentry, general medicine, plumbing, and so on, and if employers can be expected to hire only competently educated staff.

    It is not obvious that public respect for trades can be enhanced by re-labelling the institutions with corresponding specialisms “universities”. Rather, public respect for trades can be enhanced rather more directly, by achieving excellence in those trades and passing that excellence on to new entrants. If people witness the alternatives — excellent service vs. mediocrity — then people will tend to prefer excellence. This does not entail that autodidacts need not apply, but that they will have to work harder to impress their way into employment than those whose education has been accompanied by formal constructive feedback and reflection along the way.

    Would anyone who uses this forum prefer their doctor or bus driver to have a qualification earned solely online?

  8. OMF Says:

    As in a number of countries students are having to put their hands in their pockets to pay for their tuition, the question as to what exactly they want to buy is becoming more directly relevant. If the customer is paying and the customer is king, we had better give them what they want. Whatever that is.

    Over the last 20 years, Universities have become infected with this notion that they are “businesses”, in the sense of McDonalds restaurants, which must be run as commercial enterprises whose primary output is more students with “better” degrees. This has coincided with the appointment of “professional” administrators in Universities, who often come from–or consort with–the commercial world.

    Franky, I see things like Coursera and Futurelearn as being closer to the original ideals of the university than are most universities today at official level.

    • OK, but I don’t think anyone running a university anywhere at all thinks they should be run like McDonalds. Secondly, professional administrators have been employed by universities for a very long, and I know virtually none who have come from a commercial background; indeed it might be good if some did. I’m not suggesting there isn’t an issue with the way the system is run, but your analysis really doesn’t stack up. I agree there are issues we ned to address, and we need to ensure we have a proper sense of a scholarly community, but to achieve that we need to engage in a realistic assessment of where we are.

  9. V.H Says:

    Happy Christmas Ferdinand, and a productive new year. And if I might extend those wishes to all here.

  10. manpreet basuita Says:

    I currently go to McMaster U and the reason I chose to go to university is because I feel it allows a person to become independent and teaches them how to think on their own…that’s if they want to. Research opportunities are great as well and not everyone is innovative or has a passion for something they are aware of before going to university, but must find that passion while in university.
    -manpreet basuita

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