Archive for the ‘higher education’ category

MOOCs and online learning – moving beyond the silly hype

September 1, 2014

A year or two ago a number of people who wanted to grab a bit of public attention in higher education claimed loudly that MOOCs (‘massive open online courses’) were the future, and that all universities would have to go down this route. One English university vice-chancellor predicted that universities which did not embrace MOOCs would ‘risk being left behind’. Nobody, not even the co-founder of major MOOCs provider Coursera, could say what business model was supposed to under-pin this revolution, and often the rhetoric sounded more like revivalist preaching than educational strategy – but the hype continued to roll and seemed to have the capacity to persuade rational commentators that MOOCs were the future. Not even the really annoying acronym seemed to be able to put people off.

So a couple of years later, what do we see? MOOCs are still around, but thankfully the over-excited breathless rhetoric has calmed down. Thousands of courses were developed, but in most of these the overwhelming majority of students dropped out before completion. Few people now think that MOOCs will turn higher education upside down. Nobody is arguing any more than all universities must offer hundreds of MOOCs or perish. More importantly, most now accept that a university course with thousands of students that generates absolutely no income cannot be the way forward for the system. What we have instead is a growing movement to consider how online learning can be used to improve pedagogy and how online courses can provide a viable income stream.

The obvious way forward of course was to focus on the online aspect of MOOCs, and to be more realistic about student numbers and funding. Some universities (e.g. Georgia Tech) are now charging a tuition fee for such courses, though admittedly the fee is rather lower than for the ‘normal’ on-campus programme. Providers like Coursera are now looking for corporate customers to invest in courses. More generally, the much more reasonable agenda now is to find ways in which the MOOCs experience can support new developments that will bring higher education of good quality to larger audiences and how these participants can be properly supported.

There is no question that online learning will be a major part of the future. It is right to suggest that some disruptive change may improve what universities do. It is reasonable to argue that the traditional model of higher education cannot be the only way to offer teaching and learning. But it is also good not to get carried away by each new bit of hype.

Minerva – the travelling university

August 19, 2014

As various university models receive consideration in discussions and research papers, one perhaps somewhat quirky initiative is actually being rolled out in Silicon Valley: the Minerva Schools. The project is the brainchild of Ben Nelson, an American entrepreneur who led and later sold the photo-sharing website Snapfish. It is, according to some reports, the product of Nelson’s dislike of traditional universities. So he has come up with something different – a ‘university’ that teaches its students in unorthodox settings that take them to four different global locations in the course of their studies.

The first year, during which all students will be in San Francisco, sees participants focusing on what are described as ‘Cornerstone courses':

‘Your first year academics comprise the Cornerstone courses. From the study of complex systems to investigations into the principles of rhetoric and modes of artistic expression, the Cornerstones provide an integrated survey of the core curriculum. These four courses are the common intellectual platform from which you and your classmates will develop the skills required for future success.’

After that the students spread across the world in several continents, finishing their final year in London or New York. By then they will, according to the plan, have mastered ‘critical thinking, creative problem solving and effective communication’, and they will then pull this together in the development of a ‘personal vision’.

The available information is somewhat patchy about how all this will work organisationally and indeed pedagogically, but there is enough here to have attracted 33 founding students, who are about to embark upon their courses.

Can this work? That is impossible to say. Is it a worthwhile contribution to the development of new higher education models? Still difficult to say. But it may be worth watching how those first students fare as they enter the programme – and indeed, whether they will still be there in three years.

So what are you expecting of your university?

August 18, 2014

This is the time of year when thousands of young people prepare to go to university for the first time; and of course many mature adults are also taking this step. But what are they expecting to find there, and what do they hope that their studies will secure for them?

The UK version of the Huffington Post website carries a piece setting out some common misconceptions of university life; in particular the assumption that it’s all about fun, friends and partying. Most students already know this before they come – they are more likely to be focused on the added value they will get in the labour market.

I am pleased to lead the university that has the best record in the UK for graduate employment, but it doesn’t work like that for all institutions. Australian universities, as we have just been told, are much less successful in this regard: in a number of universities and in some subjects fewer than one-third of graduates have been able to secure jobs within four months of graduating. But even in elite Australian universities and in traditional or mainstream subjects (like law) over a quarter of Australian graduates may be without a job (where in my university it would be fewer than 3 per cent).

Does this matter? Is it the role of a university education to secure access to employment? As universities develop new strategies, harness technology, move into new interdisciplinary courses and enter into partnerships and alliances it will be important to have a clear concept of what students should be able to expect from their studies. This may of course not be the same for all institutions; but it is unlikely that students generally will regard employability as an irrelevance.

Scottish independence and higher education: a Commons committee perspective

August 11, 2014

This post was first published by the website The Conversation

On August 5, the House of Commons Committee for Business, Innovation, and Skills (BIS) published a report on the impacts of Scottish independence on higher education, business, and the postal service. But the committee’s somewhat unoriginal recommendations don’t really extend beyond a large-letter “No” addressed to the Scottish government.

For anyone imagining the BIS report is an impartial investigation, it is worth pointing out that the committee consists entirely of members of the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats. These parties are all firmly committed to the case against Scottish independence. So it comes as no surprise that their conclusions constitute fairly standard rejections of the agenda set out in the Scottish government’s white paper on independence.

In relation to higher education, the committee decided to focus on two issues only: the question of tuition fees for students from the rest of the UK, and the possibility of the maintenance of a single research area in the British Isles. We can assume these particular choices were made because, in the eyes of the politicians involved, they pose the greatest difficulty for those advocating independence. Other important issues – such as academic and student migration, and further aspects of research strategy – were ignored.

What is more, the committee’s treatment of the two chosen issues is fairly superficial. The report contains minimal analysis, beyond the listing of some submissions made to the committee. It concludes that, if Scotland were both independent and a member of the European Union, it is doubtful whether it could continue to charge tuition fees to students from the rest of the UK.

Others have concluded similarly, as in recent research from the University of Edinburgh. But legal advice provided to Universities Scotland may offer a basis in EU law for the Scottish government to continue charging fees to students from the rest of the UK, post-independence.

At present, the UK is home to a single research area. This means that England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland contribute public funds to one pot. Grants are then awarded by Research Councils UK on a competitive basis. The report states that in the event of Scottish independence, a single research area would not be “practical” or “desirable”. Even if everyone agreed to a common research area, the report suggests that each jurisdiction would have to fund work by its own researchers, with no cross-border subsidies.

Some academics have already expressed concerns about the implications of independence for research funding. But I would suspect that in the event of Scottish independence, some mutually acceptable arrangement can be reached that maintains much of the UK research community, while also allowing Scotland to develop its own national research strategy.

Of course, the effect of a vote for independence may not be as significant for universities as in other areas, because education is already a fully devolved matter under the Scotland Act 1998. There is a Scottish cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning (currently Michael Russell), and a Scottish Funding Council, which distributes funding to universities and colleges and oversees national strategy.

Even now there is no such thing as a UK higher education “system”. Wales and Northern Ireland also have their own frameworks, which differ from that of England. Perhaps the question that the committee should have assessed is whether, if Scotland votes for independence, some UK-wide structures could or should be maintained.

While there is significant divergence now between Scotland and the rest of the UK in higher education, there are also common traditions and links between universities across these islands. This is expressed most visibly in the existence of a UK-wide academic and student community, in shared quality assurance principles, and in the assessment of research quality.

But there are very significant differences in funding. And it may be that, in future, there will also be differences in the principles of governance, arising from the review of Scottish higher education governance that I chaired in 2011-12.

The parliamentary committee clearly decided to make a partisan contribution to the independence debate. It has missed an opportunity to make a thoughtful assessment of how a common concept of higher education could continue to be nurtured in a new constitutional settlement, whether that involved independence or greater devolution.

A hundred years on, lest we forget

August 5, 2014

A few years ago I needed some emergency dental treatment while on a visit to Germany. As I was waiting for my turn in the dentist’s surgery I picked up an old book from the shelves there and was immediately engrossed in it. It was the autobiography of a major scholar who became Rector (Principal/President/Vice-Chancellor) of an Austrian university in 1913. In June 1914 he was about to preside over a graduation ceremony for 52 graduands. As he was entering the aula maxima, an assistant whispered to him that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, had just been assassinated in Sarajevo.

In his autobiography he wrote that he had an immediate sense of the potentially awful consequences of this act, but he continued to conduct the ceremony, and gave a short speech in Latin on the benefits of education. What he did not know then was that, of his 52 graduands, 40 would die during the 1914-18 Great War. He himself (a Jew) would spend much of the Second World War in a concentration camp (although he survived it), while one of the twelve surviving graduands would be tried for war crimes in 1946. He himself wrote his autobiography in 1947, and he died two years later at the age of 86. He wrote of that day in 1914: ‘The waves and torrents of history were about to engulf us, and I knew it. But I could only say a few platitudes about the civilising power of education.’

As we reflect on the events of 1914 and all that follows, it may be worth remembering that a reference to the civilising power of education is not a platitude. It is, sometimes, all that we have, and it is everything.

Perhaps I can end this post with a short family note. The photo below is of my grandfather, a Lieutenant in the German army during the Great War. He made history by being the first in the history of warfare to drop a bomb from a plane; it landed in the Vicarage garden in Dover, thankfully hurting nobody. On 10 November 1918, just before the war ended, he was hit in the face by shrapnel. The somewhat basic treatment available at the time involved the insertion of a metal alloy to replace parts of his broken jaw. This subsequently proceeded to poison his blood and he died a few years later of the complications. May we all heed the lessons of that terrible war, and of all wars.

Lieutenant Alfred von Prondzynski

Leutnant Alfred von Prondzynski

Higher education apocalypse or renewal?

July 29, 2014

As the years and months go by the voices become more insistent that universities across the developed world are in trouble and that many of them will collapse. The latest prophets of doom include a writer for Fortune magazine, Chris Matthews,  and a Harvard Business School professor, Clayton Christensen.

Such prophecies are not necessarily new. However, until relatively recently the predictions were based on doubts about whether universities were equipped to deal with a more challenging financial climate, particularly as governments came under pressure to reduce public expenditure during the recent recession. While money issues still get a mention in more recent warnings of pending catastrophe, they may not always be the primary source of concern. What is being highlighted now is the disruptive effect of phenomena such as changing demographics, new technologies, new entrants into the higher education market, corporate disenchantment with older university programmes such as the MBA, and the inability or unwillingness of faculty to adapt to changing conditions.

Notwithstanding all the warnings, it seems to me to be doubtful that many universities will close, though some may find mergers to be more comfortable than precarious survival. That does not mean, however, that there is no cause for concern. Higher education has grown massively globally, but largely on the back of a growth of universities that, with varying degrees of quality and success, all try to do more or less the same kind of thing. The evidence seems to me to suggest that the system needs much more diversity in order to meet social and economic needs. It is not that the old university model has become unserviceable, but rather that it does not meet absolutely everyone’s requirements.

Even if there are now, in most western developed countries, fewer school leavers entering higher education, there are far more wanting access to it at different stages of their lives and careers. There may be a case for some universities focusing less on traditional academic research, and more on research and development that is much closer to identified needs. Some universities may need to engage much more directly in economic, cultural and social regeneration.

Higher education needs to be renewed; but not so as to find a new – different – common identity for all institutions. It needs to recognise, celebrate, encourage and reward successful diversity. If it does that, I suspect the system will remain remarkably robust.

Not fit for women (or men)?

July 22, 2014

Around this time of year many universities will have been holding graduation ceremonies. And as the graduands approach the stage, it will have been noticeable that in some disciplines they were predominantly of one gender. Engineers and computer scientists will more often than not have been men, while nurses and teachers will have mainly been women. In some subjects – say, law – the gender gap is also widening, with women making up the majority. Is this an avoidable state of affairs, or something we just have to put up with?

Dr Gijsbert Stoet of the University of Glasgow suggests the latter. As reported in the Herald newspaper, he has argued that ‘we probably need to give up on the idea that we will get many female engineers or male nurses’, and that initiatives to bring about another outcome ‘completely deny human biology and nature.’ He also said that it should not matter to us whether the person who fixes our computers is a man or a woman. Rather, in a free society we should let people choose their professions without worrying about what that produces in terms of gender balance.

Of course historically there have been other implications. A profession dominated by women has tended to be an under-valued one, with lower pay and fewer opportunities for career development. In addition, such professional imbalances tend to perpetuate themselves as they restrict the availability of role models to persons of the other sex. Whether these patterns may change as women take hold increasingly of previously male-dominated careers such as law remains to be seen. Equally, as evidence grows of the disengagement of some boys from education more generally, we will need to see whether this produces new social problems.

The patterns of university education have a more profound impact on society than many other things. Nobody expects or requires the student population across all courses to be perfectly gender balanced, but it is unhealthy for gender stereotyping to be reinforced in higher education. There are no quick or easy solutions, but it would be a good start for us to recognise that we still have a problem, and that while the specific nature of the problem may change from profession to profession, it still needs to be addressed.


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