This post is written by Brian Mulligan, a lecturer and programme manager in the Centre for Online Learning in Institute of Technology, Sligo, Ireland. His blog can be read at elearngrump.blogspot.com. This post was presented at the EdTech2014 conference in University College Dublin, on May 30, 2014 (www.ilta.ie). A recording is available on Youtube here: http://youtu.be/zX8WeeVbJQY
It is now thirty years since I started teaching at Institute of Technology, Sligo, and 12 years since I started working with distance learners online. During those 12 years I made two significant observations that have led me to the conclusion that the way we approach higher education needs to be changed. However, the change I am proposing here is not a small one: we should get rid of full-time undergraduate education.
In the early days of our online teaching, worried that some people might be sceptical of this form of education, we always ensured that our online students sat the same examinations as our full-time students. We very quickly noticed how much better these working adults performed in examinations than the full-time students. We would have liked to attribute this performance to our online teaching methods, but we knew it was more likely to be due to the fact that they were situated in workplaces where they could see the relevance of what they were learning. Although the first observation came as early as 2003 when we ran our first examinations, the second observation came much more slowly: it was that online learning has the potential to be much more cost-effective than campus-based education and, in certain situations, to be of even higher quality. I was led to conclude that undergraduate education, in most countries, is more expensive than it needs to be, and less effective than it should be.
So, if this were true, how might you design an alternative approach to undergraduate education? Well, as it happens, such an approach already exists in the apprenticeship model. We have long recognised that the best way for people to learn a trade was to combine work with learning. In fact it is only relatively recently that many higher professions such as architects, lawyers and accountants have moved away from this work-based approach to learning.
However, there were good reasons why universities emerged in the middle ages as repositories of knowledge and places where rich young men were sent to become familiar with all of the advanced knowledge of the time. As we moved towards the massification of education during the the last century, it was expedient that other forms of education copied this model and even tried to gain some of the status of these institutions by taking the title of ‘University’. But this is the 21st century, and we are now well into the information age, where we do not need to travel to access the knowledge of our greatest minds or enter into rich discussions with fellow learners. We are not working under the constraints of the past that required physical access to these centres of learning.
To add to this, the cost of higher education has been steadily increasing to the point where states, if not people, can barely afford it. As manufacturing and services companies constantly strive successfully to reduce their costs and improve their quality, do we, as educators not owe the same to our funders and learners: a better education at a lower cost?
So I would like to propose that we get rid of full-time undergraduate education and replace it with work-based learning, where learners take positions, even menial ones, in workplaces closely associated with the profession they wish to pursue and take most of their courses online, attending their colleges occasionally to help build relationships with their classmates and carry out activities that are best done in that setting. It may be necessary to stretch out the courses over a longer time, but it will result in significant savings, including the opportunity to earn while studying, and result in better learning outcomes.
Will our young people be mature enough to survive in this new model of learning? Well many believe that they were in the past, and that perhaps we don’t challenge them enough these days. What about the the social and personal development aspect of a college education? Well, I made the point to my brother, who entered the civil service as an 18 year-old in 1972, that, as I had been to university, I was more developed socially and personally than he was. I will leave it to you to imagine what his response was. And what about our guilt at denying our young people the pleasure of a college education? Spending the state’s money on pleasures we cannot afford might just fit the definition of extravagance.