For fifteen years, I’ve been arguing that the digital revolution will challenge many fundamental aspects of the University. I’ve not been alone. In 1998, none other than, Peter Drucker predicted that big universities would be “relics” within 30 years.
Flash forward to today and you’d be reasonable to think that we have been quite wrong. University attendance is at an all time high. The percentage of young people enrolling in degree granting institutions rose over 115% from 1969-1970 to 2005-2007, while the percentage of 25- to 29-year-old Americans with a college degree doubled. The competition to get into the greatest universities has never been fiercer. At first blush the university seems to be in greater demand than ever.
Yet there are troubling indicators that the picture is not so rosy. And I’m not just talking about the decimation of university endowments by the current financial meltdown.
Universities are finally losing their monopoly on higher learning, as the web inexorably becomes the dominant infrastructure for knowledge sweeney both as a container and as a global platform for knowledge exchange between people.
Meanwhile on campus, there is fundamental challenge to the foundational modus operandi of the University — the model of pedagogy. Specifically, there is a widening gap between the model of learning offered by many big universities and the natural way that young people who have grown up digital best learn.
The old-style lecture, with the professor standing at the podium in front of a large group of students, is still a fixture of university life on many campuses. It’s a model that is teacher-focused, one-way, one-size-fits-all and the student is isolated in the learning process. Yet the students, who have grown up in an interactive digital world, learn differently. Schooled on Google and Wikipedia, they want to inquire, not rely on the professor for a detailed roadmap. They want an animated conversation, not a lecture. They want an interactive education, not a broadcast one that might have been perfectly fine for the Industrial Age, or even for boomers. These students are making new demands of universities, and if the universities try to ignore them, they will do so at their peril.
The model of pedagogy, of course, is only one target of criticism directed toward universities.
The Many Challenges to the University
Most resources of large universities are directed towards research, not learning. The universities are not primarily institutes of higher learning, but institutes for science and research. In his book Rethinking Science, Michael Gibbons developed a scathing critique of the current model science as conducted in the university.
Recently the questioning has heated up on other fronts. In the New York Times last month, Mark Taylor, chairman of Columbia University’s religion department, whipped up a storm of academic controversy with a provocative OpEd page article called “The End of University as We Know It”.
“Graduate education,” he began, “is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).” The key problem, he noted, began with Kant in his 1798 work, “The Conflict of the Faculties.” Kant argued that universities should “handle the entire content of learning by mass production, so to speak, by a division of labor, so that for every branch of the sciences there would be a public teacher or professor appointed as its trustee.”
Taylor argued that graduate education must be restructured at a fundamental level to move away from the ultra-narrow scholarship. Among other things, he called for more cross-disciplinary inquiry, the creation of problem-focused programs, with a sunset clause, as well as more collaboration between all educational institutions, and the abolition of tenure. One week later, the outcry from fellow academics filled the entire letters page on the Sunday New York Times. One of his own colleagues at Columbia said it was “alarming and embarrassing” to hear “crass anti-intellectualism” emerge from his own institution. Another academic accused Taylor of “poisoning the waters of higher education.”
The Model of Pedagogy
Whatever the merits of Taylor’s call to restructure higher education, I think he is right to call for a deep debate on how universities function in a networked society. Yet I think he misses the most fundamental challenge to the university as we know it. The basic model of pedagogy is broken. “Broadcast learning” as I’ve called it is no longer appropriate for the digital age and for a new generation of students who represent the future of learning.
In the industrial model of student mass production, the teacher is the broadcaster. A broadcast is by definition the transmission of information from transmitter to receiver in a one-way, linear fashion. The teacher is the transmitter and student is a receptor in the learning process. The formula goes like this: “I’m a professor and I have knowledge. You’re a student you’re an empty vassal and you don’t. Get ready, here it comes. Your goal is to take this data into your short-term memory and through practice and repetition build deeper cognitive structures so you can recall it to me when I test you.”
The definition of a lecture has become the process in which the notes of the teacher go to the notes of the student without going through the brains of either.
As someone who gives many lectures a year, I appreciate the irony of this view. But I understand that my lectures are not a good way of learning. They play a limited role of interesting an audience, changing their view or possibly motivating them to do something different. But I dare say that 90 percent of what I’ve said is lost.
True, this broadcast model is enhanced in some disciplines through essays, labs and even seminar discussions. And of course many professors are working hard to move beyond this model. However, it remains dominant overall.
Technology and the web provide an important element of a new model, but so far few have adopted it. If someone frozen 300 years ago miraculously came alive today and looked at the professions — a physician in an operating theater, a pilot in a jumbo cockpit, a engineer designing an automobile in a CAD system — they would surely marvel at how technologies had transformed the knowledge work. But if they walked into a university lecture hall, they would no doubt be comforted that some things have not changed.
The New Generation of Students
The broadcast model might have been perfectly adequate for the baby-boomers, who grew up in broadcast mode, watching 24 hours a week of television (not to mention being broadcast to as children by parents, as students by teachers, as citizens by politicians, and when then entered the workforce as employees by bosses). But young people who have grown up digital are abandoning one-way TV for the higher stimulus of interactive communication they find on the Internet. In fact television viewing is dropping and TV has become nothing more than ambient media for youth — akin to Muzak. Sitting mutely in front of a TV set — or a professor — doesn’t appeal to or work for this generation. They learn differently best through non-sequential, interactive, asynchronous, multi-tasked and collaborative.
Young Americans under 30 are the first to have grown up digital. Growing up at a time when cell phones, the Internet, texting and Facebook are as normal as the refrigerator. This interactive media immersion at a formative stage of life has affected their brain development and consequently the way they think and learn.
Some writers, of course, think that Google makes you stupid; it’s so hard to concentrate and think deeply amid the overwhelming amounts of bits of information online, they contend. Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, even calls them the “dumbest generation” in his recent book on the topic.
My research suggests these critics are wrong. Growing up digital has changed the way their minds work in a manner that will help them handle the challenges of the digital age. They’re used to multi-tasking, and have learned to handle the information overload. They expect a two-way conversation. What’s more, growing up digital has encouraged this generation to be active and demanding enquirers. Rather than waiting for a trusted professor to tell them what’s going on, they find out on their own on everything from Google to Wikipedia.
If universities want to adapt the teaching techniques to their current audience, they should, as I’ve been saying for years, make significant changes to the pedagogy. And the new model of learning is not only appropriate for youth — but increasingly for all of us. In this generation’s culture is the new culture of learning.
The professors who remain relevant will have to abandon the traditional lecture, and start listening and conversing with the students — shifting from a broadcast style and adopting an interactive one. Second, they should encourage students to discover for themselves, and learn a process of discovery and critical thinking instead of just memorizing the professor’s store of information. Third, they need to encourage students to collaborate among themselves and with others outside the university. Finally, they need to tailor the style of education to their students’ individual learning styles.
Because of technology this is now possible. But this is not fundamentally about technology per se. Rather it represents a change in the relationship between students and teachers in the learning process.
The Most Vulnerable Universities
The ability to engage young people at university obviously depends on the institution, and the individual professor. The great liberal arts colleges are doing a wonderful job of stimulating young minds because with big endowments and small class sizes students can have more of a customized collaborative experience. My son Alex graduated from Amherst College, a small undergraduate university with a student teacher ratio of 8-1. His teachers included a Pulitzer prize winner, Nobel Laureate and overall professors who live to work with students who enable them to learn.
But the same cannot be said of many of the big universities that regard their prime role to be a centre for research, with teaching as an inconvenient afterthought, and class sizes so large that they only want to “teach” is through lectures.
These universities are vulnerable, especially at a time when students can watch lectures online for free by some of the world’s leading professors on sites like Academic Earth. They can even take the entire course online, for credit. According to the Sloan Consortium, a recent article in Chronicle of Higher Education tells us, “nearly 20 per cent of college students — some 3.9 million people — took an online course in 2007, and their numbers are growing by hundreds of thousands each year. The University of Phoenix enrolls over 200,000 each year.”
The New Model
Some leading educators are calling for this kind of massive change; one of these is Richard Sweeney, university librarian at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He says the education model has to change to suit this generation of students. Smart but impatient, they like to collaborate and they reject one-way lectures, he notes. While some educators view this as pandering to a generation, Sweeney is firm: “They want to learn, but they want to learn only from what they have to learn, and they want to learn it in a style that is best for them.”
There are shining examples of interactive education, though. Dr. Maria Terrell, who teaches calculus at Cornell University, used an interactive method that’s part of a program called “Good Questions,” which is funded by the National Science Foundation.
One strategy being used in this program is called just-in-time teaching; it is a teaching and learning strategy that combines the benefits of Web-based assignments and an active-learner classroom where courses are customized to the particular needs of the class. Warm-up questions, written by the students, are typically due a few hours before class, giving the teacher an opportunity to adjust the lesson “just in time,” so that classroom time can be focused on the parts of the assignments that students struggled with. Harvard professor Eric Mazur, who uses this approach in his physics class, puts it this way: “Education is so much more than the mere transfer of information. The information has to be assimilated. Students have to connect the information to what they already know, develop mental models, learn how to apply the new knowledge, and how to adapt this knowledge to new and unfamiliar situations.
This technique produces real results. An evaluation study of 350 Cornell students found that those who were asked “deep questions” (that elicit higher-order thinking) with frequent peer discussion scored noticeably higher on their math exams than students who were not asked deep questions or who had little to no chance for peer discussion. Dr. Terrell explains: “It’s when the students talk about what they think is going on and why, that’s where the biggest learning occurs for them…. You can hear people sort of saying, ‘Oh I see, I get it.’ … And then they’re explaining to somebody else … and there’s an authentic understanding of what’s going on. So much better than what would happen if I, as the teacher person, explain it. There’s something that happens with this peer instruction.”
Interactive education enables students to learn at their own pace. I saw this myself back in the mid-1970s when I was taking a statistics course for my graduate degree in educational psychology at the University of Alberta in Canada. It was one of the first classes conducted online — an educational groundbreaker from Dr. Steve Hunka, a visionary in computer-mediated education. This was before PCs, so we sat down in front of a computer terminal that was connected to a computer-controlled slide display. I could stop at any time and review, and test myself to see how I was doing. The exam was online too.
There were no lectures. Just as well: the statistics lecture is by definition a bust. There is no “one-size-fits-all” for statistics – everyone in the lecture hall is either bored or doesn’t get it. Instead, we got face-to-face time with Dr. Hunka, who was freed up from being a transmitter of data to someone who customized a learning experience for each of us, one on one.
Back then, online learning was expensive, but today the tools on the Net make it a great way to teach and free up the teacher to design the learning experience and converse with the students on an individual and more meaningful basis. It works. The research evidence is very strong and dates back years: “Compared with students enrolled in conventionally taught courses, students who use well-crafted computer-mediated instruction … generally achieve higher scores on summary examinations, learn their lessons in less time, like their classes more, and develop more positive attitudes towards the subject matter they’re learning,” according to an article as long ago as 1997 called “Technology in the Classroom: from Theory to Practice,” which appeared in Educom Review. “These results hold for a broad range of students stretching elementary to college students, studying across a broad range of disciplines, from mathematics to the social sciences to the humanities.”
Challenging the Purpose of the University
The issue of pedagogy raises a deeper issue — the purpose of the university. In the old model, teachers taught and students were expected to absorb vast quantities of content. Education was about absorbing content and being able to recall it on exams. You graduated and you were set for life — just “keeping” up in your chosen field. Today when you graduate you’re set for say, 15 minutes. If you took a technical course half of what you learned in the first year may be obsolete by the 4th year. What counts is your capacity to learn lifelong, to think, research, find information, analyze, synthesize, contextualize, critically evaluate it; to apply research to solving problems; to collaborate and communicate.
But now that students can obviously find the information they’re looking for in an instant online in the crania of others online, this old model doesn’t make any sense. It’s not only what you know that really counts when you graduate; it’s how you navigate in the digital world, and what you do with the information you discover. This new style of learning, I believe, will suit them.
Universities should be places to learn, not to teach.
Net Geners, immersed in digital technology, are keen to try new things, often at high speed. They want university to be fun and interesting. So they should enjoy the delight of discovering things for themselves. As Seymour Papert, one of the world’s foremost experts on how technology can provide new ways to learn put it: “The scandal of education is that every time you teach something, you deprive a child of the pleasure and benefit of discovery.”
A Challenge to Teaching
John Seely Brown is director emeritus of Xerox PARC and a visiting scholar at USC. He noticed that when a child first learns how to speak, she or he is totally immersed in a social context and highly motivated to engage in learning this new, amazingly complex system of language. It got him to thinking that “once you start going to school, in some ways you start to learn much slower because you are being taught, rather than what happens if you’re learning in order to do things that you yourself care about…. Very often just going deeply into one or two topics that you really care about lets you appreciate the awe of the world … once you learn to honor the mysteries of the world, you’re kind of always willing to probe things … you can actually be joyful about discovering something you didn’t know … and you can expect always to need to keep probing. And so that sets the stage for lifelong inquiry.”
Another fixture of old-style learning is the assumption that students should learn on their own. Sharing notes in an exam hall, or collaborating on some of the essays and homework assignments, was strictly forbidden. Yet the individual learning model is foreign territory for most Net Geners, who have grown up collaborating, sharing, and creating together online. Progressive educators are recognizing this. Students start internalizing what they’ve learned in class only once they start talking to each other, says Seely Brown: “The whole notion of passively sitting and receiving information has almost nothing to do with how you internalize information into something that makes sense to you. Learning starts as you leave the classroom, when you start discussing with people around you what was just said. It is in conversation that you start to internalize what some piece of information meant to you.”
The lecture hall is a prime example of mass education. It came along with mass production, mass marketing, and the mass media. Schooling, says Howard Gardner, is a mass-production idea. “You teach the same thing to students in the same way and assess them all in the same way.” Pedagogy is based on the questionable idea that optimal learning experiences can be constructed for groups of learners at the same chronological age. In this view, a curriculum is developed based on predigested information and structured for optimal transmission. If the curriculum is well structured and interesting, then large proportions of students at any given grade level will “tune in” and get engaged with the information. But too often, it doesn’t work out that way.
Consider one of the smash hits on YouTube last year, a short video called “A Vision of Students Today”.
Created by Michael Wesch, an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, it is a stinging indictment of the education delivered by standard large-scale American university. Wesch recruited 200 student collaborators to describe their view of the education they’re receiving. Their verdict: Nothing much has changed since the early nineteenth century, when the blackboard was introduced as a brilliant new way to help students visualize information. They painted a grim picture of university life — huge classes, teachers who didn’t know the students’ names, students who didn’t complete the assigned readings, multiple-choice exams that were a waste of intellectual capital.
I know many bright students who feel the same way. The big thing these days is to get an “A” without ever having gone to a lecture. When the crème de la crème of an entire generation is boycotting the formal model of pedagogy in our educational institutions, the writing is on the wall.
A Challenge of the Revenue Model
As the model of pedagogy is challenged it’s inevitable that the revenue model of universities will be too. The arrival of online education raises the question: If all that the big universities have to offer to students are lectures that you can get online for free — from other professors — why pay the tuition fees? If universities want to survive the arrival of free university-level education online, they need to change the way professors and students interact on campus. Some are taking bold steps to reinvent themselves, with help from the Internet. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, is offering free lecture notes, exams and videotaped lectures by MIT professors to the online world.
Anyone in the world can watch the entire series of lectures for some 30 courses, such as Walter Lewin’s ever-popular introductory physics course, which gets viewed by over 40,000 people a month on OpenCourseWear, MIT’s version of intellectual philanthropy. Universities worldwide have joined the movement.
A Challenge to Credentialing
Of course, universities play an important role in the sorting of individuals in society, through the admissions process and the awarding of degrees. One of the most important roles of the university is to screen human capital for future employers, and more broadly stratifying society. Those who get good marks in high school and on their SATs, who are proven to be hard workers and have other talents, get into the best universities. Those who graduate — better still with distinction — have a credential, to get the most desirable jobs or entrance to graduate programs. They have proven they have a degree of discipline and that they’re prepared to play by the rules.
But a credential and even the prestige of a university is rooted in its effectiveness as a learning institution. If these institutions are shown to be inferior learning environments to other alternatives their capacity to credential will surely diminish.
How much longer will, say, a Harvard undergraduate degree, taught in large class sizes by teaching assistants, largely through lectures, be able to compete in status to the small class size liberal arts colleges or superior delivery systems that harness the new models of learning. Surely the proof being in the pudding will change the status for various recipes for learning.
A Challenge to the Campus
The university campus has been “a wonderful place for young people to go for four years to get older”, as Princeton sociologist Marvin Dressler told me a decade ago. “While they’re there they’re bound to learn something” he said.
But if campuses are seen as places where learning is inferior to other models, or worse places where learning is restricted and stifled, the role of the campus experience will be undermined as well.
Campuses that embrace the new models become more effective learning environments and more desirable places. Even something as simple as online lectures do not undermine the value of on-campus education, they have enhanced it. The video lectures allow students to absorb the course content online — whenever it’s convenient — and then get together to tinker, invent new things, or discuss the material. The experience has shown MIT that real value of what they offer is not the lecture per se, but rather the whole package — the content tied to the human learning experience on campus, plus the certification. Universities, in other words, cannot survive on lectures alone.
Videotaping lectures can free up intellectual capital — on the part of both professors and students — to spend their on-campus time thinking and inquiring and challenging each other, rather than just absorbing information.
A Challenge to the Relationship of the University to Other Institutions
“The time has come for some far reaching changes to the university, our model of pedagogy, how we operate, and our relationship to the rest of the world,” says Luis M. Proenza, president of the University of Akron.
He asks a provocative question: Why should a university student be restricted to learning from the professors at the university he or she is attending. True, students can obviously learn from intellectuals around the world through books, or via the Internet. Yet in a digital world, why shouldn’t a student be able to take a course from a professor at another university? Proenza thinks universities should use the Internet to create a global centre of excellence. In other words, choose the best courses you have and link them with the best at a handful of universities around the world to create an unquestionably best-in-class program for students. Students would get to learn from the world’s greatest minds in their area of interest — either in the physical classroom, or online. This global academy would be also be open to anyone online. This is a beautiful example of the collaboration I described in the book I co-authored, Wikinomics.
So why hasn’t it happened yet? “It’s the legacy of established human and educational infrastructure,” says Proenza. The analogy is not the newspaper business, which has been weakened by the distribution of knowledge on the Internet, he notes. “We’re more like health care. We’re challenged by obstructive, non-market-based business models. We’re also burdened by a sense that doctor knows best, or professor knows best.”
“There are a lot of sacred cows,” he said. Why, for example, are universities judged by the number of students they exclude, or by how much they spend? Why aren’t they judged by how well they teach, and at what price?
The digital world, which has trained young minds to inquire and collaborate, is challenging not only the lecture-driven teaching traditions of the university, but also the very notion of a walled-in institution that excludes large numbers of people. Why not allow a brilliant grade 9 student to take first-year math, without abandoning the social life of his high school? Why not deploy the interactive power of the internet to transform the university into a place of life-long learning, not just a place to grow up?
Old Paradigms Die Hard
Yet the Industrial Age model of education is hard to change. New paradigms cause dislocation, disruption, confusion, uncertainty. They are nearly always received with coolness or hostility. Vested interests fight change. And leaders of old paradigms are often the last to embrace the new.
Back in 1997 I presented my views to a group of about 100 University presidents at a dinner hosted by Ameritech in Chicago. After the talk I sat down at my table and asked the smaller group what they thought about my remarks. They responded positively. So I said to them “why is this taking so long?” “The problem is funds,” one president said. “We just don’t have the money to reinvent the model of pedagogy.” Another educator put it this way: “Models of learning that go back decades are hard to change.” Another got a chuckle around the table when he said, “I think the problem is the faculty — their average age is 57 and they’re teaching in a ‘post-Gutenberg’ mode.”
A very thoughtful man named Jeffery Bannister, who at the time was president of Butler College, was seated next to me. “Post-Gutenberg?” he said. “I don’t think so! At least not at Butler. Our model of learning is pre-Gutenberg! We’ve got a bunch of professors reading from handwritten notes, writing on blackboards, and the students are writing down what they say. This is a pre-Gutenberg model — the printing press is not even an important part of the learning paradigm.” He added, “Wait till these students who are 14 and have grown up learning on the Net hit the [college] classrooms — sparks are going to fly.”
Bannister was right. A powerful force to change the university is the students. And sparks are flying today. There is a huge generational clash emerging in these institutions. It turns out that the critique of the university from years ago were ideas in waiting — waiting for the new web and a new generation of digital natives who could effectively challenge the old model.
Changing the model of pedagogy for this generation is crucial for the survival of the university. If students turn away from a traditional university education, this will erode the value of the credentials universities award, their position as centers of learning and research, and as campuses where young people get a change to “grow up.”