The Standing Invitation

Posts Tagged ‘Universities

The Online University

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The funding of universities is a real problem. Here is a potential solution: get rid of them altogether.

Why not put universities online?

Consider a new model. A student applying for a university course receives a username and password that gives her access to videos of lectures. These can be downloaded and watched from home. It’s cheap, because they only have to be recorded once; academics can focus on research having been freed from teaching schedules, apart from marking papers e-mailed in by students and doing occasional tutorial sessions, in groups, via webcam. For hard science degrees that require specialised equipment, students allotted slots in laboratories: they take four weeks a year out of the usual schedule of video lectures, travel to a lab building with dedicated on-site accommodation, and do an intensive course that gives the whole year’s lab work for a year. These can run throughout the year.

The whole thing would be extremely cheap, and paid for directly by students, either by a loan or having a part-time job. You wouldn’t even have to move out of your parents’ place. Importantly, it empowers students by putting them in charge of their own futures.

As an economic plan, it’s tempting.

As a social plan, it would be catastrophic.

The worst thing you could do to a field of study is to isolate it from other fields. What you can imagine depends on what you know (Dennett, again), and if all you know is what you’ve been taught in lectures then there is only so far you can go. A personal example: my specialism is organic chemistry, but I am analysing it with techniques I only know about through my contact with linguists and computer scientists. If I had never met these people, had never mixed with them, drunkenly stolen the occasional traffic cone with them, these ideas would never have occurred to me.

Furthermore, anyone who’s been through university will tell you that the most important things they learned did not come from lectures: they came from each other, from contact with other students. This contact requires geographical concentration of students as much as it requires them moving out of their parents’ protection. If students are to be exposed to one another’s new ways of thinking, they will need dedicated space, time and freedom in which to interact. This is what taught-at-home universities would lack. The result, if they became commonplace, would disastrous both for the students themselves, and for the society that hopes to benefit from them.

But while I think it would be disastrous, I fear it may also be inevitable. Commoditisation is always a risk of liberalism. Students increasingly see themselves as consumers rather than apprentices, and increasingly think of degrees as ends to be reached, rather than things to pass through on the way to further wisdom.

It’s a worrying trend. But how can we reverse it without radically altering our idea of freedom?

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Written by The S I

July 30, 2011 at 8:30 pm

A Degree in What?

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In recent years in this country there has been a proliferation in the number and variety of courses taught in universities. Many of my parents’ generation have been disquieted by this. Do we really need to have people with degrees in plumbing? Furniture making? Golf course management?

It’s an interesting question. Specialising in any subject requires study, but what is it that makes one specialism suitable for teaching in a university, and one not? What is it that makes a degree in English, psychology or physics seem reasonable, but a degree in motor maintenance seem unnecessary?

My own pet theory derives from a belief that universities and schools are institutions designed, intentionally or not, to protect the young from capitalism.

Some subjects do seem more suited to university study than others. What does this suitability correlate with? Is it perceived usefulness to society? Hardly. The differences in figures for employment in the first six months of graduating between English literature students and physicists tells us that these subjects are valued very differently by society, even though anybody could tell you that the place to get at good each of these subjects is in a university. A skilled plumber can command a much better salary than an English graduate, but few people seem to think that plumbing is something to study in university.

I also don’t believe suitability correlates with knowledge of one’s discipline. Does someone who spends three years studying English or physics know more than someone who spent the same time studying motor mechanics? I can’t believe it necessarily follows. I’m not even sure the question makes sense. I wouldn’t ask a hairdresser to calibrate a particle accelerator; but then, I wouldn’t ask a physicist to cut my hair, either.

The crucial difference, I think, is this: that a bad furniture maker can just about get away with making bad furniture, for less, and in so doing learn how to make good furniture, for more; but a bad physicist, or a bad specialist in mediaeval Dutch, is of no use to anyone. It is a question of apprenticeship, growth, and survival in a hostile world.

Capitalism is corrosive, and markets, though necessary and important, are dangerous places for the inexperienced to play. We do not throw children out onto the street to fend for themselves in the name of free markets. We protect them, educate them, to give them the skills they will need to make themselves useful. At eighteen, people leave school wanting to pursue different careers. In some of these careers, it is possible to start with nothing and learn the job on the go; in others, a few years’ more training is needed before the person is ready to start. Universities – all education, in fact – should be a safe haven where the young are able to develop the skills they need to contribute to society in future, without feeling the tidal forces of markets. It worries me that this may not continue to be the case.

Written by The S I

July 12, 2011 at 8:38 pm

Posted in Politics

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