The end of ‘mass universities’

In the late sixties and seventies, we wanted universities to become more accessible. We founded the Open University, the Université du Québec, and many other universities with accessibility as part of their mandate.

The stated goal was to make degrees more accessible. We succeeded.

Yet, we are now facing an intriguing paradox due to this success. Technology, by making access easier than ever to access educational content, is also shaking the very foundation of the University. As an example of this transformation,  Michael Nielsen was pointing out this morning that you can watch 120 hours of lectures on Physics by Lenny Susskind, for free on YouTube. You are in deep trouble if what you are selling in 2009 are mass-produced lectures. The market price just went through the floor.

Lance Fortnow pointed us to a short essay by Martin Rees about technology and universities. Rees’ point is that technology creates a more level playing field as far as location is concerned. A hundred years ago, airplanes made it possible for Indian Mathematicians to travel to Cambridge where they could be taken seriously. In some sense, airplanes made Indian Mathematicians more globally competitive, though only marginally so. The Web—with repositories such as arXiv—pushes this idea further, an order of magnitude further. After all, Gregori Perelman won a million dollar and the equivalent of a Nobel prize by posting a few papers on arXiv.

The revolution is all around us, not just in Science. Recently, an unknown writer, Sam Landstrom, posted his novel MetaGame on the Amazon Kindle. No publisher, no ad campain. Sales rank of his novel? 540. Considering that Amazon reported selling more ebooks than paper books over Christmas, I am sure many authors envy Landstrom success. Yet, Landstrom did not need an office New York City to either write or publish his book. For all I know, he lives in his parents’ basement.

Thankfully, bona fide Universities have some form of monopoly on University degrees. Yet, like Rees, I think that we are coming to the end of the road for mass universities:

Traditional universities will survive insofar as they offer mentoring and personal contact to their students. But it’s less clear that there will be a future for the ‘mass university’ where the students are offered little more than a passive role in lectures (generally of mediocre quality) with minimal feedback.

One thing is clear to me: The value of a lecture in front of 80 students—or the equivalent as a webcasted show—is exactly zero. (From an educational point of view.)

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

19 thoughts on “The end of ‘mass universities’”

  1. A good lecturer can adjust the lecture according to (non-verbal) student feedback. On the other hand, some lecturers are not so responsive and may as well be on video.

    I remember spending about 20 hours per week preparing a class for about 20 students several years ago. It occurred to me that my class might learn more if I scrapped the lecture and met with each student for one hour a week.

  2. One-on-one apprenticeship is crucial, yes, but it does not have to happen face-to-face. Thousands and thousands of programmers have gotten good by participating in open source projects, for example. But yes, generally, I would advise against trying to get a Ph.D. while being away from campus. But it is the subject of another blog post.

    Certification is important mostly for large corporations and governments. If you are in human ressources at Google, you don’t want to hire someone without a degree unless you have a very good reason to do so. But it has much less value for self-employed workers, and we have more and more of those.

    As for deadlines, you do realize that you have been trained to work toward deadlines since you were 6 or 7 years old? Is it any surprise that you expect and need deadlines? Trying going without deadlines for a few years and tell me what happens. You may find out that you do even better!

  3. I think the value of attending a particular university will be in three ways: one, certification. A Harvard degree is worth more than a University of Daniel Lemire degree (for now!). Two, forced learning. Personally I don’t learn well from self-directed/correspondence courses. I prefer deadlines and other people pushing me. Three, one-on-one or apprentice style teaching. I’m not sure there’s a Web substitute for in-person ‘office hours’ with a smart prof.

    The issues seems to be, as you say, in the Psyc 101 style courses.

  4. I disagree that the value of a lecture in front of a large number of students has zero value. I do think that in most cases (and certainly what passes for most uni teaching), it certainly isn’t the most efficient or effective way of conveying the information.

    The problem is that it is the only way for instructors to fulfill their 3-hours of “contact time” per week in a way that scale, if only superficially, esp with a large number of students.

    I’m currently teaching a blended course with < 20 grad students, and the amount of time require on all our parts for online interaction is considerable. This is my first attempt at this, though, so I expect it will get better as I figure out what works.

    My sense is that if you as the instructor, can design the course environment correctly, set the proper expectations, and remove yourself from the center of the learning process (yes, you are the bottleneck!), this model can scale quite well, AND be more effective.


  5. Some folk need the structure of a classroom and deadlines, and others do not. Will be interesting to see what we learn about the character of each group, over time.

    Lectures might be of lasting and larger interest if there is a searchable index. If you are stuck on some aspect, and you can find lectures offering alternate presentations of the relevant material, that could be useful. Used to buy more than one textbook on the class subject (for the more difficult classes), as alternate presentations of the same material often proved useful.

    In school, lectures were a time to read, do homework, or doodle. I almost never got anything out of lectures (aside from homework assignments, test dates, and bad posture).

  6. I would not be surprised in 10 years from now to see universities only providing assignments (with deadlines), tutors (office hours) and exams with students simply having to look at the presentations on the web when it best fits their schedule. This will also allow professor to do more research or to spend more time for the increasing number of graduate students.

  7. I wouldn’t be surprised either, since it would allow the university, with a little effort, to automate the ‘teaching’ work done by faculty. Having said that, it would be a disaster, and I plan on doing what I can to prevent it.

    (Disclaimer: I have almost no power in the organizational sense: my only influence is by setting an example.)

    Moving away from delivering lectures shouldn’t mean moving away from teaching to have more time to do the things that get you tenure or praise (research). Moving away from delivering lectures should mean a move towards teaching, interacting with the students in different and more effective ways.

    I know there are a number of people who push to move away from lectures as a way to free up time for research, but I think that approach is misguided. As long as teaching is part of the university’s mandate, we should be wary of any initiatives that promote a move in that direction.

  8. Daniel, thanks for this text and the great collection of links. I share your opinion about the future of university education. In fact, I almost hope it happens, even if it means it’s going to be harder for me to find a job. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject.

    First a question: Why hasn’t this happened with television? There were a lot of experiments to package good lectures on tape, why didn’t they succeed? Why will the web be more successful?

    Also, as many have pointed out, university life is about more than courses. Here are some other things you get from physically being on a (good) campus:

    1) You get the “gym effect”: people paying tuition have more incentives to attend lectures, do their homework, and succeed.

    2) You get the social life: learning how to connect with people, going to parties… All that is part of the unofficial curriculum, and it prepares you for many aspects of your adult life.

    3) You get the ubiquity of knowledge: when your ambient environment is composed of knowledge-savvy and intelligent people, being a jock will not make you popular — peer-pressure drives you towards success.

    Yes, the web has the potential to shift the current equilibrium. I hope it does. Still, it’s really hard to see what the new equilibrium will be.

  9. IMHO, this is not the end of ‘mass universities’ but the beginning of ‘open universities’.

    Yes, imparting education through traditional modes doesn’t seem to work or scale any more. Learning channels have increased in plenty – wikipedia, podcasts, webcasts, academicearth, Google, youtube, twitter, facebook et al – have become the new channels and may become the default ones going forward.

    Does that impact learning? I’m not yet fully convinced if all these lead and/or translate to knowledge – practical and applied. We are in the midst of information, true, is that all enough? As a old poet (Eliot) asks- “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

  10. Why hasn’t this happened with television? There were a lot of experiments to package good lectures on tape, why didn’t they succeed? Why will the web be more successful?

    Television did have a strong impact on education. It is just that it never took the form of televised lectures. But remember that television is fundamentally a mass medium. That’s the critical difference. You cannot create a TV channel for people who want to become research physicists. You always have to aim for the “average Joe”. And in this respect, TV did a lot to educate the average Joe.

    The Web brings a flexibility we never had before. I don’t believe that anyone will sit through 120 hours of lectures on YouTube… Yet, we already have fantastic highly accessible learning content, that most lecturers cannot hope to match:

    In general, it makes no economic sense in 2010 to be lecturing.

    Here are some other things you get from physically being on a (good) campus (…)

    Absolutely. But you also get a great social live by joining a select country club.

    What is true is that you need competition, emulation, social interaction… and you cannot get this very well with a typical “online course”. But again, how do you become a top Linux kernel hacker? I bet you don’t do so by attending expensive lectures by Linus Torvald. You join mailing lists, you start helping out others with technical code, and eventually you learn your way up. No need to actually go camping on Linus Torvald’s lawn.

    Similarly, if you want to become a great researcher, you start out by working under a good researcher and you work your way up.

    One thing you do not need is to attend 120 hours of lectures.

  11. Ok, TV is a mass medium. But what about VHS or DVDs? You can tailor these for a very specific audience. Why didn’t we get the “Susskind undergrad lectures on DVD”?

    Yes, you can get social interaction elsewhere. However, the environment you get on campus is not the one you’d have in your local lawn-bowling club. It is a mind-opening experience to live (not only attend courses) within a community that values openness, understanding, intelligence, etc. In that view, lectures act as a metronome, a mechanism to keep this social interaction in sync. You can talk about the last lecture in the same way people talk about last night hockey game. Being synchronized in this way increases the “contact area” of your social interactions, and make them more valuable.

  12. Why didn’t we get the “Susskind undergrad lectures on DVD”?

    I consider DVDs to be a mass medium. From this angle, An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore is more or less a lecture sold as a DVD. It got him a Nobel prize.

    But let us not get lost. I have never written than online lectures on YouTube are the way of the future. Frankly, watching someone talk, and write on a blackboard, is not (in general) a very efficient way to learn.

    There are extremely effective talks. broadcasts many of them. But in general, I don’t think you learn science by watching someone talk. For one thing, effective talks are rather short, and they don’t go deep into complicated issues.

    There is a reason why I am not videocasting my blog, you know. And I tried… if you look hard enough, you will find tentative video and audio broadcasts of this blog. It is costly, hard to index, hard to update. It is also fairly rigid and static. We could not have the current discussion as part of a video discussion. Sure, we could call each other on Skype, but it would just be much more complicated.

    You can talk about the last lecture in the same way people talk about last night hockey game. Being synchronized in this way increases the “contact area” of your social interactions, and make them more valuable.

    I agree. That’s why I bother to write blog posts at all. When I write that blogging is a fundamentally social activity, people sometimes misunderstand what I mean… Yet, you have just expressed it much better than I ever could. Just replace “lecture” by “blog”.

    Someone could learn a hell of a lot of math. by reading Terence Tao’s blog posts, and discussing it with others. It is happening, right now.

  13. Agreed. Lectures are just one tool in a good teacher’s arsenal. Blogs can be an awesome weapon. Face-to-face discussions may be old but still have some life in them. The most effective cocktail depends on many things, most importantly, perhaps, your personality as a student.

    I’ve gotten much out of good online 40-hour lectures in Economics and Mechanics (I’m a CS major). I believe it’s because many people have spent a lot of time organizing the subjects in a coherent manner. The audio-video format is simply a wider channel to copy abstract knowledge into my brain. I don’t need cross-referencing or interaction as much, since the ideas are already well-organized — I can copy the organization together with the knowledge.

    For collections of technical stuff in my field, i.e. when I’m picking-up a new programming language, textbooks tend to work best. Probably because the distance between what I already know and what I want to know is small and very personal. No lectures precisely fit this gap, but a book allows be to search and skip-ahead as needed.

    For graduate cutting-edge topics and research (what I would argue we are doing here), I need a very interactive channel. My goal, then, is to find new ideas and organize them in novel abstract constructions. Blogs, one-on-one apprenticeship, casual discussions over a beer or classes with very small groups of students are all good for this. One of the most effective graduate-level theoretical CS class I’ve attended had only three students.

    This is deviating from the original topic — sorry. I guess that’s the risk of interactive channels. To reconnect I would say that there are tons of ways to learn. A good learning environment is one in which you can quickly find your channel of choice. Historically, Universities have played that role really well, but the web is catching up on many fronts.

  14. Philippe says:
    Face-to-face discussions may be old but still have some life in them.

    Surely more than “some life”. If there’s any point at all to a “classroom” it’s so that the students can have a conversation with someone who knows more than they do and learn – mostly learn HOW to learn. What questions to ask. To reflect.

    Isn’t it like the difference between learning how to play chess with a computer-chess program and a human grand master? (Daniel knows why I’m asking this question!)

  15. Heh… In fact, not every student is even attending these mass lectures.
    We cannot stop the progress. Nothing can replace personal interaction. However, you can interact over the Internet as efficiently or even more efficiently. But, of course, you need students in some labs anyway. This is not often though.

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