08 June 2009

Death throes of universities

This article by Dan Tapscott in Edge, titled, “The Demise of the University” is weird.

Tapscott, despite the title, apparently doesn’t think all universities are dying. He suggests that small liberal arts universities are poised to take down institutions like Harvard. They will do this, he claims, because such universities are so invested in doing research that they only teach by lecturing.

Lectures are Tapscott’s bugbear. Tapscott asserts:

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.

Really? Has the psychology of learning changed that much? Has anyone really shown that effective learning techniques have really changed? I think it’s more likely that lectures have always been a flawed means of teaching, and that only now are there beginning to be alternatives that will scale to handle the sort of numbers needed.

As I’ve mentioned previously, the much-vaunted online skills incoming students are supposed to have are often perilously thin. Sure, they can find a YouTube video, but do they have serious strategies for researching complex technical questions and sorting woo from science?

Similarly, Tapscott says of contemporary students:

They’re used to multi-tasking, and have learned to handle the information overload.

That students are used to multi-tasking is no more a good thing than people using their phones when they drive. There is an abundance of research that shows multi-tasking is something to be discouraged, not embraced. Multi-tasking impairs performance. Universities should be set to encourage focus and reflection, not multi-tasking. And there seems to be good reasons to get people to read books.

Strangely, after disparaging lectures, Tapscott writes:

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 OpenCourseWare, MIT's version of intellectual philanthropy.

So... lecture in an actual classroom with an actual human being able to answer questions is bad, but a recorded lecture on the internet is somehow better? In fairness, he writes elsewhere, “real value of what they offer is not the lecture per se”, but I can’t help seeing online lectures being painted more positively than lectures in a class.

I do agree that North American universities are going to face some hard time. I would be more worried about declining numbers of university age people as the “echo” of the Baby Boom fades than the inadequacies of teaching models that Tapscott is concerned with.

It’s frustrating, because I agree with much of Tapscott says. But he certainly does not show what the title claims, that universities are dying.

1 comment:

John Galt said...

Thank you! That's exactly how I feel as a univ. "lecturer." This disparagement of what has prove a very effective teaching tool is not grounded in the front-line reality of the difficulty of teaching.

The "multitasking" thing has always disturbed me too. Doing five things poorly rather than one completely is such false economy.