Internet y la Universidad, ¿quién enseña a quién?

Las Universidades tienen que cambiar muchas cosas si quieren subsistir y si quieren ser los referentes de la educación superior.

En realidad, no sólo las Universidades sino que todo el sistema educativo, que está obsoleto y cada día enseña y forma menos; aunque tal vez es eso lo que quieren los lobbys que detentan el poder real en el mundo.

Miguel de Arriba


By Adrian Hon Internet Last updated: November 25th, 2010

Soon, most students won't bother going old-style universities (Photo: Getty)

Soon, most students won’t bother going old-style universities (Photo: Getty)

Across the country, university students sit in lectures every day, listening to someone speak for an hour in crowded theatres. Most are daydreaming, checking Facebook, surfing the web, texting and tweeting; if they’re particularly motivated or the lecture is unusually good, some might actually be paying attention.

At the same time, millions of learners around the world are watching world-class lectures online about every subject imaginable, from fractional reserve banking to moral philosophy to pharmacology, supplied by Harvard, MIT, and The Open University.

One group gets its education for free, and the other pays thousands of pounds per year. It’s a situation that can’t continue, and unless universities face up to the internet’s fierce competition they won’t have any future.

We have a romantic ideal of universities being places of higher education where students absorb knowledge, skills and critical thinking – an ideal modelled over centuries on universities like Oxford and Heidelberg. Since they used a multi-year, highly structured residential course of lectures, tutorials, and exams to produce smart graduates, we now believe that this same model ought to work for the majority of the adult population.

We’re wrong. The simple fact is that university lectures never worked that well in the first place – it’s just that for centuries, we didn’t have any better option for transmitting information. In fact, the success of top universities, both now and historically, is in spite of lectures, not because of it.

Even Adam Smith complained about this problem in 1776, in The Wealth of Nations:

The teacher, instead of explaining to his pupils himself the science in which he proposes to instruct them, may read some book upon it; and if this book is written in a foreign and dead language, by interpreting it to them into their own; or, what would give him still less trouble, by making them interpret it to him, and by now and then making an occasional remark upon it, he may flatter himself that he is giving a lecture.

The slightest degree of knowledge and application will enable him to do this without exposing himself to contempt or derision, or saying anything that is really foolish, absurd, or ridiculous. The discipline of the college, at the same time, may enable him to force all his pupils to the most regular attendance upon this sham lecture, and to maintain the most decent and respectful behaviour during the whole time of the performance.

Smith later says that good lecturers can keep attendance up without any coercion, but let’s be honest, such lecturers are few and far between. I studied at Cambridge, Oxford, and the University of California at San Diego, and while there were a few exceptions, most lecturers were little more than talking textbooks. A large part of the problem is that we require researchers and academics to become teachers, without any training or assessment of teaching skill; I was able to tutor students at Oxford with zero training, as if my degree somehow meant I was a brilliant teacher.

The mediocrity of the average lecturer was made very clear when I watched Prof Michael Sandel’s fantastically engaging Harvard philosophy lectures on Justice on YouTube, seen by millions around the world. Other universities, including MIT’s OpenCourseWare and The Open University, now offer videos of lectures free as a matter of course.

It isn’t only traditional institutions that are getting into the game. The Khan Academy offers over 1,600 undergraduate-level videos on maths, sciences and humanities, which have collectively been watched over 30 million times. For several years, it has been run by a single person, Sal Khan, and it’s just been awarded a $2 million grant by Google.

Today, we don’t go to the music hall to hear songs – we can listen to the most popular performers on iTunes or the radio. Most of us don’t visit the theatre for an evening’s entertainment – we can watch TV. You can guess where this is heading with universities.

The Oxford model for higher education is no longer valid (Photo: Getty)

The Oxford model for higher education will only work for elite universities (Photo: Getty)

Anyone online can now watch thousands of world-class lectures whenever they want. They can pause and rewind if they don’t understand something, and they can review the transcript when revising. At some universities, they can even email questions to lecturers without the risk of embarrassment.

And what about seminars, workshops, and tutorials, the “contact time” where students talk with teachers directly? This is perhaps the most valuable part of the university experience, yet how much contact time do students at most universities really have? A few hours a week, at most?

Again, the internet can help by linking students to experts around the world, by email and through video conferencing. It’s not as good as face-to-face contact, but if it’s with the right teachers, it’s better than spending time with a mediocre one.

Undergraduate education should be paid for by the government – after all, most of us have enjoyed free or highly subsidised education that also benefits the whole country. However, if universities are going to cost over £7,000 a year, students should think very hard about whether they’re getting value for money.

A friend of mine recently pursued a history degree at a good Russell Group university. In practice, this involved three or four hours a week in lectures and seminars, with the rest of the time spent shopping or having fun with her friends. After three years of this, she emerged several thousand pounds of debt, and took a job in a bank.

Clearly the bank didn’t require a history degree – any degree would have been sufficient. So could those three years and thousands of pounds been better spent?

Universities are important, and not just for training scientists, doctors, and lawyers. When taught well, the humanities can help students think beyond the “how” and into the “why” – and they provide the invaluable gift of critical thinking. They’re useful skills for any job, and they’re vital attributes for a healthy democracy.

Freely available online lectures and textbooks give universities the opportunity to reduce costs and increase quality, while focusing resources on what really matters: contact time between teachers and students. The simple fact is that the education most universities provide isn’t worth the money. If they don’t have world-class reputations – and only a few do – then they need to change fast, or watch an exodus of students away to cheaper, better alternatives.


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