Tony Gurr

For The Times They Are a-Changin’

In Our Universities, Technology on 28/02/2011 at 7:28 am


The world is indifferent to tradition and past reputations, unforgiving of frailty and ignorant of custom or practice. Success will go to those individuals and countries which are swift to adapt, slow to complain and open to change.

Andreas Schleicher

I think it was Moe who said “Higher education is a thousand years of tradition wrapped in a hundred years of bureaucracy”.

BUT, we do have a great many “best practices” because of this tradition…

A great example is the traditional “course-credit model” (developed circa 1890). Educational “bean-counters” love it as it allows them to calculate a cumulative GPA.

The fact that it tells us (and, more importantly, students) nothing (really NOTHING!) about the conceptual development of learners, the growth of intellectual abilities or the quality of learning that takes place over time – is conveniently ignored.

The other thing I have often wondered is why – across just about every country on the planet (probably on a couple of others, too) – all lectures and classes seem to be around the same length (45-55 minutes). And, why so many different disciplines, so many specialisations, so many programmes – can have roughly the same number of lectures in a given semester.

Trust me – I’ve asked people these questions over and over.

Noone has been able to give me an answer – apart from “That’s just the way it is”….

Maybe, I’m a bit thick!

Here’s another one…why do we train PhD candidates only to do research, when we know most of them will be hired to “teach” our kids. Teaching people “how to teach” (or at least helping them “understand how people learn”) would seem like a pretty good idea for say, a lecturer, yes?

And, far superior to allowing university teaching practices to be built on “folklore” about what works in teaching and learning and certainly a lot better than lecturers simply “doing business” the way their own teachers taught them.

Hey, I get the idea that the Academe, for many, exists for the purpose of the unfettered pursuit of truth and excellence through scholarship and research – I do, and I am also a fan of research (seriously)!

I also get that it is only “the opportunity to do research, and earn esteem from fellow researchers, that compensates for relatively poor salaries, and motivates talent to enter the academic profession”.

But, I have just had to prepare a citation for an article I’m doing right now and it had “TWELVE authors” – meaning they all wrote about 400 words each (about the same number of words I have written up to this point for this blog post).

And, I know that all of these “esteemed publishers” will see very little professional advancement within the Academe as a result of their “teaching” (or “public service”).

BUT, it all does not seem “right” somehow

Yeah, yeah…Tony’s needs to blow off some steam and have a rant! But it’s not just me that thinks that the Academe’s obsession with research might, just a teeny-weeny bit, be getting in the way of student learning.

Lauren Pope, writing in 2006, offered this advice to parents and kids getting ready for college:

…for the undergraduate, the Ivies and their clones are scams. In those universities, you will be ignored. There are no rewards for teaching, so professors, famous or not, do little or none of it. If they do, you’ll only ever see them behind a lectern. In many of these schools you will never write a paper. Nearly half of your enormous classes will be taught by part-timers, many of whom can barely speak English.

And he was talking about the best universities on the planet.

Guy Claxton also points out – this time talking about the UK:

As things stand, less than half of all young people go on to university, and many of those who do, now endure an assembly-line experience at least as passive and depersonalised as school.

I’m guessing more than a few lecturers would also agree with both Pope and Claxton…and me, too!

I know the Ivies, the Golden Triangle colleges of the UK and all the schools scrambling to get into the T.H.E’s Top 100 Universities List will come back with tales about the quality of their teacher-researchers and the wide range of citations their staff have been amassing this year (more often than not because they have been sending their “teaching assistants” into undergraduate classes so they can “publish”).

But, when we look through “the smoke and the mirrors” we see that the rankings are “phoney”, are easily “manipulated” and that many of the claims we hear are, in reality, nothing more than “academic slight-of-hand”.

As Pope notes again:

These damaging things are compiled by statisticians who can only measure input factors, many of which are totally irrelevant to education. They know nothing about what happens to young minds and souls in the four years of college. Some anonymous Canadian has said the American way of judging the quality of college by the grades and scores of the freshmen it selects is like judging the quality of a hospital by the health of the patients it admits. What happens during the stay is what counts.

Trust me – it is not only America and the UK that “plays these games” – try every country on the planet!

Some of the best Turkish universities play the game, too – and are getting very good at it.

Those of us who love (or have “adopted” – as home) Turkey all know, “deep down in our hearts” (and because the World Bank tells us), that most public universities in Turkey have been developed as though they are or will be “research universities” (whatever that really means). This is despite the fact that the level of research is low at most institutions and the post-graduate population remains tiny – this is even true of the newer, more dynamic foundation (private) universities.

Granted there are a few “stars” in the Turkish Academe – but many other members of the Academe remain “little more than secondary schools” (Mızıkacı).

And, we know that our schools are doing little more than socialising Turkish children into the “ways of the examocracy” – while doing really well as “supply schools” for the “Dershane Culture”.

BUT, he says again, it all does not seem “right” somehow

Wouldn’t it be super if the Academe could respond to a few of these issues – with more than “a bun-fight” any time we put them on the table?

Wouldn’t it be great if more of them committed to:

  • Making a difference in student lives by putting learning at the heart of what they do,
  • Promoting real learning by community building, purposeful engagement and encouragement of risk-taking on the part of all students and staff, and
  • Providing choice, widening interdisciplinary collaboration, and making sure they produce meaningful “value added” in every single student.

And then, did something about it.

Wait a minute!

There are some people who are breaking the rules – perhaps a bit of competition might be the “nudge” the Academe has been waiting for:

KSRF’s Virtual University, the oldest learning community on the web, was set up in 1995 and brings together academics, professionals and practitioners to co-create the type of learning that has made happy customers out of their three million plus “students”

Anyone can sign up for courses, teach their own course (or co-teach with others around the world), act as a learning mentor, and share-share-share

As well as leading the charge to promote “collaboration” over “competition” in the world of learning – they offer the kind of programmes people want and need – as well as ensuring that they offer learning experiences designed to produce educated, responsible and employable “graduates”.

The Khan Academy created quite a “storm” when it opened its “portal” in 2006. It is rumoured that the Academe put a “hit” on its creator – and he was only saved by the intervention of Bill Gates

Sal Khan, an ex-financial analyst (who did not have a PhD and had never taught), began delivering lectures from his “bedroom waredrobe” – and quickly became the most popular educator on YouTube.

Gates now describes him as “my favourite teacher”!

His motivation – “to deliver things the way I wish they were delivered to me”. In a way, his Academy is something of a “one-man protest” against what he sees as a “flawed educational system” – and in doing so he openly challenged the long-standing assumption that professional academics make the best teachers.

They do not. The “Oscar” goes to primary and ELT teachers!

It would be fair of you to ask – Is he the best teacher you are ever likely to see?

No.

But…..he is real, human and flawed – and his students love him. They love learning with and next to him – why he even lets his students “correct” him and help him out! They are engaged and passionate – half the battle.

BTW – his newer (2010 and 2011) videos are so much better. The other news is that he may be running for President soon – his campaign posters are ready!

Alain de Botton opened his School of Life in a little “shop”, just off Russell Square in London, some time back. 

By all accounts he and his partners are doing pretty “brisk business”.

He has done this by working to create a new kind of “social enterprise” and you can pop in to take courses and attend lectures on all “things that matter” in life – relationships, death, work, change, asking questions, the future.

Their goal of producing learners ready, able and willing to leave their communities in better shape than they find them today is one we can relate to. Besides…

Aren’t all universities supposed to be “schools of life” and help students learn about this stuff?

The Academe we have today, and its various sub-groups around the globe, was a “product of conscious design”.

Over time it has been reconstituted and upgraded – the last of these major upgrades took place over a hundred years ago and was engineered to rationalise the process of discovery (and created the discrete research disciplines we all know and love today).

The problem?

The Academe still sees undergraduate learning as a secondary by-product of this knowledge creation – and by all accounts is still not delivering on its promises.

It is time for “real change”Bob Dylan explains why:

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changin’

 

For our “sevgili inekler”

  • Anderson, C. W. (1993). Prescribing the life of the mind: an essay on the purpose of the university, the aims of liberal education, the competence of citizens, and the cultivation of practical reason. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press
  • Claxton, G. (2008). What’s the point of school? Oxford: Oneworld
  • Mızıkacı, F. (2006). Higher education in Turkey. UNESCO-CEPES. Monographs on Higher Education. UNESCO, Bucharest
  • Pope, L (2006). Colleges that change lives. (New York, Penguin)
  • Schleicher, A. (2006). The Economics of knowledge: Why education is key to Europe’s success. Lisbon Council Policy Brief, Vol. 1, No. 1 (2006). ISSN 2031-0943
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