University Education & The Professor's Problem

Despite the flurry of attention that education reform has received in recent years, from the scalability of online learning, to the failures of the K-12 system one perspective that is too often left unconsidered is the plight of the university professor. We put the responsibility on professors and universities to not only be the centres of innovation, pushing the frontiers in human knowledge and understanding but also to be the pinnacle and perhaps even heart of our education systems. In no sphere of human endeavour, not in business, in sports or in politics do we ask those who are most excellent to also bear the brunt of the responsibility of teaching the next generation, unless that field of excellence is unfortunate enough to be on a university campus. And yet rather than praise we vilify, rather than reward we complain. I too believe that progress in university education is not only possible but necessary; I’m not denying the problems that exist. On the contrary, I’m arguing for their resolution but a resolution not through a complete rejection of the institutions that have given so much to us over the previous decades as has been proposed but rather through a hybrid model of technology and university that will offer the best of both worlds.

TWO MAIN NARRATIVES ABOUT TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGE IN UNIVERSITY EDUCATION

For decades people have talked about how technology will finally bring change to the seemingly unchangeable. Of course I’m talking about lectures: the process by which one person stands in front of rows and rows of silent and attentive students, talking and occasionally writing on a board, a teaching method that has stood the test of 100s of years, stubborn to innovation, may finally be broken.

Generally though when we talk about the benefits technology can offer to university education there are two main narratives. One is the extension of education’s reach and power to the poor, for those for whom traditional education isn’t an option. Online learning is cheaper, more scalable and even offers an affordable chance at lifetime learning.

The second narrative is that of competition, the new replacing the old. The campus university system is broken and we should replace it with the online experience. However, online education for all its cost-efficiency lacks the richness that campus universities can offer: whether it’s face to face interaction between professors and students in seminars and around campus, or networking opportunities, personal growth and life experiences. Not to mention the huge signalling power that incumbents like Harvard in the US, LSE in the UK and Tsinghua in China can offer its students. An online experience taken to its extreme would lose all this richness in favour of 5 year old children in a darkened room, alone, staring at a computer screen for the next 20 years: a learning experience we can all agree is not likely to produce the kind of educated and well rounded citizens we would all want.

THIRD NARRATIVE: A HYBRID MODEL OF UNIVERSITY WITH ONLINE + CAMPUS

There is a third narrative though, one that is too often left untold. That is one where technology is used to enhance not replace the universities we have. As a thought experiment imagine a new type of university where everything is exactly the same! You would still have seminars with teachers and students interacting face to face, and you’d still have the same physical buildings and campuses, except let’s change one thing. What if lectures were watched on a computer rather than in a lecture hall, this would allow students to pause, rewind and replay in a way you cannot do in a real-time lecture. Taken even further, with adaptive learning technologies the computer experience is more and more able to approximate a 1-1 tuition experience where your learning material is catered to suit your needs. Find topic 3 hard? Here’s another explanation or some more practice problems. Find topic 4 easy? Then whizz on through.

In fact, not only might this sort of online learning be comparable to traditional lectures they may even be superior. First of all, because students are doing everything on a computer suddenly educators will be awarded a wealth of data, particularly for the more mathematical-type subjects about what topics students find the most difficult, what explanations work best, there may even be insight into the study habits of students. All this data can be used to personalise and improve the learning experience.

Better technology doesn’t necessarily mean better courses. Great technology has existed for a while, now it’s about writing better courses that take advantage of this technology.

This personalization has become a buzz-word in entrepreneurship circles but I think often these start-ups are misguided. Too often they focus on general, scalable (and therefore profitable) fixes to teaching and learning problems. But for anyone struggling with matrix multiplication for the first time, these technological fixes will seem largely irrelevant, there is too much focus on the technology and not enough focus on actually using this technology to write better courses, that is where the real value add is. Although only a humble graduate, I have tried writing my own lectures on a few university subjects. A few videos I put online about linear algebra for example have garnered comments such as:

‘If you are not in the United States, please come visit and replace 90% of our linear algebra professors. I am confident that these 7 minutes of your lecturing make more sense than an entire semester under their instruction.’

‘Agreed. An entire generation of human beings unable to employ mathematics because instead of getting this guy for a teacher, we get Captain Rigorous Mathematical Proof, who never explains his notation and is shocked when someone has a question.’

‘You are…AMAZING!’

‘Thanks, that really clarifies things!

‘Thanks so much for posting these videos!! I finally understand!!!’

‘Why don´t we get professors like this?’

‘The awkward moment when your learn more from a youtube video in 7 minutes than you did from lectures for a whole semester’

‘this is much clearer than the lecture i just had in class. thank you very much! ‘ ‘oh my goodness THANK YOU!’

‘all of a sudden, it all makes sense. thank you so much.’

Now of course, just because a few students found my videos useful doesn’t’ mean they all did, nor does it mean that all university professors are bad at teaching, in fact many are very good. This is not the point I’m trying to make. Rather I hope this shows the extent to which the odds are stacked against the professors in terms of teaching well.

THE PROFESSOR’S CHALLENGE

First off you are lecturing in front of 100+ students who you probably rarely get to interact with, in fact many may not even bother showing up, so you may not even know what some of your students look like, let alone how you might teach them better. And then to add insult to injury your pay, rewards and remuneration are heavily stacked towards your research work, which by the way teaching requires you to do part-time and suddenly people are surprised if your teaching isn’t world-class. Furthermore, the university education system asks some of the smartest people in the world, men and women who – particularly in the mathematical fields – have spent decades trawling through the dense and demanding frontiers of their subjects to relate to an average student who is having trouble with some of the basic definitions and derivations of that same subject. In my own small way, I understand how frustrating that can be: for the teacher. I tutored a boy who got a D in GCSE maths and needed a C and I can tell you trying to explain concepts that are so second-nature and sub-consciously intuitive to me to someone who is completely confused by them is an almost impossible challenge, and I had the good fortune of spending hours after countless hours one-on-one with him.

One comment I got from someone who saw my linear algebra video was:‘That’s a great analogy, they always help me understand things. Why couldn’t my lecturer do the same??!!!!’

I think part of the answer is the intuition of the subject is so ingrained for most professors, and for so long that it’s hard to imagine a situation when that wasn’t the case. So of course, in my own little case as a mere graduate I have nowhere near the understanding or knowledge of a professor but paradoxically I may be able to teach a given subject better exactly because I don’t know as much.

I would like to finish by asking a question: what is the most valuable resource at a university? The answer I think is a professor’s time. The hours they spend lecturing, teaching in seminars and individually in office hours and let’s not forget writing courses is immense, and it’s time not doing research. It’s absurd that with so many people going to universities and the extent to which there is standardisation across universities in what is learnt that more (although not necessarily all) isn’t shared. What if one great teacher in linear algebra wrote and gave the video lectures for everyone studying linear algebra in the UK? Or what if there were a few education companies, driven by profit, writing foundation lectures for courses for universities, their professors and their students to choose from? Would that not lead to better outcomes?

Right now Professors’ time is wasted because even if the professor is lecturing it’s time spent trawling through algebra or talking about the consensus causes of the Second World War. What possible value add is our world-class professor having there? What if you took that 2 hours of lecture time and asked the professor to go through the harder material or to add their own unique, more nuanced perspectives, or put the basic materials in the context of contemporary debates. If there is anything archaic about university education it’s people ideas about what a Harvard or an LSE education should mean. Just because students might learn the bones of say linear algebra online from the same video course provider that would by no means mean that Harvard and LSE would therefore be offering the same educational experiences. In fact rather than diminishing the differences it would enhance them, you would really be interacting with the professors at each university in a meaningful and valuable way.

A BETTER WAY: MORE PROGRESS AND BETTER TEACHING

And finally, putting the education question aside let’s remember the other purpose of universities: innovation. In a world where growth in the developing countries may be predicated on copying the developed and where those same developed countries struggle with stagnation and heavy debt the future looks bleak. In the past we have looked to governments to be the leaders in innovation such as with the Manhattan Project or the Space programme, but as, in particular, democracies have evolved into welfare states, trapped in 4 year political cycles and burdened by heavy debt it is unlikely governments will be the crucible of future innovation. Nor perhaps will business, particularly with the short-term focus of even Silicon Valley’s investors. Only at universities can projects be worked on where there is no hope of immediate payoff and yet it may be these very projects that lead to the greatest innovations. Education reform should not be about working against universities and the professors that inhabit them but rather working with them, giving them a fighting chance to do all that we ask of them.