“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.” – John Dewey
Despite the increasing fees, I’m convinced that education is becoming cheaper. In fact, the educational model as we know it is now in many cases free to anyone with a laptop and an internet connection. Want to learn linear algebra, organic chemistry or world history? Explore Khan Academy’s collection of over 4500 videos with accompanying exercises. What about programming? The New Boston provides over 1500 tutorials on everything from C++ and Java to android development, and Code Academy have designed comprehensive computer programming courses for free. MIT were one of the first universities to make much of their first year content freely available with MIT OpenCourseware, which has since expanded into a number of scholar courses designed for the online learner, featuring lectures, problem sets, tutorials, exams, online discussion forums and course notes, and other universities have followed suit. Some organizations have gone even further, offering interactive courses for you to enrol in that have material released on a weekly basis, including homework assignments (that are marked and sent back to you) and an increasing push for verified certification of your passing of the course when you finish (I’ve just started Edx’s quantum computation course!).
So where does this leave the traditional university course? Why pay for a lecture series on classical mechanics or electricity and magnetism when world renowned professor Walter Lewin is offering it for free? Or why not record the series once, allowing the students to pause and rewind the lectures at their own pace? The old model might be becoming increasingly obsolete, but this doesn’t spell the end of universities. Instead, some lecturers are adapting their role, identifying that the wealth of online resources now free up their time to take on a more interactive approach. Havard is one such university, notably physics professor Eric Mazur:
“In the standard approach, the emphasis in class is on the first [information transfer], and the second [assimilating that information] is left to the student on his or her own, outside of the classroom. If you think about this rationally, you have to flip that, and put the first one outside the classroom, and the second inside. So I began to ask my students to read my lecture notes before class, and then tell me what questions they have [ordinarily, using the course’s website], and when we meet, we discuss those questions.”
Interestingly, this learning by doing approach is sometimes met with resistance.
“You should see some of the vitriolic e-mails I get. The generic complaint is that they have to do all the learning themselves. Rather than lecturing, I’m making them prepare themselves for class—and in class, rather than telling them things, I’m asking them questions. They’d much rather sit there and listen and take notes. Some will say, ‘I didn’t pay $47,000 to learn it all from the textbook. I think you should go over the material from the book, point by point, in class.’ Not realizing that they learn precious little by that, and they should actually be offended if I did that, because it’s an insult to their intelligence—then, I’m essentially reading the book to them.”
I think this raises an interesting point in what students expect to get from university education, and the perception of what education should be. Personally, this is one of the aspects of Leicester’s Natural Sciences course that convinced me to apply. Professor Derek Raine introduced a similar problem based learning methodology into parts of Leicester’s physics course, eventually developing the natural sciences course entirely on this approach. Before attending university I taught at a self managed learning centre for 11-14 year olds, where again the focus was away from passive learning, instead encouraging students to take control of identifying what they wanted to learn, and to help them achieve that, and the difference in the student’s level in inquiry and enthusiasm towards learning was striking.
There are many models being experimented with in using online resources. Lynda.com, for example, provides a subscription service to a large number of courses, which a lot of universities are now giving to students as part of their tuition fees. That way, instead of promising to teach students Photoshop, the resources can be provided, learnt beforehand, and the lecturer can instead use their time in a more useful way. Regardless, it needs to be recognised that there is an increasingly free access to educational resources, and learning institutions need to respond. Never has it been more true that your degree is what you make of it, and I think students need to ask themselves what they want to get from a degree. At the very least, students should be pressuring their universities not to offer them what they can find elsewhere for free, but to challenge them to go further.