I was on the island of Inchagoill on Lough Corrib at the weekend. I was visiting the sites of 5th and 12th century churches that were once part of a monastic teaching network that at its peak in the Middle Ages saw - according to our guide - some 3,000 students from around Europe studying at Cong in Mayo. Another reminder that we have a long history of providing world class education in this country.
But that world of education has long gone, and the current one may be about to undergo a similar fate. I'm beginning to think that universities are a bit like newspapers: wonderful institutions whose time may, alas, have gone. Or at least, institutions coincidently on the threshold of their greatest transformation since their foundations way back in the distant past.
I was looking recently at the extraordinary resources available as part of the MIT Open Courseware initiative. It is undoubtedly a harbinger of a 21st Century University radically different to what we have known in the past. Don Tapscott has this to say about the impending demise of the university (ht Geary Behavioural Economics blog):
"Graduate education," he began, "is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans)."
Worse, as Tapscott notes, there is something antediluvian about the university learning experience:
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.
The MIT initiative goes some way towards re-engineering the model of pedagogy for a 21st century audience. But it isn't just about the more efficient disemination of content. The thing that those of us who have been to university most remember is not the lecture notes but the discussions with teachers and fellow students. Again, Tapscott puts his finger on it:
An evaluation study of 350 Cornell students found that those who were asked "deep questions" (that elicit higher-order thinking) with frequent peer discussion scored noticeably higher on their math exams than students who were not asked deep questions or who had little to no chance for peer discussion. Dr. Terrell explains: "It's when the students talk about what they think is going on and why, that's where the biggest learning occurs for them…. You can hear people sort of saying, 'Oh I see, I get it.' … And then they're explaining to somebody else … and there's an authentic understanding of what's going on. So much better than what would happen if I, as the teacher person, explain it. There's something that happens with this peer instruction."
Which brings us back to the continuing (and necessary) debate in Ireland about third level education and the efficacy of second level education in producing sufficient numbers of students with appropriate levels of mathematical abilities etc. Too often it seems that third level education is simply an extension of the second level experience but with bigger class/lecture hall sizes. Prof Tom Collins is quoted in today's Irish Times as condemning our existing educational system for failing to induce a 'love of learning' among students. Part of the reason, he believes, why we are underachieving on certain educational attainment measures compared to other countries.
Universities around the world are now engaged in a 'race to the top' as institutions like MIT effectively 'level up' the quality of educational content. Therefore the real point of educational differentiation (and superior performance) will come not from content but from the learning experience itself. Something we've had a lot of practice at over the centuries. Monasteries for the 21st century - there's an interesting thought.