There are two models. Sage on the stage. Or building structures than scale. Individual brilliance and interpretation; or Hollywood. There are not not enough sages; but people deny we can build structures that scale.
I see this dialectic everywhere in education. When do we need n=1; and what can do at scale. It is not just education however. All over the creative world we can see this battle play out. As Paul Simon put it:
“I’m sittin’ in the railway station, got a ticket for my destination
On a tour of one-night-stands, my suitcase and guitar at hand
And every stop is neatly planned for a poet and a one-man band”
On the other hand look at this. The song maker (Max Martin) few have heard of.
Woodie Flowers in a devastating critique of MITx said it well.
I believe the “sweet spot” for expensive universities like MIT is:
1) access to highly-produced training systems accompanied by
2) a rich on-campus opportunity to become educated.
MITx seems aimed at neither.
Medicine gets this confused big time. There is training and education. If we did the former better, we could offer a real education. But to do the training better, we need scale. And that means content. We could do things better and cheaper.
Institutions with histories matter. It is just that in many instances innovation often comes from the periphery. I think this is often true in many fields: science, music, even medical education. It is not always this way, but often enough to make me suspicious of the ‘centre’. The centre of course gets to write the history books.
An article by Mark Mazower in the NYRB, praising Richard Evans, the historian of the Third Reich, caught my attention. It seems that nobody in the centre was too excited about understanding the event that changed much of the world forever. Mazower writes:
If you wanted to do research on Saint Anselm or Cromwell, there were numerous supervisors to choose from at leading universities; if you wanted to write about Erich Ludendorff or Hitler, there was almost no one. The study of modern Europe was a backwater, dominated by historians with good wartime records and helpful Whitehall connections—old Bletchley Park hands and former intelligence officials, some of whom had broken off university careers to take part in the war and then returned.
Forward-looking, encouraging of the social sciences, open to international scholarship from the moment of its establishment, St. Antony’s is the college famously written off by the snobbish Roddy Martindale in John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as “redbrick.” The truth is that it was indeed the redbrick universities, the creations of the 1950s and 1960s, that gave Evans and others their chance and shaped historical consciousness as a result. The Evans generation, if we can call them that, men (and only a very few women) born between 1943 and 1950, came mostly from the English provinces and usually got their first jobs in the provinces, too.
It is interesting how academics who had had career breaks were important. And how you often will need new institutions to change accepted practice. All those boffins whose careers were interrupted by the war led to the flowering of invention we saw after the second world war. You have to continually recreate new types of ivory towers. But I see little of this today. Instead, we live in an age of optimisation, rather than of optimism that things can be different. The future is being captured by the present ever more than it once was. At least in much of the academy.
Edward Tufte’s ‘The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint’ is funny. The problem is that it is not just funny, but deadly serious. Literally. His argument and case studies concern how humans died because people failed to understand how to communicate. And the title says it all. Powerpoint (at least its templates) degrades communication.
Communication is a big thing in medical education, and it is not unusual to have to sit through tedious talks on the subject. They usually start with Powerpoint slides, so at least you know that they are not going to say anything worthwhile and you can get your phone out and play.
Below is a memo, from Jeff Bezos, of Amazon.
Perhaps the single most important thing we could do to improve university education to is to remove all copies of Powerpoint. Words matter. Sentences even more.
This is from a book review on the ‘birth of cool’, by Robert Eaglestone in the THE.
Despite laying out some principles (“cool is…”), the book focuses on honed case studies of “the saints of cool” (as Hannah Arendt argues, we learn more from examples than from principles).
This little gem was new to me —but not the concept, or the principle…..
Academia tends to love rules, and formal systems, but for some domains of competence, they are grossly overrated. Formal logic is often not what is need, and we may seem more with a metaphor. Alan Kay’s aphorism: a different perspective may be as valuable as 80 IQ points.
Ultimately, students may feel less ripped off by essay mills than by universities.
I like this take on plagiarism and cheating. As has been said before, if somebody can write your essay, and the change in style not be noticed, those claims in the glossy prospectuses are hollow. Canaries in the coal mine.
What he was doing in this was holding a crucial middle ground. He understood better than anyone else that the public realm has to fight for its existence against two equally great dangers. One is the culture of self-enclosed, technocratic expertise, the hiving off of intellectual life into increasingly minute specializations and increasingly impenetrable professional dialects. The other is the insistence—so much in the ascendant now—that there is no expertise at all, that scholarship and rigor and evidence are the mere playthings of elitist eggheads. Bob’s great gift to civic life was the living demonstration in every issue of the Review that these impostors could be treated with equal—and magnificent—contempt. He held open the space for that great republican virtue: common curiosity. He made this fierce effort seem so natural that it is only in his absence that we realize how hard it is to do and how much it counts.
Fintan O’Toole. From a collection of essays on the late Bob Silvers of the NYRB.
O’Toole gets the central problem the academy is failing on. Not that the academy is ever sufficient.
Once upon a time the government gave money to universities, and the universities educated people (or they tried). Now things are different. The government buys educational services, and the universities are the contractors.
Not so much Software as a Service, but Education as a Service.
According to the job description for the chair of modern Greek studies posted last month, whoever fills the professorship part-funded by the Greek Laskaridis shipping family will not be paid an “official salary” from the university. Instead, they will receive an unspecified share of €20,000 (£16,730) from the Dutch Society of Modern Greek Studies to carry out numerous academic duties for, on average, one day a week.
The professorship, named after the late shipping heiress Marilena Laskaridis, lasts for five years, during which time the post-holder will be asked to teach, to supervise PhD students and to win research grants. Despite being based in Amsterdam’s Faculty of Humanities, the professor would not be an employee of the university and would not receive any of the usual benefits enjoyed by other staff.
Wonke on the laws that govern us.
And if the is not enough food for thought, consider this:
Higher education in England is no longer a supply-led industry. English universities are now in a demand-led environment in which the regulator has the last word. The Rubicon has been crossed, and few in higher education have really begun to understand what the implications of that are for universities. They will have the next five years of Conservative government to contemplate it.
Spectral authors also haunt the scientific canon. One physicist, frustrated at having his paper repeatedly rejected, finally saw it published after changing the title and adding a fictitious co-author, Stronzo Bestiale. It means “total asshole” in Italian.
Seriously, if you suggested the world we have now of predatory journals and the tyranny of metrics, would any sane scientist in 1960 think it possible? Uncle Syd once remarked that people no longer read papers they just xeroxed them. Now we do not even do that: metadata is all.
Higher education is an industry of the future — one in which the UK is a world-class player. Foreign universities are out to eat Britain’s lunch, and Mrs May’s obdurate stand is one of the best things that has ever happened to them.
Indeed, an industry of the future… “but not as you know it Jim”. FT
“Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.” — Marshall McLuhan
Comment on an FT article. How things have changed. Even I can remember a colleague — a few years my senior — who went for a Wellcome Training Fellowship, only to be interviewed by one person, with the opening question being, ‘Imagine I am an intelligent layperson: tell me what you want to do!’
I was a war baby, a small farmer’s son and in 1960, at 17, I had a chat with my most trusted teacher about what I should do to apply to become a doctor for which I had just acquired a good group of Scottish highers. He advised me that because I should have applied a number of months before, to write a letter to the University enclosing my qualifications. I was asked to come and have a chat with the Bursar and the only thing I remember him saying was that my qualifications were good but did I realise that I might be preventing somebody else from getting in. I am ashamed to say that I replied that I was not really too troubled about that. I was accepted, and was fine.
That’s a question I just got at our most recent all-hands meeting. I’ve been reminding people that it’s Day 1 for a couple of decades. I work in an Amazon building named Day 1, and when I moved buildings, I took the name with me. I spend time thinking about this topic.
“Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”
Resist Proxies: As companies get larger and more complex, there’s a tendency to manage to proxies. This comes in many shapes and sizes, and it’s dangerous, subtle, and very Day 2. A common example is process as proxy. Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. Gulp. It’s not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like, “Well, we followed the process.”
(Do you know what they know they want?)
Good inventors and designers deeply understand their customer. They spend tremendous energy developing that intuition. They study and understand many anecdotes rather than only the averages you’ll find on surveys. They live with the design. I’m not against beta testing or surveys. But you, the product or service owner, must understand the customer, have a vision, and love the offering. A remarkable customer experience starts with heart, intuition, curiosity, play, guts, taste. You won’t find any of it in a survey.
Jeff Bezos here. I dislike process, and in education or research, whatever promise it offers, is offset by its tendency to lead to institutional denigration of those who keep their eyes on reality.
Bruce Alberts talks a lot of sense about science education and education in general. And of course he produced a book that ‘educated’ a whole generation (or more) of people like me. But in this recent Science piece he is taking on some of the big questions, questions that have been asked before, but for which few have managed to follow through on. As ever, the emphases are mine.
In previous commentaries on this page, I have argued that “less is more” in science education, and that learning how to think like a scientist—with an insistence on using evidence and logic for decision-making—should become the central goal of all science educators. I have also pointed out that, because introductory science courses taught at universities define what is meant by “science education,” college science faculty are the rate-limiting factor for dramatically improving science education at lower levels.
For example, there is a long-standing belief that every introductory college biology course must “cover” a staggering amount of knowledge. There is no time to focus on a much more important goal—insisting that every student understand exactly how scientific knowledge is generated. Science is not a belief system; it is, instead, a very special way of learning about the true nature of the observable world.
His phrase, “college science faculty are the rate-limiting factor for dramatically improving science education at lower levels”, could equally apply to medicine and medical teachers. It is not hyperbole to say these are some of the central problems of our time. And it is not just science education that is the issue.
Universities are idea factories. Current corporatization approaches emphasize the factory rather than the ideas.
Ralf Buckley in Nature. I would say— for the short term at least — unless somebody finds a way to create new ‘dissenting academies’ things in UK higher ed will get worse.
Given your past views on measuring quality in universities, what do you think of the teaching excellence framework, which the government would like to use to measure teaching quality?
The government needs to think more about the evidence we have showing that measuring performance, and in particular ranking performance, creates strong incentives – but all too often the wrong incentives.
What is the biggest threat facing higher education today?
Too much emphasis on comparative achievement, not enough on the pleasure of learning or the importance of doing at least some things really well.
Amen. Nora O’Neill interviewed in the THE
‘I think we’re seeing the benefits of a good funding environment, and – to be frank – no research excellence framework’
Brexit and the Emerald Isle. Your mileage may vary. Here.
last month (, for example, when) the University of Copenhagen fired seismologist Hans Thybo, president of the European Geosciences Union. The official explanation for Thybo’s dismissal — his alleged use of private e-mail for work, and telling a postdoc that it is legitimate to openly criticize university management — seems petty in the extreme.
Nature December 2016. Little hygge on show here, then.
If you want to pick at the cracks of modern medicine, you look at psychiatry. This is not a criticism of psychiatry or psychiatrists (some of my best friends are….). If you want to do similar things with the academy, look at economics first.
For my studies I moved to Berlin and later to Innsbruck in the Tyrolean Alps. Innsbruck was a great place to study: The teaching in both philosophy and economics happened in small groups and the professors were fantastic teachers. Geoscience was a very broad course and had the advantage that we traveled a lot and spend quite some time out in the field.
This weekend, my wife and oldest daughter visited her first-choice college, the University of Tennessee. There was one curious moment in an otherwise wonderful weekend. The tour guide noted that the university was there to help students get through the trauma of exams. It brought in masseuses to massage away the stress. It rolls out a sheet of paper, passes out crayons, and lets the students express their rage against algebra. Oh, and it vowed to bring in puppies, so students could cuddle something cute to take the edge off their anxiety.
Refreshing to read an article in which I can find something to disagree with in almost every sentence. And the title — in the print edition only —‘Taking your research to the real world” was probably the work of the subeditor. But the tired trope of academia versus the real world is like a red rag to a bull (self-reference intended). Most of all, I find the belief that unless you are changing health care in the short term is some distant country, you are somehow deficient as an academic, conceited.
Capitalism has helped lift more people out of poverty than most public health researchers; economists basic work on how societies work may do the same; and I am not certain how Watson and Crick would have fared under this self-congratulatory humbug. The real danger is that we are forgetting that universities are some of the few places left to do genuinely transformative and generative work. There are plenty of alternatives for much other ‘close to market work’: private corporations; NGOs; national health agencies; consultancies. Delivery and revolutionary science belong to different scales and cultures (mostly).
One of my mantras is that unless we do the online better, we cannot make use of the offline opportunities. Online, should allow us to make better use of the bedside. The following are some quotes from an FT article on MBA degrees.
The great thing about a virtual classroom is that your students are already in a digital format, which means you can run algorithms that recognise patterns in facial expressions to assess understanding and identify students’ emotional state and levels of attention in your class,” says Prof Boehm. Analytics can be used in real time to address students whose attention is wandering or later to improve teaching plans or faculty performance, he adds.
Teaching staff also find students to be more engaged in the virtual classroom. “Because of the way students are positioned on the wall, a headshot from the chest up, it’s very difficult for them to text on their phones or work on their PCs,” says LizHess, managing director of HBX. “It’s very easy for faculty to see if people are distracted — they joke that there’s no back row any more.”
The technology looks terrific in the images shown. But there are other factors at play. Note the group sizes are small in comparison with what many undergraduates receive, and the investment in technology is focussed on those who pay most (upfront). If you look at the money apparently going into medical education, this should be the norm for most undergraduate medical students.
Take your pick. Article in the Observer, a response, and Martin Wolf of the FT here(paywall) and here. Some sense in all of them. But the ‘our (i.e. tax payers) money’ argument (from the Observer) always galls me, and should inform any bright graduate about where they want to build a career. As in any tragedy, the players walk on stage, and you know how it will turn out.
Interesting editorial in Nature. And unexpected. The issue is support for science and the state of politics in the US.
Just telling the same old stories won’t cut it. The most seductive of these stories — and certainly the one that scientists like to tell themselves and each other — is the simple narrative that investment in research feeds innovation and promotes economic growth. ‘It’s the economy, stupid’, so the saying goes, and as nations become a little less stupid by pushing against the frontiers of knowledge, so the benefits of all this new insight spread from the laboratory to the wider population, as improvements in the standard of living and quality of life. This comfortable story has all the hallmarks of a bubble waiting to pop.
The article goes on:
It is right that more scientists should tell stories of the good their research can do. But it is more important and urgent than ever that researchers should question how these stories really end — and whether too many of the people they claim to act for don’t really get to live happily ever after.
Much science is in a vacuous bubble, and arguments for more funding from its practitioners is increasingly viewed as self serving. Universities share some or much of this blame, all too happy to ‘shift more units’. This lack of intellectual honesty will harm academia in the long term. The one uniting feature that justifies higher education is the pursuit of truth in whichever direction enquiry moves. Universities are not businesses, profit centres, or corporations. They have a different set of norms that are distinct from those advertised by much of the rest of the corporate world (or government). STEM has never been enough, and truthfulness is not something you can opt in or out of, like you can some undergraduate modules. The role for universities — and science — is greater than ever: the issue is whether the universities have the necessary leadership. Even with the right leaders, it is a tough ask.
There is only one way to ensure that assessment is light-touch. Universities should rebrand themselves as banks.
Comment (Mintaka) on an article on the TEF from one of the HE commissars (Nick Hillman).
There is a good piece on Wonke by David Morris, dealing with the issue of how research and teaching are related, and the dearth of empirical support for any positive relation between the two. R & T are related at the highest level — some universities can do doctoral research and teaching well — and although I have little direct experience, the same can apply at Masters level. The problems arise at undergraduate level, the level in which most universities compete, and which accounts for the majority of teaching income. As ever, I think we have to think ecology, variation and the long now. What seems clear to me, is that research is indeed often at the expense of teaching, and that the status quo needs to be changed if universities are to continue to attract public (and political) support. Cross subsidies and the empty rhetoric of ‘research led teaching’ do not address what are structural issues in Higher Ed, issues that have been getting worse, driven by poor leadership over many decades.
For many universities this is a pizza and / or pasta issue: some of us like both. Just because the two show little covariation in ecological data, does not mean that they shouldn’t inform each other much better than they have over the recent past. On the other hand, scale and education are unhappy bedfellows, and staff time and attention matter. Do you really think about teaching the same way you approach research? If T & R do not covary, then are your students in the best place, and why did you admit them? Honest answers please.
Here. But your knew this already. This is not about truth, or doing the right thing, but about power and the imposition of an ideology in which the natural world has to be subservient to a dogma. Most of all, this is not about improving education, but of an expansion of power and patronage. And money.
[Or see what Martin Wolf of the FT, has been saying in this week’s Time Higher]
Nice piece in ‘Science’ with the title: ‘No easy answers: What does it mean to ask whether a prekindergarten math program “works”?’ Geoff Norman, many years ago, used the term RCT in the context of medical education to stand for Randomised, Confounded and Trivial. Research into what works and what does not work in education is hard, and most studies (IMHO) fail to inform. Education isn’t a product like a drugs is, and gee it is hard to demonstrate when and where most drugs will work if you do not have an understanding of the biology and large effects to play with and outcomes that need to be measured over the long term.
I think about this a lot, but have no easy rules to guide action. Which is, of course, exactly the problem.