Meeting the Minds – Dr. Jon Dron and the Future University


Back in February, The Voice Magazine interviewed Dr. Jon Dron about his approach to teaching. Marie Well has since conducted a follow-up interview that looks more at exactly who Dr. Dron is beyond just the academic work. If You’re curious about what type of person becomes a course designer and wins a National Teaching Fellowship from the UK, you may want to read the first and second parts of the interview first.

Marie: What do you feel is your life’s purpose?
Dr. Dron: I believe that we are ends in ourselves, not means to an end, so That’s a bit of an awkward question. I guess, in broad terms, not so much as a purpose than as an attitude, what I’d like to aim for is to make a positive difference and to enjoy the experience of doing so. I’m probably not going to end war, poverty, ignorance, hatred, or cancer but hopefully I can do my bit to make the world a slightly better place than it was when I arrived, and to savour every moment of the experience, good and bad, as best I can.

Marie: If you were granted omniscience, what book would you write?
If I were granted omniscience I would know the answer to that already, and I would almost certainly find a better way to communicate it than to write a book about it. But, if I did, and if I were limited to only words, it would have to be a book of poetry.

Marie: If you could give your wife any gift fathomable, what would that gift be?
Happiness. Failing that, me being a better person. Actually, I asked my wife this question and she said “an Irish wolfhound”, which, as usual, is a much wiser answer than mine. It’s not that she actually wants one. It would not be the Irish wolfhound that would bring her happiness so much as the fact that it would demonstrate my pure, unselfish, unquestioning love by giving her what she asks for, no matter how absurd the request, no matter how much I would hate to add a huge, high maintenance dog to our very tiny house that is already filled with one very small but very energetic Jack Russell, and no matter how much I might question whether she really wants it either.

Marie: If you could pioneer the future of online university, say 20 years down the road, what would it look like?
In some ways like it does today. Some things are worth keeping. Universities have very many roles, among the most valuable of which are to provide a legitimate space for independent thought, to catalyze interactions between smart people, to generate new (though not necessarily practical) knowledge, to stabilize and sustain the culture of a society, and to offer accreditation of skills and knowledge that can be used by others in the society. But gosh I would like to make some changes!

First of all, all universities would be free. Universities are a social good. Quite apart from their direct contributions to knowledge and the economy, they produce educated people, and educated people improve life for everyone, not just for themselves. However you choose to measure it, the value of universities far exceeds what has ever been spent on them. Expecting students to pay for universities is at least as ridiculous as requiring children to pay for schools. There is little I hate more than the awful narrative around the economic value of a university degree and the consequent appalling lie that students are customers. Our customer is our society, not our students. Students are a crucial and non-negotiable part of universities, and are arguably among their more important outputs, but they should not be its paying clients.

And of course, like Athabasca, such a university would be open to anyone and everyone. The notion of universities as filters that discriminate the worthy from the unworthy is ugly.
There would be no fixed-length courses. Courses (if we still needed to give them a label) could be any length from five minutes to five years and would be entirely separate from the accreditation process. One ?course? might look like a page of Wikipedia, another might feel more like a club, another might be more like a gallery where you bump into interesting people while examining the exhibits, another more like a game. These course-like things would be more connected, more embedded, more flexible and more social than their ancestors, and they would often be integrated in students’ daily lives, only rarely demanding that they visit a particular place at a particular time.

You would not so much go to a university (though some might ? diversity is good) as engage with it as and when it made sense to do so. It would not necessarily be something to which you devoted a few years so much as a resource with which you could engage at any time throughout your entire adult life, dipping in when the need arose rather than to suit timetables of institutions. Perhaps, to keep it economically viable, everyone might have ?education credits? that they could spend on participating whenever it made sense to do so and they were ready for it.

No one would ever fail a ?course?. If the notion of passing and failing had any meaning at all ? which, in most cases, it would not, thanks to the disaggregation of assessment and learning – there would just be some students that had not yet finished learning.

Students would work with faculty to design and plan their own work and identify the outcomes they wished to achieve. Faculty would support them, only guiding them when they sought guidance or needed help. Faculty would just be one of many sources of knowledge and help. Universities would not so much be the holders of knowledge as the hubs to help people and knowledge connect. The university’s role in knowledge creation and preservation would not be lost, but it would be distributed across many spaces that it would help to link together.
Accreditation would authentically assess the skills needed in the way in which those skills are actually applied. You might gain many forms of credit from a single course or get credit from the aggregate of many courses, but courses would be far from the only input into accreditation. Universities would participate in a massive connected web of authority in which individuals, companies and crowds would play as much of a role as traditional institutions. Universities would accredit what learners actually know (and need to know), not what universities choose to teach, and this would be demonstrated in ways that both support that learning and are authentic to the skill being demonstrated. You would not necessarily get a degree from a single university, unless it were simply a way of packaging up other forms of proof of learning. Instead, you would have a portfolio of evidence, including badges, direct evidence of progress, recommendations, and endorsements from many sources. Some would be highly reputable and reliable, others less so, but all could count.

Above all, universities would be seen as learning communities. I think universities are not so much about learning stuff ? That’s just a means to an end ? as they are about learning to be. They should be places to discover passion, to be catalysts for both individual and social change. Freed of the need to teach to objectives and assess the outputs, they could be much more about exploring the less tangible aspects of the stuff people are learning, of making connections, of building supportive networks and communities. This role has always been vastly more important than the university’s role as a source of information, specific skills, and credentials.

I would like them to retain the independence and distance from commercial and political interests that has always been one of their strengths. Universities are a place where societies can daydream about things that have no obvious practical and immediate benefit but that often turn out to be the most meaningful things of all. There are other ways to do that. Some large companies have found ways to make such spaces ? famously things like HP’s Skunkworks, Xerox PARC, Google’s 20% time ? and there are plenty of foundations and benefactors that support those like artists, inventors, philosophers, and poets. But few have such traction and few provide the rich social environment where ideas can grow and spread without constraint or separate purpose. Universities are far from perfect at that, but they are the best we’ve got. Rather than applying only to a small elite who have jumped through the academic hoops, I would like the option of participating in this research space to be available to anyone. If you have a dream, an idea, an invention, a passionate interest, then universities should be a place that you can join, almost like a club, and that can support you in achieving your vision, and to share it with others.

It should go without saying that I would hope to see such reforms occur in parallel with similar (though not identical) reforms in schools. In fact, it would be hard to achieve significant change without that. Schools need to work much harder on cultivating a love of learning, empowering their students, supporting them as human beings rather than outputs, if such a change in higher education is to be successful. Though there is a counter tendency in some countries (the US and UK, for instance, seem set on retrograde paths) I’m encouraged to see such changes happening in many places, from Finland to BC. There’s a long way to go yet, but some regions are heading in the right direction.

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