Rebuttal to the Editor

In his editorial, Karl says he disagrees with me about the future of universities. Actually, I think we probably agree far more than disagree. I suspect that Karl thinks I am suggesting a scenario akin to going to a restaurant and having to choose, cook and serve your own food. That might be quite fun: using a professional kitchen and being able to call on its staff is not a bad idea, but it demands a lot of pre-existing skills and is not what I have in mind. I am thinking of the university as being more like a really amazing food court or, better still, somewhere where you get your own personal team of chefs, waiters and sommeliers to cook what you want and, if you need it, to recommend the best things for you. Right now, a university tends to be more like a canteen where everyone has to eat the same thing, no matter how hungry they are, no matter what they want to eat, no matter what dietary needs they have, no matter how fast they want to eat, no matter whether they have already just eaten the same thing, no matter whether they can get something better for free at the food court next door. To make it worse, in most universities (Athabasca is a rare exception), they have to all eat the same thing at the same time and the same pace, whether they are slow or fast eaters. And, worst of all, we punish anyone that refuses to sit at the table, that eats differently, or that brings their own food.

My vision is about putting students in control. That is not at all the same thing as giving them a million choices and leaving them to choose between them. Choices without the knowledge and power to make them are not choices at all, they are random throws of the dice. Often, we need to delegate control to someone else if we wish to make any progress at all, whether it be to a teacher, the writer of a book, a YouTube video or Google’s search algorithms. If we need to learn about something new then we almost always need help, and It’s good to have some assurance we are getting help from people that know a lot about both the subject and how to teach it. Better still if they care about us and our success. Universities are and (I think) should remain great places for that, especially for the deeper and more esoteric kinds of knowledge at which they excel. But that doesn’t mean we all need the same help. Nor does it mean that we have to learn the same things, at the same time, at the same pace, over the same period, in the same place, according to someone else’s agenda that may not fit our own.

We do not, as some people erroneously think (despite a complete lack of evidence to support it) have fixed learning styles that determine how we should be taught. However, it is certainly true that different ways work better for different people at different times and in different contexts, and we all start in different places, with different prior knowledge, and have different goals. The problem with traditional courses is that – unless they are very carefully and strenuously designed to diminish the problem – the only point where significant choices can be made is whether to take the course or not and, in many cases, students don’t even get that much choice, because courses are prerequisites of programs or professional accreditation. Accreditation does matter, of course, but it does not always have to come with a fixed chunk of teaching attached to it at the hip.

The situation is almost as bad for teachers, who are expected to divide every subject into evenly sized pieces with equivalent outcomes, whether what they are teaching demands it or not. Worse, we have to force our students to do the most natural and enjoyable thing in the world?to learn?and to enforce our control through various carrots and sticks, notably in the form of grades and credits. At best that is bad psychology, at worst It’s soul-destroying and humiliating for all concerned. Courses were a fair compromise that made efficient use of scarce resources, given the technologies available in mediaeval times. But now I think we need to put a lot more thought into what we actually want from a university, because we are no longer constrained by how far a human voice can travel, what can be portrayed on the pages of a paper book, or how to manage limited resources like rooms.

Putting learners in control is not a radical or new idea: we have long had pockets of such learner-centric teaching here and there, such as in PhD supervision, student projects and essays, and some isolated ?independent? study courses (they are not independent at all, of course – students get lots of support), not to mention in less formal ways through apprenticeships and the help of friends. The problem till now has been that more student-centric approaches have been very expensive and labour-intensive ways to learn. But we already have the technologies to support this much better, and they are improving all the time. Tools and systems like Wikipedia, Google Search, Stack Exchange, Twitter, Facebook, the Khan Academy, Duolingo, Lynda, and a host of others that many of us use to help our learning process are just the beginning. The changes we have seen in the past 20 years barely scratch the surface of the changes we will see in the next. While smart technologies will play a huge role in this, most of these new tools and methods will not be automated teachers. Robot teachers do have a place: they can provide useful support for some activities, including to help teachers manage the learning process and to find help from real people more easily. But the greater promise of the technologies that we are researching and building now is to support and enhance human interaction and creativity. It’s about creating a richer, more informed, kinder, more creative and more critical society, not just filling heads with facts or inculcating skills. Such things may be part of the process, for sure, but they are not the main product. This is what a lot of my own work, such as Athabasca Landing, springs from. It’s about finding better ways to learn from one another, to find the people and resources that will help us when we need help, to make inspiration more likely, to make caring more visible and easier to do. Far from getting rid of the support provided by traditional institutions, my vision is about strengthening it. Far from leaving learners to their own devices, my vision is about giving support as, where and how it is needed. If that happens to look like a traditional course then That’s just fine but, most of the time, that is not the kind of support that will suit people best.