Sunday, December 2, 2018

Is Higher Education a waste of time and money?

In advance of the debate at the OEB Conference in Berlin next Thursday I am posting this blog for feedback.  If you've any questions or comments I could use for the panel or for Bryan Caplan who will be there, please do post them.  The discussion panel (I'll be chairing) is:

Donald Clark is a Professor, Entrepreneur, CEO, Researcher, Blogger and Speaker. He was CEO, and one of the original founders of Epic Group plc, which established itself as the leading company in the UK online learning market, which he floated on the Stock Market and sold. Now the CEO of Wildfire Ltd. an AI in learning company, he also invests in, and advises learning companies.

Nina Huntemann is Senior Director of Academics and Research at edX. Prior to joining edX, she was a tenured professor at Suffolk University in Boston where she lead faculty development and academic innovation initiatives. In her current role, Nina is the academic lead on a number of projects, including edX MicroMasters programs and online Masters degrees. She is passionate about expanding access to education through evidence-based online teaching and learning at scale.

Willem van Valkenburg is manager Teaching & Learning Services at Delft University of Technology. His team supports teachers improving their education with technology. Willem is involved in ICT in education since 2003 and the last couple of years mostly worked in open and online education within TU Delft Extension School and as Vice-President of the Open Education Consortium.

Mike Feerick is an Irish social entrepreneur, and CEO & Founder of Alison an Ireland–based educational technology company. With 11 million registered learners, 1.5 million graduates, and 1,000 free courses as of Dec 2017, Alison is one of the world’s largest players in online education – and one of the world’s largest certifiers of educational and skills attainment.[6] He is an Ashoka Fellow[7] and cited as a pioneer in the modern online education industry. Mike is also the founder of Ireland Reaching Out, a "reverse" genealogy project based in Ireland that reconnects Irish diaspora with their ancestral roots in Ireland
Is higher education a waste of time and money?

Does anyone remember being bored in school or was it just me? It seems it was virtually everyone. If you say you enjoyed Latin and Shakespeare, it may be that you don’t really remember correctly, but if you did, you are in a very small minority. From my memory, there were very few of us who were sad when a class was cancelled. Being bored and staring out the window is not just a problem with the weaker students. Steven Pinker of Harvard has observed that even the best students in the world are bored by the best teachers in the world. “It’s common knowledge that Harvard students stay away from lectures in droves, burning a fifty-dollar bill from their parents’ wallets every time they do”.

Boredom wasn’t the only thing bothering us. We often scratched our heads and wondered “What use will this ever be to me?”. Even if a few of us trusted the system and believed that all would be revealed at some point in the future, for many topics that usefulness was never revealed. There were many things we learned at school or in college, we promptly forgot within weeks of the exam, and never used in our lives since then. Perhaps we managed to bore someone at a dinner party with the Latin root of some English word or insert a relevant quote from Shakespeare into a conversation (most likely heard from others a thousand times since and not from the play you did for the examination), but by and large we’ve managed quite well without remembering a lot of what we learned. You may have got on well in life so far, perhaps better than those who left education earlier than you, so despite all you have forgotten, it must have done you some good.

Not much, says Bryan Caplan an economist at George Mason University in Virginia. And he claims to have the statistics to prove it. In his book, “The Case Against Education: Why Education is a Waste of Time and Money”, Caplan maintains that, between learning stuff that we’ll never use and inefficient learning of useful stuff, education is largely a waste of time. And money, if you compare the increase in earnings for the whole country due to education and compare it to what is spent on it. But if education is such a waste, how can you explain why countries, that are richer, have higher levels of education, and people within those countries who have higher levels of education do better than those with less education.

For the first of these objections Caplan rolls out a hypothesis that has been around a little while, namely that although there is more education in richer countries, it is not clear that the education is the source of that prosperity. It is just as likely that richer countries put more money into education simply because they can afford it.

As for the observation that those with more education do better, Caplan proposes an explanation that many have considered to be partially true for some time, but perhaps not realised just how true it might be. Many people have observed that there has been “inflation” in qualifications over time, that you now need higher qualifications for the same job than you did thirty years ago, and also that many are over-qualified for their jobs. Indeed, the economic concept of “inflation” is useful. If you have a surplus of one resource, “qualifications”, chasing a limited supply of another, “jobs”, you would expect the “price” to rise. If more qualifications are attainable, and kids need these to compete for jobs, they’ll go get as much as they can.

But why would an employer employ someone with a degree in knowledge that is not required for a job rather than someone without a degree? When degrees become common, Caplan says, employers will be suspicious of those who don’t have them and prefer those who do. Their qualifications “signal” to prospective employers, attributes that are highly desirable in an employee. He lists the main three attributes as intelligence, work-ethic and conformity. He claims that his trawling of the statistics indicates that these three attributes are more important to employers than knowledge or skills, and if higher education is available to most people, then it is the most reliable indicator of these attributes in a prospective employee. Getting a degree is not easy. If you have one you must be fairly smart and hard-working. And if you’re smart and hard-working and don’t have a degree, well, that’s a little suspicious. So a degree becomes a reliable test of employability, even if an expensive one that the employer does not have to pay for.

Sure, Caplan agrees that the qualifications indicate that you may have learned some useful stuff, but by his calculations he estimates that the usefulness of the stuff you learn in college generally accounts for about 20% of your subsequent improvement in earnings and the 80% remaining is due to signalling to employers that you are made of the right stuff for them.

But what about the the claims of higher education’s importance for the development of the person? Caplan is skeptical. This would be fine if it were true. What limited research there is indicates that higher education has very little impact on critical thinking skills and does not generate any great interest in the finer arts such as poetry or opera. My own personal observation of friends and relatives that have never been to college compared to those who have, confirms Caplan’s claims that it has no noticeable effect on “personal development” as claimed by many. No doubt they would be offended if I suggested it did.

So what can be done? Well, Caplan’s proposed solution is fairly drastic. Remove all subsidy from higher education and let people pay for it themselves. It’s not that he wants people to pay for their own education, he just thinks that most should not go at all. If fewer people can afford higher education, employers will stop looking for this as a signal and look for other evidence of employability. Just as they used to do. He suggests that it may be worth supporting vocational education, but his main suggestion is that young people should just go out and work where they actually learn the most. Even before finishing secondary school.

Now even for a libertarian leaning academic like myself that has some sympathy with the diagnosis, this remedy seems a bit too radical. Although those of us who work in higher education can take comfort from the fact that such a remedy would be politically impossible, we owe it to those who are ultimately paying for our services to consider to what extent the diagnosis is true in Ireland. If it is even half as bad as Caplan claims, it is unacceptable, and it is our duty to find out how bad it actually is and see how we can fix it. We need to be thinking about how we can make our teaching more relevant, more effective and more efficient. And if we can’t do that, perhaps we should have less higher education.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Is the MOOC dead?

This was an attempt at a humorous response to a question posed by Paul Bacsich at the OEB conference in 2016, in the form of a Coroner's Court endeavouring to find out who killed the MOOC.

My lawyers have advised me to read a prepared statement in case I might incriminate myself in this case.

I have met The MOOC and this body certainly does look like him.  Although, when found, he was inelegantly dressed, he was elegantly thin and very attractive.  So attractive in fact that he was a bit of a trophy partner seen in the company of many rich benefactors.  And like such trophy partners he was very high maintenance and difficult to sustain.

He was often seen insisting on having his full entourage of instructional designers, subject matter experts, videographers, video editors and project managers. For many, the “high maintenance” was part of the attraction as they could display their trophy as a sign of their fitness. It was more about appearance than usefulness, like a peacock's tail, or some expensive jewellery .......or an iPhone...

He did generate a lot of ill-will and there certainly were many who had the motive kill him as he muscled in on their territory. Still, something like him does seem to be popping up in a lot of places.  Even if this corpse is not The MOOC perhaps his time is up anyway. Does it even matter if this is The MOOC?  We may have bigger things to fear yet.

The MOOC was known to be a little....... “promiscuous”.  I have heard that he was seen hanging around with some other educational innovations of dubious origins and also even flattering and exploiting some older, respectable, educational practices.  And there are rumours of progeny.  These rumours are rather scary.  The memes of The MOOC may have intermingled with other memes and led to mutants who may be emerging out there.

To be honest, it may be these progenies that killed The MOOC.  Some believe that interbreeding with Accreditation may have spawned the “Micro-Masters of the Universe” which may prove to be even more deadly in its impact.

It could get even worse.  The widespread availability of cheap technology may lead to swarms of OOCs, small open courses, cocky youngsters with no regard for the so-called “quality standards” of their elders.  Inspired by the legendary hero, Khan the Mighty, and his exploits in a closet where he was bound by no rules, some of these may rise through a Darwinian process of natural selection to become more popular than their expensive forerunners.

There are a few other dangerous ideas out there getting into the mix.  Open Badges for displaying detailed descriptions of achievements, Blockchain for reliable verification.  What if employers can reliably accept learning from anywhere for recruitment?  If The MOOC has interbred with such alternative credentials, it could lead to carnage.  It could threaten Educational Civilisation as we know it.  It doesn’t bear thinking about.

We may have killed the MOOC but we have more work to do.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Cassells is wrong! University can be cheaper!

This is a slightly longer version of an article of mine in the Irish Times today: - it relates to a panel debate that I will be taking part in on the Cassells Report at the HECA conference on the 27th April, 2017 -

In twenty years time, much fewer school leavers will be going to college. This will be simply because there will be so many more options available to them. Many of the options will be based on technology and the Internet and will be attractive for many reasons, not least that they will be much less expensive for the school-leaver. The strongest economies in Europe already have a balanced academic/vocational delivery model and England is following with an apprenticeship levy. This rebalancing of the academic and vocational is happening worldwide, including Ireland. As well as the increased availability of apprenticeship courses in many more fields, colleges will deliver more of their own courses in an apprentice style or work-based learning mode and these will include a significant amount of online learning. These will reduce costs for learners by allowing them to live at home for longer and earn while they complete their courses. Much more, if not virtually all, university courses will become available in distance-learning modes over the Internet and this will allow school leavers to go straight into jobs and gain their qualifications more gradually, even taking more time to select the right course. In addition to cutting the cost of their education through working and living at home, fees will decrease simply because the number of people simultaneously taking these courses will reduce unit costs. You can, right now, get a four-year degree in Computer Science from the University of the People, an accredited online university for $4,000. Indeed the claim that students need personal interaction with their lecturers and peers will be counteracted by the claims from employers that full-time students are not prepared for the workforce and that those who work and learn at the same time, learn more efficiently and are much better prepared for the world of work. To top it all, employers may become less interested in degrees. Even now, major employers are announcing that they no longer require degrees from recruits where they once did. This is because learners now have many more ways, including free courses on the Internet, to gain knowledge and competencies, and employers are becoming better at assessing these competencies before hiring.

In March of 2016, the expert group on future funding for higher education released the report "Investing In National Ambition: A Strategy For Funding Higher Education", also known as the "Cassells Report" after Peter Cassells who chaired the expert group. As an invited participant to one of the consultative meetings informing the report, I was intrigued that as we discussed possible funding mechanisms for higher education, nobody seemed interested in discussing the possibility of reducing the cost of providing higher education. To some extent, I accepted that this was probably beyond the brief of the expert group. However, the report that emerged did briefly mention the suggestion that information technology might reduce the cost of higher education, but quickly dismissed the idea, suggesting that it is not a "quick fix". This was despite having a statement in the executive summary that the purpose of the report was to "consider issues related to long-term sustainable funding of higher education".

Now rather than just disagree with the statement that technology cannot be an immediate solution to the funding problem (which is arguably false), I would like to suggest that the report is significantly flawed in addressing its objectives by not considering how costs can be reduced, in the medium term if not the short term, and particularly through the use of information technology. Information technology is revolutionising almost all information and communication businesses so why should it not have a significant impact in higher education? George Bernard Shaw once suggested that all professions are "conspiracies against the laity". Now, I don't want to accuse the higher education community, (of which I am a member of and in which I have many admirable colleagues), of conspiracy, but there is a natural tendency to support the system you are part of, even when times have changed and there may be less need for it. So it is not surprising that if you gather together a consultative group of higher education professionals they will tend to tell you they need more rather than less money.

However, there may be another, less self-serving, explanation for the seeming lack of interest in cost-cutting. Perhaps the expert group did not have the full range of expertise required to consider this option. One clue that this might be the case, is a statement in the report that the recent reduction in funding for higher education is resulting in less time to "accommodate diverse learning styles". It is well known in the educational research community for some time that "learning styles" do not exist, as such, and the idea that improved learning outcomes can be achieved by facilitating diverse "learning preferences" is essentially a myth. The issue here is not that the report might advocate for an expensive ineffective teaching method, but that such a well-known educational myth slipping into the report suggests that the group might not have had the full range of expertise that it required.

As it happens, my personal opinion is that the group has recommended the best of the three funding options available to it, namely student loans. However, because public institutions do seem to have an insatiable appetite for funding, it still could end badly if there are no attempts made to reduce unit costs. In the U.S. there are a large number of people who cannot afford to repay their loans, either because they never completed their studies or because the qualifications they earned have not significantly improved their earning capacity. This is a significant cause of personal suffering for many and also considered to be a significant risk to the economy as a whole. For that reason, even if we do improve access to student loans, it is important to try to reduce costs in order to minimise the level of debt incurred by students.

Although I have suggested that a major mechanism for reducing costs in the future may involve having more students studying off campus in distance learning modes while working, many of the same principles can be used immediately to reduce on-campus costs. Campus students can be given access to online modules designed for distance learners, or many of the free online courses on the web. Online modules can be created specifically to be shared by several campuses or colleges. The technology exists now to create such modules quite cheaply, for little more than the cost of delivering to a local group of students. If used in a "flipped classroom" mode, where the students interact with course materials online before attending tutorials or workshops on campus, not only can it reduce unit costs but also improve the learning experience of the students. Such shared online courses will necessarily have large numbers of students enrolled in order to gain economies of scale and so may need a certain amount of more personalised tuition added. However, even that can be made more efficient with tools that are available now. Computerised quizzes can provide feedback to learners on their progress and can be used to provide timely information to lecturers in order to see who most needs their help thus allowing them to use their time more effectively. The use of computer-aided peer assessment systems as well as rubric based assignment grading, often with standardised feedback, allows lecturers to get important timely feedback to large groups of students with much less effort.

Even more sophisticated tools based on artificial intelligence are now emerging that will allow lecturers provide a higher quality learning experience to larger numbers of students. Adaptive systems using deep learning techniques are able to analyse the behaviour and performance of large numbers of students using the system to determine what learning materials to present to individual students next as well as when to do so. Recently, as an experiment, in Georgia Tech university, a "chatbot" similar to those in computerised help systems, was added to the available human teaching assistants and was so successful that one student nominated it for a teaching award. Interestingly, some other students spotted that it was a chatbot because it responded so quickly to queries.

Spending more money, although often required on a temporary basis, is both the least ingenious and least sustainable way of solving a problem. Asking lecturers to work longer hours is not a very clever, or sustainable, way to improve productivity either. With technology, a small amount of ingenuity and possibly a significant amount of courage, we can improve quality, improve access and reduce costs in higher and further education in Ireland. And if we don't, someone else will.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

“This House Believes Artificial Intelligence Could, Should and Will Replace Teachers” - The future of mass higher education.

This post was written by invitation for the Faculty of Science and Health blog in Dublin City University - 

“This House Believes Artificial Intelligence (AI) Could, Should and Will Replace Teachers” is the topic of a debate at the upcoming at the OEB conference in Berlin later this year ( Often when I ask lecturers the question, “If computers could replace lecturers, should they?” I get a negative response justified by various quite valid arguments that teachers will always be required for one reason or other. However, the question they are answering is not the one posed. It ignores the “if” at the start. As an engineer I have always assumed that it was my job to improve the world by making our work more efficient and reducing waste. Sometimes this might include the disappearance of certain professions, but looking back in time it seems that this disruption, although unpleasant for the disappearing profession at the time, was best for society in the long run. So if you are in agreement with that general principle the answer to the question has to be “yes”, computers should replace lecturers if they can.

But before we give up the ghost and let management replace us with computers, there is the question of whether they are capable of replacing us. In the same spirit of misreading the question above, lecturers are loath to admit that computers can, to any great extent, do the tasks that we do, well enough to replace us. This is the natural inclination of any profession to protect itself but it may not be the best strategy if it ignores the changes that are undermining the profession and inhibits the its ability to adapt.

So, to what extent is information technology capable of replacing lecturers? You might say that the first big scare we got was from the MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses. The demise of higher education as we know it was being heralded by the sight of tens of thousands of learners taking courses from rockstar professors. It was cold comfort to the profession that the MOOC drop-out rate was high, or that the teaching was simple, or interaction between learners limited (and non-existent with the professors), because large numbers were still learning some very useful stuff.

However, we had an ace up our sleeve; assessment and accreditation. Despite our claims of lofty learning objectives, we know that young people come to university to have a good time and to get a certificate that will get them a decent paying job. Employers, parents and students themselves trust us to maintain good standards and not be handing out certificates to anyone who is willing to pay the fees.

So we’re OK then? Maybe not. A number of years ago the presidents of US universities were polled on what they believed would cause the most change in higher education in the future. Sensibly, they suggested it wasn’t MOOCs. However, they did identify the idea of unbundling, or the separation of learning from assessment, which allows learners to learn as they please and to submit themselves for assessment whenever they are ready. If implemented in universities it would unleash a wave of innovation in learning both inside and outside universities as learner seek the most cost effective ways of learning wherever they can find them. Since then this has started to happen. Universities in the US are offering challenge examinations with credits attached. People predicted that the prestigious institutions would not get involved in this but MIT is launching micro-masters degrees where you can study the module for free in the form of MOOCs and then pay for assessment to get the credits.

It could be even worse. These free and cheap online courses may get a lot better. Progress is being made in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and it may have a significant impact in several areas. Deep learning, an AI technique, can monitor the activity of very large numbers of learners in order to optimise and personalise learning pathways (including remedial activities) for individual students. AI has also made progress in creating “bots” who can act as first line advisers to learners who are in difficulty. (Some recent tests found that the only way students could identify bots was by their response speed).

OK, so we may get replaced, eventually, but we’re smart and we can find other useful thing to do (like research). And the universities will still act as assessors and accreditors so they’re OK. Well maybe. Employers have mixed feeling about the education young people receive at university. On one hand they complain about the lack of key skills in graduates but on the other hand they find universities to be largely trustworthy in maintaining standards and they particularly like their ability to help them evaluate job applicants. University degrees are effectively a cheap selection tool for employers. However, they are not so cheap for the candidates or the state who may subsidise the process.

But what if employers found other more efficient ways of assessing what a job candidate knows or can do? Recently a major international management consultancy firm announce that it would no longer require a university degree from new employment applicants. Whatever, this implies about the value of degrees, it certainly indicates that they believe that learning can come from other sources and that they have the competence to evaluate such learning. In domains where there are dire skills shortages, individuals are turning to alternatives such as “boot-camps” and free online courses with added fees for assessment. Many of these are creating “alternative credentials” with electronic certification which can be displayed online and, more importantly, examined in detail by potential employers who can drill down to see much more detail on the contents of the courses and performance of the candidates. Should such credentials gain the trust of employers the associated course may well prove to be more attractive to school leavers who need to balance the pleasure of the “college experience” against their employability and the total cost of their education.

So to conclude, there is every reason to believe that technology may be able to replace a lot of what we as teachers do in the near future, and the trust the public rightly places in our institutions may not be enough to protect the profession. We may be heading for a time where the need for teachers in much less and their role is much different. Not only do we owe it to ourselves to prepare for such a possibility, we also need to admit that if it provides better, cheaper and more accessible learning for the public, it is to be welcomed.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Low-cost production of MOOCs. Why and How?

My presentation to the Western Balkans and Serbian Moodle Moot, Low-cost production of MOOCs.  Why and How?,  is available here:

If you have any questions or comments on that presentation, please post them there.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Research, teaching and basing our opinions on evidence

Over the last few years I have been reading of research claiming that research activity does not improve teaching skills and that the two may even be negatively correlated. Perhaps my willingness to accept this was influenced by my own personal experiences (strangely, I even witnessed PhDs in education who could not present well). I, perhaps naively, assumed that senior management in higher education had access to the same information sources as me and would be aware of this (and that a few in my own institution were exceptions due to the fact that we were a small provincial institution).

However, recently, in a blog by Greg Foley, I became aware that this important finding is not widely known, as he described how a university president made several inaccurate comments on the value of research to teaching. (On contacting Greg separately he provided me with some helpful references by Richard Felder here and here). More recently, at a consultative meeting of the great and the good of higher education in Ireland (Yes, I know, “what was I doing there?”), my suggestion that research be separated from teaching in higher education based on such research was met with some horror and disbelief.

So this brings me to this question - How is it that when taking part in discussions on and making decisions about issues that are not in our own domains, we in academia place so little importance on evidence. Indeed, like the consultative group mentioned above, I have been at many internal academic meetings where there have been quite lively debates (bitter arguments?) based on a set of conflicting opinions and with very little evidence being presented.

Could it be that where the evidence runs counter to our own personal interest we deliberately choose to ignore evidence. Perhaps, if arguing about something that is outside our own domains, we are unaware of the research and are too lazy to check it out. My suspicion is that it is the first of these two, as when I have referred to the above research in such debates, it is generally met with scepticism and then ignored.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Go to college to get a mate and impress employers.

This very interesting article by Jason Potts of RMIT on "Why MOOCs will fail" seems to confirm what I have for a while suspected to be true.  He makes two main points, firstly; that young people go to university to get a mate, and secondly; to send signals to potential employers.  They can get neither of these from MOOCs (or possibly all online courses for that matter) and that is why they will fail.

The first point sounds like a joke, but I do get the impression (from my own kids if not elsewhere), that higher education is a pleasant life experience, that they feel entitled to, and the potential to meet romantic partners is no doubt part of that.  He does make the interesting point that a very substantial portion of the economic return achieved by attending college is due to marrying a partner of similar social status and income potential.  I'm not sure that this is explicitly in the minds of young people who want to go to college, but it may well be hidden in some subconscious evolutionary psychological urge to meet "people like us" in a romantic way.

The second point I think, is much more important.  Both parents and kids do think explicitly about how employers will view the education they pay for and receive respectively.  This may be why they choose more prestigious institutions even though there may be no evidence that the quality of learning is any better.  From my rudimentary knowledge of economics, I believe that this is a form of signalling.  The peacock has no great use for his flamboyant tail, but the tail does signal to a mate that he is in good health and has excess nutrition that he can waste on growing and carrying around the tail (perhaps like a first year with an iPhone and Beats headphones).  Going to a good college signals potential employers that (i) you had the smarts and/or work ethic to get in, (ii) you had the smarts/work ethic to get through (and perhaps surviving bad teaching as a bonus if the employer is aware of it), and (iii) you come from the right type of background (who are smart and/or value education).  If this is a very reliable signal, it saves them a lot of effort in recruitment and the candidate pays for it.

So even if I were to suggest that online work-based learning is superior to traditional campus based education, it's not going to disappear very quickly and growth will most likely be slower than we zealots would like.  I don't think MOOCs or online learning will fail.  They will succeed for other reasons.  We'll just have to live with this problem and work around it.