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.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Fulltime Higher Education is a luxury we can't afford.

This is the text of an article of mine the Irish Times has printed today here (full text): - it is exactly the same argument as the previous posting.

Could it be that sending our children to college is an extravagance? Something that would be nice to have, but we can’t really afford and do not really need?

For many years now we have been told that it is reasonable to be expect to send your children to college and that if you can’t afford it, you should be able to get assistance in doing so. We are also told that it is in the interests of the economy that as many people as possible get a higher education; that, as a nation, we cannot afford not to send our children to college. This may well be true, but the question here is; can we afford to do it the way we are doing it, either as individuals or as a nation?

As an engineering student in the seventies I would, naturally, muse during lectures about the efficiency of the process. If the lecturer took an alternative approach, not only would a significant amount of time be saved by the lecturer, more interestingly a much greater amount of time would be saved by the 50 or 100 students sitting in the class. Now, 40 years later, there are many alternative teaching techniques available, but not a lot has changed.

To be fair, I have become aware of many of the alternative teaching approaches through my work for the last 20 years with learning technologies and more specifically in online distance learning. And if I were to be honest, the efficiencies I have observed in online distance learning have more to do with the type of student than the technologies used for teaching.

Our distance learners seem to be able to cover material in less time than the full-time students and achieve better scores in examinations. How can this be so? Is it the teaching medium? Is it that they can replay difficult parts of lectures over and over again or post questions to their lecturers and classmates at any hour of the day or night? Perhaps, but I think it may be something else.

Our distance learners seem to be very highly motivated. They are very interested in the content and keen to achieve. They see the relevance of the knowledge, often directly in work they are currently doing, and seem to assimilate it faster and remember it better.

We have always been aware of the merits of “work-based learning” and it has been the basis of the apprenticeship system that has served us well for centuries, even in so-called higher professions such as accounting, law and architecture. So why have we moved away from this model of learning? Could it be that knowledge became so specialised that students had to travel to the source of that knowledge? Could it be that as we grew richer over a period of a few hundred years, first the middle classes and then the working classes felt they had the right to emulate the practices of the aristocracy?

We might argue about the reasons the current system of higher education emerged but there is growing evidence that higher education can be supplied more cheaply and more effectively through a combination of work-based and online learning. As well as being able to reduce the cost of providing courses, the financial burden on individuals and families, as well as the state can be reduced in other ways. As learners are mostly working and do not need to live away from home, they can more easily afford the fees, often with assistance from their employers and with less subsidy from the state.

But what about the social development aspect of full-time higher education? Perhaps because I live in a small town in the West of Ireland I have a broader range of friends than many in my profession, but as you can imagine, my many friends who never received a higher education would laugh if I suggested to them that they were less socially developed than me because they did not go to college.

Would school leavers be mature enough to survive in this new model of learning? Well many believe that they were in the past, and that perhaps we don’t challenge them enough these days. Many young people actually still don’t know what they want to do when they leave school. It could be argued that it is too early to choose a profession and that it might be better to get a menial job in an field that you might be interested in and take a little more time before committing to a course of study. This kind of flexibility is much more feasible with work-based online learning.

And what about my own children? Despite my advice to go and get a job when they finish school, they are insisting that they get the pleasure of going to college just as I did. I am lucky that the state is borrowing money to subsidise them and I am well enough paid to afford to pay the rest and indulge them. Others are not so lucky. Should individuals and the state be spending or borrowing so much for what now could be seen as a pleasant rite of passage for privileged individuals? An extravagance?

Brian Mulligan is a lecturer and Programme Manager in the Centre for Online Learning in Institute of Technology, Sligo, Ireland. He can be contacted via his blog at

Friday, May 30, 2014

Fulltime undergraduate education is an extravagance whose time has passed.

This is the text of a 5-minute presentation I'm giving today at EdTech2014 in UCD.  It has also been reprinted in the Sunday Times (Ireland) on June 15th, 2014.

A 5-minute video is viewable of Youtube at:

A more animated recording from the EdTEch Conference: (5 min)

It is now thirty years since I started teaching at Institute of Technology, Sligo and twelve years since I started working with distance learners online. During that twelve years I made two significant observations that have led me to the conclusion that the way we approach higher education needs to be changed. However, the change I am proposing here is not a small one: We should get rid of full-time undergraduate education.

In our early days of our online teaching, worrying that some people might be sceptical of this form of education, we always ensured that our online students sat the same examinations as our full-time students. We very quickly noticed how much better these working adults performed in examinations than the full-time students. We would have liked to attribute this performance to our online teaching methods, but we knew it was more likely to be due to the fact that they were situated in workplaces where they could see the relevance of what they were learning. Although the first observation came as early as 2003 when we ran our first examinations, the second observation came much more slowly. It was that online learning has the potential to be much more cost-effective than campus-based education and in certain situations, to be of even higher quality. I was led to conclude that undergraduate education, in most countries, is more expensive than it needs to be, and less effective than it should be.

So, if this were true, how might you design an alternative approach to undergraduate education. Well, as it happens, such an approach already exists in the apprenticeship model. We have long recognised that the best way for people to learn a trade was to combine work with learning. In fact it is only relatively recently that many higher professions such as architects, lawyers and accountants have moved away from this work-based approach to learning.

However, there were good reasons why universities emerged in the middle ages as repositories of knowledge and places where rich young men were sent to become familiar with all of the advanced knowledge of the time. As we moved towards the massification of education during the the last century, it was expedient that other forms of education copied this model and even tried to gain some of the status of these institutions by taking the title of “University”. But this is the 21st century, and we are now well into the information age, where we do not need to travel to access the knowledge of our greatest minds or enter into rich discussions with fellow learners. We are not working under the constraints of the past that required physical access to these centres of learning.

To add to this, the cost of higher education has been steadily increasing to the point where states, if not people, can barely afford it. As manufacturing and services companies constantly strive successfully to reduce their costs and improve their quality, do we, as educators not owe the same to our funders and learners; a better education at a lower cost?

So I’d like to propose that we get rid of full-time undergraduate education and replace it with work-based learning, where learners take positions, even menial ones, in workplaces closely associated with the profession they wish to pursue and take most of their courses online, attending their colleges occasionally to help build relationships with their classmates and carry out activities that are best done in that setting. It may be necessary to stretch out the courses over a longer time, but it will result in significant savings, including the opportunity to earn while studying, and result in better learning outcomes.

Will our young people be mature enough to survive in this new model of learning? Well many believe that they were in the past, and that perhaps we don’t challenge them enough these days. What about the the social and personal development aspect of a college education? Well, I made the point to my brother, who entered the Civil Service as an 18 year-old in 1972, that, as I had been to university, I was more developed socially and personally than he was. I will leave it to you to imagine what his response was. And what about our guilt at denying our young people the pleasure of a college education? Spending the state’s money on pleasures we cannot afford might just fit the definition of extravagance.

This has also been posted on Ferdinand von Prondzynski's University Diary blog where there is more discussion via the comments: 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Google, EdX and why Coursera is vulnerable.

This week's announcement by EdX and Google is very significant.

I'm quite a fan of Coursera.  I love their simple approach to teaching, and not just because it annoys those who have been working in edtech for last 10 years using approaches that are more sophisticated than they need to be.  I think "simple" is a great place to start and can form a core that other services can be added to if required.  As someone who has been working with educational technologies for nearly 20 years, I don't mind these upstarts coming in and stealing our thunder as they are finally bringing the attention of the public at large to the potential of learning technologies, even if in a way that might a little too simplistic.

Now, far be it from me to criticize such smart people in Coursera, but I think there are some things about their approach that might make them vulnerable.  When I saw their MOOCs I first thought "Hey, we can do that very easily".  It is not unlike our synchronous online teaching.  In fact if you look at it, there may be less to it than our online courses as it is like fee-paying courses with tutor support and assessment replaced by peer support, peer assessment and automated assessment.  In fact I came to the conclusion that anyone could do this and, indeed, very quickly Canvas and Blackboard provided free infrastructure for anyone to host and deliver a MOOC.  Admittedly, the many MOOCs that will be developed by individuals on these platforms may not have the superstar professors and the high production values to Coursera courses, but it remains to be seen if these features have that much impact on quality of instruction.  Salman Khan's original videos demonstrate that clearly.

So this is why I think that the announcement from Google and EdX this week is very significant.  Unlike Coursera, EdX has taken a more open approach to MOOCs and the platform for delivery, holding out the hope for us that the rest of us might be able to get our hands on infrastructure designed specifically for MOOC delivery (as opposed to Canvas and Blackboard).  Not only will we be able to host our own MOOC sites but we will also have access to a free platform at where we can host our MOOCs and where people can more easily find them.  This has been described as a YouTube for MOOCs and I think this analogy is very relevant on another level.  For me one of the most important conclusions that can be drawn from the success of YouTube is the victory of content over production values.  On YouTube, entertaining videos will draw viewers even if they are grainy and badly made.  On YouTube you don't have to be a superstar to get viewers.

So this is where I think Coursera is vulnerable.  If we have an open public platform for MOOCs lots of individuals will put up courses and many of these will be excellent.  For a lot of institutions (like us in IT Sligo) it will cost the same to put their online courses up as MOOCs on this platform and will be worth doing for the marketing value of extra viewers, many of whom may sign up for assessment and accreditation on a fee-paying basis.  Very quickly, Coursera will be swamped with lots of free courses on the web.  The platform with the most courses will draw the most viewers, and the platform with the most viewers will draw more courses.  Coursera's high production values and exclusivity may well be its downfall.