Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Universities should be just for the elite!

This article has been published in the OEB Insights Newsletter so I'll just post the introduction here for the moment.

The Drinking Song from the musical, “The Student Prince” reminds us that it is not a recent idea that attending university is a pleasant coming-of-age experience for those whose families could afford it.  However the state does not invest so much in higher education just to give its citizens the opportunity to study a topic they enjoy for a few years and have fun with friends.  Most young people go to college so that they can build a career and have happy, financially secure lives, many believing that this is what prospective employers expect of them.  A reasonable motive of governments in subsidising higher education is the creation of happy productive citizens that are capable of sustainably generating the resources required to take care of their own needs and with enough surplus to allow them to enjoy some extra pleasures and to help others who may be less fortunate.
Does higher education help them achieve this? Those of us who have been working with educational technologies in higher education are very aware of the widely held perception that we are underperforming....  continued at..

https://oeb.global/oeb-insights/university-should-be-just-for-the-elite/


Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Threat of the Mega-Providers in Higher Education

"In the long run we are all dead".  I can't remember who said that but I'm wondering how much more time we have in higher education before the world-scale mega-providers of education and training put us out of business.  This is a "lightening talk" I'll be delivering at the EdTech2019 in Dundalk at the end of May.  As there is no time for discussion at the end of each talk I'd be happy to discuss this over a drink after the conference dinner. Or you could join the debate in the comments below.

Scale has been a major contributor to modern prosperity.  In both the private and public sectors, achieving scale, particularly using technology, has allowed us to provide existing services and products at lower unit costs, and use the savings to access further products and services.  Some of these we consider necessities, such as improved health services, and some we consider luxuries, such as international holiday travel.

Contrary to this trend, the cost of providing higher education has grown over time.  However,  some institutions are working to reverse this trend.  Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) is delivering online degrees at a lower price tag than other online providers and is the fastest growing online provider in the US.  Some edX members are now delivering full masters degrees in MOOC formats at a fraction of the cost of regular online masters degrees.

So how will this affect higher education?  Well there may be some immediate impact on online education.  There is some indication that small scale online programmes in the US are not growing and the growth in online learning is mostly distributed among large-scale providers like SNHU and Western Governors University (WGU).  Even recently other regional online providers such as University of Maryland University College (UMUC) and UMass Online have announce their intention to scale up nationally.

But what about campus-based learning?  As you might expect, online learning may hit the campus based programmes initially at masters level .  The original MOOC style masters degree in Computer Science from Georgia Tech has around 5,000 enrollments and has had a major impact on both campus and online masters in computing around the US.  Even now edX has announced its intention to deliver MicroBachelors.  Just as the edX MicroMasters have developed into full, low-cost online masters degrees, will this develop into full low-cost bachelors degrees.  Would the high levels of reported dissatisfaction with the value-for-money of degree courses in the US drive young people to take these online programmes rather than attend college full-time?

So much for the US, what about Ireland?

I tend to find that we all consider the increase in the cost of delivering higher education to be a negative development.  By the same token, I would assume that any effort to reduce the cost to both the state and individuals as a positive move.  Not necessarily so.  I have often asked academics in higher education, "If we could replace lecturers with computer systems, should we?"  The response is generally "No".  When asked for a reason I am generally told it can't be done for one reason or another, which belies either a misunderstanding of the question or a refusal to answer it. (Remember I said "if")  No more than barrels existed for the sake of coopers, higher education does not exist for the sake of lecturers.  If the national objectives, which are currently being addressed by our higher education system, could be achieved in another more cost-effective way, why would we not change the way we do it.

Low-cost education from abroad may not be particularly successful if expensive education in Ireland is highly subsidised.  But there is some reason to believe that these high levels of subsidy may not continue indefinitely.  As the population of Ireland grows older, both the numbers requiring healthcare and the increasing sophistication of healthcare available will drive up costs enormously (not to mention pensions). The state will most likely look for efficiencies and savings elsewhere in order to increase healthcare spending.  If they can purchase higher education online from elsewhere, more cheaply than it can be provided locally, why would they not choose to do that?  And perhaps it would indeed be the best thing to do.

In conclusion, I believe that large-scale providers will dominate the future of higher education and that institutions in Ireland will not ultimately be protected from such competition.  However, I do believe that there will be ways for our higher education institutions to remain relevant.  To do so will require significant innovation, way beyond what we are now considering, and what emerges will look a lot different to what we have now.  That's a discussion for another day.

P.S. In the interests of brevity I have not mentioned mega-providers in the non-accredited sector.  Organisations like Coursera or Microsoft (who own Linkedin Learning - formerly Lynda.com) are making skills based training with verifiable certification available at low cost to millions.  If employers start valuing such courses in the same way as degrees, this will also be a threat to existing higher education.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

How I lost my faith in Open Education Resources (OER)?

This is more or less the script for a lightening (6-minute) presentation for the OER19 conference in Galway next week. I've recorded it with slides as well. (recording:http://bit.ly/2U9UhN0 - slides )

As someone who once thought that OER was a great idea, I first became aware of an ideological tinge in the movement when I listened in to an online debate (argument?) about the need for Non-Commercial (NC) to be included in open licencing. I had been putting my teaching materials on the web since the nineties with a note saying that anyone could use them any way they wanted and that a note of attribution would be nice. To be honest, I wondered what all the fuss was about open licencing but I was certainly on one side of the argument, in that if anyone wanted to make money out of my materials, fair play to them, as I certainly wasn’t going to. I wondered why Downes opposed commercial use of materials and following the debate I was firmly on the side of McGreal and had come to the conclusion that Downes had an ideological distaste for people making money out of education.

In the early noughties I attended seminars by legal experts on the use of third party materials on the web and concluded that if I followed their advice I’d never get anything done, so I generally advised my colleagues to use whatever they found that was useful and put a note on their web page stating “If I have inadvertently breached copyright with any materials here, please contact me immediately and I will remove them”. In general I have said “Stop worrying. No academics have been fired or gone to jail yet, so you are unlikely to be the first”. In general I attribute my limited success in online learning to a list of things I avoided doing rather than particular things I did, and this is one of them.

Quality Assurance (QA) in general is an issue that I have a problem with in higher education. Higher Education has accreted a set of tedious bureaucratic processes that in no way guarantee a high quality learning experience for students. Such an approach is deterministic in that it claims that if you follow a specific methodology there will be a good outcome. QA professionals in industry have long since admitted that this is unreliable, and that Continuous Improvement (CI) is a much faster and more reliable route to Quality. It is also inimical to innovation as it assumes that the experts know what will achieve quality even when they are unaware of new techniques. Although my opposition to QA in OER is somewhat based on the unreliability of “expert review”, mostly it is that such review systems are too tedious and represent too little “bang for the buck”. I volunteered to be a MERLOT reviewer some time back but had to give it up as the effort for individual learning object was just too much. It would be better to encourage academics to release their materials on the web and to let users, students and teacher, review and share them. This is the way videos become viral on Youtube. To paraphrase my daughter: “No matter what difficult concept my engineering professors present in class, I’ll find an Indian professor on Youtube that explains it better”.

For the same reason I have issues with repositories, granularity and reusability. We had the National Digital Learning Repository in Ireland some time back. Something like €8m was spent on the assumption that if we built an infrastructure for storing and sharing OER people would use it. It was a IT person’s idea that did not seem to understand how academics (or people in general) really work. As people were not naturally inclined to share materials, and technically it was somewhat of a challenge to upload materials, it essentially had to pay people to do so. In order to theoretically improve reusability, it encouraged breaking down materials for a fine granularity (e.g. single images), further increasing the workload for academics. Then people had to be encouraged to use the materials in their courses. This involved getting to grips with the technology of the repository, hoping it had materials suitable for your students, and then integrating them together and into the course. As my daughter has suggested, it was easier just to search the Internet for good materials to link to, often Youtube videos. During this time as well, very simple recording and publishing options were emerging, making it easier to create the materials yourself.

When MOOCs hit the big time in 2012, I was surprised at the negative reaction within the e-learning and OER communities. The courses were open but they were simple and did not use more advanced educational approaches. They were not granular so you could not reuse individual parts of them. The may have been open but did not contain openly licenced material. The last objection seemed to me to be ideological in nature. You can learn almost anything from the Internet, but learners need structure. MOOCs added structure to open learning. Surely that was of value to learners and educators, even if the materials themselves were not openly licenced. Micromasters and “MOOC style” masters degrees are offering even more structure, and though not free, may do more to achieve the same objectives as the OER movement: Lowering the cost of higher education.

Which brings me to my final observation: Are we addressing the wrong problem? With two children of my own in Higher Education I have estimated the costs per year in the following categories:
  • Cost of tuition (including fees, government subsidies and scholarships) €13k
  • Accommodation €9k
  • Food and entertainment €5k
  • (Opportunity costs - they could have been working) €20k
  • Books and courseware €0.6k
This leads me to conclude that we are working on the wrong problem. There are much more important challenges than the cost of books and other materials that can only be addressed by a more fundamental redesign of how we do higher education. So why the emphasis on books and not more fundamental change. I suspect that the reason for this is ideological.

The book and courseware business is essentially commercial and profit driven while higher education institutions are largely non-profit. It fits the ideological perceptions of those within higher education better to oppose the profit-making publishers than to challenge the inefficiencies within our own system.

But to be fair, some within the system are doing just that. My personal view is that we should stop sending kids to college. Apprenticeships and alternative credentials may provide them with more employable skills and hopefully employers will move towards more competency based recruitment rather than relying on the expensive signalling from college education. I believe that MOOC style courses and degrees will do more to reduce the cost of education than any other method and that is why I, personally, would prefer to work on what can be achieved through open courses and work-based learning than through OER.

Slides available at: http://bit.ly/oer19bm

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: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/technology-is-key-to-reducing-college-education-costs-1.3045100 - 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 - http://www.heca.ie/heca-conference-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 - https://facultydiary.wordpress.com/2016/11/10/this-house-believes-artificial-intelligence-ai-could-should-and-will-replace-teachers-the-future-of-mass-higher-education/ 

“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 (http://www.online-educa.com/OEB_Newsportal/this-house-believes-ais-could-and-will-replace-teachers/). 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.