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): http://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/full-time-third-level-education-for-all-is-a-luxury-we-can-t-afford-1.2025807 - 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 elearngrump.blogspot.com

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: http://youtu.be/zX8WeeVbJQY

A more animated recording from the EdTEch Conference: http://media.heanet.ie/page/9782cd10208541e7a375a2528752fafc (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: http://goo.gl/7rtt5A