Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Death of Universities

 
Bill Gates thinks that universities are about to become obsolete [Bill Gates: In Five Years The Best Education Will Come From The Web].
"Five years from now on the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world," Gates said at the Techonomy conference in Lake Tahoe, CA today. "It will be better than any single university," he continued.
This is nonsense on many levels. First, who's going to determine whether any given lecture is the "best lecture in the world?" Second, why will it be online? (Most professors don't want to put their lectures online.) Third, who says that listening to a lecture is the only thing that a university has to offer?
One particular problem with the education system according to Gates is text books. Even in grade schools, they can be 300 pages for a book about math. "They’re giant, intimidating books," he said. "I look at them and think: what on Earth is in there?"

According to Gates, our text books are three times longer than the equivalents in Asia. And yet they’re beating us in many ways with education. The problem is that these things are built by committee, and more things are simply added on top of what’s already in there.
In the interests of full disclosure, I am a textbook author. That means I have more of a stake in this debate than Bill Gates. (Of course, it also means that as a textbook author and a university professor, I'm probably more of an expert than the former chairman of a software company.(1))

When they are well done, a textbook is like the best lecture you could ever get. If you want to learn about evolution, for example, then you could hardly do better than reading EVOLUTION by Douglas Futuyma. I can't imagine any series of online lectures that could compete with a such a good textbook.

Textbooks are collaborative affairs that undergo considerable review by experts before publication. Most online lectures are the work of a single individual and they have not been reviewed for accuracy.

The most important goal of a university education is to teach student how to think and a major component of that process is critical thinking. Unfortunately, sitting in front of your monitor reading a lecture is not the best way to learn how to think and it doesn't give you any practice in critical thinking. There's a reason why students need to interact with other students and scholars in a university setting and it's very sad that people like Bill Gates don't get it.

On the other hand, if Gates is correct then it might be a really good thing for universities. The standing joke among professors is that universities would be wonderful places if only we could get rid of the students!


John Hawks seems to be quite sympathetic to the Gates stupidity [Bubbling through college].

1. How did we ever get ourselves into the situation where executives from for-profit companies are thought to be experts on education? They are not. They are just about the last people on Earth I would ask for advice on university education.


60 comments :

  1. Feynman taped his introductory coursework and had it transcribed & bound into a series of textbooks and released with the tapes so people could listen to him and see his diagrams. Maybe he wasn't *the* best physics lecturer but he was no slouch either.

    That was in 1964, you'd think that first year physics courses would have been abolished by now. Just how long do we have to wait?

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  2. Respectfully, this is the first time that I find myself in disagreement with your comments.

    While I cannot say that the web will be the site of education in five years, I also cannot see the current academic model surviving, any more than the current newspaper system, and for much the same reasons.

    One similarity being that both the 'old press' and academia love to tout themselves as being the singular 'expert' in a given field. Another is that neither one is serving the needs of the majority; only a chosen few can make it through a university and find themselves prepared for a fruitful career.

    Nonsense on may levels? I don't agree. To assume that academics would be best able to determine the 'best lecture in the world' makes the same mistake that you accuse Gates of making, i.e., who determines the 'best lectures'now? University Profs? That seems pretty self-serving.

    Sure, there are many professors that do not want to be on line right now, and that is not all for unselfish reasons; many are simply horrible communicators. Many are simply wanting to be compensated more. Few would release a lecture simply for the good of the students.

    For an example of a very nice lecture, try listening to: http://www.justiceharvard.org/

    On your third point, What exactly does a university offer besides lectures? Unless you are taken into a personalized study program or fellowship, the odds are that you will get three things from a university: Lots of waiting in line, a huge student loan debt, and lectures. Lots and lots of lectures.

    Discussions with other students is much easier to find via the web already; discussions with 'scholars' are already rare.

    I am sure that there are some wonderful textbooks out there; I have a few. But by far, most of the books used in undergrad are quickly discarded. The only perfect score I recieved in undergrad came when I tested out of a course for early graduation. I had seen neither the professor's textbook nor class syllabus.

    Although you preface your attitude about students as a 'joke', it does seem to be a theme among the tenured elite. Maybe, instead of huffing about Bill Gates' executive status you should consider that he has made some valid points and consider them.

    OK, I will get off the soapbox now.

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  4. Thanks for picking up this topic, Larry! As you'll see, my comments are about value for money. I agree that "critical thinking" is one of our strengths, but I'm skeptical that the modal student is getting it.

    I would love to have you post more about your experiences as a textbook author. For example, how does your publisher assess learning outcomes? You mention the amount of review and editing that goes into a book, but what about effectiveness?

    The list price of your textbook is now *more* than I spent on tuition for a biochemistry seminar as an undergraduate. Of course there has been inflation, and my in-state tuition was highly subsidized. A three-credit biochemistry intro at our local technical college costs around $320, the textbook lists for $172.40 on Amazon, and can be had used for $95.

    I understand the issues with pricing, these have been hashed out many times. But I'm more interested in the question of effectiveness -- are publishers measuring this, and how do they attend to issues of learning outcomes? It seems to me that those aims may sometimes conflict with sales goals, which are driven by instructor and departmental adoption.

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  5. A university which only offers lectures and textbooks is a mighty poor university. Is there such a place?

    Now it is possible to do online some of what a university offers (besides lectures). Interaction with profs can be done. How about dissection? Not so much. It's theoretically becoming possible to study fossils via online capabilities as things get digitized, but tell me -- and I'm honestly asking here, John -- is that really not a problem?

    Basically I see Gates' remarks as extremely simplistic and like so many things that simplistic they're wrong because they make some dumbass assumptions.

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  6. "What exactly does a university offer besides lectures?"



    1) Skill learning and practice, be it (depending on field of study) student labs, research labs, art shops, theater shops, writing workshops, music workshops, K-12 teaching practice at local schools...
    2) Guidance and counseling from experts.
    3) Social interaction with peers who have similar career/life goals.
    4) Getting your questions answered immediately
    5) Immediate feedback on your progress.

    A few examples: would you expect anyone to receive a degree in the sciences without, at the very least practice in a student lab, if not work in a research lab (as many universities mandate for undergraduates?) Or receives a teaching degree without seeing the inside of a K-12 school or teaching a class before getting the degree? Or an architecture degree without having once sketched out a plan and have it looked at and commented by a professional?

    I am not sure how far you want to take this, so I haven't even started with the advanced degrees yet... I doubt you would let someone who learned law over the Internet defend you, or an internet MD operate on you, or an Internet PharmD dispense medicine, let alone develop a drug

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  7. > How did we ever get ourselves into the situation where executives from for-profit companies are thought to be experts on education? They are not. They are just about the last people on Earth I would ask for advice on university education.

    I would not consider these executives to be the _last_ people on earth to ask. They "consume" many university educated people as workers, and write the paychecks that allow those people to pay off their education loans.

    It is the predictable outcome of society deciding that university education is important, society tolerating that university education is expensive, but having no consensus about what university education should provide to the individual or to society. So society treats it as a double-plus-good high school.

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  8. John Hawks asks,

    For example, how does your publisher assess learning outcomes? You mention the amount of review and editing that goes into a book, but what about effectiveness?

    My publisher doesn't assess learning outcomes. It's up to me to determine what a student in introductory biochemistry needs to know. Teachers then read my textbook and decide whether it conforms to their own ideas about what's important.

    I understand the issues with pricing, these have been hashed out many times. But I'm more interested in the question of effectiveness -- are publishers measuring this, and how do they attend to issues of learning outcomes? It seems to me that those aims may sometimes conflict with sales goals, which are driven by instructor and departmental adoption.

    My goal is to write a textbook that teaches biochemistry in the most effective and accurate manner possible. If I'm good at it, instructors will adopt the book for their students. There are very few instructors of introductory biochemistry who can keep up with the latest concepts so they have to rely on textbooks and education journals to keep them up-to-date.

    I don't know what it's like in anthropology but the effectiveness of teaching in the biological sciences is abysmal. We are turning out college graduates who don't understand the basic concepts of evolution, genetics, biochemistry, and ecology.

    We take students into a four year science program and graduate them as scientific illiterates who don't know whether climate change is caused by humans or whether the Biblical account of evolution is correct.

    I don't think textbooks are to blame but I do think they are part of the solution and abandoning them, as Gates suggests, isn't going to solve the problem.

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  9. My goal is to write a textbook that teaches biochemistry in the most effective and accurate manner possible. If I'm good at it, instructors will adopt the book for their students.

    Very interesting, thanks indeed. That's also my impression from working with publishers; it's up to the author. Their investment in new authors is very low; established authors rise or fall based on adoption. Sadly, color photos and other "extras" dominate, as an instructor is likely to switch books mainly if students complain about them.

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  10. I don't know what it's like in anthropology but the effectiveness of teaching in the biological sciences is abysmal. We are turning out college graduates who don't understand the basic concepts of evolution, genetics, biochemistry, and ecology.


    We're required to assess the effectiveness of our degree program for outgoing students. There are few good measures for this purpose. Most measures are input-based (how much writing was required, did they have adequate professor interaction), not output-based (do they know anything?). I worry about this.

    If many students are graduating from biology degree programs without knowing basic biology, doesn't that confirm that their money and time would have been better spent in some other way?

    I teach a cross-listed upper-division lecture to 100 seniors. I can quantify that biology/pre-med track seniors are poor in basic genetics and evolution, compared to anthropology seniors. This surprised me the first couple of times I taught, and I have no explanation other than our lower-level classes do demand more evolution.

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  11. burntloafer says,

    While I cannot say that the web will be the site of education in five years, I also cannot see the current academic model surviving, any more than the current newspaper system, and for much the same reasons.

    I suspect they said the same thing 70 years ago when lectures on radio became popular. I know for a fact that the popularity of television in the 1960s gave rise to many predictions that universities were doomed.

    It's now been almost thirty years since personal computers became common. What makes you think that the next five years are going to make a difference?

    One similarity being that both the 'old press' and academia love to tout themselves as being the singular 'expert' in a given field.

    I consider myself to be an expert at teaching university courses in biochemistry. Bill Gates is not. What is your background in teaching at the university level?

    Another is that neither one is serving the needs of the majority; only a chosen few can make it through a university and find themselves prepared for a fruitful career.

    What's the problem? University educations are not for everyone. There are lots and lots of people who can have fruitful careers without going to university. They could study business and management online, for example. Most MBA degrees are just a small step above high school.

    Besides, preparing you for a "fruitful career" is not the goal of a university education.

    To assume that academics would be best able to determine the 'best lecture in the world' makes the same mistake that you accuse Gates of making, i.e., who determines the 'best lectures' now? University Profs? That seems pretty self-serving.

    Who else can do it? Surely you don't think that students who have never taken a biochemistry course are able to decide which lecturer is delivering the most accurate version of metabolism?

    I've looked at a lot of lecture notes on the web and the quality is not good. For example, I ask my students to find a single website that gets all the citric acid cycle reactions correct. No luck so far after six years.

    On your third point, What exactly does a university offer besides lectures? Unless you are taken into a personalized study program or fellowship, the odds are that you will get three things from a university: Lots of waiting in line, a huge student loan debt, and lectures. Lots and lots of lectures.

    I didn't mean to imply that universities were living up to the ideals I believe in. They are not. I agree with you that today's modern universities make a mockery out of "university education." That's no reason to abandon the ideal altogether, as Gates suggests.

    I'm still going to fight for improving university education. Would you like to join me?

    I am sure that there are some wonderful textbooks out there; I have a few. But by far, most of the books used in undergrad are quickly discarded. The only perfect score I recieved in undergrad came when I tested out of a course for early graduation. I had seen neither the professor's textbook nor class syllabus.

    You should not have received a "perfect score" in your course. Surely you don't mean to imply that such a course is what a university should be offering?


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  12. burntloafer says,

    While I cannot say that the web will be the site of education in five years, I also cannot see the current academic model surviving, any more than the current newspaper system, and for much the same reasons.

    I suspect they said the same thing 70 years ago when lectures on radio became popular. I know for a fact that the popularity of television in the 1960s gave rise to many predictions that universities were doomed.

    It's now been almost thirty years since personal computers became common. What makes you think that the next five years are going to make a difference?

    One similarity being that both the 'old press' and academia love to tout themselves as being the singular 'expert' in a given field.

    I consider myself to be an expert at teaching university courses in biochemistry. Bill Gates is not. What is your background in teaching at the university level?

    Another is that neither one is serving the needs of the majority; only a chosen few can make it through a university and find themselves prepared for a fruitful career.

    What's the problem? University educations are not for everyone. There are lots and lots of people who can have fruitful careers without going to university. They could study business and management online, for example. Most MBA degrees are just a small step above high school.

    Besides, preparing you for a "fruitful career" is not the goal of a university education.

    To assume that academics would be best able to determine the 'best lecture in the world' makes the same mistake that you accuse Gates of making, i.e., who determines the 'best lectures' now? University Profs? That seems pretty self-serving.

    Who else can do it? Surely you don't think that students who have never taken a biochemistry course are able to decide which lecturer is delivering the most accurate version of metabolism?

    I've looked at a lot of lecture notes on the web and the quality is not good. For example, I ask my students to find a single website that gets all the citric acid cycle reactions correct. No luck so far after six years.

    On your third point, What exactly does a university offer besides lectures? Unless you are taken into a personalized study program or fellowship, the odds are that you will get three things from a university: Lots of waiting in line, a huge student loan debt, and lectures. Lots and lots of lectures.

    I didn't mean to imply that universities were living up to the ideals I believe in. They are not. I agree with you that today's modern universities make a mockery out of "university education." That's no reason to abandon the ideal altogether, as Gates suggests.

    I'm still going to fight for improving university education. Would you like to join me?

    I am sure that there are some wonderful textbooks out there; I have a few. But by far, most of the books used in undergrad are quickly discarded. The only perfect score I recieved in undergrad came when I tested out of a course for early graduation. I had seen neither the professor's textbook nor class syllabus.

    You should not have received a "perfect score" in your course. Surely you don't mean to imply that such a course is what a university should be offering?


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  13. burntloafer says,

    While I cannot say that the web will be the site of education in five years, I also cannot see the current academic model surviving, any more than the current newspaper system, and for much the same reasons.

    I suspect they said the same thing 70 years ago when lectures on radio became popular. I know for a fact that the popularity of television in the 1960s gave rise to many predictions that universities were doomed.

    It's now been almost thirty years since personal computers became common. What makes you think that the next five years are going to make a difference?

    One similarity being that both the 'old press' and academia love to tout themselves as being the singular 'expert' in a given field.

    I consider myself to be an expert at teaching university courses in biochemistry. Bill Gates is not. What is your background in teaching at the university level?

    Another is that neither one is serving the needs of the majority; only a chosen few can make it through a university and find themselves prepared for a fruitful career.

    What's the problem? University educations are not for everyone. There are lots and lots of people who can have fruitful careers without going to university. They could study business and management online, for example. Most MBA degrees are just a small step above high school.

    Besides, preparing you for a "fruitful career" is not the goal of a university education.


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  14. burntloafer says,

    To assume that academics would be best able to determine the 'best lecture in the world' makes the same mistake that you accuse Gates of making, i.e., who determines the 'best lectures' now? University Profs? That seems pretty self-serving.

    Who else can do it? Surely you don't think that students who have never taken a biochemistry course are able to decide which lecturer is delivering the most accurate version of metabolism?

    I've looked at a lot of lecture notes on the web and the quality is not good. For example, I ask my students to find a single website that gets all the citric acid cycle reactions correct. No luck so far after six years.

    On your third point, What exactly does a university offer besides lectures? Unless you are taken into a personalized study program or fellowship, the odds are that you will get three things from a university: Lots of waiting in line, a huge student loan debt, and lectures. Lots and lots of lectures.

    I didn't mean to imply that universities were living up to the ideals I believe in. They are not. I agree with you that today's modern universities make a mockery out of "university education." That's no reason to abandon the ideal altogether, as Gates suggests.

    I'm still going to fight for improving university education. Would you like to join me?

    I am sure that there are some wonderful textbooks out there; I have a few. But by far, most of the books used in undergrad are quickly discarded. The only perfect score I recieved in undergrad came when I tested out of a course for early graduation. I had seen neither the professor's textbook nor class syllabus.

    You should not have received a "perfect score" in your course. Surely you don't mean to imply that such a course is what a university should be offering?


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  15. It's theoretically becoming possible to study fossils via online capabilities as things get digitized, but tell me -- and I'm honestly asking here, John -- is that really not a problem?

    We have to remember to think beyond Ph.D-granting departments, which are not what most undergraduate students experience.

    The vast majority of four-year universities do not have enough of a collection of fossil casts to teach more than a single week of a laboratory course. Skeletal collections have not been significantly augmented nationwide since 1970 or earlier. If a university didn't have a teaching anatomy collection at that time, it is very unlikely to have one now.

    The majority of instructors of biological anthropology teach exclusively with photos found on Google Images, with the possible exception of their own research specialty. Fifteen years ago, most were using a small collection of 35-mm slides that had been published as a series from the late 1950's to the 1970's.

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  16. I'm surprised no one has mentioned it, but maybe Mr. Gates' views are coloured by the fact that he dropped out of university and did very well despite it?

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  17. Another issue I think Gates missed is the "democratic" nature of the internet - anyone can post anything.

    This has already created a situation where a search for any scientific topic is as likely to bring up some sort of anti-scientific woo in the top-ranked hits as it is to bring up proper science.

    Larry brought up the issue of students new to a topic being unable to separate a good lecturer from a bad one, or a good textbook from a bad one. I foresee an even more serious issue - students unfamiliar with an area having to separate pseudoscientitifc crap from the real thing, and that isn't always an easy thing.

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  18. Alex says,

    I'm surprised no one has mentioned it, but maybe Mr. Gates' views are coloured by the fact that he dropped out of university and did very well despite it?

    I suppose it depends on what you mean by "did very well." Did he make lots of money? Yes he did.

    Did he learn how to think critically? Probably not, judging by some of the things he's said over the past few decades.


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  19. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard and went on to found Microsoft

    ===>Drop out of college and you will become the next Bill Gates

    ===>We don't need no steeenking universities

    It's clear that Gates could do with some college.

    But Larry I agree, MBA (in the US) is just a few steps above high school. High school + two years of work experience is all you need to navigate an MBA in the US. It is a mishmash of watered down courses (have to cater to the lowest common denominator of a 120 strong class with majors ranging from communication studies to the sciences) that is presentation heavy with the wretched case study method, which lets professors no teach anything at all.

    Truti

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  20. How did we ever get ourselves into the situation where executives from for-profit companies are thought to be experts on education?

    Umm... our current university president is a former executive from a for-profit company.

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  21. Does anybody know how to get the smilies on your blog posts I could sure use them

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  22. While the current academic system is neck deep in woes, abolishing university entirely is about the stupidest thing I read all day, and bordering on offensive to those of us who do things without immediate practical applications. While applied/market-oriented science does have its merits, and has an amazing rate of progress compared to academic sciences, it leads to a rather fragmented body of knowledge, a hodgepodge of well-developed small sub-subfields without good theoretical matrix to bind them together. Perhaps a role of academia is to provide this theoretical matrix.

    You can teach one many practical skills without requiring much theoretical background. But you'd have a seriously limited worker, capable only of staying within their narrow field. That is arguably more efficient to some extent, and universities can be irrelevant to producing such workers.

    However, for one to do truly original and creative work in ANY field, even plumbing, one must have a good grasp of the theoretical side of their work (eg. a talented plumber would need a decent grasp of fluid dynamics and geometry). This cannot be transferred well by an apprentice system, this is where universities come in.

    I don't think everyone and their dog should have to go through university to get a decent job in the end -- the majority of people don't actually NEED to know the arcane details of their randomly-chosen major to manage a business, participate in technical projects, etc. Thus, for those who diligently do as they’re taught, which is what most people want, a highschool degree should suffice since they'll learn everything on the job anyway. Those people are a nuisance in classes because they don't actually need them, and have no reason for being there. Thus, why should they be forced to?

    Often the value of the theoretical side becomes evident only after several years of experience -- so encourage people to go to university after receiving basic work training, so they know WHY they're putting up with shit, and where it 'fits'. Knowledge is perishable; one cannot efficiently cram stuff into someone's head expecting it to come in handy later -- everything will be forgotten by then! Then we'd have smaller class sizes, keener people and a more productive environment, where the students understand what they want and why they're there.

    So university most definitely still has an active, valuable role, but perhaps a slightly different one from what's going on today. Not even speaking of academic training -- most people don't really care about basic science/humanities anyway, sadly. Of course, basic, foundational, knowledge should be taught in highschool. No reason for the compulsory curriculum to be watered down like it is. If 1970s Russians could do trigonometry in grade 6 and diff eqns in grade 9, so could anyone, esp considering the mind is most amenable to new concepts at a young age.


    As for textbooks - it's complicated. Yes, there's lots of crap online (I've yet to find a single complete-ish protistology reference online, one that uses post-1970s taxonomy anyway), but there's also a lot of crap in textbooks, some of which comes from a near complete absense of communication between some disciplines, which is truly sad. Ask a cell biologist about phylogenetics or evolution, and the result is horrifying. Some of them still PUBLISH assuming the "Crown Eukaryote" model, which has been definitively wrong for about 15 years already. And that's Cell; what can we expect of individual textbooks?

    As for costs, textbooks could be published informally, funded by grants, and thus free to the public in electronic form. That way they can be easily updateable (no delays from publishers), and closely monitored by active researchers in a given field. Not sure whether such model is viable for a large intro-level field, like biochem, but perhaps someone could ruminate on this idea. (Disclaimer: Currently involved in such a project.)

    Apologies for length...

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  23. @William,

    I know how to put smilies on a Blogspot posting but I don't know if it applies to others.

    Just upload the smilie as an unformated (select "none") image and paste it where you want it to appear.

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  24. If 1970s Russians could do trigonometry in grade 6 and diff eqns in grade 9

    They couldn't. In 1970s USSR, trigonometry started in 8th grade and calculus wasn't part of high school at all.

    On topic: As college education increasingly becomes a new high school (with the expectation that most will have one), universities are becoming increasingly useless. But of course they are not going away.

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  25. Psi Wavefunction says,

    As for costs, textbooks could be published informally, funded by grants, and thus free to the public in electronic form. That way they can be easily updateable (no delays from publishers), and closely monitored by active researchers in a given field. Not sure whether such model is viable for a large intro-level field, like biochem, but perhaps someone could ruminate on this idea. (Disclaimer: Currently involved in such a project.)

    Lots of people have ruminated.

    I'd be delighted to publish an introductory biochemistry textbook online. All I need is about $1.5 million dollars guaranteed every five years (i.e. each edition).

    I don't know of any grants that will cover these kinds of costs, do you? :-)


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  26. I'd be delighted to publish an introductory biochemistry textbook online. All I need is about $1.5 million dollars guaranteed every five years (i.e. each edition).

    Out of curiosity, how would that get spent?

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  27. They couldn't. In 1970s USSR, trigonometry started in 8th grade and calculus wasn't part of high school at all.

    I am not sure you are right. I completed high school in India in the late 70s, switching to a new curriculum as I entered high school. I had already started trig in the 8th grade and referring to USSR trig primers written for middle schoolers. In our senior year we graduated with a v.solid basics in real analysis, trainer wheel variety complex analysis, differential eqs, probability, measures and distribution, sets, logic etc. And our teachers told us that USSR kids were doing this in middle school - if not in high school. Today's AP Math (AB and BC varieties) is exactly what I did in high school in India >30 years ago. The AP Physics curriculum is a little tougher today thatn what I studied, but AP Chemistry and AP Biology is way more than what I studied then, with the AP Biology of today being almost unrecognizable Thanks to the work of 1000s of life scientists and Larry Morans the world over!

    Truti

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  28. Tyro writes:

    Out of curiosity, how would that [$1.5 million to Larry every 5 years] get spent?

    Welcome to Larrywalk, renamed after Dr. Larry Moran purchased Charles Darwin's estate from the British Government.

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  29. Tyro asks,

    Out of curiosity, how would that [$1.5 million to Larry every 5 years] get spent?

    Carefully.

    In addition to paying three kinds of artists (drawings, chemistry, proteins structures), I'd have to pay for copy editors, reviewers, and people to administer the entire project. I'd have to hire a photo editor who also does permissions and handles copyright issues.

    A big expense would be hiring someone who does the final layout and production. This would be just as important for a web-based version as it is for a print version.

    I'd have to fund my own expenses and royalty income and those of the other authors.

    Finally, I'd have to hire someone to set up and maintain the website for five years. (Plus capital costs.) I think it could be done for $100,000 per year but most publishers put the cost much higher based on their experience with interactive websites for current textbooks.


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  30. That's a sobering reminder of how large these tasks can be.

    Just thinking aloud, I wonder if tacking some of the grade 7-12 text books might be a good first step. The provinces are already investing large sums to buy & distribute the text books so if there could be even a small percentage savings by owning the rights or creating electronic copies that could translate into the millions of dollars necessary to pull something like this off.

    It's not obvious to me who that would be in a Canadian University model since the finances are spread across so many groups, from authors, to publishers to students. Perhaps after some other groups have demonstrated success, we could replicate it at a higher level but I don't see the Students Union coming up with that kind of cash any time soon.

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  31. And our teachers told us that USSR kids were doing this in middle school - if not in high school.

    Your teachers were lying to you. We were not doing any of that in middle school. (Plus, there was no such thing as a middle school in the USSR - just a "school", grades 1 through 10).

    Now, there were schools for gifted and they did have very advanced curriculum. Math, physics, chemistry, foreign languages, you name it. But you had to be very gifted to end up in such a school.

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  32. I don't know of any grants that will cover these kinds of costs [$1.5M/5yrs], do you? :-)

    Yes. Standard issue NIH R01 grant.

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  33. @Larry I could inquire how much this particular project costs. Maybe after it's complete, so we know for sure it works. But the university funded it through a 'teaching+learning enhancement' thing of some sort. The cost is many orders of magnitude less than your figure though; perhaps biochemistry is a very expensive field, or ours is a very cheap one ^^

    @DK RE USSR math, my source is a primary one, and a politically disinterested one. Also, I have several of the old textbooks, which I can read. Now, Moscow and the rest of the country are world apart, so perhaps that was the reason. But my father went to a regular Moscow public school, and that's what they covered. (my mother went to a math school, but did similar stuff, just on steroids. The math was on steroids, not her.)

    What part of the country are you from, DK?

    Maybe it's better to acknowledge a variation in experiences than viciously accuse people of lying ;-)

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  34. I won't say universities will die, any more than newspapers have. However, the newspapers, and the postal service, have found much of what they did before being done online.

    So can you learn online? I would say yes, though you can't do labs, but not all learning endeavors require a lab coat. Interactive learning is possible too, with professors and other students commenting say, in a forum. I like that format, actually, it's like here, where you can exchange ideas more, since there is no lecture to finish and no bell at the hour on the hour to cut short the dialogue.

    Also, the pricing can be good, published lectures and notes (with textbooks, with interaction with professors still) might mean a substantial reduction in the cost of education, for courses that could be taken in that manner.

    I'm thinking that online learning has its role, just like email and msnbc.com, and it will increase to it's point of reasonable usefulness, or so we may hope.

    I expect its role will be substantial, but it will not mean the end of school buildings.

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  35. Maybe it's better to acknowledge a variation in experiences

    No, it's not. Because there was NO variation in experience. There was one standardized curriculum for the entire USSR - regardless of the region. One size fits it all, 100% student population (except schools for gifted which were allowed to do as they wish).

    than viciously accuse people
    LOL.

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  36. lee-merril says,

    Also, the pricing can be good, published lectures and notes (with textbooks, with interaction with professors still) might mean a substantial reduction in the cost of education, for courses that could be taken in that manner.

    Tuition at the university of Toronto is $5500. How much do you think that would be reduced if all our courses were online?

    Maybe you're referring to cost of living expenses? Yes, it's true that students living in Podunk could get a degree online without ever having to find a place to live in the big city. They could live with their parents. That would save a lot of money.

    Isn't that one of the problems? There are lots of things happening on university campuses outside of the classroom. It's an integral part of getting a decent education.


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  37. Maybe Gates is referring in part to the MIT Open Courseware when he is talking about "the best lectures".

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  38. Wavefunction says,

    Maybe Gates is referring in part to the MIT Open Courseware when he is talking about "the best lectures".

    Possibly. That would confirm my suspicion that Gates can't tell a good lecture from a bad one.

    If I were a Professor at MIT I'd be very embarrassed by what my colleagues have put up on the Open Courseware site.

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  39. Sorry Dr Moran,

    I have to agree with Mr Gates on this one.

    The Quality of material available online for free is exceptional. A student can now online, and even on itunes listen and even look at lectures from many different lecturers on the same topic- this gives students the ability to choose the lecturer they like best, or compare and contrast material presented to extend their knowledge on the subject.

    Student interactions? Comment sites and forums are how most students interact now- these have replaced study groups. Especially at giant universities such as U of T.

    In BCH242 it was not uncommon for me to listen to another lecturer or a youtube clip to clear up something I didn't get in class- or to get a more in depth understanding of the a concept.I also did this for many classes- so don't take it personally.

    Textbooks are museums- As a graduate-med student I have come to realize all textbooks are useless. They either contain basic information that can be found on wikipedia, needless details, or severely out of date information about the latest research.

    I had the pleasure of using your textbook for BCH242 - most of the information could be found online, in review articles (with a quick web of science search). Better diagrams and even videos were also always a click away. Of course I didn't buy your textbook (I don't think I've ever bought a textbook)- I found it free online. I could share where I found it if you request but I doubt you can do anything about it.

    I think Universities if they are to succeed should teach students about basic concepts in the first year, and ten three years of research techniques and information seeking. I also think all professional education schools should be direct entry. This would save alot of time.

    I know this post is juvenile but I'm writing in a coffee shop after a soccer game, without reading any of the prior comments. I would like to discuss this issue further. Maybe I will post something more eloquent later.

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  40. One more thing,

    Opencourseware is Awesome. I have become a very capable programmer by going through their lectures. Openculture is also great!

    I also have published an article in PlusOne- an open journal- that is now be searched with web of science.

    From your comments Dr Moran, I suspect you have very little, and limited experience with opencourse ware.

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  41. "I doubt you would let someone who learned law over the Internet defend you..."

    If he's among the best and can prove it, you'd be an idiot not to.

    Universities, and schools in general, serve two broad primary functions. One is to educate. The other is to evaluate. I think that it is one of the great errors of modern education that these two functions have been tied too tightly together. I believe we should separate those functions. If you can prove mastery, then you should get the credit, regardless of whether you've ever seen the inside of a student lab or sat through a lecture. And before anyone assumes, I'm not talking about shortcuts here. No degrees granted for passing some unmonitored online tests. Simple testing is fine for evaluating progress in individual courses of study and whether a student is ready to move on to the next topic, but the equivalent of a university degree should require an extensive evaluation involving monitored testing plus practical application. That means projects reviewed by experts. The evaluation can be credible only if it is rigorous. In fact, I believe it should demand a greater degree of mastery than what is typically needed to get a normal degree now, because:

    a) It does the self-educated no service to offer them credentials that aren't respected.

    b) It does no one else any good either if the credentials aren't trustworthy.

    and

    c) I know for a fact that there are many people with traditional degrees who do not possess the expertise that their degree implies, so a higher standard of proof would be useful there too.

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  42. Huey Freeman says,

    In BCH242 it was not uncommon for me to listen to another lecturer or a youtube clip to clear up something I didn't get in class- or to get a more in depth understanding of the a concept.I also did this for many classes- so don't take it personally.

    That's very interesting. I'd like to hear more about this.

    I'm in the middle of writing the next edition of my textbook so I've been making heavy use of the internet to see what's out there. As you know, I also used to post links on the course website to the best references I could find. (I've been referring students to the best of the internet since 1994.)

    Let's do a little experiment. One of the most challenging concepts in an introductory biochemistry course is explaining how Gibbs free energy changes are related to flux in metabolic pathways. It's one of the areas where I'm very proud of what's in my textbook. (I didn't write the original chapters.)

    Can you find me anything online that explains the concept better? If you can't do that then how about just finding anything that explains it correctly?

    Let's take another example of a key concept - catalysis. Can you point me to a lecture or website that, in your opinion, explains how enzymes can achieve such remarkable rates?

    What about photosynthesis? That's a very difficult thing to explain unless you have a thorough understanding or oxidation-reduction reactions and the standard membrane-associated electron transport system. As you know, I spent several lectures trying to explain chemiosmotic theory and standard reduction potentials before discussing photosynthesis.

    I'd really appreciate it if you could point me to those "exceptional" online lectures that do a better job.

    If those challenges are too difficult for you then why not just post links to anything in introductory biochemistry that you think is of "exceptional" quality?

    Thanks.

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  43. Heuy Freeman says,

    Textbooks are museums- As a graduate-med student I have come to realize all textbooks are useless. They either contain basic information that can be found on wikipedia, needless details, or severely out of date information about the latest research.

    I very sorry to hear you say that.

    But not for the reasons you think. I suspect it's a very common attitude among those students who get into medical school.


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  44. Huey Freeman says,

    I had the pleasure of using your textbook for BCH242 - most of the information could be found online, in review articles (with a quick web of science search). Better diagrams and even videos were also always a click away. Of course I didn't buy your textbook (I don't think I've ever bought a textbook)- I found it free online. I could share where I found it if you request but I doubt you can do anything about it.

    I do request it. You claim to have found a copy of the 4th edition of my textbook online where it can be accessed for free by students like you. Send me the link so I can see if you're telling the truth.

    Either you're lying or someone is breaking the law. Do you condone breaking the law?

    Let's continue the challenge I issued above. Pick out the very best biochemistry website, or Wikipedia article, you can find and briefly explain why it's superior to what I've written in my textbook. If you're right, I'll make changes in the current edition and put your name in the credits at the front of the book.

    Let's see if you've actually learned how to think when you were in university. Let's see if you can back up your statements with evidence.

    Waiting ....

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  45. Heuy Freeman says,

    I think Universities if they are to succeed should teach students about basic concepts in the first year, and ten three years of research techniques and information seeking.

    Amazing. You apparently have a university degree and you think that the basic concepts in biochemistry and molecular biology can all be taught in first year?

    Judging from what I've seen so far, I strongly suspect that you don't understand the basic concepts in whatever program you followed as an undergraduate.

    I know this post is juvenile ...

    That's just about the only intelligent thing you've written.

    Did you say you're studying to become a doctor?

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  46. William K says,

    c) I know for a fact that there are many people with traditional degrees who do not possess the expertise that their degree implies, so a higher standard of proof would be useful there too.

    I agree.

    This is a problem. We are graduating far too many students who don't deserve to get a degree.

    That's not the fault of the students, of course. It's our fault. The universities are to blame and we need to fix this problem or lose (more) credibility.

    Do you realize that we are giving degrees to students who actually think that Wikepedia articles are equivalent to a university education?

    The problem isn't that they are totally wrong - it's true that the quality of some courses and programs leaves a great deal to be desired - the problem is that these students actually think this is what a university should be like! Many of these students actually got very good grades by just treating university as an extension of high school. They should not have been able to do this.

    I'm not very optimistic about the future of education in universities. I can't even convince my colleagues in the Department of Biochemistry that there's a problem, let alone convince them to find a solution.

    ReplyDelete
  47. I suspect it's a very common attitude among those students who get into medical school.

    Yep. Almost without exception, every pre-med or MD/PhD student I personally interacted with was not interested in acquiring knowledge. Instead, courses were viewed as a series of hurdles that one needs to overcome to get to the finish line. And then they become experts in charge of our health. Scary.

    Just a couple of months ago I had a misfortune to meet a surgery resident who did not know what "hyperosmolar" means...

    Universities are in business of credentialing, not teaching - that's the biggest problem.

    ReplyDelete
  48. If I were a Professor at MIT I'd be very embarrassed by what my colleagues have put up on the Open Courseware site.

    Can you give me some examples of bad lectures on the Open Courseware site? Have you looked at most of them including those from engineering, math, philosophy, economics et al.? Could you judge the quality of all them and are all of them bad? Or is this just your hunch?

    ReplyDelete
  49. ... and the plot thickens...

    http://www.cbc.ca/consumer/story/2010/08/11/f-school-tapscott.html

    It seems there will be a real fight for public perception on this one in the near future.

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  50. Sorry I have taken some time-off to deal with family issues- and internet access is limited in this part of the Carribean. Thank you for your responses. I will get on the challenges once I get through the more important things (not trying to be caustic with this statement).

    Keep in mind that's its been some years since I took BCH242 :-(

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  51. DK - I honestly tried to learn as much as I could from my courses- I was never a course hurdler. But this itself is an ill-imagined analogy because hurdling of all races is about the technique- races are won in hurdles by winning the journey.

    I was heavily into research, (mostly neuroscientific) and thus realized the little value of textbooks early into my university career. There was also something appealing to me about going back to the original sources- and examining the methodology myself. I still have some of Sherrington's articles and count myself privileged to have had access to those materials while in undergrad.

    I was lucky to have a mentor who encouraged me to seek out such material. Prof's like him will keep Universities going. I'm sure Prof Moran is a great mentor as well.


    Medical school has nothing to do with it. Such a generalization is unfair to my peers and I. Frankly I find such statements childish.

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  52. Lactate asks,

    Can you give me some examples of bad lectures on the Open Courseware site? Have you looked at most of them including those from engineering, math, philosophy, economics et al.? Could you judge the quality of all them and are all of them bad? Or is this just your hunch?

    I'm knowledgeable about biochemistry, genetics, evolution, molecular biology and a few other things. I can't judge the quality of information in other disciplines. Can you?

    Here's the link to Biology courses. Maybe you could pick out the very best of the biochemistry lectures and explain why it is so good? How about molecular biology? What about evolution? Can you find the "excellent" lecture on the basic concepts in evolution and post the link here?

    There has to be one, right? After all, evolution is the most important concept in biology.

    There's a graduate course on Developmental Biology that you could look at. What do you think of the online material on that topic? Will you learn a lot about Developmental Biology by accessing this material?

    They use a good textbook.

    Here's the Molecular Biology course. There are no lectures online but they do tell you what chapters of the textbook to read!

    Not the best textbook.

    Looking forward to your comments.


    ReplyDelete
  53. First challenge complete: link to book is hyperlinked above.


    BTW very Quickly! I studied BCB with an emphasis later on in Machine learning and Artificial Intelligence. Now my research focuses on learning, and re-learning of cognitive and motor skills.

    I thought you would be kinder to your former students Prof. Moran!

    Will complete the rest of challenges in the coming weeks.... maybe

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  54. "I'm still going to fight for improving university education. Would you like to join me?"

    Sure. How?


    "You should not have received a "perfect score" in your course. Surely you don't mean to imply that such a course is what a university should be offering?"

    No, of course not.

    Thanks, by the way, for letting me speak my piece.

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  55. Huey Freeman says,

    First challenge complete: link to book is hyperlinked above.

    Where? I don't see it.


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  56. A year or more ago, acting on Larry's comments, I downloaded a couple of MIT "courses". OMG. Bunch of semi-random stuff, poorly presented.

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  57. Mr. Moran, I was not the one who made the sweeping comments about MIT courseware. It was you, so the burden of proof is on you. You are the one who should give details of what you think are mediocre lectures. I await your insightful criticism.

    But since you asked, I will answer. I am a chemical physicist so I can certainly judge the value of some of the chemistry courses as well as you can judge others. Here's a pretty good lecture on the discovery of the nucleus. Here's another good one on crystal field theory. How about this one on vibrations and waves?

    Nobody is claiming that these lectures can substitute for a university. But that's different from saying that they are "bad". Plus, there's no doubt that they are useful to students in developing countries who may not be able to afford books. Plus, how many professors at MIT do you think would be embarrassed by the courseware? Do you know of any?

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  58. Lactate says,

    But since you asked, I will answer. I am a chemical physicist so I can certainly judge the value of some of the chemistry courses as well as you can judge others. Here's a pretty good lecture on the discovery of the nucleus. Here's another good one on crystal field theory. How about this one on vibrations and waves?

    Thanks. I'll have to take your word for the accuracy of these lectures but, I agree, they seem to be good ones.

    Nobody is claiming that these lectures can substitute for a university. But that's different from saying that they are "bad". Plus, there's no doubt that they are useful to students in developing countries who may not be able to afford books. Plus, how many professors at MIT do you think would be embarrassed by the courseware? Do you know of any?

    The MIT Opencourseware site is frequently promoted as the best example of good material on the internet. If that's the best we can offer then we have a very long way to go, in my opinion.

    I can tell you that there's nothing on the Biology list that blows your socks off. In fact there's nothing that even begins to count as "good." Most of the "courseware" is nothing more than the standard syllabus that's listed in the websites of hundreds of universities.

    I'm glad that you were able to find a few good chemistry lectures but that doesn't mean that the MIT experiment is a success. I'm not a big fan of putting lectures online because my preferred style of lecturing doesn't lend itself to being watched several years from now by a student in India. However, I think we can do a lot better than the MIT site. We need to stop promoting it as an example of the best of the internet. It's not.


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  59. @Lactate,

    You asked for an example of an embarrassing lecture? Here's Prof. Robert A. Weinberg, a very famous scientist, delivering a lecture on basic biochemistry.

    I just wanted to spend the first couple minutes clearing up three issues. None is a major conceptual issue, but we like to focus on details and get them right, get them correct here as well. Firstly, I misdrew a reaction last time that described why RNA is alkali labile, i.e., if we have high pH we call that an alkali pH, or an alkaline pH, actually, to use the adjective.

    And we said that hydroxyl groups can cause the cleavage of the phosphodiester bonds of RNA but not DNA. And the way I described that happening is that the alkali group causes the formation of this five-membered ring right here, two carbons, two oxygens and a phosphate. And that resolves eventually to this where there's no longer any connection with the ribonucleoside monophosphate below.

    And I drew it like this, without an oxygen, and that's a no-no because, in fact, in truth, and as many of you picked up, this reverts to a two prime hydroxyl. So, please note there's a mistake there. There's also a couple other mistakes. For example, in the textbook it gives you the impression that when you polymerize nucleic acids you use a monophosphate to do so.

    And, if you listened to my lecture last time, that doesn't make any sense, because you need to invest the energy of a triphosphate in order to create enough energy to generate enough energy for the polymerization. The textbook is incorrect there. Textbooks are written by people, for better or worse, and as such, like everything else, they are a mortal and fallible. So, the truth of the matter is, when you're polymerizing DNA or RNA you need one of the four ribonucleoside or deoxyribonucleoside triphosphates in order to donate the energy that makes possible this polymerization.

    And please note that is a mistake in the book. Recall, as I said last time, the fact that ATP is really the currency of energy in the cell, and that its energy is stored and coiled up in this pent up spring where the mutual electrostatic repulsion between the three negatively charged phosphates carries with it enormous potential energy.


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  60. Here's a pretty good lecture on the discovery of the nucleus

    I don't really know in what context this particular course is offered, but I find it very sad that 47 minutes are spent on a very basic high school material - precisely on a level of high school. And the need for the contraption is very, very dubious. Presumably, these are bright MIT students there - they should be able to grasp the easy concept from a very simple drawings. If I were a student, I'd be mad for wasting 47 min of my life on this circus.

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