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Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Are universities doomed?

This month's issue of The Atlantic has another one of those boring articles on the imminent death of universities (colleges) [The Future of College?].

This time it's a new "university" called MINERVA that's going to kill off all the old-school schools. Minerva is a for-profit university where all the learning takes place in electronic seminars of up to 19 students. Sort of like a Skype conference call only it uses copyrighted software. Students will pay only $28,000 (US) per year for this experience.

There have been articles about the death of universities published every year for as long as I can remember. Almost all of them think that a "university" is just a place where you go to get an undergraduate education. That's because almost all of the potential murderers only experienced university as an undergraduate.

In this case, it's a businessman named Ben Nelson who is creating Minerva (she was the Roman goddess of wisdom). His university experience consisted of an undergraduate degree from the Wharton School (of business) at the University of Pennsylvania.

I'm a proponent of a student-centered learning environment and an opponent of traditional lectures. I agree that undergraduate education at universities has to change. There's much in the Atlantic article that I agree with but I stop paying attention when I read things like this ....
The paradox of undergraduate education in the United States is that it is the envy of the world, but also tremendously beleaguered. In that way it resembles the U.S. health-care sector. Both carry price tags that shock the conscience of citizens of other developed countries. They’re both tied up inextricably with government, through student loans and federal research funding or through Medicare. But if you can afford the Mayo Clinic, the United States is the best place in the world to get sick. And if you get a scholarship to Stanford, you should take it, and turn down offers from even the best universities in Europe, Australia, or Japan. (Most likely, though, you won’t get that scholarship. The average U.S. college graduate in 2014 carried $33,000 of debt.)
Gee, I hate to break the news to my American friends, but American undergraduate education is NOT the envy of the world. Most undergraduate education in the USA is atrocious by Canadian, Australian, and European standards. Even the very best the USA has to offer is not obviously superior to the average in those countries.

You want proof? There it is right in front of you. The Atlantic is read by college graduates and the article was written by a college graduate. The fact that both readers and writers could honestly believe that undergraduate education at Stanford is superior to that of Oxford, Paris Sorbonne, Tokyo, or even Toronto, is evidence that they have not been taught to think critically (et suppositio nil ponit in esse).

Oh, and by the way, the USA is not necessarily the best place to get sick even if you are fabulously wealthy. That's another stupid myth.1
Financial dysfunction is only the most obvious way in which higher education is troubled. In the past half millennium, the technology of learning has hardly budged. The easiest way to picture what a university looked like 500 years ago is to go to any large university today, walk into a lecture hall, and imagine the professor speaking Latin and wearing a monk’s cowl. The most common class format is still a professor standing in front of a group of students and talking. And even though we’ve subjected students to lectures for hundreds of years, we have no evidence that they are a good way to teach.
I'm teaching a lab course this semester. The first class is next Tuesday. There are 42 students in a modern well-equipped lab for four hours every week. We're going to have a lot of fun doing experiments together with two excellent TA's who are getting Ph.D.s in biochemistry. We will have one hour discussion about the experiments every Thursday. Try to imagine us wearing monk's cowl's and speaking latin (cucullus non facit monachum).

It's hard for me to imagine what a university looked like 500 years ago before science was even invented but I'm pretty sure it looks nothing like the University of Toronto. (That's a photo on the left of the research labs in my department and other sister departments.)

It's hard for me to imagine how Minerva University is going to do a better job of teaching science without undergraduate laboratories and research labs where they can do student projects. Why is it that all these stories about the death of universities seems to ignore the sciences? If you really want to reform undergraduate education then you should make students take more, not fewer, science courses (ipsa scientia potestas est).

Magister dixit.

1. Another word for "myth" in this context is "jingoism."


  1. You said it. I have never understood how an online university is supposed to teach botanical field courses, chemical experiments, materials science, molecular lab work or neurophysiology. Some things you need to do in practice before you can claim to have learned them.

    Then again, if we are talking about a business graduate this seems unsurprising... their theses seem to consist of reading 40 books and summarising them by writing the 41st.

  2. "The fact that both readers and writers could honestly believe that undergraduate education at Stanford is superior to that of Oxford, Paris Sorbonne, Tokyo, or even Toronto, is evidence that they have not been taught to think critically (et suppositio nil ponit in esse)."

    I've always been suspicious of the undergraduate worth of "elite" schools myself given that most professors attracted to them probably have more interest in research than teaching undergraduates, but in what way do you mean the above the statement? That the quality of undergraduate education is about the same everywhere or that the teaching at Stanford is subpar?

    1. I meant that the quality of undergraduate education is not related to the fame of the university AND that the quality of undergraduate education is similar at the top universities. However, the quality is related to the quality of high school education in various countries and to the quality of the students. I'm very impressed with the level of undergraduate education that science students get in Germany, Denmark, and Sweden. We can't match it here and I doubt that Stanford could either.

      I've also watched the MIT lectures online and they are vastly inferior to what my colleagues are teaching in smaller American colleges that focus on undergraduate education with faculty who care about undergraduate education.

      There are some huge advantages to graduating from Harvard and other famous universities but the quality of education isn't one of them.

  3. The elite universities give you the opportunity to learn, but do not necessarily ensure that you will learn much. Also, the amount of work they make you do sometimes ends up being actually detrimental to your long-term learning, as you do the work, learn what you need to learn for the test, but you are not left with much time to reflect on what you have learned, as you are quickly bombarded with the next batch of things to do.

    After I finished taking classes in grad school I asked myself how much I have learned relative to what I know that I need to know, and how much of it I learned because of my effort to fill the gaps I have identified vs how much was because of the system. It's two very big gaps between each of these things.

  4. If everything you want to learn can be learned through a glorified skype call I think you need to evaluate what you're actually getting for your money. My botanical education consisted of a lot of hands-on field work and educational excursions to ecologically interesting areas with lectures disguised as conversations on a hike through the communities. Try getting *that* from a for-profit online university.