The future of tertiary education

I’m preparing to do a bit of whithering on tertiary education next week at a strategy retreat or some such for a university – and wanted to ask Troppodillians for any sources they think I should consult. I want to bang my drum about the ways in which education at all levels (with an obvious focus on the tertiary sector) should be changing far more than they are. Some of the things I want to say include:

  • The internet and particularly web 2.0 should be revolutionising education in so many ways. Indeed in principle, one might have expected web 2.0 to have had a more dramatic effect on education than it’s had on news and entertainment, and yet in these cases a revolution is clearly underway with huge economic and cultural implications whereas in education it’s amazing how much things remain the same as they ever were.
  • this is true at all levels of education though obviously the kinds of opportunities available at the various levels of education differ very markedly.
  • I’ve commented before on Troppo on how amazingly static the curriculum in schools has been. We’ve had lots of rearrangement of the cultural deck chairs, and an amount of aboriginal studies that drives some kids completely nuts (though I expect the problem is in the quality of the teaching).  The web has been absorbed as a new, better, lower cost way to do simple research for assignments and so on, but the new possibilities have done virtually nothing to reshape the maths curriculum for instance. And when I was at high school in the early 1970s we actually did some computer programming.  I’ve not seen my kids do any. And yet they could be out there building mashups on Google maps, or apps on iPhones and doing all sorts of exciting things.
  • Teaching methods are also changing at a surprisingly slow rate.  It seems so obvious that lectures should be both taped and lavished with some serious resources so that, for instance there might be a wealth of really good lectures that people can pull down at any university, with the university’s value add being in how they engage students with each other and with tutors. This is what’s happening in the Khan academy which is only at school level, so given that one of the problems cited with doing away with live lectures is the need to motivate students, if you can motivate them in high school with videos, you should be able to do it in universities. Ultimately this could be outsourced so that one would have a few providers of lectures which were given by people who were very good at it, with resources to generate multimedia of various kinds to illustrate what was being taught and so on.
  • Then there’s the open science story and how slowly the tertiary sector seems to be making its way in that direction – helped on by mercantilist IP laws, the incentive system for academics and stuff like that. Michael Neilsen speaks about the way in which ‘open source’ means of doing science have sometimes worked miraculously – but that’s where they’re a clearly focused attempt to produce a publishable paper – so they tie into the incentive system. When it’s more open ended, it doesn’t work so well. (I suspect this isn’t only the incentive system at work – it’s also the case that crowdsourcing usually works better when a shared objective is clear to all).
  • One of the ironies is that so much public money goes into education and yet it’s then used in ways that actively frustrate the natural way in which it could be build into public goods.

So verily oh Troppodillians I say unto you

  1. What things do you think I should read to fill me in on these points and
  2. What other points might be made
  3. Do you agree or disagree with these points, and if so why?
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Matt Cowgill
11 years ago

One thing that makes no sense to me is the fact that Australian unis post far less freely accessible material online for the public. Universities like MIT (via OpenCourseWare) and UC Berkeley post entire unit online, with recorded lectures, assignment questions and answers, reading lists and so on. No Australian uni (to my knowledge) does this. Why is this so?

Also, why do individuals or non-education institutions have to pay to access things like HILDA data or ASSA data that are created by publicly-funded institutions? I can understand requiring some registration to ensure that researchers commit to complying with confidentiality requirements, and perhaps a small fee to cover administrative costs, but why does access cost $1000+?

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
11 years ago

Matt – I think the question is more why should they do so? There needs to be a business case. If they were good, for example, it could be a way of potential students trying before they buy – partially overcoming one of the information problems in the higher ed market.

You can access much of the ASSA data for free – though you have to pay if you want the unit record data. Free ASSA data is much easier to use for your own purposes than ABS data, even though that is far more clearly the result of public investment.

11 years ago

“and wanted to ask Troppodillians for any sources they think I should consult”

If it’s the type of strategic retreat that I’m thinking of, then you should consult your doctor or drug dealer and get some sedatives to help you get through the day. An alternative would be to have a psychologist teach you how to have intrusive thoughts (like cognitive behavioral therapy in reverse), and that way at least you’ll look attentive.

More seriously, the obvious reason teaching methods change surprisingly slowly in universities is that even when there are better ways to teach something, you are never given the resources to do it (and very few “good ideas” ever come from the top — teaching innovations usually come from individuals at the lower level thinking and implementing something, and this is why these meetings of people in suits that often know very little almost never amount to anything). In most places, you are happy to get a decent timetable, a microphone that works, and for the software that tapes your lecture to turn on at the right time. If two out of three of these work out, you are happy. If you get tutorial sizes under 30, even better. To get other things, you may as well ask a brick wall first.

Here’s a true example and is typical: I wanted a program called Captivate for teaching (it’s great as it captures screens and makes them into videos you can annotate — it’s vastly better for teaching things like statistics and students love it). It really makes teaching some things much better, it is a program on my universities “recommended tools list”, and it is on the recommended list given to us by our educational development people (who usually tell us useless things about “learning spaces” and other such things we’ll never get to use). However, when I went to get it, I found out the university didn’t actually supply it, and I would need to apply for special funds to get it or buy it myself (about $50). After asking for it 4 years in a row, I finally got it, and now my faculty has 3 copies of it (obviously the other 50 people won’t want it..). I guess we’ll have to wait another decade before they give it to everyone (that’s serious).

Now when you’re talking in the meeting about some grandious ideas, just think, it takes 14 years to get a software program that everyone that teaches in universities should have a copy of (let alone get people to use it). How long will a really good idea take? That’s why I’m cynical of these meetings.

11 years ago

I just thought I’d point out that “Michael Neilsen” is actually spelt “Michael Nielsen”.

Don Arthur
11 years ago

Teaching is only one of the things universities do. I get the impression that ambitious academics want to make sure it doesn’t consume so much time and effort that they can’t do the really rewarding stuff — doing research and building up an impressive record of publications.

I wonder whether undergrads would learn more if their teachers had more expertise in teaching and more incentive to prioritise it. Most lecturers and tutors have less training in teaching methods than primary school teachers.

Whenever I raise this, some academic pops up and says that university students are grown ups and it’s their responsibility to learn not the lecturer’s responsibility to teach them. But is it any different for school students? Students always do the learning. The question is how teachers can help and motivate them. Obviously what’s appropriate for 13 year olds isn’t always appropriate for 20 or 40 year olds.

So we’re not talking about giving out detention for missing homework, we’re talking about evidence-based teaching methods.

Does anyone know what the research says about effective university teaching? Can you get better results by using Web 2.0 tools?

11 years ago

“I wonder whether undergrads would learn more if their teachers had more expertise in teaching and more incentive to prioritise it. Most lecturers and tutors have less training in teaching methods than primary school teach”

Don, have you ever done one of those teaching courses? After you’ve done one, the answer to why this is not a good idea is obvious. A far better method would be to have new teachers paired with someone known to do a very good job in the same area. That way people wouldn’t be subjected to general blah blah blah but actually get help in their particular area with the type of resources that are available to them in the conditions they occur. This is far more useful than:”Advanced theories of learning and pedagogical practices in the classroom” or the even worse “Internationalisation of the curriculum and cross-cultural issues”. Of course no-one will do this because there would be workload problems. I’m lucky enough to work with a guy this like, and it’s 100 times more useful than any 12 week course I could snooze through (or 10 week course at Deakin..).

It seems to me there are four real problems:
1) There’s no lack of good ideas, but they almost never make it to fruition because the people that control the money are different to those that think about good teaching (or teaching at all).
2) Higher level management responsible for teaching is always massively disconnected from where the good ideas actually are, and they often appear to know very little about teaching, instead preferring to run crappy projects of their own to justify their existence.
3) The excessive use of happiness surveys leads to perverse outcomes.
4) There’s simply a lack of money to run things. This is why people don’t run proper labs much anymore in subjects that need them — it’s too expensive. It’s also why you have tutorials with far too many people.

“Most lecturers and tutors have less training in teaching methods than primary school teachers”

Being someone interested in some aspects of child development and learning, my belief is that primary school teachers need to know vastly more in terms of teaching than high school or university teachers. The fact that people think they don’t and the fact they often don’t is one of the reasons for the left end of the distribution.


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11 years ago

Oracle University

* Course material available online
* High value certification
* Work at own pace
* Strong links to industry
* Flexible course structure

john walker
john walker
11 years ago

Worry about updating curricular, if anything there has been too much updating; ‘making it relevant to young people’. The cannon is important.

S J Gould, in a essay called ‘On Sweetness and Light’, on the themes of Swifts “The Battle of the Books”, the Canon vs New Knowledge and meditating on the effects of changes then happening in education.
Had these concluding observations:
“I am worried that people with an inadequate knowledge of the history and literature of their culture will ultimately become entirely self-referential, like science fiction’s most telling symbol, the happy fool who lives in the one dimensional world of pointland, and thinks he knows everything because he forms his entire universe.”
He continued:
“I can’t do much with a student that doesn’t know multivariate statistics and the logic of natural selection; but I cannot make a good scientist – though I can forge an adequate technocrat – from a person who never reads beyond the professional journals of his own field”

Don Arthur
11 years ago

It seems so obvious that lectures should be both taped and lavished with some serious resources…

When I was an undergrad I used to complain to other students that lectures weren’t all that useful. I’d argue that if the material was really important then it should be written down so I didn’t have to rely on my own notes (which were close to illegible).

I wanted more tutorials where I could test my understanding in conversation with a tutor. And I loved it when one lecturer got us to post short written pieces online and comment on what others had written.

But other students would say no, the lectures were the most useful part. Maybe it’s because some students find it easier to listen than to read. Or maybe it’s because the lecture forces them to pace their learning (with taped lectures or notes you can leave it all to the last week). I don’t know why some students like face to face lectures so much.

Personally I find it difficult to take in large amounts of information through my ears. I need to see it written down. I tend to use audio and video for entertainment and written material (with graphs etc) for serious work.

11 years ago

A few ideas for what they are worth.

There is a simple reason why change in teaching is so slow. The reason was repeatedly hammered into us when I did my secondary dip ed in the 80s. Unless you try very hard to change your teaching, you will teach as you were taught. I suspect that universities (confession: my only modern experience of university is via some wonderful podcasts) are not so very much different from high schools – still chalk and talk, if using slightly more resources and modern technologies. Change is hard.

I remain to be convinced that good university teaching works on fundamentally different principles from good school teaching.

My suggested source (which is based admittedly on anecdotal evidence) is to look at how primary school education has been revolutionised over the last generation. My 5 year old daughter “loves” school. So do all my nieces and nephews. None of my generation would ever have said that about school. Modern primary teaching methodology is a world away from practices 30 to 40 years ago – how was that change made?? We learn much more when we enjoy the teaching.

As others have noted, change is happening, if organically – there is SUCH a rich resource available on the web:
– an engineering student with a good grasp of some philosophy – now that is real change!

11 years ago

“When I was an undergrad I used to complain to other students that lectures weren’t all that useful.”

Speaking of educational theory, the obvious reason they are far less useful than they could be is because universities insist on 2 hour lectures in Aus (and students seem to like to stack their tutorials next to them, just to make it worse). This is of course far too long — most people simply can’t keep their attention focused for that long and this is well known (you can do the experiment yourself if you have the little clickers for instant feedback and you have a lecture you can split into two independent halves easily that you have to give twice). If you look at MIT courseware, and other places where teaching is more important than things like timetabling, you’ll notice their notes are almost always done for 1 hour lectures.

“And I loved it when one lecturer got us to post short written pieces online and comment on what others had written.”

I doubt you could do that these days due to ethical issues. I certainly wouldn’t.

Don Arthur
11 years ago

Conrad – Yes, I was astonished when I discovered the two hour lecture. What made it worse was I had to give it … and then run a one hour tutorial afterward.

On lectures – I don’t understand how students can learn without interacting with their teachers. If there’s no interaction they might as well be reading a book or watching a video (as I think Nicholas is suggesting).

11 years ago

NG: “I find it pretty amazing that you can get through an advanced maths course in high school as my daughter is doing without bumping into something as useful as multiple regression. ”

I imagine the practical problem here is finding people to teach it. You’d also need to teach probability, set theory, and univariate statistics too (some of which is done now). If you could do all that, and still have students doing it, I think it would probably be a great sequence, although you’d need suggest what to replace because of it (trig is not bad at lower levels incidentally, because it encourages spatial thinking and students also need to learn to use different co-ordinate systems).

Quote:”In my experience people who do use text books are putting out a shingle that says – I don’t really understand any of this and so will tell you what some-one else said.”

The obvious reason people do it is that that is what students what. I sometimes think that if you could lip-sinc the book, students would think it is great. I’d personally love to give lectures made of, for example, classic papers, but I know most students wouldn’t read them (they’re over 5 pages), they’d complain about it, and they’d want nice power point slides to remember for the exam. This is no better than using the book and setting short articles for them to read. To me the best you can do is put in interesting readings in your lectures that they don’t have to read and hope that at least some of them will look into things based on interest. Smaller subjects that are not based around lectures work much better in this respect (they’re also the ones most likely to get killed off due to funding problems, as the Melbourne Model taught everyone).

DA: “I don’t understand how students can learn without interacting with their teachers.”

I reckon that these days at least 80% of what students learn is from doing their assignments, and I think if you set these well, students will be forced to interact with each other as well as their tutors (although god knows how you do this with OUA). I think the most serious decline in what students learn now is because people keep on setting easier and easier assignments to (a) get around time problems due to the number of weeks in semesters getting shorter and shorter; and (b) get around student complaints and low student evaluations because of it. On the CEQ, for example (which is basically what many places use for subject evaluations), there are questions which essentially force you to specify everything perfectly (“The staff made it clear right from the start what they expected from students”; “It has often been hard to discover what is expected of me in this degree course”; “It is always easy to know the standard of work expected”), and so if you set assignments that allow open-ended stuff, which apriori are not specified like a dot-to-dot puzzle, you end up getting slammed for it by students that have been taught to memorize everything and do nothing else in high school. Not surpisingly, people get more adverse to trying this and so you end with no opened ended thought going on, which is where a lot of the learning occurs. It’s so bad where I work (which I assume isn’t atypical, although is vastly different to where I worked in HK) that if I use an assignment where they have to draw a graph or make a table, and don’t write a paragraph telling students why I am not drawing the table for them to put the numbers into or showing them exactly how to draw the graph, it will cause innumerable compaints.

john walker
john walker
11 years ago


I have not taught for more than a decade, but when I did , getting students to read anything at all was an achievement- am wary of adding more and more ( no doubt worthy) things to a already over crowded curriculum. Given the governments problems implementing fairly simple things like putting pink bats in roofs, No thanks, to any grand schemes of rewriting whole slabs of whole subject areas ; Nearly all grand schemes are very bad schemes. There is a lot to be said for honey and wax.

In the area of visual art , when I did teach, I was often struck by the fact that students that had theoretically done 6 years of Art at high school had no knowledge of the western tradition at all ; did not know about Degas or Delacroix and so on. And equally they had no knowledge of the Chinese tradition either. All they had was a grab bag of disconnected tricks and last years magazines.
As a consequence they had little capacity for originality; As Hofstadter rightly said, all originality is variations on a theme. Error prone copying combined with survival of the fittest (as well as the odd meteorite) is the basis of all evolution .

As for ‘coding computers’; Complex recursive systems of representation/isomorphism are not all that new,they are a bit older than silicon chips. The Representation of ‘Representation’ is a pretty old puzzle .

john walker
john walker
11 years ago

Agree – doing a bit of amateur programing in my thirty’s helped me to a much better understanding of language, it would certainly help understanding of syntax/grammar -particularly in the way it is a ‘ hands on ‘,’boy friendly /mechanic’ way of approach .

Experience in the arts makes us very wary of allowing any of the gov funded fields arts academics anymore freedom to fiddle with ‘lopping’ curriculum’s.

Have you heard of an OZCO funded bit of awfulness called “Visuacy”?
Take over by redefinition of art and art education has been the MOD of the sector ever since the 70s.

john walker
john walker
11 years ago

From the summing up parts of the Australia Councils Visuacy report (pages 209-10)

“In re-conceptualising the curriculum, it is thus critical both to build visuacy its own right as a curriculum fundamental and, in addition, to develop ways in which itsintegral partnership with literacy and numeracy can be maximised.

This will necessitate de-mystification of visual education as an élite area accessible only to aficionados and those with exceptional artistic talent. Such nineteenth century attitudes are undemocratic and discriminatory; in short, they constitute a barrier to change that must be eliminated.” [nice]

It then goes on to state that these attitudes/training in the teaching of art that favore aficionados and those with exceptional artistic talent, should be replaced by:

“The fundamental skills of visuacy – creating, processing, critiquing – must be acquired from appropriately qualified teachers in the discipline context of visual education”

Richard Tsukamasa Green

I remember reading something from Karl Kruszelnicki in the 1990s where he remarked that a student could get through high school knowing at least a little about scientific advances made in the past generation or two in most disciplines (such as the Big Bang Theory, or going back further the structure of DNA) but only the most dedicated mathematics students would learn enough calculus to put them at the cutting edge circa 1750. Remembering this I was quite stoked when I recently realised that the most recent mathematics I knew to a usable level (The White test for heteroskedasticity) was a mere 30 years ago. Statistics is essentially the only recent maths that is teachable at a school level.
Laptops might actually make teaching regression in school practical, if there were the teachers to teach it (especially given the money finance is willing to throw at anyone with a grasp of statistics).

In terms of timetabling, in my third year of uni I had an awful Wednesday where I had a three hour Mandarin class, a two hour Money and Finance lecture and an hour tutorial, a micro tute, then a two hour Macro lecture followed by an hour tute. There was also a Micro lecture I was missing because of the Mandarin. There were no other options for any of these (the lecturers liked to stack tutes next to lectures more than the students). Unsurprisingly the meat in the sandwich suffered and I struggled greatly with the Money and Finance – in fact only the money part stuck, all the finance I later relearned with Robert Schiller’s course that Yale had put online for free. If the Micro lecturer hadn’t been in the habit of writing out his lectures in full so I could read them, I would have suffered there as well (in the event it was that course that led to my honours work).


[…] have certainly sparked my interest in the topic again. It started with Nicholas Gruen’s brief reflections on why Web 2.0 has not revolutionised education, why it should and how it could. In response, Ken […]