Rethink higher education to exploit digital platforms

David Roberts and Blaine Greteman’s guide to a more universal university

Graduation at Cloud U would cease to exist, erasing the hard line that divides those in college from those who have left

More than 2,000 years ago in The Clouds, Aristophanes complained that universities, or “Thinkeries”, left students heavily indebted and without practical skills. As plentiful studies in the US and elsewhere suggest, not much has changed. The disconnect between what goes into higher education and what many get out of it has led to experiments such as Coursera and Udacity, vaunted Silicon Valley start-ups that promise to educate hundreds of millions of students for free via massive open online courses. Even the most innovative Mooc platforms, however, typically remain conservative: they take an existing university model and stream it online. Thus, despite all the hype, the most representative development may be the recent announcement that major universities in nine US states will join Coursera “to see how well they can use its software to offer traditional for-credit online classes”.

Cue freak-outs by tenured faculty on the one hand and celebrations by arrogant tech visionaries on the other. But are both sides wrong? Digital platforms certainly make possible higher education that will re-engage students and teach them critical thinking – but only if we move away from the unidirectional model that persists even in well-run lecture classrooms and Moocs, and abandon traditional notions of classes, evaluation, even graduation. We could do this in a way that avoids the pitfalls of the Thinkery. Let’s call it “Cloud U”.

Cloud U students could define their own educational paths, deciding what and how they want to learn by purchasing individual courses via an iTunes-like portal, with formats ranging from large, multilayered affairs with online lectures, interactive tutorials and chat sessions to microclasses that would quickly teach very specific skills. Cloud U’s flexibility would also encourage teachers to experiment, tearing down the wall between teaching and research, making students co-creators of knowledge (à la Wikipedia) and opening up teaching opportunities beyond the traditional academic elite.

Assessment would focus on true competency in the subject rather than counting “seat time” (following the example of Finland’s outstanding secondary schools). Cloud U evaluation would comprise portfolios of student work and assessments by external evaluators, peers and instructors, aggregated in an easily searchable format – much like the film reviews presented on the Rotten Tomatoes website. This record would be continuously updated, available as an online profile and linked into social and professional networking sites.

This would help employers identify top candidates, while those seeking career changes could readily target specific gaps in their knowledge base. In effect, the concept of graduation at Cloud U would cease to exist, erasing the hard line that divides those in college from those who have left.

Just as customers take questions about their iPhones to the Genius Bar at an Apple store, some students would find it useful to visit Cloud U physically. Decentralised “education villages” would cater to its international student body, building more traditional social networks to complement those established virtually and cultivating skills that are hard to develop online. Younger students and the most advanced may prefer living closer to these campuses for more face-to-face mentoring, tuition and guidance; freed from delivering information through lectures, professors could discuss and collaborate with them, as well as offer a robust system of local support and counselling to guide them towards their goals. But for the vast majority of students during most of their lifelong education, learning would move with them.

No doubt Cloud U has drawbacks we haven’t foreseen – as Aristophanes knew, this is the problem with Thinkeries old and new. But reorienting higher education so that many students pay a little to acquire skills, rather than a chosen few paying a lot for uncertain results, might help to bring educational costs down to earth while making university a little more universal.

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