Universities are ill-equipped to meet the burgeoning demand for lifelong education, one of their new-generation competitors has claimed.
Speaking at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit in Singapore, Ben Nelson, founder of for-profit higher education provider Minerva, cited computer science academics as an example of universities’ unsuitability to deliver continuing education.
“University professors do their PhD when computer science language x is prevalent. They do their early postdoc when y is prevalent, and z,” Mr Nelson said. “By the time they’re designing a curriculum, doing a syllabus, approving it and delivering it, those computer science languages are oftentimes ancient history.”
He claimed that the void was being filled by coding boot camps. “Hundreds, if not thousands, of alternative education providers are stepping into that world because they design education programmes with content that is responsive to what the market wants,” he said.
“They’re much better positioned to respond to market needs. If universities want to compete with that, they have to adopt those types of approaches.”
Mr Nelson predicted that traditional institutions would come under pressure because of the demand for new types of course content. Employability was now “overwhelmingly” the motivator of young university students, he said.
“If you think that going to a university for four years and paying a quarter of a million dollars is the right path to a job, you’re crazy. That’s not why you should go to university. You should go to university for how it tools you for the rest of your life,” he said.
“The fact is that some of these continuing education providers are coming to the 18-year-old and saying: pay us a tenth as much as you pay a university, give us 20 per cent of the time you would give a university, and we’ll give you a higher-paying job at the end. And they’re right.”
Fellow panellist Sarah Springman, rector of ETH Zurich, disputed Mr Nelson’s analysis. She said that some of her computer science professors were working at the “forefront” of research by helping to develop an emerging internet protocol called Scion.
“Those guys are teaching on our cybersecurity courses,” she said, adding that ETH had recently launched a sabbatical-based programme that allows people to undertake quick certificates. “They come, say, for two months. They choose what they want to do. They select what it is they need to learn.
“We have something we call a ‘qualification profile’ [which outlines] what people need to know at the end. They plan the content all the way through. It’s not about the packaging; it’s about what’s in it.”
Professor Springman said that universities were applying similar flexibility to their teaching. She cited ETH’s recently introduced Key Innovation in Teaching Excellence award, or Kite, which had inspired staff to conjure up dozens of fresh, evidence-based teaching approaches.
“It means there is a research core to what they’re teaching. Each time you refresh [your] ideas and use your learning development group to help with your didactics, it’s much more fun.”
But Mr Nelson scoffed at the idea of evidence-based teaching in universities, pointing to renowned Harvard educator Eric Mazur as an example of universities’ failure to “listen to the research”.
He said that Professor Mazur’s “seminal” research into active learning had shown that its benefits, compared with passive learning techniques, outweighed the advantages of penicillin over sugar pills. “That research was done at Harvard more than two decades ago. How did Harvard respond? By thanking him very much,” Mr Nelson said.
“There has been no change in the way almost any university delivers its courses. They’re still overwhelmingly passive. Even seminars are often delivered in passive ways.”