The once and future university

Mike Caulfield points to this video which, he says, “does a nice job of showing what a museum a university education has become.” The large lecture hall shown in that video certainly reinforces the point. Seeing it reminds me of a telling episode this past April. I was writing about Darwin and I recalled something I’d heard in a biology lecture I’d heard the previous spring on one of the Berkeley podcasts.

I went back to the site and wound up referring to the current year’s version of that lecture in video form. As I scrubbed back and forth on the timeline looking for the part I remembered, my daughter — who was then between high school and college — watched over my shoulder. Eventually she said: “So, the students just sit there?”

That was the first of three revelations. The second was my realization that I’d certainly absorbed those lectures more fully on a series of bike rides, breathing fresh air and soaking up sunshine, than had the students sitting in the lecture hall.

The third revelation came when I found the part I was looking for, and realized that it wasn’t as good as last year’s version, which had been overwritten by the current version.

I love university life. I’d give anything to have had the tools we have today — for recording, research, communication, and collaboration — back when I was in school. If I had a year off, I’d want to spend a chunk of it in an academic environment, experiencing it in ways that were never before possible. I’d use the same strategy I apply to tech conferences: absorb most of the packaged content out of band, and seek to maximize high-value personal interaction. My guess is that as more students begin to expect that — and as parents, who can now peer into the institution as never before, and actually see what they’re paying for, also begin to expect it — universities will adapt.

The most inspirational story I’ve read about college lately is this New York Times magazine article about Olin College, a clean-slate redesign of an engineering school:

The result is a school with no academic departments or tenure, and one that emphasizes entrepreneurship and humanities as well as technical education. Its method of instruction has more in common with a liberal arts college, where the focus is on learning how to learn, than with a standard engineering curriculum. “How can you possibly provide everything they need in their knapsack of education to sustain them in their 40-year career?” [president Richard K.] Miller asked. “I think those days are over. Learning the skill of how to learn is more important than trying to fill every possible cup of knowledge in every possible discipline.”

Also notable in that issue was this Rick Perlstein essay about how college, as a discrete experience outside the flow of normal life, is coming to an end:

To me, to Doug Mitchell, to just about anyone over 30, going to college represented a break, sometimes a radical one and our immediate postcollege lives represented a radical break with college. Some of us ended up coming back to the neighborhood partly for that very fact: nostalgia for four years unlike any we had experienced or would experience again. Not for these kids.

Hamilton Morris, with his hip, creative parents, is an extreme case of a common phenomenon: college without the generation gap. (As I write this at a coffee shop near campus, a kid picks up her cellphone — “Hi, Dad!” — and chats amiably for 15 minutes. “When we went to college,” a dean of students who was a freshman in 1971 tells me, “you called on Sunday — the obligatory 30-second phone call on the dorm phone — and you hoped not to hear from them for the rest of the week.”)

Morris is an exaggeration too of another banal new reality. You used to have to go to college to discover your first independent film, read your first forbidden book, find freaks like yourself who shared, say, a passion for Lenny Bruce. Now for even the most provincial students, the Internet, a radically more democratic and diverse culture — and those hip baby-boomer parents — take care of the problem.

A good thing? A bad thing? Probably both. It was a great essay.

PS: I almost couldn’t find that Rick Perlstein essay. It bugs me when magazines work so hard to put together a thematic issue, like that NY Times Magazine college issue, and then scatter the stories online. You guys worked hard on that issue! It has thematic integrity! Why not publish the table of contents and link each article to it?Here was the search strategy I had to employ:

  1. Find the Olin article
  2. Note the date: September 30 2007
  3. Search the Times archive for September 30 2007
  4. Restrict that search to the magazine section
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24 thoughts on “The once and future university

  1. “I think all the Berkeley webcasts have archives from previous semesters.”

    Sure enough, thanks for pointing that out. That suggests a new possibility: assemble a course from the best versions of each lecture!

    “Berkeley as “Berkely” same as I did”

    Yep, and I knew that too, thanks.

    So my daughter’s comment on seeing that video was: Those kids should spend less time on Facebook and get themselves in gear.

  2. Now what I’d like to see is a graph comparing chalkboard adoption in the late 1800s with adoption of say RSS or blogging now.

    How much to bet adoption is *slower*?

  3. Oops — here we go, invented in 1801, reached saturation (most schools had one, even in one room schoolhouses) by 1850s:

    Of course, it’s not really fair — a chalkboard isn’t much of a paradigm shift. But a couple decades into the network revolution and more than a half century after the dawn of the information age it’s still interesting to ask what exactly we have to do to get people to rethink all those seats facing the front of the room.

  4. I saw that video on (one of my favorite blogs) and my reaction was that most students who choose large research universities don’t do enough research before going to college.

    I am student at Pomona College, a small liberal arts school in California. It is everything I was hoping college would be…and more. None of my classes have more than 35 students, and most contain little lecture (and much discussion). It also has a large endowment and can therefore supply scholarships to those in need (never as much as you want, but enough).

    There are plenty of small liberal arts schools in the US that provide personal support, discussion-based classes, and the opportunity for “a discrete experience outside the flow of normal life.” Small, residential schools are the way to go if a student truly wants that experience.

    My friend, though, wanted to stay in Chicago and goes to a large research university in the city, while living at home. This lifestyle is there for those who want it. If post-high schoolers did more research on where they were headed before getting there, they would know all of the facts that the video highlights.

    I also took a year off after high school and went to Israel, which was a great decision. American students should go the way of the traditional British “gap year” – it’s been great for my personal growth and ability to be away from what I’m used to.

  5. I’m still always amazed that I managed to get through university without a prof mentioning anything about scripting or regular expressions.

    I’m glad I learned how to write my own linked list and string class, but you come to the realization pretty rapidly that if you ever find yourself writing your own string/generic container class then you made the wrong choice in development languages.

    I understand that university is a foundation, but if I hadn’t found some good mentors afterwards then I’d be totally useless.

    Well, more useless. :)

  6. Well, arguably university has always been about access to social networks first and foremost, in that it gives students opportunities to do stuff in ‘learning communities’ which might or might not have a relationship to the formal, taught curriculum. Or, as Bourdieu would put it, elite institutions give students access to a certain kind of cultural capital which stays with them for life. You’re right though about the anachronism of the ‘lecture’ as a format for teaching – unless it can be archived, backed up, and networked as it goes (for instance with students being able to go online and follow up key points during the lecture ‘performance’) – I seriously wonder about its usefulness as a pedagogic form.

  7. I loved going to school. I’d have been a professional student if having to pay bills didn’t get in the way.

    Today I use my MP3 player for 90% lecture/interview style podcasts. My kids are hear all kinds of subjects while traveling in the car with me. I’m sure they’d rather just have music.

    House painting, raking, walking to work, shoveling are all activities that used to be mostly waisted time in my book. Now I am able to put the time to extra good use.

  8. Jon, my observation is that you are a very engaged learner and seek things out. My experience as a prof is that you have to create the compelling case for students to learn and focus their attention on you. Many times, students are being pulled in multiple directions by things like needing to earn a living, raise a family, or attending to myriad other issues.

    Well, the answer I have found is engaging them in the classroom (physical setting) and forcing them to engage, putting something of themselves on the line. That usually involves getting them to present themselves at least once a week.

    I tend to agree with your view that taking the stock parts of the course and choosing best of breed prepared materials (last year’s lecture to use your example) is important so you can focus on the real value-added parts.

  9. I’m still learning through you, while I’m bettering myself personally. I definitely love reading all that is published on your internet site.Continue the recommendations coming. I really like it

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