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The Khan Academy and undergraduate education

I’ve been struck today by this story on the BBC pages, which pulls together things I have been writing on the blog since I started and which has interesting implications for undergraduate education.

The Khan Academy is superb. It is close to covering universally the entire syllabi of the world’s schools. It cannot be long before Khan and his team take on undergraduate education: Calculus 101, Biochemistry 101, the great texts of English literature etc. (UPDATE, 26 November – not sure if this is since I last looked but pretty much the whole of year 1 calculus and linear algebra is already on Khan’s pages now.) Undergraduate History is growing. No Psychology yet but that can’t be far away. The arrival of all taught courses of the first years of undergraduate studies available on the web through the Academy site is visible in 1-2 years.

Why, then, would you pay £9,000 per year to learn something which you could learn elsewhere with a little bit of organising and for virtually no cost?

There are other interesting learning initiatives outside of universities. I heard recently of a venture by an SME to provide accelerated learning in programming, software engineering and web-design, at a cost, but with the guarantee of paid work afterwards. A kind of high-end, white-collar apprenticeship for a fraction of the cost and time of a university degree. Such ventures will surely be attractive to bright students concerned about employment prospects.

One way (though clearly not a very exciting way) that universities can respond to these challenges is to say that university degrees give a kind of accreditation that it is impossible to get from other courses. They can say that their exams give employers a guarantee that applicants really know what they say they know: in engineering, linguistics, biotechnology and so on. The universities are trusted ‘brands’ from which employers are happy to take graduates.

But employers are getting smarter too. They have increasingly sophisticated and lengthy recruitment procedures which are able to detect and analyse the hard and soft skills of job applicants. How long before a forward-looking HR department blows the situation open and says: ‘Let’s recruit from an accelerated apprenticeship or an alternative university, or even from the ‘home-schooled’ undergraduate; let’s challenge the established idea that Russell Group universities provide the best employees, and let’s test this with our new recruitment procedures’. Even providing credentials, then, is not a safe bet for universities in the mid  to long term.

Universities must respond to these initiative and lead again in their own way. What we have is superb people (both teachers and students), top laboratories, some decent infrastructure and many of the most important leading ideas across wide areas of knowledge and practice. Many of these leading ideas involve interdisciplinary combinations. We are ahead of the game here. It will be some time yet before alternative sources are able to offer the level of courses we can in Cities, Data Visualisation, Epidemiology, Materials Science and all the other exciting interdisciplinary stuff that top universities like UCL are leading on. But we need to teach these things to students in a way which is engaging, personal, relevant and – frankly – exciting.

I seriously question whether we best serve students by cramming 300-400 of them into large lecture halls. And running traditional tutorial groups afterwards.

The first step is not to fetishise lecture-attendance, but to make all the content one can get from lectures readily available to students, both in video/audio and as text. This material may leak out of the university, but we should take the risk that that won’t matter (see below). The next step is for universities to provide much more in the way of nimble mobile tutorial groups, social clusters for learning, drill classes for technical problem-solving in maths and science and for language exercises, small, regular classes for technique building, structured and motivated peer-learning, schemes to use the wider resources of field trips and urban environments and so on. The Estate needs to change to facilitate this and I am glad to see that the UCL masterplan is conscious of this. These settings are what provide meaningful contact time for students, and staff should be encouraged to engage in all such settings.

In terms of assessment, we could also be more up front right from the beginning about where we are going, and return frequently to what we require in our assessments, so that this is targeted regularly in what students are learning. Many lecturers are, of course, already doing this. But it is an area we need constantly to be aware of. This requires us to think carefully and innovatively about what we are assessing and why, but that is also a good thing for us.

The economics of this approach is no doubt a challenge. There is a risk that by being too open we lose teaching and learning material which can then be used for free. There is also some tricky costing to be done with respect to just how often staff can engage with, say, groups of 20 students in an open, mobile learning space, without busting the bottom line. In some ways, however, this is no different to the economic challenges faced by many new enterprises in the  in social enterprise world, where the chief proponents start with the motive of sharing or adding social value, but end up making things meet, or doing considerably better.

This is a risk that universities take in adopting this more flexible and contemporary approach, but it is the way the more innovative aspects of the business world are going and universities should take a lead here in education. We should trust that at universities we can still do learning and teaching best and take it from there.

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