Tapscott, D. and Williams, A. (2010) Innovating the 21st century university: It’s Time Educause Review, Vol. 45, No. 1
First of all, thanks to both Burkhard Lehmann and Clayton Wright for directing me to this article. I had however seen it myself a couple of weeks ago, and have hesitated to respond to it, for reasons that I set out below.
In their article, Tapscott and Williams touch on several themes that I (and many others) have been advocating, such as the need for universities to move from a lecture-based system to a more constructivist approach, to re-design courses around open content, and to move to what the authors call collaborative knowledge construction.
However, maybe because I have been saying these things for so long, the article really pissed me off, and I’ve been trying to work out why. I think the first reason is that Tapscott and Williams write as if they have discovered something that has in fact been known by many people for some time. Yes, we know the current system is under stress, yes, many people like myself believe the system must change, and yes, the Internet does change everything. Yes, we should be moving to more constructivist teaching and collaborative learning and using the Internet and web 2.0.
The interesting question is not what universities should be doing, but why it isn’t happening. The Tapscott and Williams analysis of this is trite, to say the least:
“It’s the legacy of established human and educational infrastructure,” says Proenza. The analogy is not the newspaper business, which has been weakened by the distribution of knowledge on the Internet, he notes. “We’re more like health care. We’re challenged by obstructive, non-market-based business models. We’re also burdened by a sense that doctor knows best, or professor knows best.”
I’m sorry but it is more complicated than that. We have seen a major enlargement of the higher education system, but basically we have not increased the number of tenured professors or even adjunct instructors to maintain the elite system of teacher:student ratios of 1:20, except in the most expensive Ivy League institutions. Using lectures and increasing the number of students per lecture is an exceedingly cost-efficient way of dealing with larger numbers with less resources. The extra student added gets exactly the same education as all the others, at no extra cost. (Note that I said cost-efficient, not cost-effective.) Also the investment in technology has actually taken away resources that could have been spent on teaching.
The basic problem is that you cannot use constructivist learning approaches with classes of 100 students or more. I know, I’ve tried. No matter how much you divide the students into self-managing groups, it becomes an impossible task for the instructor to manage, and the quality suffers.
Also, Tapscott and Williams write about the ‘new’ constructivist way of teaching. I’m sorry, but this is not new. It’s been around for over 100 years and has been used in elite universities from the middle of the 19th century. (It was called in Oxford and Cambridge the tutorial method). Why universities don’t use it now is not because they don’t understand the technology of the Internet but because it doesn’t work well with very large numbers.
And this brings me to my next point. Academic knowledge is not the same as everyday knowledge. It is as Diana Laurillard puts it, a rhetorical activity, which requires movement between the concrete to the abstract and back again, and a constant questioning of what we know. Just putting students into social networks will not automatically lead to the development of academic knowledge. It needs mediation from a highly skilled and knowledgeable teacher. This takes time and requires manageable numbers of students.
Lastly, the suggestion that the privatization of the universities or ‘market forces’ are needed to bring about change also misses the point. The large research universities have no need to change. As Tapscott and Williams themselves acknowledge:
College and university attendance is at an all-time high. The number of students enrolling in degree-granting institutions rose more than 118 percent from 1969-70 to 2005-6, while the percentage of 25- to 29-year-old Americans with a college degree rose from 16.4 to 28.4 in this same time. The competition to get into the greatest universities has never been fiercer.
There is an important role for private, for-profit universities, but this is at the margin, because there are aspects of higher education that will be lost by institutions operating purely for profit. In particular the pursuit of new knowledge is costly and a return on investment approach based on short-term gains will not benefit society over the long run. We need both public and for-profit institutions, but their co-existence of itself will not cause the large publicly funded research universities to change. Indeed, there are aspects of public universities that I don’t want to change, such as autonomy, allowing them to freely criticise government and business as appropriate, and their pursuit of new knowledge. I fear Tapscott and Williams’ solution (at least as they have expressed it) would throw the baby out with the bathwater.
What we need to look at is what forces or pressures could make the large, publicly funded research universities change, and it’s not going to be the threat of Facebook. We need to look in particular at how best to use the limited teaching time of top research professors. They need, as I have argued before, to work smarter, not harder. So, yes, I agree with Tapscott and Williams that having top professors lecturing – on a regular basis – is not the best use of their time. Using open content can help. But if they are to spend more time online or in face-to-face in discussion with students, we will have to find ways to keep the students numbers down. Although technology can help, this is much more a funding, organizational and ‘vision’ problem. Also, we will not get tenured research professors to change if they have no training in educational methods and so-called ‘new’ pedagogy – but there is no requirement for this at the moment.
So , yes, thank you, Don and Anthony, for pointing out the obvious, but next time, could you please provide more helpful and constructive suggestions on how to solve the problem?