July 20, 2018

Woolf University: the Airbnb of higher education or a sheep in wolf’s clothing?

Broggi, J.D. et al. (2018) Building the first blockchain university, Oxford UK, April 3

You are going to hear a lot about Woolf University over the next year or so and possibly much longer. This is in some ways a highly innovative proposal for a new type of university, but in other ways, it is a terribly conservative proposal, an extension of the Platonic dialogue to modern times. It could only have come from Oxford University academics, with its mix of blue sky dreaming, the latest technological buzz, and regression to cloistered academe.

The proposal

As always, I am going to recommend that you read the original paper from cover to cover. It has a number of complex, radical proposals that each need careful consideration (the whitepaper would make an excellent topic for an Oxbridge tutorial).

I am not sure I completely understand the financial aspect of the blockchain tokens (but that probably puts me with 99.99999 per cent of the rest of the world). But the basic ideas behind the university are as follows:

  • Woolf University will issue blockchain-guaranteed ‘contracts’ between an individual professor and an individual student;
  • Woolf University will initially include only professors who have a post-graduate research degree from one of the 200 ‘top-ranked’ universities;
  • the core blockchain contract consists of an agreement to deliver a one hour, one-on-one tutorial, for which the student will directly pay the instructor (in real money, but tied to a blockchain token system which I don’t fully understand);
  • the tutorial can be delivered face-to-face, or over the Internet (presumably synchronously – Skype is suggested), but the maximum number of students per tutorial is set at two;
  • the contract (and payment) is initiated once the student ‘accepts’ the contract with a push of a button on their cell phone. If the tutor fails to deliver the tutorial, the student is automatically refunded (and offered another instructor). Instructors who miss a tutorial will be fined by the university in the form of a deduction from the next tutorial payment;
  • on successful completion of the tutorial (which will include a written essay or other assessable pieces of work from the student) the blockchain registers the grade against the student record;
  • once the student has accumulated enough ‘credits’ within an approved program they will be issued with a Woolf University degree;
  • a full student workload consists of two classes a week over 8 weeks in each of three semesters or a total of 144 meetings over three years for a degree;
  • annual tuition is expected to be in the order of $20,000 a year, excluding scholarships;
  • instructor payments will depend on the number and cost of tutorials, but at four a week would range from $38,000 to $43,000 per annum with fees in the range of $350-$400 per tutorial;
  • colleges of a minimum of 30 individual instructors can join Woolf University and issue their own qualifications, but each college’s qualification requirements must also meet Woolf University’s criteria. Colleges can set their own tutorial fee above a minimum of $150 an hour. Colleges’ instructors must meet the qualification requirements of Woolf University;
  • the first college, called Ambrose, will consist of 50 academics from Oxford University, and Woolf has invited academics from Cambridge University to set up another college;
  • Woolf University will be a not-for-profit institution. There will be a deduction of 0.035% of each financial transaction to build the Woolf Reserve to update and maintain the blockchain system. There will also be a student financial aid program for scholarships for qualified students;
  • Woolf University would be managed by a Faculty Council with voting rights on decision-making from every employed instructor;
  • Ambrose College will deduct 4% from each tuition fee for administrative overheads.

There are other proposals such as a language school, peer review, etc.

What’s to like?

This is clearly an effort to cut out the institutional middleman of university and institutional administration. Although the tutorial fees are close to the average of universities in the UK and the more elite state universities in the USA, students are getting a one-on-one learning experience from an instructor who is highly qualified (at least in terms of content).

I was fortunate to have a tutorial system when I was an undergraduate at the University of Sheffield at the UK, and it worked very well, although we had between two and four students at each tutorial, and only in the last two years of my bachelor’s degree. Such tutorials are excellent for developing critical thinking skills, because each statement you make as a student is likely to be challenged by the professor or one of the other students.

Woolf University has highly idealistic goals for democratic governance – by the faculty – and its main attraction is offering alternative and regular employment for the very large number of poorly paid but highly qualified adjunct professors who can’t get tenure at regular universities. However there is no suggestion of student representation in the governance process, and the use of faculty is demand driven – if no student wants your course, no money – which seems an even more precarious position than working as an adjunct.

Most of all, though, it is a serious attempt to provide an independent system of academic validation of qualifications through the use of blockchain which could lead to better standardization of degree qualifications.

What’s not to like?

Well, the first thing that jumps to my mind is conflict of interest. If faculty are already employed by a traditional university, Woolf will be a direct, and if successful, a very dangerous competitor. Will universities allow their best faculty to moonlight for a direct competitor? If instructors cannot get employment in a traditional university, will they be as well qualified as the instructors in the regular system? The corollary though is that Woolf may force universities to pay their adjunct faculty better, but that will increase costs for the existing universities.

Second, the tuition fees may be reasonable by the absurdly inflated cost of HE tuition fees in the UK, but these are double or triple the fees in Canada, and much higher than the fees in the rest of Europe.

Third, the tutorial is just one mode of teaching. The report recommends (but does not insist) that instructors should also provide recorded lectures, but there are now so many other ways for students to learn that it seems absurd to tie Woolf to just the one system Oxbridge dons are familiar with.  The proposal does not address the issue of STEM teaching or experiential learning. All the examples given are from Greek philosophy. Not all my tutorials were great – it really depended on the excellence of the professor as a teacher as well as a scholar and that varied significantly. (It is also clear from reading the report that the authors have no knowledge about best practices in online teaching, either). The whole proposal reeks of the worst kind of elitism in university teaching.

Will it succeed?

Quite possibly, if it can sell the substitute Oxbridge experience to students and if it can explain more clearly its business model and in particular how the blockchain currency will work with regard to the payment of instructors. What can make or break it is the extent to which traditional universities will go to protect their core faculty from being hijacked by Woolf. 

I’m somewhat baffled by the claims that this new business model will be much much more cost-effective than the current system. Academic salaries make up almost 70% of the cost of a traditional university so the savings on administration alone are a comparatively small proportion of the costs of higher education, and the proposed tuition fees are still very high. It seems to be more a solution for the problem of unemployed Ph.D.s than the problem of expanding more cost-effectively quality higher education to large numbers of students.

Nevertheless, it is a very interesting development. I am guessing that this will ultimately fail, because establishing its credentials as equivalent to the elite universities will be a hard sell, and costs to students will be too high, but much will be learned about the strengths and weaknesses of blockchain in higher education, resulting in a better/more sustainable higher education model developing in another way. It is definitely a development to be carefully tracked.


Pedagogical roles for audio in online learning

© InnerFidelity, 2012

‘Sounds, such as the noise of certain machinery, or the background hum of daily life, have an associative as well as a pure meaning, which can be used to evoke images or ideas relevant to the main substance of what is being taught. There are, in other words, instances where audio is essential for efficiently mediating certain kinds of information’

Durbridge, 1984

Audio: the unappreciated medium


In an earlier post I complained that video is not being used enough in online learning in post-secondary education, and when it is used, it is often poorly used. The same applies to audio – perhaps to a lesser extent in terms of amount of use (podcasting and audio clips are is now quite common) – but its full potential is still often unrealised.

Again, we can learn a lot from earlier research done on radio and audio-cassettes in the 1970s and 1980s at the Open University.

First, some advantages:

  • it’s much easier to make an audio clip or podcast than a video clip or a simulation
  • it requires far less bandwidth than video or simulations, hence downloads quicker and can be used over relatively low bandwidths
  • it is easily combined with other media such as text, mathematical symbols, and graphics, allowing more than one sense to be used and allowing for ‘integration’. For examples of what I mean take a look at the UK Open University’s OpenLearn site at: http://openlearn.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=398372&section=1.2
  • some students prefer to learn by listening compared with reading;
  • audio combined with text can help develop literacy skills or support students with low levels of literacy;
  • audio provides variety and another perspective from text, a ‘break’ in learning that refreshes the learner and maintains interest
  • Nicola Durbridge, in her research at the Open University, found that audio increased distance students’ feelings of personal ‘closeness’ with the instructor compared with video or text, i.e. it is a more intimate medium.

In particular, instructors can use Skype or the telephone to interview people or draw on OERs to collect information from ‘real life’ that illustrates or amplifies issues or concepts in the course.

There are also of course disadvantages of audio:

  • difficult for people with a hearing disability
  • extra work for an instructor
  • often requires supplementary media such as text or graphics thus adding complexity to the design of teaching
  • requires a minimal level of technical proficiency
  • spoken language tends to be less precise than text.


Pedagogical roles for audio


1.      To analyse or process detailed visual materials, such as mathematical equations, paintings, graphs, statistical tables, rock samples, maps, etc., by ‘talking’ students through the material: (Note: in many of the ‘videos’, the Khan Academy is really dynamic graphics plus audio used in exactly this way).

2.      To enable students through repetition and practice to master certain skills or techniques (e.g. language pronunciation, analysis of musical structure, mathematical computation)

3.      To present, analyze or critique complex arguments or discussion between two or more people (e.g. by the instructor ‘interrupting’ or stopping the discussion to draw attention to a particular concept or idea within the course, or to highlight an inconsistency in the argument)).

4.      To bring students primary audio resource material, either specially recorded or acquired from sound archives, for example:

(a)     recordings of naturally occurring events, e.g. political speeches, children talking, concerts or performances, eyewitness accounts

(b)     a selection of sources of audio evidence for students to analyze in terms of concepts taught in the course

5.      To bring students the knowledge or wisdom of eminent people or leading researchers, through interviews

6.      To record the voices of key stakeholders or ‘actors’ to represent or illustrate concepts and ideas to be discussed within a course

7.      To change student attitudes:

(a)     by presenting material in a novel or unfamiliar perspective

(b)     by presenting material in a dramatized form, enabling students to identify with someone with a different perspective

8.      To provide students with a condensed argument that may:

(a)     reinforce points made elsewhere in the course

(b)     introduce new points not made elsewhere in the course

(c)      provide an alternative viewpoint to the perspectives in the rest of the course

(d)     analyse or critique materials elsewhere in the course

(e)     summarize or condense the main ideas or major points covered in the course

(f)      provide new evidence in support of or against the arguments or perspectives covered elsewhere in the course

9.      To provide corrections to the course, or deal with parts of the course where student feedback indicates difficulties

10.     To relate the course to ‘breaking news’ that emphasizes the relevance or application of concepts within the course

11.      To up-date the course when the knowledge base changes, e.g. when new research is published, by going to the source for a brief summary.

12.      For language teaching, to develop listening and speaking skills


A challenge


As with the post on the pedagogical role of video, I would like provide links from each application to actual examples on the web.  So the challenge is:

Can you provide a link to an open educational resource that would be in your view an excellent example of any of the above applications of audio?

Again I am applying the same criteria for inclusion:

  • the example is well produced (appropriate educational use, good presenter, clear audio)
  • it is short and to the point
  • it demonstrates clearly a particular topic or subject and links it to what the student is intended to learn.

Once chosen, I will add the link with an acknowledgement to whoever provides me with the link. In the meantime, I will look for my own examples.

This list was developed initially from broadcast television.

How well do these functions apply to the use of audio on the Internet? 

Are there other educational applications of audio on the Internet that are not on this list?

Let’s hear it for audio!


References and further reading


Bates, A. (1985) Broadcasting in Education: An Evaluation London: Constables (out of print – try a good library)

Bates, A. (2005) Technology, e-Learning and Distance Education London/New York: Routledge

Durbridge, N. (1982) Audio-cassettes in Higher Education Milton Keynes: The Open University (mimeo)

Durbridge, N. (1984) Audio-cassettes, in Bates, A. (ed.) The Role of Technology in Distance Education London/New York: Croom Hill/St Martin’s Press

EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (2005) Seven things you should know about… podcasting Boulder CO: EDUCAUSE, June

Postlethwaite, S. N. (1969) The Audio-Tutorial Approach to Learning Minneapolis: Burgess Publishing Company

Salmon, G. and Edirisingha, P. (2008) Podcasting for Learning in Universities Milton Keynes: Open University Press

Wright, S. and Haines, R, (1981) Audio-tapes for Teaching Science Teaching at a Distance, Vol. 20 (Open University journal now out of print).

Note: Although some of the Open University publications are not available online, hard copies/pdf files should be available from: The Open University International Centre for Distance Learning, which is now part of the Open University Library.


Models for Selecting and Using Media and Technology: 7


This post is no. 7 in the series. The others are:

  1. The challenge,
  2. A (very) brief history of educational technology,
  3. Broadcast or communicative?
  4. Synchronous or asynchronous?
  5. Media or technology?
  6. Pedagogical roles for video in online learning


75 Free Language Learning Resources Online

This site from ZenCollegeLife lists 75 resources for learning languages online. I can’t guarantee the quality, though.