fredag 7 mars 2014

On the eroding status of the academy

I went to a panel debate this week and I imagined in advance that I would write a blog post about that debate. The topic of the panel doesn't really matter, but there were two very technical persons in the panel who worked with enameplay, AI and network games for the giant game company Blizzard (they're in Irvine). The event was well attended, upwards to 100 (undergraduate computer science) students were there as well as a sprinkling of professors. One of the student asked the Blizzard guys a question about what it takes to get a job at Blizzard and the answer was basically, "show me your code!". What he basically said was something to this effect:

"Ok, you love computer games and have a degree in computer science from UC Irvine. It's a good education, but you can get in line because there are a million guys like you. I want to see what you've done for real; show me a game you've worked on or a small game you've created yourself, or show me your contribution to an open source project, or a demo of yours!"

This clearly states something upfront that I have observed for quite some time and this blog post touches on two interconnected trends:

1) Students don't spend a lot of time/effort on their studies. From my perspective as a university teacher, they don't spend enough time/effort on their studies. There are a variety of studies showing that students spend significantly less than 40 hours/week on their studies (and with large differences between different academic disciplines) - but they oftentimes believe that they "study all the time".

2) When a significant proportion of each age cohort go to university, the competition between these students heats up for the "top jobs". To get a shot at the top jobs, it's not enough to have a university degree and good grades, you now also need other (relevant) experiences. The quote above is a good example of relevant experiences in one specific area (computer games), but there are also numerous engineering students who work at Media Markt as shop attendants selling smartphones or "worse" (i.e. side jobs that have no relation whatsoever to their education).

The importance of "other" (non-academic) experiences for landing a top job is well documented. My own students are oftentimes so busy with so many side projects, side interests and side jobs that they have (in my opinion) quite unreasonable demands on course scheduling and attendance. Let's say a lecture needs to be cancelled (for whatever reason) - some students will think it is unreasonable to have to go to the replacement lecture since they've signed up to work that day. The students are busy and have full agendas, they juggle many different projects and their (nominally "full time") studies is only on of many parallel projects - and sometimes (oftentimes?) not the one most highly prioritised project...

It is interesting to note that it would have been a lot more unreasonable some decades ago to demand that newly minted engineers should have a portfolio with "relevant experiences" before they had landed their first job. The practical experiences necessary to get the job done would to a much higher extent have been something you learn on the job. The employer would have to gamble some, but, since a much smaller proportion of each age cohort would have a university degree, they could still be pretty confident that they had landed someone from the top 5-10-20% of the age cohort in terms of relevant (for example analytical) abilities. Today, when "everyone" has a degree, it's much harder to hire a random person with a university degree and to know with some certainty that your catch measures up. The fact that "other" skills and experiences beyond grades are weighing heavier also means that a student with average (or lower) grades can present a very good story (narrative) about why he/she still is the right choice. Grades do not wield the same authority and aren't as functional as an instrument of selection or for ordering people any longer.

A lot more could be said about this situation but I will turn to one specific aspect of these developments and that is the erosion of prestige and status of the academy in an age of ubiquitous information. As little as one generation ago, before the Internet, information and knowledge was scarce (or at least a lot scarcer). If you wanted to learn something about something, you had to go to the one place where people in the known congregated - i.e. the university. Today you can learn many things by yourself with the help of the Internet (and perhaps a community of peers). You can learn how to program on the Internet and you can (as noted in the quote above) participate in many different kinds of projects long before you have a formal education and/or a job and a salary. The role of the academy as a gatekeeper of higher knowledge has decreased significantly and the prestige of the academy has also decreased and is continuing to erode. What do you need teachers for if everything is "out there"?

This is to some extent also the idea behind Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). You don't need teachers (at least not in their traditional roles and capacities). You only need to work with a select few teachers - the best - and package their knowledge into self-contained online courses for global distribution. The individual student won't get a lot of attention from the teacher in a course with 100.000 participants, but nifty software can create structures that incentivises you to lavish your attention on helping/supporting/tutoring/correcting your peers and for them to do the same to you.

What this will do to the "traditional academy" is unclear. It might be the topic of a future blog post - based not the least on numerous already-conducted coffee-table discussions with my colleagues Ambjörn N and Björn H. Let's just say that there are a lot of teachers and classrooms out there that might not be used in the same way or to the same extent in the future. I can also easily imagine a bifurcation with elite face-to-face universities for the select few (think Oxbridge) and online courses for the masses - because knowledgable, enthusiastic, caring teachers do make a difference! An increased reliance on the Internet as a distribution channel instead assumes that the personal attention of a teacher and the personal contact between a teacher and a student is something that can be done away with without losing too much. That might sound radical, but I would say that's the case already today with a teacher-to-student ratio that has decreased for decades as students have flooded to the universities. I have earlier noted that it's pretty hard for me as a university teacher to form personal relationships with my students ("Bridging the distance between me and my students") except when I'm their bachelor's or master's thesis advisor.

My perhaps unexpected conclusion is that the fact that people can learn by and for themselves (outside of the traditional academy) decreases the value of what happens in the academy. The social prestige of being a university teacher decreases as well. The Internet hasn't made university teachers unemployed (yet), but I'd say that it is for sure eroding the position of university teachers. It's sort of ironic that a new technology for learning and for disseminating information and knowledge (the Internet) threatens the position of the traditional guardians of information and knowledge (university professors). You might think that's a radical conclusion, but it has happened before. The printing press put an end to the privileged position of the medieval guardians of information and knowledge - the monastery scribes. Perhaps that is as it should be, perhaps all is good - from a societal perspective. From a personal perspective, having bet my chips on the academy, it points at slightly worrying tendencies though (depending on the pace of change - I'm not too worried). It might be the case that the academy will have to scramble to find a new role in society over the coming decade or two if things continue on the present course.

*/ Sidetrack /* I personally wonder how the role of the academy is changing in countries like Greece and Spain - they are never too far away in my mind. With > 50% unemployment among young people, what are the consequences for the academy? */ End sidetrack /*

To conclude; a "rational" student who would like to work at Blizzard should indeed probably spend just the "necessary" time passing the courses with "acceptable" grades and put all the rest of his/her talents and energy into a number of side projects that could result in an impressive portfolio to bring to the employment interview. Or why not include the relevant links in question directly in the CV/job application...  This does however make my job as a university teacher difficult and poses some major challenges. Just imagine how easy my job would be if the Blizzard representatives instead would have said: "Side projects are fine, but what is really important to us is that you complete your education with top grades and in the allotted time!".

PS. If your read this far, you might also be interested in reading my two most-read blog posts ever; "On students' cognitive inability" and "Can a student fail at a Swedish university?". My short text on "Competency based recruiting" could also be of interest. And finally, for Swedish-speaking readers, I whole-heartedly recommend these two blog posts: "Utbildningsinflation och minskande avkastning" [Inflation of education and decreasing returns] and "Ingenjörsöverskottet" [On the surplus of engineers].

3 kommentarer:

  1. Thanks for an interesting post, Daniel! I'll just make some tangential remarks:

    1. I think your analysis of the university in the knowledge society is spot on. Universities used to have a near-monopoly on certain kinds of knowledge; they don't any more.

    2. Linked to this as well as to the massification of higher education, the contract between academy and society is undermined. To state the matter somewhat simplified: universities used to pick up the most analytically and/or linguistically talented youths of any generation, hone their skills for a few years, and then in granting the degree they certified that a person was ready for a higher technical or administrative position in society. This has become all but irrelevant today, except for the most specialized professional courses (e.g. medicine). With exception for the truly elite universities, such as Oxbridge, which can pick their students as they choose, nothing guarantees today that a prospective student has even basic skills to complete a higher education. The effect has been a lowering of standards to the point that the degree itself says little about what the graduate can or can not do. Writing a master thesis on the right thing is de facto a much better way to secure good employment than striving to do well in the coursework, where teachers tolerate substandard work and hardly have time to challenge the more apt students to improve.

    3. To get ahead, we need to do some serious thinking about a new contract between academy and society. There's no solving this through short-sighted political reform; what is needed is a broad and deep debate, unconstrained by pre-existing assumptions. We can start with re-examining the idea that higher education is by default considered a good for everybody in the knowledge society.

  2. I agree with you, anonymous commenter, but I don't know how to get around the fact that anyone who questions mass education ("higher education as a default") will be attacked as being "elitist".

  3. I guess that's exactly my point - we need a new kind of discussion of the idea, purpose and role of academic education in society, one that is freed from such prejudice. I believe responsible academic and political leaders should be able to defend such a discussion in today's context - but if not, we need new leaders.

    However, note that I don't think such a discussion necessarily will lead to the conclusion that we ought to return to providing higher education only to a select few - that might well be impossible and unsuitable for a number of reasons. But it is then imperative that we accept the full consequences of mass education, and make the appropriate adjustments to the system and to the social expectations on it.