The future of education: universities, hogs and logs

Jim McNiven, author of F&O’s Thoughtlines column, tackles the factored global university system — not to condemn it, he writes in today’s column, but to try and explain the harsh reality: “A system whose structures and incentives were created around 1900 has evolved in ways never dreamed of then and is today under threat from funding pressures and its own dysfunctions.” An excerpt:

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Oxford’s “dreaming spires” © Deborah Jones

You have to look at universities without their trappings of tradition, semi-mystical feeling and notions of honours and awards. See them instead as not-for-profit education institutions in an age where information is rapidly becoming democratized and commoditized (like hogs and logs), or as a single global information business subject to the same forces affecting all global information businesses today, from banks to Twitter.

The university model romanticized by many academics — Socrates imparting wisdom to a half-dozen students while sitting under a tree — is a ‘handicraft’ cultural dream. If it ever existed, it did so in the British model where students ‘read’ on their own, occasionally consulting professors about issues they had. This British model buckled under German course structures and then largely disappeared after the Harvard Business School adopted Taylorite1 practices in 1907, setting out, among other things, class sizes of 75 students. Harvard and other universities gradually adopted regularized classes of an hour each, offered at a specific time each day or week; they set up unit-based course credit systems and began to tie the hoary notion of tenure to research ‘productivity.’

Gradually, the American system spread across the world … read more (free access*):

The Future of the Global University System, a three-part series

Click here for Jim McNiven’s columnist page

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