Realist, not conformist analysis of the latest financial, business and political news

Covid Will Kill The University – Huzzah!

What matters is what works

Or perhaps that should be, huzzah if covid succeeds in killing the university.

Our problem is that the basic set up of lectures is an 800 year old technology which needs to change. As Brad Delong has been known to point out, it didn’t start with the professor doing the talking. Rather, books were expensive. Very expensive. So, one folk would stand up and read it out to all the others. The invention of printing changed that and the internet has made it ridiculous.

But, of course, settled ways are difficult to change.

Online lectures are here to stay with a third of Russell Group universities saying they intend to continue with “blended learning” next academic year.

Eight of the UK’s 24 leading institutions have said that lectures will largely remain online next year, a survey by The Telegraph has found.

So if the lectures are online then what point the being on campus all the time? And we can then go further and make getting a degree not a matter of coursework – some subjects this will still have to happen of course – but a matter of passing the open book finals. Also possibly online. Like, say, the outside degrees run by University of London which at £5k or so a degree are a much better deal than anything else on offer domestically.

As we’re so often told by varied academics when considering working hours, or commuting, or public transport, or all sorts of things actually, there’s a coordination problem here. If everyone’s doing it this way then there’s a problem with wanting to do it another way – everyone’s not doing it that new way. There needs to be either some massive advantage to the new, or some shock to the old coordination, to enable the change to happen.

Universities need to change. Or, rather, society needs them to do so. Maybe covid will be the shock needed?

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Bloke on M4
Bloke on M4
1 month ago

It’s more than just that. The assumptions about financial gains have been eroded as there is a surplus of graduates. And the debt. Many of the degrees are garbage. And we’ve all learned that “degree” doesn’t necessarily mean “smart” in the way you want. English lit graduates rarely make good programmers. If I was giving advice to someone who wanted to work in software, it would be to get a regular job and find a non-degree route. Build some things on a PC. Games, websites, little Raspberry Pi things. Get some certifications (cost about £100 for the exam). You’ll learn… Read more »

Spike
Spike
1 month ago
Reply to  Bloke on M4

There is a body of knowledge famously not taught in university, but not taught either by being a hobbyist, that of teamwork. Even “solitary” endeavors such as engineering and software now involve dealing with bug reports, customers, managers, cases where a multi-person team is necessary to achieve a goal, and the resulting disagreements about the best solution or the quality of others’ work.

Finding alternatives to in-person instruction on a residential campus, such as videos and courseware, doesn’t teach these things either.

Bloke on M4
Bloke on M4
1 month ago
Reply to  Spike

I completely agree. It’s hard to teach that without doing it.

But in general I think that the academic knowledge required for computers is shrinking. Like I used to have to think about things like efficient storage, and performance, but it’s cheaper to just buy some more servers.

The major failing with software projects today is on the human side. Unclear scope, poorly defined or bloated requirements and bad testing.

Quentin Vole
Quentin Vole
1 month ago
Reply to  Bloke on M4

I used to have to think about things like efficient storage, and performance

Back in the 70s, when I was a DBA, I had to work out whether the savings in storage from recording years with 3 digits (by subtracting 1800) rather than 4, outweighed the extra CPU costs when we needed to print them out.

Spike
Spike
1 month ago
Reply to  Quentin Vole

Those are the constraints that led many 70s programmers to famously embrace a 2-digit solution. Surely their product would be superseded within 20 years?

Quentin Vole
Quentin Vole
1 month ago
Reply to  Spike

Yes, indeed. I worked for a Life Assurance company with annuitants and pensioners who were 100+ years old, so 2-digit years weren’t an option. We were, of course, creating a year 2800 problem. 🙂

Spike
Spike
1 month ago
Reply to  Bloke on M4

The needed abstractions are shrinking. The need for techniques to make a routine fit in a kilobyte or avoid “time-consuming” looping is too. But I am lapped (on a volunteer wiki) by young experts at all the newest software packages. (I can write solutions, but their understanding is more formal and their solutions are better.)

But yes, management remains the final frontier.

Andrew M
Andrew M
1 month ago

The problem is, most 19 year olds aren’t good at learning online. They are social, status-seeking creatures. They need meatspace time with real-world peers, both to work with and to compete against. (This problem continues into the workplace, but is mostly gone by their mid-twenties.)

For decades we’ve had correspondence courses (Open University), yet it never took off with the young. Why? Because it’s nigh impossible for a teenager to commit to the work without peer encouragement.

Climan
Climan
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew M

… and presumably its difficult to get drunk and laid on an OU course?

Barks
Barks
1 month ago

Sure, but recall there is a baby in that bathwater. For the vast majority of nonsensical degrees now being slapped on the unwary even the need for online lectures is possibly questionable. For the serious studies involving mostly STEM subjects in person learning with online support available is likely to win the day.

Climan
Climan
1 month ago
Reply to  Barks

Indeed, lectures for me at uni were just frantic note taking, all learning took place in solitude, reading the textbooks and doing exercises.

bloke in spain
bloke in spain
1 month ago

Andrew. Then why are you trying to teach things to 19 year olds?

Addolff
Addolff
1 month ago

When I was training, I looked into the new (at that time) method of ‘blended learning’ where students would research stuff on their own rather than in a formal class environment with a trainer. I gave a class (varied ages, sexes and ethnicities) a home work project over two days – read one module of the NR Rule Book and produce a presentation to be shown to the rest of the group. I provided key questions which they had to address within their presentation. I knew they were all using the internet to do research and were part of a… Read more »

Steve
Steve
1 month ago
Reply to  Addolff

First time I got out of bed I tripped over my shoes. Put me off the idea. The first year of Uni doesn’t actually count; you are learning to learn, research and sloth off all the bad practice toward that end that mongish NUTers put in place.

Steve
Steve
1 month ago

Most importantly the Internet has killed the social element of so many things. Boo, hiss.

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