University 2060: the brave new world of higher education

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Higher education, 2060: academics are out of a job. All the brand name universities have made all their courses free online, easily doing away with one side of the teaching and learning equation.

Pretty soon all the universities realised how much money they could save.

Tutorials have been replaced by Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) with the wisdom of the crowd sourcing all answers from the students themselves. Algorithms update the online course content in response to the question’s popularity – after all, “the customer is always right”.

Eventually no new information is taught, as it is too difficult to produce. There can be no FAQs for new material. So university courses have become useless. People need to find other ways to learn.

Universities took up the idea of the customer is always right earlier than 2012. Students became clients. So it became obvious that student evaluation of teaching results determined careers and promotion of lecturers.

That is, even when the students could not possibly be in a position to evaluate the teaching, as they were yet to be introduced to, grapple with and eventually understand, difficult and complex issues.

And yet they were asked by administrators to rate their teachers. Students assumed that because the material was hard, the teaching must be poor. So the complaints went: it should have been easier to engage with; the lecturer did not spend enough time explaining how to get a good mark; they did not answer my questions quickly enough (even if most were posed late at night, and answered by morning).

So the universities felt justified in getting rid of their lecturers: after all the student feedback was not good and the lecturers were difficult to deal with.

The Australian Research Council realised that they too could save themselves a great deal of time. All they had to do was run competitions. They only needed small groups of trusted researchers who met regularly to determine which questions would get funding and how much each question was worth.

Then as each new question was decided it was added to the competition database. This procedure had a great deal of merit. It assumed that the best researcher to answer any particular question was out there somewhere but asking them to apply for funding was a waste of everybody’s time.

Much better for the ARC to put up the questions, sit back and wait for the research teams to engage with the questions directly. No need to fund a good looking prospect. They only needed to fund results.

They took the website Kaggle.com as their model. Big questions (that is the ones that could earn the most money) attracted the biggest prizes.

At this point educational research stopped being funded completely, because everyone now knew how to educate en masse for free. Get a free degree from MIT, Stanford or Harvard. Within ten years software was developed that was sophisticated enough to be used to examine PhD theses, so no one had to actually read them any more.

Within 30 years, all the “great minds” currently living had gained their doctorate from an algorithm. No one had read their work, and none could find a job in the academy, because everyone had free degrees from MIT, Stanford or Harvard.

About 10 years later a group of about 12 people sat around together in a room. They had decided to hold a book group. There was no leader except that one person had rediscovered the old practice of a reading group and suggested to some friends that they try it out as a nostalgic reenactment, similar to the people who still recreated the American Civil War on a Sunday afternoon.

One of the group suggested the book, something they had found in a bookshop from the 1960s, On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers.

They all enjoyed meeting together and talking about the book, particularly the funny ideas that could never take off now. Then someone suggested they read another book.

This happened and they all enjoyed that experience too, sharing and discussing ideas with no particular agenda. After the group had discussed five books they realised it was not just the book that was enjoyable, they brought food, talked about their days, discussed other topics unrelated to the books they had come together to read.

They were enjoying engaging with each other and learning together.

Pity, they thought, that we couldn’t do this more often.

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