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Discussion > Digital Education

Jul 14, 2017 at 12:11 PM | Registered CommenterRobert Christopher

gc and Tomo, it’s passed time that a lot of education went digital and online. It would help those who can’t afford university or can’t afford the time. Have test centres where people can sit exams and pay for the qualification if they need it. The students present ID and a photo should be taken to be attached to the certificate to prove the face matches the award.

Universities would have to start earning their 9000+ a year.

Jul 14, 2017 at 11:29 AM by TinyCO2

It is surprising (or not :) ) that this is not topical when fees are so high, and often for so little. I suppose it wouldn't be that popular among the chattering classes as so many are in academia. However, once the conversation starts, I think it will grow and influence the status quo more quickly than expected.

Jul 14, 2017 at 12:18 PM | Registered CommenterRobert Christopher

As you would expect I disagree. You go to university to experience how someone distils their subject, how they explain difficult parts, how they select what to include, what to leave out, what to emphasize. Different people do this differently. I used to attend lectures even on subjects that I knew well, sometimes on subjects I taught. I did this to learn how others approached their subject. Learning from people is easier than from textbooks, although this can be ephemeral unless supplemented by bookwork or practical work.

In the early days of the Open University, considerable effort was expended into distance learning and even though great successes were achieved, even they found that short periods of attendance at university summer schools was required. That and contact with tutors.

Personal contact is essential and the most prestigious universities use the tutor mentoring system. Distance learning without personal contact short-changes the student.

Jul 14, 2017 at 2:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterSupertroll

Jul 14, 2017 at 2:25 PM by Supertroll
I agree, but I found that, for the first couple of years, my Physics lectures were mostly about learning complicated stuff, like Quantum Mechanics and the Maths to go with it, Maxwell's Equations and the Maths to go with it, Statistical Mechanics and the Maths to go with it, and going to lectures with over 100 in the audience which meant that it wasn't much different to watching a video. Sometimes, it was a case of taking notes, then trying to understand any of it after the lecture. Often it is a case of understanding all or none of it: there is no half way. It's not like some subjects that can be picked up immediately, and the gaps filled in later. Much of it was like learning Polish from scratch: there's the alphabet, vocabulary and basic grammar before you can even start reading books in Polish to understand the culture and History. That is best done using high quality videos and spending more effort on discussion groups, workshops and tutorials - which I would expect lecturers would find more enjoyable even if more demanding.

I think, for some subjects, watching the best videos is better than attending some lectures, especially as you can replay them again, and again.
Over the last few years, I have watched utube videos of basic quantum mechanics and found them much more illuminating than some of the lectures I had. On my course, much of the subject matter was fairly new, so there had been little opportunity to plan and construct a solid teaching course, like one could be for a subject at school. (Or it might be because I knew I wasn't going to be tested on it :) or that it was one of the most popular videos on the subject!)

And, hey, I was at a leading edge university department, not a school, and it was forty years ago!

But times have changed, resources are scarce, universities need to improve productivity and are not just an orienteering test to see if you can make all the right choices (with little help) and survive. It looks like 'explaining and showing' can be done cheaply using videos of the best lecturers/presenters (who will be pretty knowledgeable anyway :) unlike some TV presenters), and they could be chosen in the market place or created in house, leaving more resources to fund other activities like tutor groups and discussion groups. In STEM subjects at university, although research is of primary importance, I think the ability to explain complicated subjects is a valuable skill and could help raise university productivity.

Students could view videos at home or in their university town and online post-video multiple choice tests would help 'focus the students on the subject matter'! This would make discussion groups more productive, with everyone at a similar level of knowledge, if not understanding.

It's not living in the same town for three years that helps academic progress, it's having a series of meetings where a subject can be presented or discussed over a period of time. It may be possible to have some topics centred outside the university campus, and at a subject's centre of excellence instead. It might even be cheaper! We need universities to be centres of excellence, but they do need to be more productive, more effective, where they can.

In Industry, people often work alone and then meet up to discuss issues, check progress, change direction, set goals and ask for ideas, resource or guidance (if they are brave)! And it doesn't always happen in the same place!

The challenge is how to get the mix right for a university course.

After all, we listen to recorded songs even though a live concert is 'better'. It is because it is cheaper, good quality, convenient.

Jul 14, 2017 at 3:42 PM | Registered CommenterRobert Christopher

AK, the OU on BBC was very early days of TV, never mind the early days of education enrichment. Even live lectures have been stuck within the confines of the old teaching system. There are ways and means to improve the learning experience that are rarely employed by individuals because the cost and effort to do it each time are significant. But to do it once and play it a hundred times? A thousand? Think of the richness of a good TV documentary but with the complicated details kept in.

There is an argument for students learning slightly different things at each university so that there isn't group think but by and large, undergraduate education isn't for learning loads of different opinions (and yes I'd even include AGW in that). Possibly the third year is the place for branching out.

What does a student need to see their tutor for other than personal problems (not necessary if they're not at Uni) or struggling with the course? That's the secret to video training, there doesn't need to be just one version. It doesn't require the students to learn the stuff after one garbled lecture where the person next to you whispers about their sex life. The same information can be presented in a short version for the fast learners or revision or the detailed version for the slow learner who needs loads of explanation. There can be multiple versions saying the same things but in different ways. There’s no need to fix learning to three years. It could be six, it could be one. It doesn't have to be post school, it could be a few years down the line when you really know what you want to do.

Debate would probably need to be done in person but how much of that is really helpful? I'm sure that all those hobby courses love a bit of time spent on cushions talking about how the book they just read moved them but I'm assuming that those emotions take you whether you'll get the opportunity to tell your fellows or not. And there's always Facebook or Twitter. In my own course, the only time I got to express an opinion was to say that windmills were an expensive waste of time. Was I well served by being able to say it? I sat in on some psychology courses at Coventry and no matter how barmy the content, I was the only one that questioned them. I studied a foundation art course and the tutors blathered on about serendipity rather than teaching basic techniques about proportion. I pointed out that to break rules effectively, one first had to learn them. I wonder if those courses where personal experiences and emotions are key, how diverse the opinions are? It’s widely accepted that education and students are heavily left wing. Doesn’t that create a void in debate where right wing people should fit? Since politics are connected to age and experiences, education would benefit from being opened up to those too busy to go to university. History now is heavily loaded with interpretations of people’s actions. Think how those theories are limited by the type of person who is attracted to the subject from school.

My entire formal learning experience was pock marked by what the teacher or lecturer was feeling that day or term. An entire A level year was wasted because the maths teacher was covering another having a baby. He spent more time photocopying stuff for both classes than time actually in front of us. Why should a group be blighted because of the personal circumstances of their tutors or even thei ability to teach? Equally why should thosee too ill to concentrate/be there miss out on a vital lecture?

Finally, don’t forget the value of this kind of forum for debate. Don’t we all get exposed to more ideas than we would if we were all on the same course? Ok there is groupthink but that’s because we’re self selecting visitors. There are ways to replace most of the things you get from university, the only exception is the pressure to keep studying because there’s a £50,000 debt at the end. Do we think it’s important for people to learn because they want/need to or because it’s the done thing after school? I suspect we'd all have appreciated studying for a degree more if we'd spent a few years doing jobs that didn't need one.

eg I'm currently trying to pick up some history, art, architecture and 3D graphics. By combining all of them I've answered some long held questions by experts in a particular area. It's not going to change the World but it wouldn't be possible without video training and reading a lot of second hand books. The stuff I read in the books would make a great video or 10.

Jul 14, 2017 at 7:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

tiny. Thank you for your long and interesting post. I'm not sure, but I think we disagree about the basic purpose of a university education. I don't think basically that undergraduate courses are about learning things (although that is what they are set up to do). A good course should teach you how to learn. Once this has been achieved there should be no need to learn in a university setting, except in the case of MSc degrees where the student gains entry into a new discipline (chemistry to biochemistry for example). That's why I think the British System is superior to the American. In the American system you keep taking courses (and being examined upon them) whereas judgement upon whether a student can assemble enough information to be examined upon has already been established at the BSc or BA level.

I think you go to university to learn how to think, how to question and make informed judgements. When I was an undergraduate in the 1960s this was obtained almost by osmosis, it wasn't especially taught as such (my recollection was of lectures that simply gave facts to be learned by rote). Today its very different, controversies are deliberately introduced and discussions of controversial subjects, after suitable research, is actively encouraged.

The tutor system I discuss is very different from that you describe (which to me is the advisor system). Sessions with a tutor involve, ideally within a small group (less than 10), discussions of students' work or specific topics where most of the conversation would come from the students themselves. A tutor acts as a moderator and stimulant.

I think the main benefit of a university education is that it provides an opportunity for someone to devote themselves, in an academic environment, to an extended period of time, to find out who they are (again academically) and what they can achieve. Whether this is now worth amassing a £50,000 debt is debatable. Fortunately I am in a position to sponsor both my grandchildren to go to university if they should wish to go. I would consider it money well spent, even if they dropped out.

Jul 15, 2017 at 1:50 PM | Unregistered CommenterSupertroll

Robert, I cannot disagree with much of what you write. However, in my opinion unless you have been shown, encouraged and assessed on your abilities to self learn, most of the methods of distance learning are not very effective. For those of us who have had an undergraduate education, I think it is difficult to recall what it was like before we acquired those skills. When I was in charge of undergraduate recruitment at my department, I was particularly anxious to attract mature students (21+) who were taking Open University courses. They were always well motivated, had acquired learning abilities and knew the value of what they were seeking.

I used Open University material in my teaching, but however good it was, invariably it required discussion.

Motivation is difficult to impossible to inculcate with distance learning.

The reasons Medieval students went to specialized centres of learning have not disappeared. In some cases, arguably they have become more important. The personal component, for good or ill, remains important.

Jul 15, 2017 at 2:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterSupertroll

Jul 15, 2017 at 01:50 PM and 2:07 PM by Supertroll

I am not advocating (continuous) distance learning at all. I know it is a poor use of time and effort. What I am advocating is that videos of good lectures should be available to help learning. Any efficiency improvement can allow more time to be given to group work.

"... the case of MSc degrees where the student gains entry into a new discipline ..."
I think you will find that most STEM undergraduate degrees contain a lot of 'new discipline'. Most require a load of new non-school Mathematics THAT NEEDS TO BE LEARNT and then APPLIED and then it becomes interesting. My Physics course needed a basic understanding of Quantum Mechanics, Maxwell's equations, Statistical Mechanics, Fourier Analysis, Bessel Functions and Eigenvalues. They don't require any political views or different views; no discussions of views, just help with understanding. They need plain understanding before anything useful can be done. And having 50 minute lectures can only do so much, especially if you are lost ten minutes in.

It is like trying to explain to someone on an accountancy course that they do need to know, not only how to add, subtract, multiply and divide, but they MUST ALSO BE ABLE TO DO IT! And do it without thinking, with the new concepts familiar and seen to be useful. Otherwise, they won't be able to work understand what is going on in double book keeping, or even a simple supermarket bill or a percentage, or compound growth.

Calculus is easy to explain, and understand, in two or even three dimensions but then, some people can't cope when taking it to four dimensions, or more. :) Should they be even allowed to vote? :)

When I was at university, schools and technical colleges had teachers, but universities had lecturers: they didn't need to teach. What does that mean today? :)

We had one very good lecturer who would teach the first third of his course in half the time (to give everyone a chance to understand it), the next third in a third of the time (normal speed), and the rest in the rest of the time (1/3 in 1/6). His philosophy was that if you could understand the hardest third, you could understand it quickly. Most understood getting on for two thirds, which was plenty good enough.

I did hear of another lecturer, somewhere else :) , on a completely different course, who would rush the first third, in a sixth of the time, because it was so easy :) , then the next third at normal rate and the most difficult third in the remaining half, because it was so interesting! It is a pity so few understood that last half of the lectures, because he had rushed the first third.

You can see why good recorded lectures would be a boon. We don't dismiss books because they can be read off campus. Discussion can be done when the basic knowledge has been learnt. In History, knowing the basic facts only requires reading a book; in many other subjects, it requires new concepts, many of which are alien and can appear contradictory to common sense.

Jul 15, 2017 at 3:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterRobert Christopher

Robert. We may be discussing some of this at cross purposes. The Open University used televised lectures (with superb added illustrative materials) for distance learning. The other techniques it developed belie your comments that distance learning is a poor use of time and effort. As I previously wrote, I used OU television materials in my teaching but most students really didn't like them. Although designed to be, they really weren't stand alone items. They rapidly got out of date and had to be supplemented with written updates. I never gave exactly the same lectures, changing them every year to maintain relevancy and freshness. The transcripts and slides/overheads of my first year lectures were available to students, yet they still came to see me "perform". Why would that be? The answers explain why we still employ Medieval teaching methods in our universities.

The type of MSc degree I was referring to was that where a subject deemed too specialized for a first degree can be acquired. The example I gave was biochemistry. It used to be considered that a biochemist should first and foremost be an adequate chemist and that requires a full three years to acquire. Unfortunately universities now offer increasing specialized degree programmes so we have biochemists with huge lacunae in their chemical knowledge. You can even get undergraduate degrees in climate science (at UEA). Your deity only knows what they don't (know).

Jul 15, 2017 at 4:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterSupertroll

Jul 15, 2017 at 4:28 PM by Supertroll

I was taking Distance Learning to be where there was always distance between participants, using video, the Internet or TV, without discussion groups. (I was ignoring conference calls as they are in-between and work a bit better when everyone has met in person earlier.) I would say that the OU did distance learning (at a distance), with short stays for lab work and discussions, lasting a few days to a couple of weeks (or that sort of duration). I wouldn't call the whole package 'Distance Learning', only the bit that was at a distance.

What about a video of your lectures? Would some of your students want to see your lectures again? :) :) :) :) :)

"biochemists with huge lacunae in their chemical knowledge"
I think those lacunae would not have been present in those graduating in Physics/Chemistry in the mid-1970s from my university, but that is progress for you! They might have been uncertain in parts, but they would have followed the argument, not turned glassy eyed! Since then, the Standard Model has been developed, so it should be easier to formulate and present a standard lecture on it.

"They rapidly got out of date ..."
I don't think the Maths behind the subjects that I listed would get out of date, though the dress sense of the presenter might! Though, in the QM videos that I watched, I don't think I saw the lecturer, apart from his hand when writing on the diagram being presented.

Why not make some of the OU videos available or make some using their skills? The whole point is to work smarter.

I wasn't proposing that all lectures should be by video, only that there would be some that would be good to try. Televised masterclasses, teaching a piano player or other instrument, appear on TV, or Richard Feynman on QM, have appeared, so why not for some lectures? It should allow greater resources to be applied to group work.

Jul 15, 2017 at 5:24 PM | Registered CommenterRobert Christopher

As a flippant aside I would like to point out that Universities are not just about learning the subject. Nor are they just about learning the subject and doing research.

Universities are about socialising people into becoming graduates.
That is creating middle class people with a capacity to learn and a belief that they are above manual labour.

In truth, that socialisation is one of the main selling points to potential employers and the entry ticket into fellowship groups of the right sort of people.

You won't get that without gathering the students together.
There is a reason that young witches and wizards have to take the train to Hogwarts rather than just magic their way there.

Jul 15, 2017 at 6:34 PM | Registered CommenterM Courtney

Mine was a sandwich engineering degree in a faculty that had everything in workshops or labs. And I mean everything.

Everything I learnt of use was from...
personal, or group, "hands-on" projects
weekly "unsupervised" lab tasks
the year out in industry (perhaps the greatest use to me)
the "old lags" running the faculty engineering shops who would fabricate anything and have to put with know-it-all

By "of use", I mean that either stimulated me, or that I used later on in my career.

If you want education as "layers" of applied expertise and not as "columns" of pure knowledge, then interaction with people or "things" is essential.

At least for engineering.

As to online learning? Absolutely hate it. My personality, but also I think it doesn't work so well if you want to understand and not just learn by rote. Humour and personality was a large part of our 100+ attended lectures. But almost all our lecturers had lived in real world, outside of academia, so had that confidence about knowing what is really important. So the quality was good, perhaps not all institutions are so lucky, and online would guarantee some quality.

Jul 15, 2017 at 7:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterJiminy Cricket

You have an old fashioned view of what university should be for. It's not for 'socialising' at all, although there is a lot of that, but then that kind of socialising starts very early these days. I doubt any employer appreciates the kind of socialising that students learn. A lot of them learn to drink, mess about, get bolshie and do as little work as possible without getting the boot. In terms of turning people into good workers, university is failing abysmally. It's an after school club for the middle classes not preparation for adult life. For most of them it doesn't provide them with job skills, let alone what they need to interact with those above or below them. It gives them a false sense of their own value and usefulness.

Many degrees are not a prelude to a job. They're either the subject the student liked and was good at in school, or something they hope will be a stepping stone to something more interesting. That is very traditional and was fine when a small percentage went to university. Graduates today aren't just competing with their own year of graduates, they're competing with a growing crowd of previous graduates waiting for their chance. Many of them are waiting in dead end jobs or the dole because they don't want to start working their way up the wrong career tree. Now that's not the end of the World if you don't plan to have a home or family and you're happy with a £50,000 debt hanging over you but I'm not sure that they'll feel that way at 50+, when the debt will be written off. They were promised a better life for staying on in education. Those graduates are also competing with students from other countries who have better degrees, work harder and for less pay.

At the other end of the scale, there are people who discover their real vocation but can't study for it, either because they can't afford university or can't afford the time off work once they know what they want to do. Imagine if you get to the end on one degree and discover you should have done a different one. I was lucky that my degree course included my future vocation as a large offshoot and that in those days you didn't need to specialise so early. It would be harder today to make the transition and inconceivable to run up a £100,000 debt. Luckily the subsequent couses I went on were paid for by the company I worked for. I couldn't afford them then, and I probably wouldn't pay for them now but if I want the information enough I can teach myself. Free digital training makes it easier.

Motivation is a good reason to go to a physical university. There is a factor in knowing you'll get into trouble if you're not there (even if that's not the case) so you turn up. But essentially it's a one chance process and at a point in time when you're unlikely to know what you want to study. It's also at a point where education is just a habit, not a bonus. I know that by 18 I was totally sick of learning but mixing learning with work was actually a pleasure. There are even things now that I'd love to study but wouldn't pay a fortune to get a traditional style education. Fortunately I discovered the secrets how to self teach while I was at work. The information is out there, you just have to design your own course.

Digital education will come in, simply because it's the only affordable option in a country that has forgotten what education is for. It's not a right or a status symbol or the bus stop after school, it's just a tool to help you and society get what is wanted/needed. Would you pay £50,000 for a tool you didn't intend to use? Would you spend £50,000 if there was a cheaper way to do the same thing?

Jul 16, 2017 at 1:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

Tiny. I think you forget that a well motivated student will benefit from a university education. Success requires both smarts and dedication. Most students today have smarts but sadly lack the other component. Furthermore there is considerable peer pressure not to appear too eager to acquire knowledge. That's why many mature students do so well, they know the value of what they are being offered and are unaffected by the pressure. Those I have considerable sympathy for are those with motivation but insufficient smarts - they strive but do not succeed. Fortunately they are not common. Those with smarts but low motivation are in the legions.

M.Courtney. in addition, universities are marriage agencies. In my year, half of us met and courted our wives at university.

Jul 16, 2017 at 3:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterSupertroll

TinyCO2, when I used the word "socialising" I didn't mean a "social life".
I meant an environment that forms the public character of the student into the 'right' sort of person. The sort of person that fits into the communities that middle class people will engage with.

There is a difference between being an active member of a working class or immigrant community and the members of the good school PTA. That difference is not related to a degree course or to intelligence. It's a result of previous social interactions.

Supertroll, your comment at 3:08pm is exactly right in my opinion. Sadly for myself I learnt that too late for a good degree or to keep the girl. It can take almost a decade to restore your reputation if you miss the attitude test of university. Smarts are not wisdom.

A physical university means that one can at least see one's mistake and try to correct it.
If I had remote learned I would probably be embittered and not realised it was my own failing.

Jul 16, 2017 at 8:28 PM | Registered CommenterM Courtney

Jul 16, 2017 at 3:08 PM by Supertroll
"in addition, universities are marriage agencies."

Sometimes, though, they are not very good at that.

This is a true story.

Many, many, years ago, there was a group of students at university that went around together. As often happens, one couple paired off, then another, and another. This continued until there was no one left.

Every couple ended up getting married.

Then they began to split up and divorce, until there was one couple still together, one of whom I knew, and was telling me the story. And that from a total of seventeen couples, over a period of about ten years.

Sad story all around really.

Jul 16, 2017 at 9:58 PM | Registered CommenterRobert Christopher

Jul 16, 2017 at 3:08 PM by Supertroll
"Those with smarts but low motivation are in the legions."
Painfully true, especially now, though part of being smart is to choose a course that would be worth completing successfully, and one that could be completed! Smart kids in the local school can find working alongside other smart kids in a regional setting, at school or university, a challenge, so it isn't just the not so smart that need a helping hand. OTOH, they may just be looking for a fun three years, paid for by the state.

"insufficient smarts - they strive but do not succeed."
For some, all they need is a bit of luck. Having a good teacher at the right time (rather than all the time :) ), can be the difference between success and failure. The help could be academic, attitude or something else. At work, it can be having a manager that either gives you a task or a problem to solve, and doesn't mix the two! I know several who retook A'level and never looked back, and it wasn't that they were lazy the first time around.

What does concern me is that if the philosophy is to let all students 'do their own thing', is that why we have so many unemployed, dysfunctional graduates who don't really appreciate the fact that they have been taught to think (without learning very much) while they are flipping burgers?

Is it the reason that so little academic work can be reproduced?

I don't know whether universities address these problems, to reduce the drop out rate, but I don't have much contact with them. I would think that it should start in the schools, when choosing A'levels. To choose A'levels and have not even thought what they might be used for does seem 'insufficiently smart'.

Jul 16, 2017 at 11:17 PM | Registered CommenterRobert Christopher

I think there is a large difference between engineering courses and 'arts' courses.

There is a large difference between vocational degrees (doctoring, vetting, teething and all the other 'ings) and non vocational degrees.

We should be careful about tarnishing all students with the same brush.

Many establishments capture lectures (voice plus smart board images) to enable students to replay as often as they wish.

However, it still remains true that those who should do lots of 'homework' or self study' do not do it, and those who do not need to do it because they already understand the concept, do it!

It is interesting to note that you can see three types of students:
The keen and able, who know what they want, can do it, and do do it;
The keen but less able, who have to struggle through their academic career;
Those who do not want to be their, not interested, do not know what to do with their lives.

Jul 17, 2017 at 7:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterSteve Richards

Steve. My guess, based upon experience with environmental science students, is that perhaps ten percent are keen and able, maybe up to twenty-five percent are keen but less able, with the rest being various degrees of waste of space. With good teaching a small number of the last group can become enthused. When I took a geology degree in the 1960s everyone was keen and able (perhaps because then there were few jobs in the field - before North Sea oil and geological environmental assessment). You studied the subject out of love.

I suspect the proportions differ considerably between different types of degree.

Jul 17, 2017 at 7:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterSupertroll