But What Will We Do?

All that is well and good: a high quality, low scale, not very cheap university that gives away it’s plans and implementation details for free. But what would students and faculty in such a university, well, do?

There are two ways to answer this question.

First, work out what they do in most universities today, reach a conclusion about whether what they do is desirable, and if not, work out what needs to change and in what order.

Second, start with an idealized worldview of what they should do, while ignoring all constraints, and ask if that idealized worldview is realizable. If the answer is no, figure out what’s stopping you, and therefore work out what needs to change and in what order.

I prefer the first approach1, and that’s the approach I’ll be using in this essay.

So what do students in a university do today? They learn, they show that they’ve learnt, and they form networks. College is a bundle.

Let’s begin with the one in the middle: showing that they’ve learnt. I’d want to chip away at that first.

How do students today show that they’ve learnt? They write examinations. These are supposed to be a proxy to show how much you’ve learnt, and how much you’re able to apply of whatever you’ve learnt. Is my understanding of why examinations exist correct? I’m genuinely asking.

And the reason I am asking is because I am extremely sceptical of the ability of examinations to do either.

That leaves us with two potential answers: change the examination system for the better. Or replace it with something else that has the potential to be better, and a guarantee of not being worse. At the very least, experimentation is called for.

My personal preference will be for a student to do, not for a student to show that she has learnt. That is, examinations need to be replaced with projects. These projects can’t be submissions as you and I understand them today. Not half-assed stuff that a team “works” on – let’s be honest, that’s code for nobody works on it. This is a project that sits on its own individual website, and that forever. That project is the student’s CV. It contains everything about the journey that led up to the creation and shipping of that project.

I’ll use an example from the field in which I teach, which is economics. What I am about to say should also apply to most of the other subjects in the humanities, and perhaps less so in, say, STEM fields.

Most students of economics acquire a degree to usually do one of three things: teach, research or work in a corporate job.

So your only “examination” comes at the end of your third year degree, where you ship a project based upon one of these three areas.

  • If you are learning economics in order to be a teacher, you have to teach a class, and document that entire class on your website. And when I say class, I mean at least a twenty hour course. Subject? Your choice. Students? You have to recruit them. Will this class be for free? No, you have to convince your students to pay a fee that is not trifling. How many students? At least ten, not more than thirty. But your degree is awarded for having taught this class, and is based on the feedback from that class.
    Designing the syllabus for that class, coming up with the reading material, arranging for guest speakers, hiring your TA’s from among your juniors, coming up with assignments, evaluating these assignments, handouts – the whole shebang. Do the work, teach your students, and then say that you have graduated from the course.
    And the entire three year journey leads up to this moment. If what you want to do is teach, then we should have taught you how to teach – and what skills you need to pick up in order to be able to teach students who are willing to pay you for your expertise.
  • If you are learning economics in order to do research, then you have to work on and publish a report on a topic of your choice. Come up with a topic in your second year, refine it, apply for a grant for it, prepare a plan for how you will work towards it, hire out your team, design your questionnaire, collect your data, clean the data, do the analysis, reach your conclusion and submit the report and the presentation to the funding agency, and on your website.
    Again, the entire three year journey leads up to this moment. If what you want to do is research, then we should have taught you how to do research – and what skills you need to pick up in order to be able to do research for an agency that is willing to pay you for your expertise.
  • If you are learning economics in order to work in a firm or start a business of your own, then, well, you have to do these things to get the degree. You have to convince a firm to hire you for an entire semester, or you have to spend an entire semester building out a team, pitching for funding, and get a product to market in order to be awarded a degree.

Long story short, you are evaluated for what you have done, not for what you have submitted for internal review and assessment.

My Almost Ideal University would have no examinations, but only a specific end-goal. Do the work, and if you’ve done it well enough, you’re awarded the degree. There’s no first place, no last place, no grades, no marks, nothing. If your work is good enough, we say that you are good enough to go out and start doing more of what you just finished doing.

Will this system have problems in terms of implementation. It’s a guarantee. Can I pick flaws in the design that I have put up? A dozen.

But does it have a fighting chance of being, at least along some dimensions, better than the status quo? Even if you happen to disagree, I think it to be a question worthy of further discussion. So especially if you disagree, please, do tell me why! 🙂

So that’s what the students will do. What will “faculty” do in my Almost Ideal University? We’ll talk about it tomorrow!

  1. why is a blogpost in its own right[]