Changing concepts of universities

October 31, 2005, [MD]

Something that I have thought about a lot lately, is changing concepts of what a university is, and how it works. Some of the reasons that I have been thinking so much about this stems from the idea of elite universities in North America. They have always been fascinating to me, because I come from a country with only five universities, all of them in their own cities, and roughly equal in quality - you choose the university based on the city you want to live in, and not the quality of the courses. (They are also fully publically funded, etc.). They are certainly quality institutions, but what I always wondered was; what has Harvard got, that makes it so much better? And also, thinking of developing countries; why is it so hard to have stellar institutions? Especially for the humanities and social sciences, it would seem that the most important aspect is the teachers - and since teachers are much cheaper in developing countries, that should achievable.

(Of course brain drain is one factor, I realized later. But that is far from the full answer.)

So I started thinking about which parts of Harvard, or Yale, make them so stellar. (Especially from the perspective of undergraduate teaching, not research). And with the advent of technology, these thoughts intensified. If the reason Harvard is so good is the library, and we have that library available online - then what? If the reason is the courses, and we can do the courses online? If the reason is the tight student relationships, and we can imitate that?

The Economist has advocated for splitting up the teaching and the testing part of for example Oxford or Yale; letting everyone in the world do the same tests. So that, I could study bioengineering in Vietnam, but still do the rigorous sample of MIT tests (perhaps including essays and projects), paid for of course at a competitive rate, and if I succeeded I would receive an MIT diploma completely equivalent to the one that MIT students get. Thus, MIT the teaching institution would have to focus on provable excellency in teaching, not on whom they accept and the reputation of their institution. It’s a fascinating idea for “democratizing” education (one of course fraught with dangers, if educational evaluation becomes reduced to multiple choice tests at all levels), and one which MIT would surely fight against. They seem to do the opposite - the MIT OpenCourseWare project provides access to much of their teaching material, sometimes even video or audio of their lectures, for free to anyone in the world. BUT - they will never lead you to get an MIT certification. You can get our teaching, but not our degree.

Stian\ (sorry, no sources - no time; ask me)

Stian Håklev October 31, 2005 Toronto, Canada
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