the university as a house of questions

The nature of education in general, and of higher education in particular, is changing and changing fast. I am aware that there is a vast literature on this point, and that it is a subject in which reasonable people can disagree about the details. Nonetheless I thought I’d venture into this particular fire swamp and expose some of my ruminations to the light of wider scrutiny.

Clearly, technology is driving some of this change. For most of their existence, universities have been places where facts have been stored and through which facts have been transmitted and disseminated. It is easy to forget that for most of human history, facts about the world in which we live have been expensive and hard fought to discover, in part because facts have a tendency to be hidden by assumptions about the world that persist even when the predictions arising from these assumptions prove to be false.

And beyond this, the discovery of facts requires time and equipment, bodies and laboratories and the time and the space to think, and universities provide all of these. The keen eyed among you will have noticed that I haven’t defined what I mean by fact, and I won’t. What I will say is that there are some objective things that we now know to be true beyond the shadow of any reasonable doubt; there are the seemingly incontrovertible observations distilled from vast numbers of experiments that seem to be true; and there are speculations for which the evidence hasn’t yet been gathered and perhaps cannot be gathered using current technology and technique.

But access to facts is no longer difficult. While the discovery of facts remains difficult, the dissemination and transmission of facts is now so easy that it is becoming difficult to remember what it was like before Google and the capacity to search. One of the core functions of universities as they currently exist, and one of the main reasons that universities exist, is being eroded by the internet.

And this is only one way in which technology is driving change. Looking into the near future, I can see a day when adaptive testing replaces the current system of all students taking the same assessment, sitting the same examination. This will require a change to how we think, being more clear at what we wish students to learn over the course of a module or a programme, being more clear about what outcomes we expect students to be able to demonstrate. And it will require us breaking the shackles of doing the same to everyone at the same time, and for the same amount of time.

When I started lecturing, some years ago now, I lectured as I had been lectured to. I would stand in the front of the room, talking to the students sitting in the room, giving them my take on the material of the day. And I’m now doubting the effectiveness of this method and I’m trying to break free of this very traditional way of lecturing. After all, if we truly believe that we learn by doing, then we need to build more learning into the doing and I can see this happening.

My role is not to talk to students but rather it’s to work with them. And this is where the title of this rumination comes from. For most of their history, universities have been houses of facts. But universities are changing to become houses of questions, both in terms of the research conducted by their academic staff, but more importantly in terms of reminding students that we don’t have all the answers. Rather, we know how to ask some interesting questions, and it is this skill, of asking the good question, that I want my students to take away with them. We start Monday.

~ by Jim Anderson on 24 September 2017.

One Response to “the university as a house of questions”

  1. Questions are good.

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