Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Peak University

Students attending the IISCABC graduate school on the chemistry of the environment and of cultural heritage in Feltre (Italy) on July 8, 2011

Sometimes, they ask me "are you a teacher?" My usual answer is, "Well, let's say that sometimes I enter a room where there are young people sitting. I say things, they look at me and, sometimes, they write down something on their notepads. Whether that qualifies as 'teaching' is open to discussion."

Over the years, my doubts about what I am doing as a teacher (so to say) have been increasing. This impression has been reinforced by my experience with two summer schools, this year. In both cases, the class was arranged in the way you see in the picture above. Students sit behind computer screens. As a lecturer, I can't possibly know what they are doing; I can only see that they are typing something and moving their mouses. I know that they are connected to the Internet. Are they chatting with their friends? Answering e-mails? Looking at the latest news? Who knows? But that kind of arrangement is becoming more and more common in classrooms.

In some respects, having the students half hidden and doing something unfathomable may well be an improvement in comparison with the old style. Normally, they have been sitting in class while looking at you with vitreous eyes, scribbling something on their notepads (what are they writing? Prose? Poetry? Magic formulas? Invocations to obscure deities?). If they have a computer and an internet connection, they can at least use Facebook to evade for a while from the boredom of the average university lecture. (and think that I am teaching chemistry: that's boring almost by definition.)

Of course, we might forbid students to surf the web while in class. That, however, won't get rid of the simple fact that, with a few simple clicks on Wikipedia, Google scholar, or the like, the students can access a wealth of information that is way more complete, updated, better organized, rationally presented (and more) than anything that can be provided by a single person standing in front of them.

That is true, at least, when the idea is to teach the basis of wide field; things change when you go into specialized subjects, where a specific researcher may know more than anything you can find on Wikipedia. But there is a limit to the usefulness of teaching specialized matters to average students. So, no wonder that students find their time in the classroom an abyss of boredom. I am sure they do; I remember perfectly how boring it was when I was a students and I think things haven't changed today. If you are not convinced, just go give a look to sites like "ratemyprofessor". If you are a teacher (or, at least, you emit sounds in those rooms called "classrooms") and you can find your name in there, most likely your self-esteem will take a bad hit. (I am lucky that my students can't write in English!).

So, I think that a certain model of passing knowledge from one another is hopelessly passé. The university as a repository of knowledge may well have peaked and be rapidly going the same way as slide rulers and mechanical typewriters went. Disappeared; surpassed by faster, better, wider ranging instruments. We need to think of new an more dynamic ways to pass knowledge; we need to stop this weird ritual in which you say things to young people who look at you, but you have no way to know whether they are actually decoding the sounds you are uttering. We should rather focus on the direct, human contact with a teacher. The relation with a mentor has been fundamental in history and it is likely to remain the master way to attain knowledge. But that happens outside classrooms; it has always been like that, and it always will be.

Unfortunately, the organization of teaching in most universities seems to be in the grips of an asphyxiating bureaucracy that forces researchers to mould to specific roles. As I see things around me, universities seem to be moving towards that "scripted teaching" which is becoming more and more common in elementary and high schools. A kind of teaching where teachers are told exactly - sometimes word by word - what to teach. It may be an effective way of teaching basic concepts, but it is the perfect antithesis to building that kind of mentor-pupil relation that is the basis of all true learning. Besides, if I am not forced to a script, I can still tell to my students about peak oil and about other subject that keep them awake and away from on-line chatting.

Taking the opposite approach, perhaps some old models could be rejuvenated and found to be more suitable for exploiting "the cloud" where most information is being moving to. "Long distance learning" used to be a 2nd class kind of university; but it does have the good feature that it doesn't require the kind of ritualized and boring lecturing that regular universities require. An long distance teaching institution like the "UNED" in Spain, may be an interesting case to examine - they have been doing good work in areas such as peak oil. In this kind of university, students don't sit in classrooms, at least most of the time. They study at home and then they spend a couple of weeks of intense interaction with their teachers at the school site. Maybe it could be a way to go; although at present these schools are still rare and not valued for the potential they have.

And how about research? I spoke about "peak university" as related to teaching, but that's not the only activity in universities - of course we do also research. About that, let me just say that I believe that we have peaked in research just as well. Research has become an elaborate game that we play with bureaucrats and has mostly to do with getting money that then must be used to follow arcane rules that involve charts, milestones and targets. The whole enterprise, mainly, leads to ponderous reports that nobody reads. It all reminds me of state-supported poetry at the time of the Soviet Union. 

So, if you arrived all the way to here, I think I have to apologize for this little rant of mine. It was written in a single stretch as soon as I was back home from that school in Feltre that I mentioned at the beginning. It is not supposed to be a complete discussion of this matter and let me say, in addition, that it is not meant at all to disparage the competent and dedicated organizers of this interesting school, nor the bright, caring and attentive students who attended it. Maybe we can discuss more about these matters it in the comments.

16 comments:

  1. You made a very good point Ugo, but don't tell this to your (our) colleagues in Universities and Research Institutions, you would risk to be banned as advocate of obscurantism. The infinite growth religion has his own special language: the rethoric of progress of science and technology, and whoever spreads doubts about it is a betrayer and an apostate.

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  2. Ah, well, Luca, you are the real apostate; you know that! :-). At some point in life, some things are to be said. I think it is time to stop being meek and say things aloud. Then they'll say that I am an apostate - whatthehelldoIcare?

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  3. You are a teacher my friend. Keep putting your thoughts and wisdom out there. So when we come looking it is there to touch and absorb. Thanks for your work.

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  4. This business about "scripted teaching" seems to be part of a bigger world movement where know-nothing power-crats seize control of the world through appeal to the general ledger and to the magical powers of "economic efficiencies" flowing from their heartless accounting books.

    "Teaching" is a one-way verb. "Education", however, is a complex system of many-way student-teacher feedback loops. Students are motivated by the passions that their teachers bring to the endeavor and visa versa. Show me a dispassionate teacher and I'll show you a classroom of students snoozing beneath their half-shut eyelids. Show me a classroom of disconnected students and I'll show you a teacher wondering what the heck am I doing wasting my energies up here?

    The peek-a-boo classroom set-up you illustrate up top shows an example of the know-nothing plutocrats destroying the teacher-student feedback loops by interjecting their ideas of "efficient" education, apparently without first having asked the battle-front teachers what they think of the idea.

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  5. Dr. Bardi,

    it is amazing to hear something like this from a professor in physical chemistry. Do you suffer from low self-esteem?

    In reality, it is very difficult for most students to learn from the pile of disconnected pieces that is called Wikipedia. I would much rather be taught such a subject by a good teacher than teach myself. Besides, I don't know how to set up a phys-chem lab in my garage.

    As for research - I don't know much about the recent progress in physical chem, but the field of biology is really fascinating. There is no standstill, it's unimagined new phenomena every ten years or so, I'll just mention RNAi.

    Biologist

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  6. Biiologist, i don't think it is a question of self-esteem. I try to do my best; but sometimes I recognize that my time is wasted because the students are just not interested. That is not my fault; it is just that the university programs are often disconnected from the real world. I might be a very good teacher in telling such things as - say - electron diffraction in solids; my initial field of study. But the students know that it is a subject that they will never use (or need) in their future career.

    About research, probably I gave the impression that I am overly pessimistic over science. I am not - that is just an impression because the post is very short. Science is great, I love it, and it does progress! It does that, however, despite the concerted efforts of bureaucrats and politicians to stifle it. I think it is because science generates inconvenient truths that bureaucrats and politicians try to control it. The problem is that in the future they might succeed.

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  7. I guess you've come across the Open University in the UK? www.open.ac.uk

    I've did a couple of modules with them - it's distance learning, with only few hours of face to face contact for each course. The quality of the material and educational outcomes are pretty good though with full degrees achieved with them regarded as highly as the best conventional university.

    Having said that - I am actually attending a graduate school in Italy this September!

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  8. Thanks, Chris. It seems to confirm my impression. Maybe distance learning IS the way of the future?

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  9. Dear Professor Bardi,

    As a person who have spent half of his working life in academia, at both sides, I've to say that from my point of view your are completely right in your feelings. In Spain we sometimes refer the University as a Factory, sometimes as "Factory of Unemployed Pepole". You need to pass through the University to reach better jobs, and you will find your way through it no matter the way, but not in the pursue of learning. This problem is, as far as I've had the opportunity of verify, GLOBAL. University is just another casualty of Free Market. We can go on discussing how the way in which University and Public Research is evaluated is damaging them, as the econometric indicators used highlight some kind of "production" over any concept of "quality".

    A clarification: UNED is the Spanish National University for Non-presential Learning. Barbastro is just on of its sites (they have about a hundred, I think), the main one being in Madrid where I gave a talk on Peak Oil past October.

    Regards.

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  10. This article rings true to me.

    Another aspect of peak university is the unsustainable nature of the physical plant and infrastructure.

    How, in a globally contracting economy can we justify the expense of maintaining the brick and mortar institution when there are other ways to spread knowledge.

    A few years before he died, Peter Drucker predicted in 1997, the demise of the big universities within 30 years. That's now just 16 years away. He rightly stated the system is untenable.

    So, in addition to the pedagogical reasons we've
    passed peak university, there are also financial, and resource reasons.

    Learning in the future will continue, just not in the manner to which we've become accustomed.

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  11. Thanks, Antonio, I modified the text according to your observation.

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  12. Ugo, I'd be curious to hear more of what you think of research.

    As best I can tell, medical research is being stifled by "careerism", in which researchers produce as little as possible about a topic which is as narrow and limited as possible, in order to publish a string of papers just important enough to publish. That way they can get the maximum number of papers from the minimum of real research, and preserve and extend their career.

    This has the effect of delaying real breakthroughs as long as possible.

    What do you think?

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  13. Well, I think I should write something longer about what I think is going on with research. But, for a short answer, I think that the "publish or perish" rule is bad but, at least, it is under the control of the individual researcher. A good researcher has always a fighting chance to publish good research. But when you have to obey the orders of bureaucrats, it is not any more in your hands. So, I think bureaucratization of research is worse than "string effect" of too many papers. IMHO, at least.

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  14. Education so far has proved very resistant to attempts to increase productivity -- where a scribe, say, in the middle ages could produce a book a year, a modern bookmaker can produce thousands. Yet today's teachers are no more productive than Socrates. The "value added" by a teacher is not so easily captured.

    A large part of what you do as a teacher is convey what matters and why it matters, not just to who the students are but to who they could become.

    I've asked my students how many of them would prefer to study at home, in some form of distance education, and there tends to be very little enthusiasm. Some complain they find it hard to stay away if there's not a real person there.

    Especially in the current situation, we really need awake students to deal with what is likely to be a very challenging future.

    The underlying question here is of course whether we might be facing peak knowledge -- along the line of Tainter's model, or the analogy of the collapse of the Roman Empire, where there was a dramatic fall in learning, knowledge, technology, and complexity on several fronts.

    Peak knowledge will inevitably mean peak humanity; perhaps the converse will also hold.

    Human dignity might survive with an increase in the quality and a decrease in the quantity of knowledge.

    Someone has to spearhead the formulation of a way forward, and it's not likely to be the bureaucrat looking for efficiency gains.

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  15. Sorry, I meant to say, they find it hard to stay awake, not away. There doesn't seem to be a way to edit the post.

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  16. Ugo,

    Thannk you for your educational post. Your remarks provide a good antidote to the mind-numbingly dull lecture I am "listening" to.

    Actually, I am kidding about the lecture, but not about your post. We also seem to have passed Peak Meeting, since many of my colleagues spend a good deal of their time at meetings, whether academic or administrative, head down, buried in their Blackberries or iPads or whatever.

    Tainter is right: civilizations collapse under their own inexorable drive to increasing complexity. Blackberries and computers in summer schools are a way to be present in more than one place at once, and bring a significant increase in complexity to our world.

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)