Everyone should check out this story from the Guardian on Tuesday, which nicely encapsulates the way universities have rhetorically boxed themselves in on the student experience.
Some background: in late 2010, the UK government decided to cut operating grants to universities by 41%, and to allow tuition fees at universities in England and Wales to rise to £9,000 (+150% or so). Even though the policy change hasn’t had a huge effect on access, students are clearly now paying a lot more for essentially the same experience. Last week, one student consumer group published a report showing exactly how little has changed: despite the massive fee rise, students are only getting an extra 18 minutes a week of contact time with professors.
This brings us to the story I’ve linked to at the beginning of this post, in which Universities UK CEO, Nicola Dandridge, dismissed the findings about the 18 extra minutes by saying, “It is misleading to make a crude assumption that time spent in lectures and seminars can be equated with university course quality”.
I get the point Dandridge is trying to make – it’s not just course hours that matters, but also teacher quality, infrastructure, curriculum, etc. But would she have said the same thing if the journalist had been asking about MOOCs vs. traditional universities? Not in a million years. Unless you’re employed by a university that owns shares in EdX, the standard response is that “MOOCs are a great product for some, but most students still want the irreplaceable experience of being in a classroom with a great teacher”.
Universities can’t simultaneously say, “the in-class experience is brilliant and irreplaceable”, and “it really doesn’t matter how many contact hours you have”. That’s called “trying to have it both ways”.
It’s absolutely true, of course, that the way learning occurs at universities is only partly dependent on what happens in classrooms; a lot of the benefits of university learning comes from the serendipity that occurs when you cram lots of young, curious people into the same physical space for four years, and let them rip. And MOOCs are low on serendipity.
The problem is that we don’t know much about measuring serendipity (which is why we fall back on measures like class time and contact hours), and where we do have an inkling, universities often avoid presenting this information (at least in a format accessible to outsiders). And yet, when it comes to undergraduate education, this very serendipity provides universities their genuinely unique value proposition – it’s what they can do that no one else does.
If universities genuinely want to prove value, they need to focus on measuring serendipity, and working relentlessly to increase it. That’s their UVP. That’s the ballgame.