The university of the future

Continuing the discussion from Read the ultimate foot-stamping rant about Millennials:


Also, calling @ActionAbe, @japhroaig, @LDoBe, @infundibulum, @Heather, whoever else might be interested, since the topic got derailed a bit talking about university/college, why not talk about not what’s wrong with the university system/systems, but maybe talk about how we’d like to see it change?


Now that I am a tad less rambly (only a tad):

  • Tenure should be replaced with something closer to unions. Don’t incent to publish, incent to teach, and possibly incent your students to publish (but don’t make it a requirement to keep your job)
  • Any for-profit school should immediately be reclassified as a vocational school. Knowledge is the commons, and the abuse of the commons is very real and detrimental to all of us.
  • Universities and degrees should not be gatekeepers to a happy, wealthy, fulfilling life. I can’t name but a single PhD friend of mine that is using their degree in their field. They learned how to learn, and that is the keystone.

I largely agree with what @japhroaig laid out.

  • I’m not sure I agree with replacing tenure, but I do think a lot of university departments need to be more explicit in their contracts beyond the division of hours between teaching, research and service. And part of that should be specifying what appropriate research outputs are. For example, in some natural resource management type departments, appropriate research outputs might mean fewer papers, but more policy consultation with the state.
  • More tracks to permanent employment with universities. My field is very software-dependent, but try hiring a software person to help write your code. These jobs help research get done, and helps expose students to different careers and facets of STEM work.
  • Schools need to make a serious commitment to learning: That means lower teaching loads per instructor. That means returning to what adjunct meant – a person who works in a field and comes in to teach short-term. That also means ensuring student disability services commensurate with the student body, and having enough staff to help instructors adjudicate disputes with students, and for instructors to learn new pedagogy skills.
  • Part of the university of the future has to come from the outside. Employers need to look at their jobs and say ‘Hm. Do I really need to hire someone with a four-year degree to answer my phones?’ The Bachelor’s is effectively the new high school degree, and that’s morally wrong. Someone shouldn’t have to go into debt to have access to jobs that don’t even pay that well.
  • Relatedly, as a society, we need to stop equating college with ‘what you do after high school’ or ‘what you do if you’re not an idiot’. There are lots of excellent careers that only require internships or apprenticeships. When I do outreach in schools, I make sure to let them know this.

Edited to fix typos in bullets 3 & 4.


I don’t think that when I went to Uni (gah, almost 20 years ago, really?) it was to learn, rather than to prepare for work, although it sounds nice. I’d be a perpetual student if I was independently wealthy.

I know my former employers constantly complained about how engineering grads in the UK weren’t ready for employment, but I’m not really sure they should be - I think employers have graduate training schemes for a reason. I guess it’s good that my employers pumped money into the system by funding cooperative ventures with universities, but I don’t think university should be purely vocational.

I don’t know what to make of the reports of complaints about commencement speakers, safe spaces, renaming buildings etc. I don’t know how widespread it really is. I have a lot of privilege so it’s not something I ever directly had to worry about - I like the idea of people’s views being challenged, and debate being fostered but that’s easy for me to say.

I guess it’s also worth noting the differences between England and the US - from what I can gather in the US you never fully specialize (or not until late on?). In be UK I chose Maths and Science at 16 and never studied anything else at all except the joke A-Level that was General Studies and one business management module at university. I do like the sound of the International Baccalaureate instead of A-Levels.


I think we also need to reconsider the whole concept of a university except as a focused institution of learning on specific subjects that require access to resources a regular consumer wouldn’t have.

We’re already at the point where there are tons of way to obtain a tremendous amount of education in other ways, including online resources like Khan Academy (which includes John and Hank Green’s awesome CrashCourse videos!) In addition, a lot of skills require ongoing learning and don’t really benefit from much (if any) time in a formal classroom environment.

Lastly, I think we also need to take into account the fact that not all people benefit from a classroom environment in the same way and there’s the individual to keep in mind. We all thrive in different environments and have different learning styles and that’s not just something we can ignore anymore. The days of assembly-line training are long behind us, aren’t they?

I’ll let Sir Ken Robinson chime in, he has a lot to add.


I’ve been catching a lot of Michio Kaku talking about the lack of PhD candidates from in country (USA) lately. Bemoaning the fact that the majority of his students (and sometimes all of his students) are there on H1B visas.

Say what you like about his contributions to physics but I think he’s an effective promoter of education reform.

You can find many of his talks online but this is a good intro


That was an exceptional TED talk. Thank you sharing it.

Thanks also to @Mindysan33 for creating this thread so I could learn more from what others had to say without further derailing the prior thread off which this one spun.

I dearly wish I could organize more of my own thoughts on this, but I’m on Tokyo time and I’ve changed time zones four times in two weeks for trips both personal and business, so my brain isn’t working as smoothly as I’d like.

One thing I will say is that I think the Renaissance Person of the Future won’t be a master of all classical disciplines. She won’t always be a Modern Major General. He won’t often be a rogue genius. They’ll be what
you get when you give someone access to an unprecedented wealth of knowledge, mentors who are able and willing to connect with them as people and not just Scantron statistics, and an upbringing that gives them both structure and intellectual freedom.

Now yes, I’m basically saying make a New Deal, a Space Race, a Manhattan Project. I’m asking for the world. But you know what, that’s exactly what’s at stake. And the hardest step is the first. None of those programs happened overnight. Someone said, I can answer that call, I can lay a brick for someone else to lay another atop, I can figure out what Major Tom will need to keep him kicking in orbit, I can build that first atomic pile under the squash court at the University of Chicago. Then another person pitched in, and another and another and before long the whole world was a different place to live in.

It’s been done before. I’ll do my part. We can do it again. Imagine a whole world of Happy Mutants.


Oh yeah, I’m totally with you there. Our best achievements are when we have something amazingly difficult to accomplish and the amount we learn while trying to accomplish a creative task is always impressive.

There’ve been a lot of studies on Problem-based learning and the value of having ill-defined problems to solve. Heck, in my dream world education IS problem solving and half of our best creations are coming from kids who are unafraid to learn and are okay with making a few mistakes along the way.

I think that applies to work too…if we embrace automation of non-creative tasks then the automation itself IS a creative task…and everything else is creative as well and therefore a source of ongoing learning. Having team members raising the bar (or, barring them, people in the public sphere to help there) just makes it better because it gives you people to bounce ideas off of and co-mentor as well as some more of those near-unachievable goals to chase after.

I’ve done a couple of Skunkworks type projects and they still count as the most intense learning AND intense productivity experiences I’ve had, to the point I’m constantly trying to duplicate parts of that experience in small ways and other realms. (with some success! :+1: ). It’s all about being well motivated in the end, and there’s nothing like some contagious enthusiasm to help us get there!


Ideas for universities of the future… Hmmm…

I filled out my students evaluations the other day, so I’m in rare form to offer some suggestions at the moment. The first one is the following:

#Powerpoint Should Be Banished From the Earth.

The argument, assuming I don’t have to state the obvious here and can jump straight to the worst parts of PP, is that PowerPoint lectures where a professor reads off the slide are worse than boring: They eliminate any and all need for a professor. It’s a waste of a PhD. I’ll take a TA with less overall knowledge who can deliver a good lecture over a professor who knows more in the aggregate who can’t do more than read off slides. Lectures have to be engaging, entertaining, or possibly just Socratic. There is some debate as to whether or not professors are entertainers, and I’d say they might or mightn’t be, but lecturers are. I am very firm in this belief. It’s not because I expect the same realm of experience as I would expect from a good episode of Breaking Bad, but there is something to be said for making sure you’re sufficiently stimulating the student to pursue the thoughts as they are being expressed. There is little point to a lecture when I can get a more entertaining explanation from reading the book at home, alone. There is literally no reason for that lecture to exist. I can’t think of one. So students can ask questions? There aren’t any, because students aren’t engaged or invested enough in the process to ask questions. And I think I’m fair about this: Give me a lecture on accounting practice and I’ll fall right the fuck asleep, but I won’t blame the lecturer for it. My standard is if I find the material fascinating until I get to the lecture hall.

The particular professor I’m talking about (an astute reader would have figured out by now that there is an immediate context to my remarks) not only presented entirely by reading PP slides but actually took a boring activity and then turned it into an ordeal. We were to print the slides and bring them in to class because key points were missing from the slides. Her slides had the key points and were complete and so we were supposed to attend class for the slides to become useful. I asked her if she ever posted the complete slides for us, and she said that she didn’t to ensure students attended class.

This, is of course based on the extremely popular misconception among professors that increased attendance translates to better grades. The studies don’t show that. The studies show that students with higher grades have better attendance. There is actually no evidence that contrivances to incentivize attendance have significant impacts. I’m willing to accept such evidence if someone actually does the legwork, but right now there is simply no research on contrived semi-punitive measures to boost attendance. And boy howdy was this measure undertaken by my professor the Emperor of Contrivances. I was in my second-to-last lecture today and I started to get angry about it. She moved so fast over the semester that I couldn’t listen to the lectures, because I was hurriedly playing fill-in-the-blanks. There’s also no rhyme or reason as to what “key points” were really key points. Sometimes they were just reiterations or something obvious from a diagram. I found myself feeling very jerked around. Also, I think it’s poor form to literally hide information from students as an artificial behavioral incentive.

I think it’s philosophically unjustifiable considering the end goal: For the student to understand and comprehend the material, and to master it. That was the whole idea behind the conrivance to increase attendance, right? To improve student performance? This is a clear case of someone losing sight of why they’re doing a particular thing. For this particular class, I relied heavily on the fact that I had done this material over a decade ago in high school. It’s not hard material. It’s a 100/1000 level class (My very last, thank the Lord and All his Minions) and it was literally made harder than it needed to be. It was particularly galling because much of what is expected from you as a student (for this particular class I’m talking about) in terms of grading is based on your ability to match phrases with the questions. The questions don’t speak for themselves, you have to know look for the key phrase in the question so you can regurgitate the correct answer. This is why I cared so damn much about making sure I was labelling the slides so that I could avoid losing stupid points on an exam.

This brings me to the next Big Issue on my mind: Student Evaluations and the Useless Bullshit That They (Probably) are.

I have three problems with the evaluation process and they are transparency, selection bias, and their use as a metric of instructor effectiveness. I consistently have no idea how anonymous the process is. I know because I asked my girlfriend who was a TA at my university, but for no other reason. As my contracts professor once told me, “Never mind the law. If it’s not in writing, it’s not a promise anyone is willing to stand behind.” I want to know what is going on when I fill these out. I really want to know if the professor has access to the written portion of the evaluation in conjunction with the rating portion. If that’s the case and it’s a writing class they’d have to be fucking stupid not to be able to figure out how I rated them. This means that for any class where I sent a professor any extensive written material, I limit my evaluation to short dumb sentences with atypical spelling mistakes thrown in for good measure. If it weren’t digital, I’d write it in crayon. I treat any evaulation that does not explicitly declare that it’s anonymous and explain how as if it’s simply not.

If you’re a tenured professor, you don’t get any evaluation from me. Why? What’s the point? Read it, don’t read it, it’s all the same to you. My observation is that any professor who’s been there for more than a decade teaches the class the same way they always have. You talk to other students and grad students and it becomes readily apparent that they aren’t going to change the basic manner in which they teach the course, no matter how dysfunctional it may be and no matter how much students dislike it. If you’re a TA, I’ll go out of my way to get it done because you really need it, but tenured profs don’t seem as responsive.

Selection bias is another reason the whole way we do instructor evaluation has to be revamped. Students don’t have to evaluate their instructors. So who evaluates them? Students with gripes and students who really liked the professor. Any statistician will tell you that the truth doesn’t always lie in the average of two extremes. There’s the occasional student like me who actually considers the systemic necessity of the activity, but in talking to other students, this isn’t really the case. I filled in ALL of my evaluations this semester because I didn’t want to perpetuate this bias because I was so unhappy with Professor PowerPoint. I take an all or nothing approach to avoid creating a bias.

Finally, I fail to see why student evaluations are allowed to have an impact on employment and are used as a metric for performance. First of all, they aren’t really used consistently among professors. A beginning academic pretty much relies on student evaluations in ways that professors with more experience don’t have to. This, frankly, makes zero sense. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander and vice-versa. Either use them consistently, or not at all. Either they have value, or they don’t.

Here’s my proposal for the university of the future:

Use Prezi instead of Powerpoint. This is not immune to abuse, but Prezis have a distinct advantage: Non-linearity as an option. The Prezi is capable of functioning a lot like a mind-map linking different ideas and concepts together in coherent and logical structure. It’s far more dynamic than a PP presentation. When the professor is no longer lecturing, students can use the Prezi in their own time to follow a chain of ideas while studying the details from their text or other material. Chalk-and-talk is also good but I understand, especially in some fields, that difficult to reproduce diagrams are often necessary.

In addition, since this is a university of the future and we are past scarcity issues that create the necessity of employment: If you want to do research and never teach- don’t. The vice-versa and in-between cases follow the same rule.

A professor’s competence should be evaluated by direct observation for every class by peers or by people trained to do so, who use the student evaluations to deliver constructive feedback. The professors never directly read or process the raw data themselves. If nothing else, it’s a recipe for conformation bias. Let someone else tell you how you teach who is capable of understanding the dynamics of your teaching as a function of their expertise. Rotate these people so that professors can’t write off the conclusions as coming from a particular person’s opinion or bias.


PowerPoint, used well, isn’t bad. Look at Ignite presentations.

If you adhere to some guidelines, PowerPoint can be really effective:

  1. Slides should not be up on the screen for more than a minute. If you have to say something that lasts more than a minute, break it down into smaller slides, going back to the parent slide again and again if necessary.

  2. The professor should never be reading off of the PowerPoint. Know your subject matter - have cue cards, if necessary, but talk to the audience.

  3. The audience should not be able to tune out and get the entire gist of the presentation by reading the slides. However, you should be able to get the entire gist of the presentation from the speech, ignoring the PowerPoint.

  4. The PowerPoint should mainly be used to show things that are better represented visually: videos, pictures, graphs, sight gags - stuff to make the words more interesting and relatable.

  5. Attention spans generally don’t last much beyond fifteen minutes. If you hit fifteen minutes of you just talking and changing slides, change it up, and involve the audience somehow so that they don’t fall asleep.

  6. Finally, a good PowerPoint cannot save a bad speaker. The presenter needs to speak loudly, clearly, and with a wide range of tone and intonation, with jokes and examples, and make the subject interesting. If you can’t be passionate about what you’re teaching, why should those people listening?

I’ve had one presentation recently that was given using PowerPoint, and while it ran way too long, it was extremely effective, because of all of these things. Almost every other PowerPoint presentation I’ve seen failed on all, or nearly all, of these counts, and I needed caffeine to make it to the end.


You are allowed to say Maths and Sciences, or Math and Science.


I dropped English at 16…

Also, I did this - 2 for the price of 3!


I’m the bastard in the audience that, if the presenter is just reciting a slide, yells, “quiet up front, I’m reading!” :smile:

Not really of course, but all your points are accurate and more need to internalize them. I won’t say I am the best presenter, buy I’d score at least a solid B+ at a real TED talk. (If my material was good)

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Just having a little fun, but this is the disturbing part: the first time I ever heard someone say “Maths” that I can remember was Jeremy Clarkson.

So if you say Maths, I see:

I look more like Hammond. Except he’s taller than me.

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Assuming you have no interest in being regarded as a research institution. And if faculty aren’t serious about publishing, students won’t really learn how either. But it’s also true that research is a virtue in it’s own right. As a wise man once told me, if you take away the administrators, and if you take away the students, as long as you have a faculty, you still have a college.


If I have a job that is 1/5th looking for funding, 1/5th administrative duties, 1/5th patents/speaking/confences… Then how is our children learning? :smile:

It should not be the onus of a prof to simultaneously try and get grant money to fund their research; create IP that is then monetized by the university or organization; and attempt to recruit paying students or lowly laid grad students for their departments.

The incentives do not favor the students. And it creates problems like I have seen dozens of times–when it is time to move out of academia… What the hell do you do? (This is a question I will leave to the reader :smiley:)


Pun intended?

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Oh shit it isn’t… Where the fuck is it?

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