De-schooled Society

Going to Uni. It was one of the only certainties I had whilst growing up. I liked that certainty. It felt as a safe and wise thing to do. What could possibly go wrong once you’ve obtained that long awaited diploma?

Now that I am the proud owner of said diploma, I realise that many things can go wrong. For starters, choosing a subject that fits you. We choose a bachelor’s degree at the age of 18. Supposedly, we’re educated and informed enough (in reality, I spent 30 minutes with my school counsellor and went to two open-days) to know what ‘we’ as adolescent youngsters truly want in life.

Although I am extremely glad to have picked psychology at the time, as it is still one of my biggest interests, roughly 30% of all students switch tracks completely at least once, which is rather disturbing. We can safely assume that many more stick to their original plan, but are unhappy doing so.

Secondly, many diploma’s do not provide people with any real-life job opportunities. Instead of nudging my interests towards cognitive science, I could’ve chosen the master Clinical Psychology, only to find myself waiting in line – unemployed – to get any further training as a clinical psychologist (nobody cares about your master degree in Clinical Psychology – unless you make really good coffee).

So in the worst case, our university model forces adolescents to make decisions they are not well equipped for, only to leave them with a diploma they do not want and no job that fits the diploma. Rather disappointing.

Based on this, there is a growing consensus that the model of the university itself is in dire need of revision. My professor of Serious Games gleefully joined in on the canon, and kind of stated that we need to de-school society.

According to his view, or at least what I understood from it, our current university system, like other man-made institutions, are made to control the behaviour of people, and since people need more freedom, we are almost ready to abolish many said institutions. Bolstered with the supposed lack of teaching effect within universities (very low), or at least not as good as what you would expect for the highest form of education within our world, people like him make quite a good case.

Personally, I do not agree with this view. Besides the irony that my professor obtained part of his knowledge by intensively studying several subjects at universities,  this view heavily rests on the assumptions that individuals – by default-  are true autodidacts. Although this might be the case (philosophical debates aside), it assumes that all people will start learning stuff just for the sake of learning and to obtain (practical) truths about the world. Although some around us readily do this, many more of us don’t. This lack of will or interest is then attributed to the way material is presented within a curriculum – sluggish, boring and slow. Again, the university or institution is to blame.

Are they though?

If we for one, were to assume, that the university as we know it disappears, and everyone starts learning what they want by following their own combination of MOOC’s, what would we expect?

I would expect that both the problems we encountered earlier still exist. People of young age still have no clue what they want (with choice-stress only skyrocketing if everything is available to everyone at any time) and many people would still chose combinations of MOOC’s that do not lead to any combination of marketable skills. If we would want to have any form of quality control (which is one of the primary functions of a university), it would probably take on a form of a digitalized university based around our current models. Therefore, de-schooling society more or less sounds like digitalizing society.

Then of course, it is not the universities only job to teach people certain marketable skills, more so to get them acquainted with a certain mind-set or intellectual way of thinking.

This is where I see the greatest of issues. When universities get fully digitalized, and interactive  MOOC’s designed by the university staff takes over most of the curriculum, would youngsters truly grasp this way of thinking?

Since these MOOC’s will operate in the same location as all the other digitalized experiences  with the internet increasingly being filled with user generated content, we first need to ensure that our new students of life can accurately tell high and low quality information apart, as this was one of the implicit goals of the university. For most untrained people, it is already impossible to discern between bogus facts and information that are actually obtained by valid scientific inquiry. These human factors that come into play , even more complex and intricate than those encountered while designing expert systems such as self-driving cars, should not be undervalued or overlooked, simply to make ‘learning’ more fun and engaging.

Teaching effects at the university might be sloppy, but how do we ensure that our (future) generations of multi taskers are actually paying attention to that what they are viewing on their screens, while dozens of other applications call for attention?  How do we make sure that a digitalized university, truly uses its authority in the production and spreading of high class knowledge? How do make sure that the curriculum is not dumbed down to such an extent in order to make it fun, that people cannot discern anymore between real science and the rubbish we encounter at thespiritscience.net? Already, the internet is starting to become an echo chamber of misinformation. We can only imagine what would happen if our universities would fully enter this fray where clicks and attention work as a currency.

After all, isn’t fun highly overrated?

Of course, I am just exploring the extremes. Chances are, that many theoretical lectures will indeed become MOOC’s very soon. Virtual reality will probably bring some nifty innovations to the table. Augmented reality might suffice for doing practical’s at home.

Still, as a student, I love being at Uni. It inspires me, to think about all these bright minds walking around. And although change is definitely needed, as it is always an invited guest, we should be wary of these changes. Yes, university might be boring and uninspiring for many. However, maybe we shouldn’t ask the question how to make university more engaging, but why so many of our fresh new minds seem to lack the wonder that makes the university such a vibrant and wonderful place.

Author: Ruben Boyd

My name is Ruben Boyd, an aspiring science journalist and a graduate of the Cognitive Science Research track of the Artificial Intelligence Master at the VU - William James Graduate School. My roots lie in Psychology, and in 2014 I proudly obtained my Bachelor of Science at the VU Amsterdam.

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