A new crop of hands-on universities is transforming how students learn
The latest push to disrupt higher education
WHEN Christine Ortiz imagines her ideal university she sees “no lectures, no classrooms, no majors, no departments”. Students will work on tough practical problems in huge open spaces.
If they need to swot up they will consult the internet, not a lecturer. Her vision is far removed from the traditional model of higher education. But it will soon become a reality: in July, after six years as dean of graduate education at MIT, the materials scientist will leave to found a new university. It should open in the next five years.
It will exemplify a trend that is reshaping how some students learn. Geoff Mulgan of Nesta, a British think-tank, calls it the “rise of the challenge-driven university”. In the past 15 years dozens such institutions have been set up, from Chile to China. Many more are planned.
Though they differ in scope, they share an approach. They reject the usual ways of getting young adults to learn: lectures, textbooks, slogs in the library, exams—and professors. Instead students work on projects in teams, trying to solve problems without clear answers. Companies often sponsor the projects and provide instructors. Courses combine arts, humanities and sciences. (The slogan of Zeppelin University, founded in 2003 in Germany, reads: “The problems within our society are ill-disciplined, and so are we!”)
There have been earlier attempts to disrupt higher education. Experimental College, in Wisconsin, attracted hundreds of free-spirited students when it was founded in 1927 without schedules or mandatory classes. The Experimental University, in Paris, was established by frustrated intellectuals after the protests of 1968. Both closed within a few years. (The Parisians may have been too eager to expand access: one lecturer gave a degree to someone she met on a bus.) Other experiments, however, continue. University College of North Staffordshire, renamed Keele University in 1962, became the first English university to offer dual honours courses when it was set up in 1949 by A.D. Lindsay, an Oxford don who complained about academic over-specialisation. “[The] man who only knows more and more about less and less is becoming a public danger,” he warned.
Worry about the state of young minds is also behind the latest initiatives. Champions of “deeper learning”, an increasingly popular idea in American education, argue that today’s teaching methods stifle understanding. Tony Wagner, the author of “Creating Innovators”, says that schools and universities are failing to spark young people’s curiosity. He points to research by Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia, who in 2011 estimated that despite four years of study 36% of newly minted American graduates failed to improve their scores on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a test of critical thinking. Advocates of the new model also often cite the studies of Kyung Hee Kim of the College of William and Mary, which suggest that American scores on a standardised test of creativity have fallen since 1990, even as average IQ scores have risen.
These tests define critical thinking and creativity narrowly. Nevertheless, some young people do want to be taught in different ways. As tuition fees rise, and pricey master’s degrees become more common, students are behaving more like customers. They do not want to sit in 500-seat lecture halls.
About 96% of the 27,000 students polled last year by Zogby, a research firm, said they wanted universities to promote an entrepreneurial environment.
Rising demand for degrees has made universities complacent, says Nick Hillman of the Higher Education Policy Institute, a think-tank in Britain. Universities have almost all plumped for the same sorts of three- and four-year courses in everything, adds Andy Westwood of Manchester University.
François Taddei, director of the Centre for Research and Interdisciplinarity, a university he founded in Paris in 2005, says that although students often complain about teaching, they graduate before they can force changes. Academics, meanwhile, stay put. Governments have entrenched the status quo, adds Mr Mulgan, by offering incentives for universities to rise up international rankings that reward standard education models.
All this is frustrating employers. About half the companies surveyed last year by the Confederation of British Industry, a lobby group, said graduates are unprepared for business jobs. A report last year by the Association of American Colleges & Universities concluded that students lack applied knowledge, critical thinking and communication skills.
Complaints from bosses about education are hardly new. But more are now acting on their frustration. Some are offering further education courses—for example, through the Starbucks “University”. Others, as in the case of the McKinsey Academy, are trying to sell versions of their training to outsiders. And a few are offering alternatives to university. For example, PwC, an accountancy firm, will this year hire about 160 school-leavers. Those who complete the dedicated programmes can join the same “graduate scheme” as university-leavers—with less debt.
Though the line between corporate training and higher education is blurring, for ambitious youngsters choosing a job over a university spot remains rare. But new universities—as well as a few farsighted older ones—are adapting to the changing needs of students and employers.
One is Olin College, an engineering university in Needham, Massachusetts. During their four years, students complete 20-25 projects (one, to make a device that hops like an insect, is pictured on the previous page). They spend about four-fifths of their time in teams and combine ideas from different disciplines, for example biology and history in a course entitled “Six microbes that changed the world”. Richard Miller, Olin’s president, argues that projects strengthen recall and hone communication skills. Since its first class in 2002, Olin has received visits from 658 universities from 45 countries keen to learn about its approach. The Indian School of Design and Innovation in Mumbai, the Singapore University of Technology and Design, and Pohang University, in South Korea, are using a similar teaching model.
In 2017 the New Model in Technology & Engineering (NMITE) will open in England, the country’s first private non-profit university for about 30 years. As at Olin, which has advised NMITE, lecturers will be hired for their teaching expertise rather than publication records.
Students will need good school-leaving qualifications, but not need to have studied maths or physics. They will have to study arts and social science. Classes will be small (20-30 students), and students will get 3.5 hours of contact time with teachers each day.
Another example is the Design Factory, part of Aalto University on the outskirts of Helsinki. Inspired by Stanford’s “d.school”, it brings engineering, art and business students together to design, build and market a product (some are pictured to the right). Kalevi Ekman, its founder, says that he is trying to “bring theory and practice closer together”. His model has expanded to nine other countries, including America, Australia and South Korea.
The new institutions are technologically savvy. Many use “flipped learning”, whereby students learn the basics through online courses and come to university ready to get their hands dirty.
Others go further. One, “42”, is named after the meaning of life—at least according to Deep Thought, a supercomputer in Douglas Adams’s cult novel, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. Specialising in programming, it was founded in Paris in 2013 and in November will open a campus in Fremont, California. Students follow a curriculum based on levels, as in computer games. There are no formal entrance requirements, but students must pass a test of coding skills.
Though their precise methods differ, “challenge-driven universities” share an openness to the world beyond the ivory towers. Design Factory students make their products for companies such as Kone, Airbus and Philips. If an idea is good, they can turn it into a business at the adjacent “startup sauna”, an incubator run by Aalto students. At Hyper Island, which has sites in countries including England, Singapore and Sweden, master’s degrees in digital media are overseen by experts from the likes of IBM, a computing giant, and IDEO, a design consultancy.
The projects are done for companies, including Saatchi & Saatchi, Google and Sony. Last year a Hyper Island team in England designed bespoke emoji for Manchester City Football Club.
Collaborators are not always businesses. Students linked to Harvard’s Ash Centre for Democratic Governance and Innovation spend semesters working for the city of Somerville, outside Boston. The founders of NMITE say they will work with a nearby special-forces regiment and GCHQ, Britain’s signal-intelligence agency.
These new-model universities can be expensive. Low staff-to-student ratios make learning more interesting, but come at a cost. Olin was set up with one of the largest university donations ever, a $460m grant from the Franklin W. Olin Foundation, which focused on education. And yet after eight years of not charging tuition the university began doing so in 2010. (Students this year typically received financial aid covering about half of the $61,125 costs.) There is a limit to the size of many of the providers, concedes Tuija Pulkkinen, Aalto’s vice-president. Most of the new ones have fewer than a thousand students.
Critics worry that students will miss out on core concepts, such as the physics behind engineering.
And there have been no thorough evaluations of whether these university teaching approaches improve scores on the sort of tests cited by Mr Wagner. Mr Taddei says institutions like his are not for the average student, but for “ugly ducklings”: bright, but bored by lectures and books. Luke Morris, a mechanical-engineering student at Olin, praises the freedom to pursue personal projects (he is building a racing car) and the lack of competition. “I don’t even know how I am graded,” he says.
Design for life
The new approach is only one part of broader changes in higher education. But too often governments get in the way of fresh thinking. Though most Chinese universities offer courses in how to innovate or become an entrepreneur, the education ministry seems lukewarm. The South University of Science and Technology in China opened in 2011 pledging to award its own degrees (rather than being accredited by the ministry) and to admit students who had not sat the gaokao, the national college-entrance exam. But last year it was forced to abandon both pledges.
More seriously, there remain few incentives for lecturers to teach in novel ways: research is what matters in building an academic career. Student-rating websites have helped shame the worst professors. But governments can do more, too. Britain, for example, is introducing a Teaching Excellence Framework, intended to reward good teaching. This pleases Aalto’s Mr Ekman. “There are very few Da Vincis,” he says. “The rest of us have a responsibility to prepare students for the future.”