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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.

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 Barbastro, 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" 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, usually, 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 stretch as soon as I was back home from that school in Feltre that I mentioned at the beginning. Let me say that it is not meant at all to disparage the 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.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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