In his opening remarks at the closing session of the week long Innovation Forum at UW Bothell, University of Washington President Michael Young observed “universities are great at shining the bright light of research on all aspects of the world except the university itself. It is long past time we look at ourselves with that bright spotlight of research and insight.” What an interesting concept – the university needing to “know thyself.”
The Innovation Forum was the first in what will be a yearly series with this year’s theme “creativity and innovation.”
The closing summit topic was “Reinventing the University.” After a welcome from UW Bothell Chancellor Kenyon Chan who joked about the athletic prowess of Asian Americans with the meteoric rise of Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks (Linsanity), an esteemed panel of academics and industry luminaries shared their thoughts on how the university could reinvent itself.
Michael Young continued his thoughts on what a great university should do which is “to have ideas, research them and then move those ideas into the world to have impact.” While noting that universities are successful in doing that today, Young suggested that the university “transform itself to focus on the grand challenges in health care, engineering, science and the humanities.”
Dr. J. Rogers Hollingsworth followed with his thoughts on how you create a new university that is both global and local at the same time and one that thinks of itself in longitudinal terms. Hollingsworth noted that many of the siloed disciplines of the academy are converging on the same models and the same ways of thinking without realizing it. He described the attributes of the new university as being research focused, small with a great amount of interaction, relatively few students in the physical location yet with 10s of thousands of students receiving teaching remotely, and faculty who change every 5-7 years. Prior to the Innovation Forum, Hollingsworth shared the core of his ideas which resulted from his study of “Excellence in Biomedical Research – The Case of The Rockefeller University.”
Dr. Fariba Alamdari, VP of Marketing and Value Analysis for Boeing, shifted the conversation to the needs of industry. She referenced Tom Friedman’s That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back and the five factors we need to resurrect our leadership position. She noted that two of them involved the university and education. She shared her own frustration with recent university graduates who “can’t write, get frightened when you mention anything that is about mathematics, and can’t communicate their ideas.” She also pointed out the needed linkage between the humanities and engineering with “we have lots of engineers at Boeing who can communicate all day long about their data, but they can’t tell even simple stories about what the data means.” She urged universities to teach the basics and to provide an education which is problem based and inquiry based.
Anoop Gupta, Distinguished Scientist for Microsoft Research, focused his remarks on looking at the university through the lens of innovation. In particular, he looked at the university through the viewport of the education mission and how technology might apply. He shared the wonderful success of Stanford Professor Sebastian Thrun who was so ecstatic about the response to his online course (160,000 students) and the 2,000 volunteers who translated the materials into 44 languages that he left Stanford to found Udacity. Gupta pointed out that while online learning is not new, education at that scale changes everything. Several of the interesting innovations were peer to peer grading and using machine learning to filter the hundreds of thousands of student questions (most of which were similar). The students who were surveyed felt that this form of online learning was far more personal than the classroom.
After pointing out several other universities that are following this pattern of offering large scale online courses, Gupta shared the commonalities in the course offerings:
- Scale – 160,000 students attending a course changes everything
- Pedagogy – professors become large scale brands – the best of the best are now actively engaged in the teaching. Students are continuously tested and continuously interact with their peers. Instead of the time and place bound model of teaching, the student progresses at their own pace.
- Reverse model of using “class” time – like the Khan academy, students are expected to learn the material outside of class from video lectures and the “classroom” time is spent in discussion and customization of the materials to individuals.
- Textbooks – now become interactive with tests embedded in them and the ability to be marked up and added to by the students. Textbooks form a social media starting point for crowd sourcing.
- Peer Grading
- Machine learning assists the finding of patterns in questions and learning difficulties.
The success of these online courses is pointing out the massive unaddressed needs of higher learning – those who can’t afford traditional university education, those who are remote, and those who don’t have access to subject matter at their current university. Susan Jeffords, Vice-Chancellor at UW Bothell, pointed me to a recent article “Envisioning a Post-Campus America” in The Atlantic which echoed many of the themes that Gupta proposed. Megan McArdle wrote the following contemplations:
- Education will end up being dominated by a few huge incumbents.
- Online education will kill the liberal arts degree.
- Professors (course developers) will be selected for teaching instead of research brilliance.
- 95% of tenure-track professors will lose their jobs.
- The corollary of #4 is the end of universities as research centers.
- Young job-seekers will need new ways to signal diligence.
- The economics of graduate school will change substantially.
- Civil society will have to substitute for the intense friend networks that are built at college.
- The role of schooling in upward mobility will change.
- The young will have a much lower financial burden in their 20s.
- The tutoring industry will boom.
- If the credentials become valuable, cheating will be a problem.
Michael Young shared the interesting results of a UW project Foldit which used a game kind of environment to discover how proteins fold. What was most interesting to him was the unexpected results that the researchers (David Baker, Zoran Popovic) observed – the emergent formation of competitively cooperative groups with mentors who worked on the problems together. These groups developed profound learning well beyond the confines of the game. This research echoes the same process that occurred with the $1M Netflix Prize challenge to improve their collaborative filtering algorithm. Young suggested that systems to support this kind of learning – working on grand challenges – should serve as the model for accelerated learning.
As a parting comment, several of the panelists wondered whether we will use technology to do the same things we’ve done for hundreds of years but faster and with more people, or can we think differently about what it means to learn 21st century skills. Can we indeed learn to think differently?
As we all warmly applauded the thought provoking ideas shared by the panelists, the closing session of the Innovation Forum week was over all too quickly. I felt like my mind was just getting warmed up and it was time to leave.
Once again, I wonder if the university experience is wasted on the young?
I eagerly await next year’s UW Bothell Innovation Forum.
And a special thanks to a new friend and colleague, Professor Alan Wood, for organizing this year’s Innovation Forum. Well done!