Identifying the student experience

Last month (Freemium education) I posted about the new online venture from Harvard and MIT.  This week I note that this piece about the venture has floated close to the top of the BBC news most shared list.

The piece rightly acknowledges that Harvard and MIT have incredibly strong brands, and that they aren’t in this particular segment of the education business to make money.  But it’s worth picking up on this particular question, about half way down:

“Because if the content of university courses becomes freely available, what is it that students are paying for?”

Increasingly I would argue that it isn’t about content, and that whether you sign up to attend a traditional face-to-face university, or engage in some sort of distance learning, the value added by the university is to do with interaction (it’s also to do with accreditation and proof that you’ve learned something, which is another issue).  After all, long before the Internet, it was possible for anybody wanting to learn about a subject on the basis of one expert’s view to do so by reading a book.  And, thanks to the availability of public libraries, a keen student could always read the expert’s views at no cost.

Maybe the real clue to why students can benefit from attending universities came from overhearing snatches of a phone conversation earlier this week.  It was  early on Tuesday evening, and the phone conversation was a man clearly making arrangements to meet a friend, in time to watch that evening’s football game on television in a pub.  He could, of course, have watched exactly the same television coverage from home, but clearly wanted to be part of a group which was watching the game collectively.  The same principle applies to education: people like the sense of participation and like to feel part of a group.

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One Response to “Identifying the student experience”

  1. David Barry Says:

    As it happens, some years ago-more than I particularly care to admit; I had an involvement in University administration – as a minor bureaucrat. This included working in several Universities and those now lost institutions -Polytechnics, and a spell with CNAA
    see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Council_for_National_Academic_Awards

    Based on my experience I can say that the core function of a University is awarding degrees. Nothing else. And it was always the case that not all the degrees were awarded on the basis of academic study(!) This continues today in modern universities as the “honorary degree”

    In fact this used to be made absolutely explicit when the norm was the “collegiate university” where you have a university like the University of London made up of colleges, like UCL, Imperial, and Borkbeck. Or for that matter, Oxford and Cambridge. Once upon a time in Oxford you paid a fee to your college, which covered the cost of your teaching, and of your accomodation and meals.

    The college in return taught you, by giving you tutorials, and provided a congenial social experience.

    Then, in due course, you paid an exam fee to the University to cover the cost of being examined, and then all being well, a degree fee to have the thing conferred, and those fees paid for the actually rather small University expenses as all the work was done by the colleges. And what we now call the “student experience” was entirely a matter for the colleges.

    So the body that examines you, accredits you, and graduates you need have nothing to do with your learning…

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