Stuck in the Steam Age

The electrical revolution has come but the education system is stuck in the steam age.

Electrical Productivity Conundrum

Before electricity, factories were powered by steam. One large steam engine generated all the power for a factory. A system of belts and pulleys transferred this power to respective machines. This meant that factory machines had to be located relatively close to the steam engine that powered them. This helped create the vertical stacked factories in the picture below. There is one giant steam generator in the basement which would deliver power vertically through the floors.

A blue print of a steam powered factory. Notice the giant steam generator in the basement.

When factories changed from steam to electric power – they swapped out the large steam engine with a similarly large electrical generator, but kept everything else the same. Managers were confused when the promised productivity improvements from electrification did not appear.

Productivity gains did not appear until the whole layout of the factory was rethought. Without the need for pulleys and belts associated with steam power, machines powered by electricity could be rearranged into an assembly line. Factories could now be laid out in an assembly line that sprawled across 1 floor instead of being vertically stacked.

The entire production process had to be rethought before these factories experienced the massive productivity gains that electrification had first promised. 

The University System is Stuck in the Steam Age

The current university system finds itself in a similar point of change. The internet offers the opportunity to rethink how we teach and accredit students. So far few, if any, have rethought what new possibilities the internet and information technology offer.

Substituting steam machines with electric generators did not make factories automatically more productive. In the same way, substituting paper based handouts with PDF uploads does not improve the student experience.

Let’s take a look at the how the universities currently use the Internet:

  • Recordings of lectures
  • PDF uploads of readings
  • Submission of homework and marking done online

These are all examples of taking things that existed pre-internet (lectures, paper handouts, homework problems) and moving them on. The rest of the university experience (attending lectures, tutorials, exams, the semester models, the university campus) all remain largely unchanged. 

The Way Forward

Max Planck once observed that “Science progresses one funeral at a time”. A similar dynamic exists in how quickly the university system will adapt to the opportunities of the internet.

Unfortunately there is little space for innovation until the existing generation of management leaves and a new generation takes control. This generation will have grown up with internet and communication technologies in the background of their lives.

Bringing these technologies to the university system will seem obvious and straightforward to them. (An alternative way to speed this process up is if a new organisation replaces the credentialing functions of a university. More on this soon!)