Starters and finishers

by reestheskin on 09/07/2016

Comments are disabled

There is an interview in EdSurge with Dan Schwartz, the Dean of the Stanford School of Education. He talks about many interesting ideas elsewhere, but in this interview he says some fairly standard things about universities versus industry.

‘As an academic: I’m a great starter, and I can prove that something works. But my desire to ever have a 1–800-Call-Dan hotline for people who want to know how to use my inventions is like…zero.

Now, if its software, I could put it up on the Internet and let people use it. But I can’t market it, and I can’t keep maintaining the code. And I need to get a business plan, but I don’t know how to do that. ‘

This is very much about universities being the sort of place you start things, not where you finish them. I agree. Indeed one of the problems I see is that people want research to increasingly resemble product development. This will make all the figures look great (‘D’ is more expensive), but eventually will bankrupt universities.

Medical schools have taken on all sorts of activities that are critical to the practice of medicine, it is just that some or many of them should be done elsewhere. Please invent new statistical methodologies, or ways of measuring disease, but let others outwith medical schools apply them in the ‘D’ of the R + D. Economists use the census, but they do not do the legwork themselves.

But this got me thinking (not surprising given the theme of his article) about the one area where business or product development is central to a university’s activity: teaching delivery and learning (ugly phrases all, I know, but they are placeholders for more). And I do not believe we are good at doing this. We are good starters, but developing coherent programmes that dovetail into a particular niche, is not something we do well — certainly not in undergraduate medicine. The most obvious reasons for this deficiency are:

  1.  The problems of scaling educational activity
  2.  The historical structures ( I will use ‘ward’ as my synecdoche ) are no longer fit for purpose.
  3. Many of our staffing structures would make more sense if our true goal was to make teaching worse.

I am not convinced people get this, or realise the time for fiddling or small tweaks has long gone.

The structural framework of many university activities, especially advanced research, are well suited to their goals, and few institutions are as efficient at the business of genuine invention (leave aside, that universities are getting worse at this — this is only in part their fault). But if I look at the modern medical school we are not good finishers in our central ask, and we need to be.