Jun 29, 2022Liked by Étienne Fortier-Dubois

Your description of the perverse incentives in course selection matches my experience perfectly. The current system seems to have arisen from the conflicting aims of providing students with a broad liberal arts background and preparing them to join the workforce (or for further, more serious study).

Challenging that does feel a bit pointless though if students don't go to school to learn, and schools don't accept students to teach them, and employers don't care about any of that.

The British system seems like a good alternative, where both core and elective learning are condensed into earlier years, and students then commit to much narrower scopes of study (A levels) before progressing to university. So the bridging between aims and expectations happens well before higher education.

Expand full comment

As far as I am aware, the only university in the United States to do a rigid, everyone-does-the-same-thing program is St. John's College, in which everyone studies the Great Books/Western Canon, and everyone gets the same degree. Its alumni tend to do very well in literally every kind of graduate program.

Expand full comment
Jun 16, 2022Liked by Étienne Fortier-Dubois

I enjoyed this!

I went to a university significantly more rigid than your experience, and we chafed at it, so I want to defend freedom.

To be somewhat contrarian, your example seems to be like the system working as intended. The lab course is quite costly to the university per student and it's better if only those really interested in molecular biology take it. You mention starting out not interested in mol bio... and ending up not interested in mol bio. This seems fine. Did the evo bio courses go well?

More generally, it's true that 19-year-olds might not know how to design their own education, but there's a much better solution than forcing everyone to take the same courses in the same order - asking people, especially older students in the same major and people who just graduated (apart from college advisors whose job it is to help you with this). In college I chose to take courses based on gossip from seniors about which profs taught well, which courses were pre-reqs for others - which worked out quite nicely.

A nice system some universities have is fairly structured majors, plus the option of designing your own major for students who know what they want to do doesn't fit into a pre-defined major. This seems like the best of both worlds.

Expand full comment

Thank you for sharing a seemingly contrary view to the current ed tech popularised view of DIY. I partly agree with your concern that an open system will possibly result in more errors at the time but disagree that more structure is the answer here.

A counter view is that the reason we struggle at university is precisely because the first 16 odd years of life have been spent in a straight jacketed, structured environment. While it is important to learn some basic skills like math, english, physics etc - this could be done (As Sal Khan argues) through his mastery framework which keeps the learning outcome as a constant and the time+method variable. Allowing different students to learn at their own pace and pursue their own depth instead of treating school as an age based CBC.

Despite all this, there will always be mistakes - systems should solve this by building real & short feedback cycles. I would argue better to have this friction early on instead of send people straight jacketed into the real world where they can do real harm to themselves and to others. No offence to your friend but I would argue that the reason political science students struggle to make an impact in the world is more likely because they are restricted in how much real world experience they can get early on. (e.g. as a developer you can write billion dollar code at 19, but you can't enact universal healthcare from college)

Lastly, I think you provide a false comparison. Comparing the current system with a perfectly designed straight jacketed system (i.e. a benevolent dictator). I'd encourage you to flesh what this system should look like further - who decides what's the best for everyone? what happens when they are wrong? how do they get feedback? You already recognise misaligned incentives - but it is more than that.

I'd argue that on balance more freedom will always lead to a better outcome than a world where a small group make choices for the many.

Expand full comment

My view is that for institutions to adapt, they must reconcile an equilibrium between exponential changes in technology with their relatively unchanging norms. So the productive argument (aside from the awareness, which is most central) is merely managing the complex system rather than asserting on one aspect over another. Structure in the form of institutions have risen in quite effective ways as adaptations to major historical conflicts and problems, but now more than ever pose problems with cultural differences.

It seems, with the burgeoning of experimentation of open-world games, and for example, non-linear textual representations, that the paradigm of linearity is being questioned - the book, structured education, structured anything really, so I give thanks to the sentiment of push-back to freedom so to speak.

Here’s a data-centric lens and example of exploring process-education: essentially, collecting and establishing multiple possible structures of learning and having people test them out.

Phases 1-3: for each subject area/field/topic of interest

Phase 1: Collecting ~30 learning process structures (learn A then B then C) from online sources as well as asking subject matter experts, professors etc. on their recommendations. Evaluate these structures in terms of past comments, online sentiment, etc.

Phase 2: Provide for public use, maybe ~7 of those processes for a period of evaluation. Collect results from these public learning experiments.

Phase 3: Sharpen and continually refine all of these learning processes in lieu of constant feedback , e.g. annually, and eventually provide ~3 primary 'routes'. Find better ways to describe and categorise (organise) these learning structures.

Notes on this method: All the numbers are guesswork right now.

It is foreseeable that even if complete free-form were to be always one of the learning structures, and freedom and spontaneity in the process of learning was encouraged, there will appear a difficulty of feeling imposed by structure, provided that these learning processes have been brought out into the open and made explicit.

I consider this a serious problem to be reckoned with as these educational experiences shape much of our formative years, formative beliefs and approaches in each of our lives. As someone doing the self-motivated online learning you've described, this is right in my alley-basket of problems.

Expand full comment