Saturday, May 14, 2005

The death of a university

I’ve just come across an interesting tale from a land far away where a major university went out of business a few weeks ago. It used to have an outstanding international reputation: researchers from all over the world came to ply their trade, and the competition for undergraduate places allowed fees to rise to levels never before seen. Life in these ivory towers used to be very good indeed.

But then, the dream turned sour. The main factor which put the university out of business was the success of a small software company started by academics from the university itself - deceptively named EasyWise. In its early days this company went along with prevailing fashions in its business, knowledge engineering. They tried to develop so called expert systems, which embodied traditional academic expertise. This wasn't a threat to the university because the systems never really worked; it turned out that the academic experts didn't understand their theories well enough to explain them to the software experts. And besides, EasyWise and other companies in the field needed experts trained by the universities to develop the software which never worked. Far from being competition, this was actually creating more demand for the university's products.

The second phase of the knowledge engineering game was even more in the university's favour. All pretence of software systems replacing the experts was now gone; the experts now needed the software do their business, and the software industry needed the universities both to supply the experts to write the software, and to provide a demand for the software. Business boomed all round.

Up to this point EasyWise had been a very minor player. Then they saw their chance. Much of the expertise which the experts possessed was unnecessarily complex. It was like using Roman numerals instead of the modern place value system, or using a Dos operating system rather than Windows. The dream was to simplify quantum mechanics and analysis of variance so that it could be understood, in a useful sense, by any moderately intelligent person with a bit of patience. EasyWise aimed to be at the forefront of marketing this new brand of "knowledge which is so simple you don't need to attend lectures or fail exams" - as their promotional literature had it.

The academics, of course, all knew that this wasn't possible. They were so sure that they hardly bothered to acknowledge the challenge. But they were wrong. Quantum mechanics has yet to succumb, but analysis of variance has been largely superseded by computer simulation methods, and many other areas used by academics to fail their students are either ignored or replaced by far more straightforward perspectives. Many EasyWise projects, following the slogan "if people don't understand it, change it", were startlingly successful. (In a few areas the simple version was so obvious and vacuous that even EasyWise couldn't sell it.) The reason it seemed impossible was that no one had tried it because everyone knew it was impossible.

EasyWise was seen as the local Microsoft or Google. Their business boomed, but the university's slumped as employers realised that someone armed with some "easy wisdom" (to quote the sales literature again) was far more use than a university trained expert. They increasingly came to see that conventional courses encouraged students to focus on assessment to the exclusion of almost everything else. Successful students passed their exams with flying colours, but could not apply their ideas in different contexts. Everybody had always known this, of course, but now EasyWise was providing a genuine alternative, the sheer uselessness of examination oriented training was becoming clear for everyone to see. Prospective students quickly realised that employers realised all this, and that the "easy way" was actually more fun than sitting in lectures and failing exams. EasyWise "graduates" even started to get research jobs in universities.

But then, gradually, EasyWise's dominance lessened as their role became less and less necessary. Their product was simple ideas supported by very simple software. Simple ideas couldn't be copyrighted or patented, and simple software was easy to mimic. Soon the web was full of copies of everything EasyWise had strove so hard to achieve. All of it was free, and much of it was better than the original. They may have been the catalyst for the new idea, but EasyWise's business was now on just the same downward slope as the University's.

At this point the university could probably have got itself back into the market. Simple ideas were by no means easy to develop, and their use does benefit from a training of some kind. Here were two useful roles the university could have stepped into.

However, they didn't. They chose to compete on two very different fronts, with disastrous consequences. First, they had a campaign to reinforce the prestige of university learning, and to deride the "simpletons of the easy way" and the "dumbing down" of everything. And to ram the point home they made their wares even more esoteric and complex than previously. Second, they were forced to lower their exam pass marks to keep potential students enrolling, despite the work being made more difficult.

Both tacks were disastrous. The lowering of standards was obvious to all, and the their reputation descended to that of peddlers of pretentious twaddle, understood by nobody, not even many of those supposedly teaching it.

This story is little known outside the land in question. The university's decline is obvious, but the reason - competition from the simple way - is hidden by deeply-held assumptions that this could not be a real substitute for traditional learning. Those in the knowledge business who do understand what happened are grateful that their customers don't: they understand the common interest of universities and all the other players in the business in keeping things difficult so that the rot of the simple way cannot take hold.

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