|Yesterday, I spoke about the desirability of changing the nature of academic work – specifically, dividing the assessment part of the job from the instructional part by creating a group of employees that focus on assessment – to use resources more efficiently. Today, I want to talk about how to further tweak the academic job description and deploy academic resources to significantly improve the student learning environment, without (hopefully) increasing the burden on professors.
The over-riding goal is to make the occupation of professor more streamlined. At the moment, professors are asked to do an awful lot of things: research, teaching, marking, letter-writers for graduates – and then off the side of their desk they are supposed to engage in various types of committee and administrative work. The goal here, with respect to professors, is to have them do less stuff off the side. If that means hiring auxiliaries, that’s fine, provided they are cheaper per hour than professors.
I see there being two areas where universities would be well-advised to hire auxiliaries to improve education while keeping work off the plate of professors:
Curriculum. Outside the fields of study with rigorous external assessment, the idea that programs have “curricula” with some kind of measurable outcomes is pretty thin. Profs know how to design courses. They aren’t necessarily great at working out how to ensure that students actually finish their degree with a coherently built set of skills and aptitudes (and it’s complicated in a system based on smorgasbord curricula where students can pick and choose things as they like). That’s where curriculum designers come in. People who can work with departments to put together more coherent sets of courses and embed certain types of skill development and assessments (more on that in a second) in certain levels or sequences of courses. Obviously, this requires a functioning department where profs actually want to work together on such projects: in departments where a significant portion of the faculty are at war with one another, it’s a different story. Ideally, a team of curriculum specialists, working on two program curricula per term, could probably remake and improve the undergraduate curriculum across an entire university in a few years without putting a significant burden on professors.
Assessment. In addition to removing marking as a task for professors to a professionalized group of assessors, the actual design of assessment should be at least partially handed off in some circumstances. Proper curriculum design requires evaluation of not just content mastery but also transversal skills, and by and large professors know how to do the former but could use some help with the latter. Having experts available that can be on call for individual professors and linked in to both the curriculum development process and the rubric creation/marking process would be a pretty good idea. (Also, there is an obvious link between assessment methods and marking load, so it wouldn’t make sense to disconnect the two entirely).
But now, there’s another rather more urgent reason to get serious in beefing up expertise on assessment, and that is Chat GPT and a host of other Large-Language Model Artificial Intelligence agents which have been released over the last three months. You don’t need to actually believe that Chat GPT (which, as someone pointed out on twitter, translates into French as “cat, I farted”) is actually a radical improvement in artificial general intelligence. It still doesn’t “understand” anything being said to it and it makes some pretty incredible factual errors as soon as it gets out of the natural sciences. But it is a radical improvement in computers’ ability to generate the kind of plausible bullshit that often sneaks into student essays at 2 AM the night before they are due. It’s not impossible to work out what kind of essay responses are being generated by AI, and certainly there are various efforts underway to try and perfect the detection of LLM-answers, but it is difficult because add a few words here and there and it all gets pretty murky.
So, while Chat GPT might not be the end of the university as some more excitable types have surmised, it probably does require a significant re-think of the use of take-home exams/written assignments. In some disciplines at least, that’s going to require a big re-think of how to assess knowledge and skill acquisition. Again, professors are content specialists rather assessment experts: it’s worth thinking about how to use external expertise to assist everyone in getting to a better, post-Chat GPT space without inviting enormous amounts of academic dishonesty.
To be clear, we aren’t talking about people who “tell professors what to do” in terms of assessment or curriculum. But instead of having every professor or every department re-invent the wheel in these areas, it probably makes sense to have people who can act as assistants and advisers, and make what might seem painful tasks less painful. And the result will probably be better for students as well.
Now, you might think I am overdoing it a bit in terms of stripping back the responsibilities of professors, giving away too much of their work to others. Some might even think I am de -professionalizing academics. In a word, no. What I am proposing here is to find ways to allow professors to focus on their jobs as content experts, both in research and instruction. Overall, they are simply too valuable and expensive to have them doing stuff that takes away from those roles.
One last thing. This whole scheme is based on the idea that professors are content specialists, and that this content specialization is of benefit to society both through the provision of research and of benefit of students through teaching and instruction. But the thing is, their training is mainly in research. The doctorate is effectively a form of quality assurance for researchers, but it says nothing about one’s abilities as an instructor. That’s not to say professors are bad teachers but rather simply that they have not trained in pedagogy despite that in fact being one of their core duties.
So as a final suggestion: as we relieve professors of work in various areas, we should at the same time deepen their abilities as educators. And the best way to do that would be to adopt requirements for professors which require regular professional development in teaching (something akin to the Dutch University Teaching Qualification System, which requires professors to develop specific teaching competencies or its one of its UK equivalents).
So, that 3-point plan again: i) improve pedagogical training for professors, ii) reduce professors’ administrative busywork and marking requirements and iii) give them talented auxiliaries who can improve the overall intellectual scaffolding of undergraduate education, particularly in the areas of curriculum and assessment.
Better universities, at no great cost. Someone should try it.