In University, One Size Fits None

Photo by Luke Jones, courtesy of Creative Commons

Life today is a matter of choice. Don’t be alarmed; I’m not planning to bore anyone with some morbid philosophy lesson. What I mean is most things in our daily lives cater to our personal needs. 

Walk into a grocery store and there are a seemingly infinite number of potato chip flavours to choose from. Bring those same groceries to one’s car and one witnesses a host of customizable features and different seat configurations. Once you arrive home with those groceries, don’t worry about feeling chilly. Your smart thermostat system will by now have learned your temperature preferences. It will render the house nice and balmy by the time you walk in. 

Amid this advancement of product customization, McGill as an academic institution still defends the outdated one-size-fits-all mentality for education. In an institution with tens of thousands of students, the majority travel to the same physical location, sit in the same classrooms, and attend lectures scheduled at the same time. With few exceptions, enormous cohorts of students study the same material at the same pace, take exams scheduled at the same hour, and finish their degrees in the same number of years. 

From smartphones to smarthomes, technological advancements in recent years have made possible unprecedented levels of customization in our products. In McGill’s case, the technology is already in place to curate a completely customizable student experience. The increasing sophistication of digital communication has made the physical classroom almost obsolete. If all courses were centered on the idea of online accessibility, rather than an ad-hoc smattering of uploaded assignments, readings, and lecture recordings, students could then create a personalized program suited to their individual needs. 

Imagine if every class was offered as a self-contained online module. Professors would create the course once, and all lecture and class content would be available upon registration.  For those familiar with the lecture setup for World of Chemistry: Food, consider this model the gold standard. Students could then progress through the material and the video lecture content at the speed and location of their choice. If one can learn a topic in thirty minutes rather than an hour, they could fast forward through the monotony and repetition. If the next topic takes you two hours to learn rather than one, then you can simply rewatch the previous recordings.

There would be no more boredom of class moving too slowly, nor would there be blind panic when the professor zips through something you do not understand. Why should your learning speed be assumed to operate at the same rate as your three hundred PSYC 200 classmates, and why should your education be constrained by a fifty-minute time-frame? 

There would be no need to be limited by a schedule either. You could watch the lectures and do the work on your own time. This would be especially useful to students that commute or have to balance their classes around work schedules. This model would similarly make education more accessible for both those learning disabilities — who might find the pace of a class too intense — or for physically disabled people, who might find the very task of arriving to class daunting. In turn, conferences could be conducted online, and they could be facilitated by a discussion board or chat-room.

If you extend the idea of personalized learning further, the next step could be to do away with group exams altogether. With pre-scheduled cohort exams, an arbitrary time limit is placed on a student’s learning, and we are once again forced to move at the same pace as our peers. 

What if you could choose your exam date? The exam could then be graded by an AI-powered computer system with minimal human oversight, allowing for people to schedule their exams as far in advance as they desire. Of-course, while a computer system grading humanities essays may not sound ideal, a student with the ability to choose their own exam date could truly take their time and study at their own pace. One could potentially finish a course in two weeks or two years, depending on personal preference and time management skills.

Now, there may be some limitations to the level of customization I am suggesting. A lack of a shared physical learning space may take away from the social aspect of university, for example. Another issue that could arise is students becoming overwhelmed by the level of autonomy they have now assumed. Some people enjoy having more structure, and they may even find it aids their learning. 

While no model is perfect, new technologies have created the potential to truly tailor our learning to suit our individual needs. The current system of learning in university is designed to fit everyone as a group, but it fits very few of us in practice. Why not try to create a customizable system for university learning that suits everyone instead?

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