Cursor Curated
25th April 2024

The future of education : Part I

Interview with Desmond Clarke, Open College of the Arts

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Cursor Curated Issue 28
Daniel Westlake

Desmond Clarke is an artist and a musician. He trained as a composer at the University of York, graduating with a PhD in algorithmic composition in 2016. Since then he has taught for the Open College of the Arts and the University of York, alongside his freelance artistic practice.

The Open College of the Arts offers distance-learning courses and degrees across the arts, including music, photography, painting, drawing, garden design, and more. OCA has recently become part of the Open University but retains its own identity. For example, OCA offers a music degree built around a blend of academic, creative and practical skills, while the OU’s music course takes a more traditional academic humanities approach.

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Q1: What’s the current state of online learning? How has it changed in the years since the pandemic?

Do you think that the acceptance of online teaching has changed as technology has developed and people have become more familiar with it?

Yes definitely, we’re seeing increasing numbers of people taking it up, especially post-pandemic. But it’s not as straightforward as increasing adoption over time. You also need to think about the reasons people study and how they’re being catered for by institutions.

The thing that's valuable about studying, certainly at an undergraduate level, is not necessarily going to lectures; it's having conversations, it's interacting with experts, and it’s getting context from other people's work. That cohort experience is so central to most people's education, but these are things that are hard to replicate online, and without them, it's very difficult to create something that's attractive.

But now there are successful online degree courses, and one reason that they're doing better is because they actually do have all those things that people want from education but in an online context. It’s interesting to look at the different solutions that institutions have found to this problem.

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Now even if a university wanted to deliver courses online, they have a physical space, they’ve got all these physical things that cost money to run. There is an opportunity for online-only degrees, if they're not burdened by the same costs, to offer a kind of similar experience at reduced fees.

That’s exactly what we do. OCA charges lower fees than a conventional in person course partly because we don't have those operating costs. As long as you can provide the value that you get from an in person course there's certainly room for institutions to be very competitive.

Saying that, whether an online course is a viable replacement, or improvement on an in-person course is really going to depend on the specific type of cohort that you're trying to attract. It's not just a simple replacement, and it’s certainly not just about cost. For example, the people who are coming to us to do distance learning, they come for a number of reasons. They might not be able to study at a traditional university because of things like disability, work or caring requirements.

Likewise, some students want to progress quickly, while others sit back into the time requirements and say: “I'm going to take as much time as I possibly can.” It's an undergraduate degree, but we have some students who are coming out with very significant professional skills simply because they put so much time into it. So, the things that students want out of the course can be very different, and how well you cater to that is going to determine whether you’re competitive.

We all had to adapt to online learning in some ways with the pandemic, and a lot of universities and all sorts of educational institutions were struggling to adapt. With that a few years behind us, do you think that there's been a change in blended learning and acceptance of new things?

Certainly in my experience, the expectation is now that you need to offer blended provision. If a student can't make it to an in-person lecture you need to be able to allow them to attend over Zoom, even if that's not ideal. You need to record the lectures, and make sure they can access them later.

In the pandemic, like you say, universities were really scrambling to provide this stuff because they had to do it practically overnight. Of course, the OU and OCA however were already prepared for it because of what we were already offering. We were very briefly one of the highest rated universities in the country because we were delivering a really polished product, whereas everybody else was really not doing that. I think it's taken a long time for other institutions to catch up.

Students now expect to be able to get the same experience in a blended context, but the courses aren't necessarily designed in that way. So I think there's a bit of a compromise in terms of design and provision that's happening at the moment.

Courses take a long time to validate, so it's quite a big ship to turn even if you do want to change the way that the materials are presented. I think we're heading into an environment of change if we're not there already. While you can't plan for everything, if you have a more agile mindset where you can concentrate on the core product, perhaps how you deliver it can vary.

...the expectation is now that you need to offer blended provision. If a student can't make it to an in-person lecture you need to be able to allow them to attend over Zoom, even if that's not ideal. You need to record the lectures, and make sure they can access them later.

Q2: What are the advantages and disadvantages of online learning? For example, how can you effectively teach soft skills, like communication skills, with a remote learning course?

There's two angles to this. The first one is that OCA as an open access institution has to cater to however students want to learn. So if they don't want to do anything outside of the core curriculum, it can't be compulsory. We've got students who don't ever want to interact with other students, and it's part of our remit to cater to those people because they wouldn't be able to access university education elsewhere because it can't support that.

On the other hand, I think those skills are very desirable to develop. Collaboration, learning from your peers, exploring things as a group; that's really where some massive opportunities for learning are. So we want to provide it and encourage it, but it can't be compulsory.

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The way we approach this as an institution is to offer a portfolio of optional group work. So, for example, I run music analysis classes where you can come along and learn by working with your peers, but it's not part of the core course. Now that obviously presents some challenges to learning design, but we’re professionals and we can rise to those challenges.

Music is something that people thought that you couldn't deliver remotely, how are you changing that?

Well, first of all, there are things that you can't do online. We can't run an in-person improvisation workshop or get the class together and test out different orchestrations. We can't do that, so we don't try, because it's not simply not practical.

But technology really facilitates us in a lot of ways here, particularly in terms of practical skills like composition and orchestration; you can do a lot with software now that was impossible even a few years ago.

But the thing that makes what we're offering really valuable is the fact that you actually have the expert perspective saying: “Well, it might sound like that on the software, but in real life, it doesn’t work like that.” So we're bringing the strength of knowledge, of lived, professional experience, of practical music-making, and we're finding a way of communicating that and building on that in an entirely online way.

The commercial world has had to adapt to remote, and there are some people that say: “No, we’re not doing that anymore; it's gotta come back to the office, and these are the reasons why.” There are similar challenges no matter what sector you're in, really.

Q3: How might AI shape the future of online teaching and learning and what potential benefits and challenges might this bring?

Can I jump onto the dreaded word that appears everywhere, and that's AI? There are concerns by creatives out there that AI generated artwork, music, and video could make it more difficult to have a career in a creative subject if a lot of the ‘smaller’ work is completed by computers. Has that been a concern expressed by your students at all about their career prospects?

Actually, very few music graduates are getting employed in a context where they might be replaced by AI. We'll have vastly higher numbers of people who want to develop a music career out of education or practical music making: leading choirs, becoming music therapists, running music in the community groups, playing in orchestras, and so on. Actual practical music-making can't be replaced by AI.

No. Live music is live music. 

But in the case of the course, you have coursework to submit, and there is scope for using AI LMM systems to not only correct your spelling, like Grammarly, but also to really change how people submit their work and how it is marked as well.

I haven't experienced AI marking personally, but I feel like you couldn't get AI to mark an essay except in the most basic possible way. 

Take a student who's written a really well constructed essay. It’s perfectly articulate, but all they really do is present ideas that they found in research. Could an AI tell the difference between that and an essay that perhaps is slightly more chaotically structured, but contains insight into a subject that goes beyond simply recreating what you found in your research? I’m not sure.

I feel like the biggest risk here is that a student could submit an entirely LLM-generated series of essays. They probably wouldn't do very well, but they wouldn't necessarily fail. It's that marginal pass level that I think is at risk here, where someone could just do no work and basically just put it all through the LLM.

There is a lot of AI detection of AI. I read recently that there was a particular product claiming to have 95% accuracy, and then I thought, well, if it's 95% accurate, that's 5% that it's not accurate.

Imagine you're a student and you've submitted your coursework, your essays, and then a machine has told you that another machine has written it. There's no appeal. There's no, like, way of trying to work it out. It's unverifiable, isn't it?

Absolutely. Again you've got to look at the motivations of the students themselves. What are they trying to get out of this course, and what are the shortcuts they might take to get there? I think it's going to be really different in different contexts.

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Q4: What role do you think institutions like OCA will play in shaping the future of higher education, particularly in light of the growing demand for flexible and accessible learning options?

We've talked about the future being a changing place, and the demand for flexibility and different learning options is definitely changing. How do you see OCA being a part of that? What is the vision for these organisations in the future and where are you going?

I think our attitude isn't necessarily changing, but I think open access is becoming more relevant as there are lots of pressures on society and education at the moment.

If you can offer qualifications that allow students to work or care for children at the same time, that's going to be attractive to a lot of people who may otherwise have to choose between those things and education. I think there's a lot more diversity of approaches that are accessible through providers like OCA.

...think critically about what you're offering; identify what's really attractive, and how you can offer that in the most useful context while still preserving that core offering.

So do you have any advice for other educational institutions? What have you learned that the more traditional universities could benefit from?

I think you have to think critically about what you're offering; identify what's really attractive, and how you can offer that in the most useful context while still preserving that core offering.

With us it’s really the connection to subject matter experts that's the central offering. So as long as we can preserve that and we can make sure that's the most important thing students have access to, we probably won’t go far wrong. The rest is just contextualisation.

The message, not the medium?


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