Woolf University: the Airbnb of higher education or a sheep in wolf’s clothing?

June 20, 2018 Tony Bates

Broggi, J.D. et al. (2018) Building the first blockchain university, Oxford UK, April 3

You are going to hear a lot about Woolf University over the next year or so and possibly much longer. This is in some ways a highly innovative proposal for a new type of university, but in other ways, it is a terribly conservative proposal, an extension of the Platonic dialogue to modern times. It could only have come from Oxford University academics, with its mix of blue sky dreaming, the latest technological buzz, and regression to cloistered academe.

The proposal

As always, I am going to recommend that you read the original paper from cover to cover. It has a number of complex, radical proposals that each need careful consideration (the whitepaper would make an excellent topic for an Oxbridge tutorial).

I am not sure I completely understand the financial aspect of the blockchain tokens (but that probably puts me with 99.99999 per cent of the rest of the world). But the basic ideas behind the university are as follows:

  • Woolf University will issue blockchain-guaranteed ‘contracts’ between an individual professor and an individual student;
  • Woolf University will initially include only professors who have a post-graduate research degree from one of the 200 ‘top-ranked’ universities;
  • the core blockchain contract consists of an agreement to deliver a one hour, one-on-one tutorial, for which the student will directly pay the instructor (in real money, but tied to a blockchain token system which I don’t fully understand);
  • the tutorial can be delivered face-to-face, or over the Internet (presumably synchronously – Skype is suggested), but the maximum number of students per tutorial is set at two;
  • the contract (and payment) is initiated once the student ‘accepts’ the contract with a push of a button on their cell phone. If the tutor fails to deliver the tutorial, the student is automatically refunded (and offered another instructor). Instructors who miss a tutorial will be fined by the university in the form of a deduction from the next tutorial payment;
  • on successful completion of the tutorial (which will include a written essay or other assessable pieces of work from the student) the blockchain registers the grade against the student record;
  • once the student has accumulated enough ‘credits’ within an approved program they will be issued with a Woolf University degree;
  • a full student workload consists of two classes a week over 8 weeks in each of three semesters or a total of 144 meetings over three years for a degree;
  • annual tuition is expected to be in the order of $20,000 a year, excluding scholarships;
  • instructor payments will depend on the number and cost of tutorials, but at four a week would range from $38,000 to $43,000 per annum with fees in the range of $350-$400 per tutorial;
  • colleges of a minimum of 30 individual instructors can join Woolf University and issue their own qualifications, but each college’s qualification requirements must also meet Woolf University’s criteria. Colleges can set their own tutorial fee above a minimum of $150 an hour. Colleges’ instructors must meet the qualification requirements of Woolf University;
  • the first college, called Ambrose, will consist of 50 academics from Oxford University, and Woolf has invited academics from Cambridge University to set up another college;
  • Woolf University will be a not-for-profit institution. There will be a deduction of 0.035% of each financial transaction to build the Woolf Reserve to update and maintain the blockchain system. There will also be a student financial aid program for scholarships for qualified students;
  • Woolf University would be managed by a Faculty Council with voting rights on decision-making from every employed instructor;
  • Ambrose College will deduct 4% from each tuition fee for administrative overheads.

There are other proposals such as a language school, peer review, etc.

What’s to like?

This is clearly an effort to cut out the institutional middleman of university and institutional administration. Although the tutorial fees are close to the average of universities in the UK and the more elite state universities in the USA, students are getting a one-on-one learning experience from an instructor who is highly qualified (at least in terms of content).

I was fortunate to have a tutorial system when I was an undergraduate at the University of Sheffield at the UK, and it worked very well, although we had between two and four students at each tutorial, and only in the last two years of my bachelor’s degree. Such tutorials are excellent for developing critical thinking skills, because each statement you make as a student is likely to be challenged by the professor or one of the other students.

Woolf University has highly idealistic goals for democratic governance – by the faculty – and its main attraction is offering alternative and regular employment for the very large number of poorly paid but highly qualified adjunct professors who can’t get tenure at regular universities. However there is no suggestion of student representation in the governance process, and the use of faculty is demand driven – if no student wants your course, no money – which seems an even more precarious position than working as an adjunct.

Most of all, though, it is a serious attempt to provide an independent system of academic validation of qualifications through the use of blockchain which could lead to better standardization of degree qualifications.

What’s not to like?

Well, the first thing that jumps to my mind is conflict of interest. If faculty are already employed by a traditional university, Woolf will be a direct, and if successful, a very dangerous competitor. Will universities allow their best faculty to moonlight for a direct competitor? If instructors cannot get employment in a traditional university, will they be as well qualified as the instructors in the regular system? The corollary though is that Woolf may force universities to pay their adjunct faculty better, but that will increase costs for the existing universities.

Second, the tuition fees may be reasonable by the absurdly inflated cost of HE tuition fees in the UK, but these are double or triple the fees in Canada, and much higher than the fees in the rest of Europe.

Third, the tutorial is just one mode of teaching. The report recommends (but does not insist) that instructors should also provide recorded lectures, but there are now so many other ways for students to learn that it seems absurd to tie Woolf to just the one system Oxbridge dons are familiar with.  The proposal does not address the issue of STEM teaching or experiential learning. All the examples given are from Greek philosophy. Not all my tutorials were great – it really depended on the excellence of the professor as a teacher as well as a scholar and that varied significantly. (It is also clear from reading the report that the authors have no knowledge about best practices in online teaching, either). The whole proposal reeks of the worst kind of elitism in university teaching.

Will it succeed?

Quite possibly, if it can sell the substitute Oxbridge experience to students and if it can explain more clearly its business model and in particular how the blockchain currency will work with regard to the payment of instructors. What can make or break it is the extent to which traditional universities will go to protect their core faculty from being hijacked by Woolf. 

I’m somewhat baffled by the claims that this new business model will be much much more cost-effective than the current system. Academic salaries make up almost 70% of the cost of a traditional university so the savings on administration alone are a comparatively small proportion of the costs of higher education, and the proposed tuition fees are still very high. It seems to be more a solution for the problem of unemployed Ph.D.s than the problem of expanding more cost-effectively quality higher education to large numbers of students.

Nevertheless, it is a very interesting development. I am guessing that this will ultimately fail, because establishing its credentials as equivalent to the elite universities will be a hard sell, and costs to students will be too high, but much will be learned about the strengths and weaknesses of blockchain in higher education, resulting in a better/more sustainable higher education model developing in another way. It is definitely a development to be carefully tracked.

 

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