It’s slightly absurd that in the English-speaking world on 15,000 separate occasions each year a lecture is given parroting the basics of capitalism,” he said. “Surely watching a video of the expert on the topic would be better? Technology can be harnessed to create better learning experiences.
In 2008 a survey at Harvard found that students who used video lectures said they learnt subjects faster than by attending lectures in person. There would, too, be cost and times savings: if students watched top experts on a particular topic on video, their own academics would be free to give more time for further discussion.
Summers says universities should place more emphasis on collaboration, rather than perceiving it as a form of cheating. It is all provocative stuff—but then Summers does not always get things right and is no stranger to controversy. In 2006, he quit as head of Harvard after he suggested the paucity of women in science and maths might be down to innate differences in ability between the sexes.
Summers cites an experiment launched by an outfit called The Floating University. The media venture has videoed world-famous scholars including the physicist Michio Kaku, the psychologist Paul Bloom and the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker—and Summers himself—speaking about the newest ideas in their field. The videoed lectures are to be offered at Harvard, Yale and Bard college in New York state, the first time such a course has been presented at all three institutions.
The explosion of knowledge, and our ability to access it through computers, demands change in the way universities operate, Summers says. When facts can be checked rapidly online, individual acquisition of them becomes less important. Indeed, there is so much information available that it becomes difficult for any individual to master more than a fraction.
So what is Summers’s prescription for improvement? In his brave new academic world, universities would ditch lectures from local professors in draughty theatres in favour of the best experts in their fields delivering talks by video, potentially to students anywhere around the globe.
Another of his suggestions is that “international experience should be part of what happens to every college student”. This is not to learn languages, but to discover cultures that work will throw up in a globalised world.I particularly enjoyed his response to Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss's claim that their classmate, Zuckerberg, had stolen their big idea for Facebook:
One of the things you learn as a college president is that if an undergraduate is wearing a jacket and tie on Thursday afternoon at three o’clock, there are two possibilities. One is that they are looking for a job and have an interview; the other is that they are an asshole. This was the latter case.