Professors as Creators — how the Creator Economy could transform education
When choosing a university to attend, which factors do prospective students look for the most? The brand and reputation of the school, it’s facilities, accommodation, culture, available courses, academic rankings, and the kind. What you’d find in an average prospectus. Few people care about the professors who teach the subject matter (I know I didn’t). But perhaps we should.
Professors as creators
Professors are the creators of schools, similar to writers in newspapers. They build the reputation of the school through their research and teaching, and provide the service for which the students (or the government in some countries) pay for. Yet when we think about universities, everyone focuses on the name of the school itself — professors are forgotten, deemed replaceable and unimportant in the “big picture”. Universities commoditise their academic staff.
I find this interesting because the same dynamic is starting to unravel in publishing and media. More creators are choosing to do away with publishers and go their own way, gaining support and patronage directly from their subscribers. These efforts are supported by startups such as Substack and Patreon, which make up the financial infrastructure of the Creator Economy, a movement that seeks to empower individual content creators in owning their relationship with the customers rather than being chained to a middle-man institution. A prolific columnist no longer has to subject themselves to the editorial control of a major newspaper: if the readership is there, they can set up a Substack newsletter and get paid directly by their audience.
I see something like this happening in the future of higher education: professors will take a bigger role in designing their own courses, free from the restrictions of the universities and associated bureaucracy. In universities around the world (but particularly in the US) the growth in administrative staff has outpaced growth in students and academic staff: in Yale, the number of administrators grew by 44.7% in the past two decades, three times faster than the growth in student numbers! Spending more in administrators means either higher fees for students, or less funding for academic research and teaching. Neither sounds like a good deal for students.
On remote lectures
Today, lectures of the same subjects are given out every day in every school and college in the world. I am especially excited on a learning model where professors can design high-quality online lecture series, supplemented by in-person tutorials in each institution. It’s well known from pedagogical research that one-to-one tutoring is a highly effective teaching method: by reducing the number of hours spent on giving lessons, lectures and tests, teachers and lecturers have more time available for tutoring. Such a model would be especially important for both high- and low-performing students. Students who are struggling get extra support from tutoring, and the fastest learners will enjoy diving deeper in the subject matter through such conversations.
I am not advocating replacing in-person lessons with the MOOCs we have today. The courses designed by “creator professors” should be interoperable with existing curriculums, allowing schools to integrate them into existing in-person learning plans. Universities also have to make sure their modules combine into one cohesive course with minimum overlap: mini-courses taught by professors from all over the world would struggle in this area. This is part of the reason why universities developed in the first place: a single teacher cannot be an expert in everything, so forming a “co-operative of teachers” of a sorts made sense. Replicating that online is no easy feat.
None of this should be read as support for online-only education. I think that’s a terrible idea. Conversations with peers are a big part of learning. Talking about the subject matter, having to explain it, and listening to others’ explanations helps us understand difficult concepts. Such learning is active, and forces us to think about problems from different perspectives. And that’s just the educational aspect of in-person learning: college is also where life-long friendships are formed, and future business networks are established.
What I’m advocating for is flipping the dynamic between professors and administrators. Today, students choose their college first, and get whatever lecturers happen to work there. Perhaps in the future students can choose from any professor and module in the world in their local college! The importance of the college and its staff is not going anywhere but changing: rather than giving lectures, colleges would focus helping students on their personalised learning path through curating courses, organising study groups, and giving one-to-one support for difficult topics. Such “professorless” colleges could provide top-quality education at a fraction of today’s cost, especially if a part of the above tasks could be done by final-year students. I’m not fully convinced a degree structured in this manner would work for everyone: it would require a high level of self-control, which most kids starting at college don’t yet have.
And while this post has focused on higher education, there’s no reason why such a model couldn’t be used for primary, secondary, and adult education. Many rural schools struggle to find teachers for every subject: with lecturing done online, a child in a small village could in theory have the same selection of language courses to choose from as children in top private schools!
I’m also excited about the potential of digital tutoring systems. Such systems have been attempted in the past, some of which, such as the DARPA Digital Tutor, have shown high effectiveness. Still, we’re a long way from a generalised Digital Aristotle as proposed by educational YouTuber CGP Grey 10 years ago. Together with high-quality online courses by professor creators, “Digital Aristotle” could create personalised learning paths for everyone, supported by in-person discussions with peers and human tutors. If you’re building anything in this space, please leave a comment below: I’m interested to hear more!