The moment I realised university doesn’t work

A journey from rage-quitting the lecture theatre, to starting an alt school, and back to the lecture theatre again.

I never went to university. Whilst my friends did, I was playing in punk bands, working and travelling. I started a record label and a web development agency whilst I was overseas. Both failed.

Years later, finally running a successful digital agency, I was asked to deliver a university course on the internet. The irony was sniggeringly apparent.

Practically, I had been coding since I was a kid and I had more industry experience than anyone else they could get their hands on. Maybe I was just cheaper. Either way, I opted in, why not?

Gobbled into the belly of the beast

It was 2011. The university gave me course material which was from another campus and a few years old. Because internet, a ‘few years old’ meant the material wrong, by both best practices and brute fact.

I re-wrote it, pouring more love and time into it than they paid me for. I later learnt that this labour was an unspoken standard for new lecturers.

The glitz and glamour of lecturing

I taught in a lecture theatre full of dozy kids. My supervisor didn’t let me change the format, nor did they let me deliver and assess work in a way that might prepare my students for the real world.

My co-founder got used to me coming back from teaching angry and depressed. Bless his patience. Has anyone who worked in an actual job seen university IT? It’s enough to drive a man to Microsoft Word.

I wanted to use industry standards for code deployment to receive work. I wanted kids pushing to Github, they had to upload zip files to Moodle.

The course supervisor made my tutor mark students’ work during tutorials. I learnt this practice was a commonplace money-saving tactic.

Flashback to 1914

“A test of lower order thinking, for the lower orders.” — Source.

Almost 100 years ago, a professor in Kansas invents what we know as the multiple-choice test. In the words of Professor Fredrick J. Kelly himself the test was,

“… a test of lower order thinking, for the lower orders.”

It makes sense. It was 1914, there was a pretty big war on. With an influx of immigrants and barely-educated locals to compartmentalise, the war machine needed to keep churning along…

Officer. Factory worker. Officer. Factory worker. Beep boop.

Snap back to the late 2000s

The end of a semester: The university gave me an exam was of the same low quality as the other supplied materials. Naturally I had to re-write that too, to their standard university specifications, and my own standards of “actually relevant to the real world of code”.

But, the exam. Holy crap.

I remember walking around a deathly quiet test theatre, watching my dear students sitting solo, hunched over desks, proving they’d learnt stuff about the internet, with pencil and paper, via multiple choice.

That’s when I quit.

The detritus remained…

I was flattered to hear that my course notes were ‘some of the best they’d ever seen’. They weren’t updated for years. The lecturer who took over after me ended up quitting too. His supervisor took over. I didn’t keep in touch.

I didn’t feel the machine could change, nor could I change it.

I heard from students that they would muscle through, frustrated, frustrated, just for the certification, a piece of paper.

Catharsis 101

It wasn’t until a few years later that I felt we could do something.

Clever folks like Sal, Dale, and Sugata have blazed trails. Locally, we have a group of kids learning code together in our dev studio after work hours. My partner teaches herself about data science from a laptop.

If the universities aren’t capable of shifting methods, we must. A few days ago some friends and I launched an alternative.

The Fitzroy Academy has no multiple choice exams.

* Addendum, a few years later

Against all best intentions, 5 years later (March 2017) I‘m lecturing again, this time at another university, teaching young science students about social entrepreneurship. Either my opinions have softened, or I’ve learnt that everyone deserves a second chance? I’m honestly not sure.

Founder @fitzroyacademy, on education, social enterprise and startups.