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A manifesto for indie higher education

One of the most encouraging developments of the past few years is the growth in popularity of long-form educational content, delivered by podcast or video. In the early days of YouTube, the days of "Leave Britney Alone", who would have imagined that a lengthy video on, say, graph theory or Nietzsche (in Spanish), would ever approach millions of views?

The problem of credibility

But how do we know that what we're reading and listening to is any good? All it takes is a microphone to make a podcast, after all. And the material I'm talking about is not basic stuff: it's higher education, the kind you'd normally get in a university classroom.

I can think of two ways to get around this problem, both imperfect. One way is the doctorate. A doctor, etymologically anyway, is a teacher, nothing more, nothing less. Someone who has a doctorate is someone who has passed a rigorous process of qualification to teach a particular subject at a high level.

Or at least in theory. Sadly, not everyone with a doctorate is good at teaching. In fact, some are downright awful. And of course, so many people without a doctorate can also teach advanced subjects, often very well! So we need another way to separate the wheat from the chaff.

This other way, I propose, is the old-fashioned one: reputation. Reputation isn't just popularity. Popularity alone cannot tell us whose information is trustworthy, although a teacher whose classes are standing room-only is sending a good signal of teaching ability. It's a teacher's reputation among peers that signals the quality of that teacher's information.

But this is hard to ascertain without knowing who these peers are, and how do we judge this? It becomes a chicken-and-egg problem. The solution we relied on was to outsource this whole mess to the university. They could handle these issues of trust for us: they would only employ qualified teachers, and they would evaluate teachers in part based on their skill at teaching and in part based on their output as researchers. All the student needed to do was pay tuition, show up, and work hard. A sound system!

The strange death of the university

Unfortunately, if that system ever truly worked, it doesn't anymore.

What happened to universities? The ideal of the postwar research university, where "advancing the frontiers of knowledge" was married to "educating ordinary people" has vanished like a dream upon waking. The problems with the contemporary university are well known, so I won't dwell on them here. I'll merely ask the rhetorical question: If what you want isn't a debt-financed education-flavoured vacation – if what you want is an education, why shouldn't you simply put on a podcast or a YouTube video?

The university of 2020 is a bad deal for students. But it's bad for teachers too:

  • The end of tenure as a realistic prospect for most PhDs
  • Precarious, low-paid employment as the new normal
  • Constant need to apply for scarce jobs, a tax on your productive time
  • Uprooting one's family to chase postdocs or adjunct positions

A newly minted PhD in the humanities or social sciences has a grim employment future ahead. The few jobs that are available pay poorly and offer no prospect for advancement. What is a PhD to do?

The solution? Teacher, teach!

At some point, a precariously employed PhD in philosophy is going to realize that, if a Hegel video on YouTube can get half a million views, there's hope for them too.

Supply, meet demand! We can solve the problem of the disillusioned academic (how to put food on the table) and the idea-hungry student's problem at once.

A living wage for teachers, a fair price for students

If an academic is going to work a precarious job, it may as well be a precarious job with some prospect of advancement. The better a teacher is at marketing, the more students that teacher can reach. And the best kind of marketing is a kind of teaching, so it should come fairly naturally.

And which is truly more precarious: a single employer who may or may not renew your contract next year, or 100 students, each of whom chooses to pay you to teach them something? In the first case, if you lose one source of income, you have none left. In the second, if you lose one source of income, you still have 99 left.

And, unlike the traditional university, the PhD solo practitioner doesn't have a horde of bureaucrats or a new football stadium to pay for. So, at the risk of sounding like a TV furniture salesman, that teacher can pass the savings on to the student.

How does this work for students? For one, it's orders of magnitude cheaper. And, if the teachers are marketing themselves well, the student will likely have "sampled the wares" by reading the teacher's public writing (much like you're doing now, how meta!), listening to the teacher's appearances on podcasts, following the teacher on social media, etc. Since these courses are generally not bundled into programmes (although one day they may be), competition can work in students' favour. One thing the new indie model lacks is credentials. I'm still agnostic as to whether this is a benefit or a drawback.

This is actually a real thing that is happening

The most exciting part of this personally is that I've started to put this into practice. In the fall, I taught my first online course, guiding a small cohort of students in creating their first constructed language. Along the way, I sneaked in a nice helping of good old-fashioned descriptive linguistics. Call it the Mary Poppins Principle: A spoonful of sugar really does help the medicine go down.

It was an exhilarating experience for me, despite the learning curve presented by teaching via Zoom. I'm very grateful to collaborate with Hyperlink Academy, a company whose mission aligns with much of what I've described here. They aren't focused specifically on hosting courses taught by disillusioned academics, but their indie model of online education is one that teachers seeking refuge from traditional academia can use.

I've got another course hosted on Hyperlink coming up in January 2021 as well, called Meta-Skills for Language Learning, which provides language learners with a toolkit of knowledge, techniques, and mindsets to make them more confident and effective in their language learning practice. Or, put another way, it's "linguistics for language learners".

And more courses will follow that one. The year 2021 will be all about taking this manifesto and putting it into practice. If you're interested in seeing how this develops, follow me on Twitter.1


  1. I have made some progress on this idea since writing this essay. See Altminster, a platform for connecting independent teachers and students.

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