The failing university and the rise of a MicroDegree / by Mandy Wintink

For the past 20 years, I have been painfully watching the university struggle through an identity crisis trying to maintain itself as an institution of academic and intellectual rigor while being challenged to offer 21st Century Skills that students can apply to the workforce, yet doing justice to neither. I predict that soon it will become obsolete, irrelevant, or a merchant of credentials, or a combination of all three, with little connection to intellectual stimulation or development. As a parent to a 4-year old, I’m already thinking about how my child will have to convince me that going to university is a worthwhile investment of time or money when alternatives might do a much better job.

The university experience is radically different now from when I first entered university in 1993 and went on to complete my bachelor’s (1998), my masters (2000), and my doctorate (2004). When I started university in the early 90s knowledge and learning were much different. The internet was on the brink of exploding but most people didn’t know what it was. A small portion of students had access to it through certain university courses. I was one of them.

I was in university before information was available everywhere. I used to walk to the campus library, use an old Rolodex to search, and photocopy actual hardcopy journals. When I started my masters, I was skeptical of these “online journals” and didn’t know what a PDF was. ‘Windows’ was also scary and new.

The internet gave rise to the "information economy” but back then, we didn’t have Google, Siri or Alexa, YouTube, clickers to poll students, and ‘data' was still an academic concept, not a commodity or the privacy concern it is today. The world and education were different.

This made university rather plain, boring some might say. But it wasn’t boring to me. It was extremely stimulating and engaging. It was about the quality of ideas, not quantity. I would sit in lectures, listening to my professors profess their knowledge from behind a podium with few visual aids, other than maybe a hand gesture here or there. We were lucky if they ever altered their monotone that we all became accustomed to. I did have one professor who used an overhead projector to deliver her notes, that being the technologically advanced visual aid of the time. She had hand-written what she wanted us to know on a transparency sheet, which projected to the screen behind her. We were to copy them while she read them aloud. The torture of waiting for the entire class to catch up was unbearable. So I decided to write with my opposite hand for that course, just to keep myself awake. It worked.

That one experience aside, all of my classes were quite amazing. I sat back, listened, and took very few notes. I didn’t memorize that much. But I learned a hell of a lot. I learned to develop my thinking skills, both critical and creative.

Fast forward to today. I stand up in front of my students with my electronic slides (insert: do you know what the non-electronic version is? I do. Some of my profs had them). I entertain my students with animations, videos, RSA-style videos, and even live webcams. I can find pretty much whatever I need on the internet. I have to keep things moving and I change things up a lot, or I will lose my students' attention to Instagram or WhatsApp.

I struggle with this role EVERY F’ING DAY. Learning should be entertaining in and of itself, for the right mind. Having to dance around with bells and whistles is exhausting and I’m not convinced it’s doing much of value. This style appeals to the masses but it fails the top of the class.

A problem exists that a person like me, who is very intellectual, academic, and curious might hate university now. I think I would. I would be bored by the slow pace, annoyed by the circus acts, and uninspired to discuss with students who aren’t intellectually invested. I would long for deep stimulation and would be hard-pressed to find it.

This awareness had been creating lots of conflict inside of my mind and heart. I would complain and get insatiably frustrated feeling like I too was having an identity crisis. I would argue that things need to change and then expect the university to change. I attempted on several occasions to fight the system but the system is massive and not malleable.

I have tried to make my own. The first university that I started was called UExperience with my good friend Jennifer Chan. We spent a year developing the idea of a mentorship-based post-secondary education program that was individualized to the student’s personal interests and passions. Jenn has a fondness for education innovation, a gift for thinking differently, and the ability to be a shit-disturber, all of which I admire immensely. We launched UExperience with 4 students the first year and it was by many measures a success. But it failed in many ways too, which we are both very proud of. For me personally, it was lacking something at its core.

Despite my disdain for how the university currently exists, I am very nostalgic about the old-school model of apprenticeship and deep intellect. Bright and gifted minds were supported and fostered by experienced bright and gifted minds who had already proven themselves as intellectual experts in their fields. This relationship was dwindling in the current university system and education was being diluted.

Around the time that UExperience was emerging (circa 2012), so were the MOOCs (massive open online courses), such as Coursera, Udacity, and EdX and many more. The MOOCs were pitted as being huge disrupters to the post-secondary institution by offering free access to university-level courses, taught by university professors. They gained steam, indeed, and with a large following started offering certificates, diplomas, course transfers to brick-and-mortar universities, and eventually microdegrees and nanodegrees. But they too were failing in some ways, particularly with respect to completion rates. The stats were rolling in showing that a huge proportion of people who started a course, did not complete it. This was also a problem to the venture capitalists funding these start-ups where user engagement is a major success metric and an assumed source of recurring revenue. Certificates, diplomas, and microdegrees were part of the response to that, along with the paid access to them.

Jenn and I eventually quit UExperience to focus on our other existing start-ups but for me, the thought of creating my own university lingered. Because, of course, starting my own university had been a lingering thought since about 1996.

Then, like several pivotal Aha! moments of my past, it clarified into another iteration in 2018: Mentorship-Based MicroDegrees through the Centre for Applied Neuroscience, my main company, which was about to redefine itself primarily as an educational institution.

The value of launching a specific degree over starting a whole new university was very appealing, hopefully for obvious reasons. For one, I already had an existing structure to expand my company’s educational offerings, which had until then been focussed on neuroscience applied to life coaching and for workplace wellness. Also, I could pilot this without having to create an entirely new beast of a company. This felt both manageable, doable, and brilliant!

In the winter of 2019 the MicroDegree program was launched and by May, we had 4 students willing to take the risk to explore this innovative concept for post-secondary education. I knew each of them before they applied and was excited to begin working with them. They were keen, intelligent, motivated, dedicated, capable, and willing to go on an educational adventure with me.

These early adopters signed up for a mentorship-based experience to pursue a 13-month MicroDegree in Psychological Neuroscience with a specific topic of their personal interest. The first half would be dedicated to curated general topics that I would assign in Drugs, Neurological Diseases, Mental Health, Sex & Gender, Technology & Social Media, and Intelligence. We would meet once a month and each of the students would come with their chosen subtopic researched based on my guiding questions. After the 6 months of survey, they would be ready to decide on a topic for their thesis and would pursue that independently, with my guidance, and end up with a written document. Throughout the next 6 months, we would continue to meet as a cohort to present updates on their research as they diligently worked at clarifying their thesis topic. In the end, they would earn a MicroDegree and confidence in Psychological Neuroscience with a special interest of their own explored.

So this brings up to the present, with a new model of post-secondary education that is different than any other. It’s not the million-dollar model that MOOCs are. It’s a small-scale, meaningful intellectual development experience that I found in the university. It is a curiosity-based experience that won’t offer the same kind of credentials that conventional employers need to see to tick off a box, and that’s great! The MicroDegree stands out is the unique experience that it is. It is a solution to the unmet needs of students who want deep stimulation, to uncover more questions than answers, to explore ideas for the sake of exploring ideas, and to connect with other human beings in real-time. It is a conversation starter, a process, and a new way of doing something with historical significance.

The MicroDegree is innovative, exciting, rewarding, and guaranteed to be a worthwhile intellectual pursuit. It is designed for people who are curious and want to expand their minds among a group of equally-curious people. Currently, it is available in psychological neuroscience and offers an opportunity to prove to the world that their interests are legit.

If you read this far then something piqued your curiosity. It’s the possibility of doing a MicroDegree, then shoot me an email so we can discuss your application. But no rush. This offer will last long.