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University opens without any teachers

Brittany Bir
Image caption Brittany Bir says students used to teaching themselves are better self-starters in work

A university without any teachers has opened in California this month.

It's called 42 - the name taken from the answer to the meaning of life, from the science fiction series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

The US college, a branch of an institution in France with the same name, will train about a thousand students a year in coding and software development by getting them to help each other with projects, then mark one another's work.

This might seem like the blind leading the blind - and it's hard to imagine parents at an open day being impressed by a university offering zero contact hours.

But since 42 started in Paris in 2013, applications have been hugely oversubscribed.

No tuition fees

Recent graduates are now working at companies including IBM, Amazon, and Tesla, as well as starting their own firms.

42 was founded by French technology billionaire Xavier Niel, whose backing means there are no tuition fees and accommodation is free.

Mr Niel and his co-founders come from the world of technology and start-ups, and they are trying to do to education what Facebook did to communication and Airbnb to accommodation.

Image caption Students at 42 will work on problems together and mark each other's work

They aim to do this by combining an extreme form of "peer-to-peer learning" with project-based learning. Both are popular methods among education researchers, but they usually involve the supervision of a teacher.

Students at 42 are given a choice of projects that they might be set in a job as a software engineer - perhaps to design a website or a computer game.

They complete a project using resources freely available on the internet and by seeking help from their fellow students, who work alongside them in a large open-plan room full of computers. Another student will then be randomly assigned to mark their work.

Like in the computer games the students are asked to design, they go up a level by competing a project. They graduate when they reach level 21, which usually takes three to five years. And at the end there is a certificate but no formal degree.

Self-starters

The founders claim this method of learning makes up for shortcomings in the traditional education system, which they say encourages students to be passive recipients of knowledge.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Xavier Niel (right), seen with the mayors of London and Paris, has financially backed the project

"The feedback we have had from employers is that our graduates are more apt to go off and find out information for themselves, rather than asking their supervisor what to do next," says Brittany Bir, chief operating officer of 42 in California and a graduate of its sister school in Paris.

Learning from learners

"Peer-to-peer learning develops students with the confidence to search for solutions by themselves, often in quite creative and ingenious ways."

Ms Bir says 42's graduates will be better able to work with others and discuss and defend their ideas - an important skill in the "real world'" of work.


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"This is particularly important in computer programming, where individuals are notorious for lacking certain human skills," she says.

The idea of peer learning is not new and many universities and schools already use it, particularly in more collaborative subjects like engineering.

In fact, Aristotle was said to have used "archons", or student leaders, to help teach his students.

But more recent research has shown that peer learning can help students gain a deeper understanding of a subject.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption The high demand for coding skills has seen the opening of coding colleges

Education expert Professor Phil Race says difficult topics can be easier to understand when they are explained by someone who only recently learned the material themselves.

Professor Dan Butin, founding dean of the school of education and social policy at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, argues that peer learning and project-based learning should be used even more widely in schools and universities.

He says they are "much better learning tools" than lectures, which do not usually challenge the way students think.

Value of teaching

But he thinks 42 has gone too far by removing teachers altogether. His research suggests peer learning is most effective when students are under the supervision of an expert teacher.

"The deep reason for a teacher is to guide students to grapple with exactly the complex, ambiguous, and tough issues that are usually outside of students' self-awareness or capabilities," he says.

Image copyright Rick Friedman
Image caption Professor Dan Butin says students need teachers to challenge their ideas

"Good teachers are able to guide students to what I call these "aha!" moments."

Prof Butin says "the whole point of a university" is to challenge a student's prior knowledge and assumptions about the world. A university without teachers could allow students to simply "reinforce and regurgitate" their existing opinions.

42's model might offer an alternative to Moocs (massive open online courses, which let large numbers of students cheaply study a subject online.

Like a Mooc, it provides a more affordable education than a traditional university. But it also gives students the social benefits of coming to a physical building and interacting with others every day.

The opening of 42 also follows the rise of "coding academies" in the US, which offer short, intensive courses to thousands of students wanting to take advantage of the high demand for software developers.

Self-motivated students

But could 42's model of teacherless learning work in mainstream universities?

Britanny Bir admits 42's methods do not suit all students. During the month-long selection period, some applicants fell out because of the stresses of working closely together. It is easy to imagine reacting badly to a poor mark if it was given by the student in the desk next to you.

"It suits individuals who are very disciplined and self-motivated, and who are not scared by having the freedom to work at their own pace," she says.

Nicolas Sadirac, director of 42 in Paris, says the model works particularly well for students who have been frustrated and left behind by mainstream education.

"The education system in France fails a lot of passionate students, who feel frustrated by being told what to do and how to do it," he says.

42's selection process ignores previous academic qualifications, and 40% of students at 42 in Paris did not even complete secondary school.

"42 has reminded them that learning can be fun if you follow what you are interested in, rather than being told by teachers to focus on one thing in particular," says Mr Sadirac.

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