Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Storming the Tower--Transformations to Higher Education

Universities and colleges have been the bastions for professional, higher education for hundreds of years. From these institutions have come world changers such as Sir Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, Albert Einstein and these are just samples from the sciences alone. From the corridors of the arts have come those who through there expertise have defined the very cultures that we now enjoy. However, now in the 21st century with the exponential growth of information and knowledge in many disciplines, institutions of higher learning are faced with some perplexing questions in which they no longer have the luxury of setting up longitudinal research studies to gather verifiable data on. Some of these questions might be:

  1. Does the original vision and purpose of university or college education still hold when everything around them is changing?
  2. Can we justify the growing cost for students to receive a quality university education when other educational organizations are challenging them with online courses customized around the personal life style and goals of learners?
  3. Are separate disciplines that create silos of knowledge and skillsets still viable in a digital world where cross disciplinary collaborative learning fits the needs of a our societies as we attempt to deal with complex real world problems?
  4. Do attempts at creating hybrid universities through the establishment of MOOC's meet what is required or are they merely veiled attempts at transformation while below the surface they follow same old pedagogy and model of education?
In light of these perplexing questions we are faced by the challenge:

"What will it take to bring about honest transformation of a higher education system so that it is more in line with the need to educate this generation and those following to be "agents of change" who will enrich, create and innovate in building the societies of the future?"

A Question of Vision

One statement that has taken on even more meaning in the digital world even though its origins were from the ancient world is:

"Without a sustainable and an adaptable vision, a people perish!"

This statement can very well apply to higher education and especially, business organizations but when you talk about institutions of higher learning, you are talking about a cascading chain of failure because those who are learners go out into the world, into business organizations, into government positions and into education systems believing that the vision of the way things should work does not need overhaul but instead requires the exercise of power towards others to make sure that they conform to that vision unquestioningly. Ironically, one of the principle past advantages of being an university student was that you were encouraged to listen to many points of view even if you disagreed with what was being said and question to learn more. This is the very practice that Socrates encouraged in his learners and it was the very practice that he lost his life over. Teaching his learners to think and question was seen as a threat to the establishment of the time because from that discipline of the mind would come the cradle for wisdom.
 Today on many university and college campuses, instead of open and honest debate on issues dealing with the human condition, we have "group speak" in which if you don't conform to the common mantra, "ad hominem" labelling and categorization is used to silence opposing points of view. This is a return to the command and control mentality of industrial economy ethos. 

"There can not be a nurturing of wisdom in university learners when wondering is censored and healthy, open and reasonable argumentation and critical thinking has been abandoned!"

Necessary Paths to Transformation: Part I

The following are suggestions as to where we can re-imagine and re-design higher education so that it is more in line with the actual needs and the complex real world problems of our societies in a 21st century world:

  1. Dedicated return to fostering effective habits of the mind in higher education learners. We can not assume that the learners who reach university or college level are effective thinkers; that they actually know the difference between a fact or an opinion; that they understand that an argument is not an argument unless it included verifiable, evidential support and are aware of counter-arguments. Pointing fingers at the other levels of education is not a solution but a refusal to take responsibility for a common cause.
  2. In this world, there is a need to encourage cross-disciplinary approaches to solving complex real world problems. In terms of university and college organization structure, it means re-thinking the knowledge silo approach of the disciplines. There is a need to educate learners to approach tasks by learning to analyze the task from more than one perspective and then to work collaboratively with others utilizing each others perspective on the problem to arrive at a reasonable and perhaps an innovative solution. A useful analogy which I have used in the past is the six blind men trying to describe an elephant. A true picture only happens if the blind men pool their perspectives to the task and actually collaborate.

Necessary Paths to Transformation: Part II---Networking, Mentoring and E-Learning

  1. There is a need to go beyond the classroom early in the learner's university or college career. One criticism that learners have of their education is that "it is a world that is not real because it does not extend beyond the classroom". In university, students have to wait until graduate school before their education links in a relevant manner to the "real world". Why? It is important to make networked connections between professional groups outside the walls of the university who are on the leading edge of their professions. This is a "win-win" situation for both groups. The professionals are exposed to new ideas that have them leave their comfort zones to consider new possibilities and the students prosper by being exposed to the actual professional lives of those who they have an interest in following. Mentoring relationships can be encouraged to further refine how students think about things.
  2. Universities need to be honest about their motives for introducing online initiatives to students. For example if they are driven by a profit motive then students should be aware of this up front. An example is when universities offer MOOC's. Effective MOOC's should have a cost so that students take them seriously and actually finish the course they registered for. Students have the right to "see under the hood" before signing up. If the pedagogy is exactly the same as in the "brick and mortar" school, then there is something wrong.
There are many ways to avoid changing the status quo in higher education and those who have a vested interest will shake their fists at such changes or create ongoing "paralysis by analysis" ad infinitum  but there has to be a point where we put self-entitlement and a fear of the future aside. In doing so, we advance from a "ME society to a WE society" and our learners will once again wonder and in doing so take the road to wisdom which benefits all.

Next.. Coupling new technologies and E-Learning--Part I

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