Agility and the future of universities

Higher education is the subject of sustained criticism. 81% of US employers are referring at a skills gap[1] and 51% believe that graduates are underprepared for the labour market[2]. Young teachers in particular complain being overburdened and underpaid. Students are contesting growing performativity, alleged commodification and subsequent rigidity of the curriculum, lack employment and in the US towering debts.screenshot-5At first sight, students’ and employers’ interests are opposed. The recent Reimagining Education Conference at Wharton University revealed quite a different perspective[3]. According to Santiago Inigues, dean of IE Business School (Madrid), most employers mention specific skills (coding, accounting, marketing, language) but in the first place they prefer broad education (‘Bilding’), including critical thinking and problem solving skills, ability to communicate, to work in groups, to handle conflicts and language proficiency. Employers won’t believe it, but these competencies are exactly the intended earning outcome of liberal arts colleges.

Unfortunately, liberal arts colleges have a brand trust issue. Participants of the conference agreed that many do not deliver what they promise. There is ample evidence that quite a number of its students lack any progress in problem solving and critical thinking skills during their undemanding study[4].

On the other hand, those who want to acquire specific skills like coding, marketing, accounting or foreign languages should avoid universities. A growing number of dedicated institutions like Fullbridge and General Assembly offer competency-based courses on line, blended or face-to-face. These courses are better and cheaper than the offer of any university whatsoever. According to Jaime Casap (Google) companies like his’ are monitoring job applicants’ competences and are not or only remotely interested in their subject, grade or university. Universities seem to have lost their way.

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What went wrong? According to Martin Luckmann and Christiana Prange universities are no longer what their name suggests: Universitas magistrorum et scolarium literally means community of teachers and students[5]. Instead, universities have become a credit-point producing industry, delivering grades of variable but mostly mediocre importance. The problem is not that teachers aren’t competent in their subject: They fail in supporting the development of students’generic academic competences or in plan language, as academic educators[6].

imagesLuckmann and Prange compare the current approach to learning in universities with the development of enterprise software. The implementation of massive all-embracing software in companies seldom results in satisfying solutions. The same applies to a curriculum that has to serve hundreds of students at once. In software development the agile approach is gaining ground, which in essence is based on interaction between developers and customers, taking customers’ needs and wants as starting point.

images-1In the same way, agile universities will put the interaction between students and teachers in the centre. Therefor they rely in a large degree on self-organization. A rich variety of teaching-learning interactions appear, mostly based on co-design. Students are getting acquainted with a broad range of disciplines and learn to search, apply and deepen relevant knowledge in projects, favourably in collaboration with parties outside the university.

The agile university has not to be more expensive than conventional universities. Getting acquainted with theoretical knowledge can be self-organized by deploying free available high quality open educational resources. Lecture halls are superfluous. Instead, universities will become networks of academic workplaces, varying from townhouses to sophisticated labs. The agile university has no fixed study length. Students will combine study with other work or invest in their own development.

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Graduates of the agile university have been stimulated to adapt their study path to their emerging interest in an intensive exchange with fellow-students, teachers and people outside the university. Their acknowledgement with the agile method will enable them afterwards to be adaptive in a large range of situations where their professional or personal opinion is demanded.

Disclaimer

Any master plan that intends to reinvent a university or faculty as an agile workplace will fail. The development of agile learning places requires agility itself, carefully taking into consideration local personal and characteristics, opportunities and constraints. Eager proponents at best facilitate teachers and groups who want to change teaching and learning practices. Their example will be followed, criticized and improved and agile workplaces will emerge. The result might be excellent, albeit in an unpredictable way.

[1] Survey American Society for Testing and Development (2012)

[2] McKinsey (2012)

[3] My account of this conference is based on a World Economic Forum publication: Education vs work skills: what do employers really want? http://weforum.org/agenda/2016/02/education-vs-work-skills-what-do-employers-really-want/

[4] Read about the lack of progress in critical and analytical thinking skills in my post ‘Why universities underachieve’: http://wp.me/p3lna5-4n

[5] Luckmann and Prange wrote a though provoking contribution in Global Focus, the magazine of the EFMD: Agile Universities http://globalfocusmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Issue_2_2016_agileuniversities.pdf

[6] The obvious exception are universities with an elaborated system of tutoring like Cambridge and Oxford

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