Instead of diplomas: Badges

For a long time courses are completed with a diploma. However, the number of different qualifications has grown exponentially. in the US there eight times more different diplomas than 20 years ago. There are thousands of providers and most of these are not accredited. In addition, we are dealing with diplomas from many countries. In short, the value of a degree is difficult to judge beforehand.

But there is another side. Many people – young and old – do not aspire to graduate. They want a specific job, have appropriate training and receive a certificate that proves they possess the required competences [1] .

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For both problems is a solution in the form of badges, micro-credentials or email credentials: These are (digital) documents proving that someone has specific knowledge and / or skills. There are now more than 3,000 organisations who provide badges, including educational institutions and 9corporate)  training institutions [2] .

For a well-functioning system of badges  several conditions must be fulfilled. Here are the main ones:

Level

The knowledge and / or skills a badge is referring at must be unambiguous. Also, there must be an unmistakable reference to the level of mastery that has been acquired. It measurement should be made explicit. The Degree Qualifications Profile , prepared by Lumina is a useful tool to identify the level [3] .

Compatibility

Badges must have a common technical standard and they have to include include information about the owner, the supplier, the content and the way in which this knowledge and skill is measured. The Open Badges Standard of IMS Global Learning is likely to operate as such. In the Netherlands, SURF is working on a technical specification of badges [4] .

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Visibility

Owners must have a platform to show their badges. For this purpose various websites are in use, such as Backpack [5] .

The main enabler of badges is the rapid spread of competency-based education. This type of education requires an accurate description of learning outcomes; The knowledge and skills that a person has acquired after participating in formal, non-formal and informal learning activities.

Concordia University in Wisconsin is – as far as I know – the first university program -Master in educational technology – that is certified by  badges. There are 50; each of which corresponds with some learning outcomes [6]. The time that students have spend to reach this goal is irrelevant.

Another interesting development is that providers of training (formal and non-formal) in a specific region or city work together and offer a broad range of badges. Here too, local employers are concerned [7] . The Open Badge Network [8] (Europe) has drawn up a brief Charter. In the US, the Cities of Learning initiative, for example, Chicago City of learning, can be mentioned [9] .

screenshot second copy

I see many advantages in the development outlined here, but at the same time I am also afraid of a fragmented focus on learning.

I have repeatedly accentuated the importance of the acquisition of critical thinking. It is inconceivable that students learn to think critically by taking part in just one educational activity. Therefore critical thinking can not be checked by just one single badge. The ability to think critically develops gradually if students are confronted repeatedly with realistic social and scientific problems, gain knowledge about these problems, do research, weigh solutions and eventually come to a judgement. This means that earning badges alone is not enough, but additional requirements are necessary concerning their consistency.

A more precise use of the term competence can contribute to this. A separate badge means that a student has demonstrated to own a certain amount of knowledge and skills. In that case, badges can be connected to modules, courses or work in practice. In contrast, a competency  refers to the (intellectual) capabilities of a graduate.

The badges system is far from mature. It is a hopeful start to honour  extracurricular experiences, and to enable the debundling of the acquisition of knowledge and skills by deploying various learning opportunities at home and abroad.

[1] For the requirements that can be imposed on badges: http://www.openbadgenetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/O4A3-OBN-Guidelines-for-Open-Badges-in-Territories. pdf

[2] For an overview of what has been achieved in five years https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B7kHRuri9QdPQmRfdXZrblpSX0U/view

[3] The framework is developing rapidly and has eight levels. It is specified for knowledge and skills. these are in turn broken down into specialized skills, personal skills and social skills: https://www.luminafoundation.org/files/resources/connecting-credentials.pdf . This framework is very similar to the European Qualifications Framework for lifelong learning a life https://ec.europa.eu/ploteus/sites/eac-eqf/files/leaflet_nl.pdf

[4] , see: https://www.surf.nl/binaries/content/assets/surf/nl/2017/open-badges_surfnet-pilot-scenario’s_frans-ward_3feb.pdf

[5] are now more than a million badges placed on the Backpack website https://backpack.openbadges.org/backpack/welcome

[6] Educational institutions collaborate with employers. For example, this is done by the Foundation for California Community Colleges and the New World of Work

[7] Examples of this are: Open Badges Scottish Education Group, the UK Badge the project and the Open Badges DACH User Group in Germany. For a discussion; http://www.openbadgenetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/O4A3-OBN-Guidelines-for-Open-Badges-in-Territories.pdf

[8] portal:  www.openbadgenetwork.com

[9] https://chicagocityoflearning.org

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Smart higher education: both face-to-face and online

The number of participants in higher education is growing rapidly worldwide. Apart from the growing number of adult participants, the variety of students in general is increasing. However, the organization of universities is hardly able to deal with this growing variety. Students can chose between campus or distance-teaching universities and between full-time or part-time studies. A thorough redesign must offer relief.

The value of personal contact between students and teachers

Whether students are enrolled in a campus or a distance-teaching university, they spend most of their time on independent study: At home, at work, on the train or in the library. The difference between the two types of universities is the way they support these activities. The majority of campus universities are deploying a combination of lectures and seminars. Distance-teaching universities offer a sequence of assignments, which students have to submit in order to receive feedback. When it comes to getting acquainted with knowledge or theoretical insights, both ways are effective. However supporting independent study online is definitely outperforming lectures and seminars with respect to efficiency and scalability[1].

Unknown-1The value-added of campus universities should rather be sought in teaching methods where the degree of interaction between students and teachers goes beyond incidental questioning and answering in lectures and seminars. Think of tutorials (meetings a few students with a tutor), projects (intensive meetings of students, occasionally attended by a teacher), working groups in problem-based learning (10-15 students, who meet with a tutor regularly) and some types of training. Activities like these outperform the capabilities of education online with respect to the support of aims like critical thinking and problem solving. Unfortunately, the domination of lectures and seminars prevents that campus universities take advantage of this potential value.

The value of self-paced learning

The majority of educational programs – campus-based or distance teaching – are starting once or twice a year and their length is fixed. For the rapidly growing group of students who combine study with a job, music or sport, a family and a social life, this system is untenable. Students differ with respect to the time they can spend on their study each week, to the distribution of the available time during the year, to the speed at which they learn and to the knowledge and skills they already possess.

Fortunately, a growing number of distance teaching institutions is able to deal with differences between students with respect to the time they need to complete their studies. These institutions offer unlimited opportunity to enrol as well[2]. In order to stimulate that students prioritize their study as much as possible, they offer active mentoring and count a fixed monthly fee under the motto learn as much as you can. Unfortunately, the majority of online programs fail to realize the benefits of flexibility.

Distance teaching and campus-based education both have potential advantages, whose benefits are not fully used. However, students will benefit best, if these advantages are made available for all of them.

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The value of blending learning

Education online is perfectly well equipped for enabling educational aims like the acquisition of knowledge and the development of theoretical insights. With respect to this aim, campus-based universities can economize by substituting lectures and seminars by online teaching methods. As mentioned before, some types of face-to-face interaction between teachers and students are superior in the realization of educational aims like critical thinking and problem solving. All students – in campuses or online – will benefit from occasional participation in tutorials, projects, small group meetings or intense trainings like boot camps. For some students it will be feasible to be on campus daily, for others one day every week suits best or they prefer a few residential weeks a year. By offering a variety of blends of face-to-face meetings and activities online, university campuses could become nodes in educational networks and be able to host many more students than at present. The functional combination of independent study with both face-to-face and online support is representing the best of both worlds at lower costs.

The value of freedom what or where to learn

The body of scientific knowledge is doubling every nine years, disciplinary borders get blurred and best research is interdisciplinary. As a consequence, the disciplines that emerged in the 19th century have become obsolete. Nonetheless, they still dominate the educational landscape. It is time to exchange traditional subjects for broad fields of study that offer ample opportunity to chose introductory and advanced course and projects.

At the same time, students will increasingly obtain their degree by visiting several universities within their country or abroad. Thus, students take maximum advantage of the differences between institutions. In order to assess students, universities should describe their examination rules in terms of competencies to achieve instead of courses to follow.

A variety of blends of face-to-face and online activities to support students’ independent learning could become the new normal.

[1] Read my post: The lecture is the iconic symbol of wastage in higher education: http://wp.me/p3lna5-6M

[2] Self-paced learning is a common characteristic of the most innovative educational institutions in the USA. For instance, the College for America, which is a part of the Southern New Hampshire University (60,000 students) and the Western Governors University (70,000 students). See: Alana Dunagan College transformed. Five institutions leading the charge in innovation http://www.christenseninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/College-transformed.pdf

 

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.

screenshot-4

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

How much knowledge do we need more to save the world?

 images-2Knowledge has become ubiquitous. The same applies to stupidity, greed, fundamentalism and the quest for power. Definitely, it applies not to peace, happiness or wisdom. In spite of undeniable progress with respect to income, medical care, education and technology last decades the world did not become a better place. The ubiquity of knowledge has not been very helpful. On the contrary, knowledge has been a steady accomplice in the decline of the earth.

The production, distribution and use of knowledge

The number of academicians has never been higher than today. Moreover, knowledge is produced in many places outside universities: company research labs, high-tech start-ups, research institutions, think tanks and newspapers. Not to forget tacit knowledge that is emerging in practice. The growth of knowledge has gone far beyond anybody’s capacity to absorb. The time when academic knowledge could be stored in textbooks is long gone. The best scientists prefer to explore their own niches, sometimes between disciplines, using a variety of methods. Unfortunately they stick together in rather homogeneous clans.

imagesPrinted or electronic sources in which knowledge is stored are ubiquitous too. The sheer number of scientific publications is doubling every 9 years since 1950[1]. Unfortunately, many publications are incomparable due to differences in assumptions, variables, definitions, methods and size of research populations. Besides, potential beneficiaries from scientific research rarely read scientific publications. The chance that they will find information that is useful to them has decreased significantly during the past decades[2]. The fact that some publications explicate their practical relevance in a few sentences at the end is by no means a solution for this problem.

A new perspective

Fortunately, some politicians, entrepreneurs and public servants do be open for academic support for the benefit of themselves, their company or institution and for society. At the same time, a growing group of scientists regrets the arduous contacts between science and society. The solution is mutual engagement: Groups of scientists team-up with representatives from for example companies, NGO’s and not-for-profit institutions and try to match research interest and practical needs in collaborative projects.

Higher education

unknown-3Many teachers assume that students have to be saturated with disciplinary knowledge first before its application can be practiced. This outmoded idea has proven not to work because of the abundance of scientific knowledge, the blurring of disciplinary borders and the situated character of ‘real problems’. In stead, students acquire meaningful knowledge only if they learn to deal with unstructured problems from the first day they enter university. The development of a more structured knowledge base can wait and might be reserved for students who aspire a career in academia. Disciplinary bachelor programs might be replaced by the study of societal problems like environment, migration and integration, healthcare, energy and the like.

Knowledge in general is abundant but is meaningless for saving the world. In the meantime, knowledge that is developed and learned within the context of understanding and solving real problems is badly needed.

[1] A rather conservative estimation of the growth of the number of scientific publications: http://goo.gl/UkQbtj

[2]Pearce, J. L., & Huang, L. (2012): The decreasing value of our research to management education. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 11(2), 247-262.

 

The lecture is the iconic symbol of wastage in higher education

Close your eyes and imagine a large industrial site at the end of the 19th century. 1000’s of laborers are sitting behind sewing machines. Still keep your eyes closed and imagine a lecture hall, again rows and rows of students who hurry to copy the words of the teacher.

The resemblance is clear. The difference too: The industrial site is history. The lecture hall is present-day[1].

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My thesis is: The essence of higher education is under pressure. The reason is that universities failed to adapt their educational methods to the large growth of the number of students. As a consequence, the small classrooms of the past made room for the lecture halls of the present.

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge – who largely stayed unchanged – demonstrate what the essence of higher education might be. Once or twice a week students meet their personal tutor. During each meeting, tutors challenge students with assignments based upon scientific or societal problems. Subsequently, students read a lot and they write down their findings. In a next meeting the tutor is giving feed back, elucidates new viewpoints, suggests additional reading and occasionally initiates research projects, relating theory and practice.

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The description above allows me to define two essential pillars of scientific education:

  1. The active acquisition of scientific knowledge, which goes far beyond the capability to reproduce it.
  2. The growth of students’ competence to analyse, reflect and solve real live-problems, and to think and judge in a critical way

Onderwijs - academically adriftThe majority of contemporary universities are realizing these outcomes only partially. Research in the US has revealed that about 40% of college students did not make any progress with respect to analytical and critical thinking skills in four consecutive years[2].

As far as universities are aware of their own failure, the usual reflex is blaming government because funding largely stayed behind the growth of the number of students. I do not expect any substantial change in this respect. And maybe it is better that universities economize themselves first.

So, universities face the challenge to improve the quality of their education and to deal with a growing and ever more differentiated student population, while funding is remaining largely the same. If they fail, they risk disruption in the next decade. This challenge will be solved only, if universities innovate, in particular by deploying ICT.

Availability onlineUniversities can economize by flipping their classrooms radically and supporting their students in choosing appropriate open educational resources like MOOCs (= massive open online courses). At this time, MOOCs cover any part of scientific knowledge. The best scientists are involved in their development and educational technologists have designed the best visual support. The only expenses relate to delivering feedback at student’s assignments.

MOOCs or other digital sources are able to contribute significantly to the active acquisition of knowledge, the first pillar of higher education. But what about the second pillar; developing the competence to analyse, reflect and solve real live-problems and to arrive at critical thinking and judgment. This pillar definitely goes beyond the capabilities of open educational resources.

Onderwijs - Aalborg 5

The one way to develop this competency is engaging students in independent work, like writing theses and doing projects. Projects might be executed in small groups and students learn to deal with real problems and their owners. This independent work must cover a substantial part of students’ time. Of course students need expert teachers’ supervision. After having reduced their activities with respect to knowledge transfer significantly, teachers will have ample time to act as project supervisors and most will love it.

Finally, government might play a role the transition of higher education. This is supporting the execution of transition plans to be submitted by higher education institutions.

[1] This blogpost is based on my contribution to a round table discussion about innovation in higher education at August 30th in Maribor (Slovenia) in presence of the minister of education.

[2] See my blogpost Why universities underachieve http://wp.me/p3lna5-4n

 

Will Self-management replace managerialism in higher education?

Onderwijs - schaalvergroting ROC Leiden
The megalomaniac building that paved the way of a Dutch educational institution into bankruptcy 

In the eighties of the 20th century managers started taking over power in educational institutions[1]. Their ambitions were towering: More well paying foreign students, higher scores at international rankings, monitoring systems to control the duration of studies, institutionalized quality control systems. Numerous mergers, ostensibly for reasons of efficiency, impressive buildings and private drivers fuelled the egos of the new managerial class. New Public Management offered the exquisite administrative instruments they needed: integral management, hierarchical leadership and performance indicators to control middle management, teachers and students.

Meanwhile, the results have become visible: Occasional successes but many failures: Towering debts – often as a result of real estate projects – rising admission fees, calculating and consumptive students, overloaded – mostly not tenured – teachers, dominance of research over education, and growing organizational clutter[2] and overhead. Traditional well-known small-scaled colleges, where teachers and students formed close-knit communities, went lost.

Change is in the air. Students and teachers are revolting against the commodization of the educational system, universities in particular. They fear one-sided vocational orientation, uncritical collaboration with commercial firms and decreasing academic quality. Besides, a long row of scientific publications gives strong evidence that the mergers and acquisitions are increased costs, rather than bringing savings[3].

More democracy and autonomy must be paired

Worldwide students and academics ask for more democracy. More democracy often is identified with empowering representative bodies, without necessarily easing the regulative power of the government of universities. If this is all, the lack of freedom in the workplace and the pressure of bureaucracy will persist. As a consequence, democracy at institutional level must include a satisfactory level of autonomy in the workplace, where research and teaching are organized.

Onderwijs - rendementsdenkenHierarchical personnel management and extensive planning and control systems enabled late 20th century companies to produce massive volumes at low prices for relatively stable and continuously growing markets. Nowadays, the environment is changing at high-speed, requiring flexibility and development of new products in short notice. The labour force is well educated and prepared to take or share managerial responsibility. At the same time most workers feel disengaged under conditions of vertical control.

The demand for self-management is growing worldwide and goes beyond educational institutions. A growing number of publications have created an inspiring picture of the 21century organisation. One of the first protagonists of self-management was Ricardo Semler, who asked for more happiness and relaxation at work[4]. Lars Kolind has disclosed his own experience in a self-managing company[5], Brian Robertson has described his creation of holacracy, an elaborated model of self-government[6]. The absolute bestsellers of Laloux[7] and Getz[8] offer descriptions of companies and other organizations that have implemented self-management.

The ultimate goal of the transformation process of educational institutions, as part of a broader movement, is better education and research under responsibility of teachers, researchers and students practising distributed management, supported by a capable staff and enabled by engaging leaders. Less bureaucracy and overhead will increase money for education and research.

[1] Wikipedia is describing managerialism as belief in the value of professional managers and of the concepts and methods they use. It is associated with hierarchy, accountability and measurement.

[2] Decluttering higher education is a challenge. Read my last blogpost: http://wp.me/p3lna5-5G

[3] Ben Martin: What’s Happening to our Universities? From: Science Policy Research Working Paper Series, University of Sussec 2016. https://www.sussex.ac.uk/webteam/gateway/file.php?name=2016-03-swps-martin.pdf&site=25

See also: David Matthews: Centralising Universities ‘ignores evidence of what works best’ in Times Higher Education February 15th 2016 https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/centralising-universities-ignores-evidence-what-works-best

[4] Ricardo Semler: Semco style, 2013

[5] Lars Kolind & Jacob Botter: Unboss, 2014

[6] Brian Robertson: Holacracy, 2015

[7] Frederic Laloux: Reinventing organizations, 2015

[8] Isaac Getz and Brian Carney: Freedom, Inc., 2014.

No democratization of universities without self-government

In February 2015 long smoldering discontent with the administration of the University of Amsterdam erupted in the occupation of its administrative center, the Maagdenhuis.

This discontent has many sources:

  • Considerable cuts in the funding of education and research, partly due to the university’s real estate policy.
  • The position as temporarily employee without tenure prospects of most(!) members of the staff
  • The complicated and fragmented organization, which prevents staff and students having a say in major policy topics, as the relation between research and education.
  • The domination of the university’s policy by principles of efficiency and centralization, which is impairing smaller programs of study.
  • The loss of a feeling of ‘ownership’; staff and students no longer consider their university as a place for academic discourse and critical reflection
Onderwijs - Maagdenhuis bezetting 2015
Maagdenhuisbezetting 2015

The Maagdenhuis has been occupied before, nearly fifty years ago. At that time, staff and students revolted against the hegemonic power of the professors. Then, within two years, parliament ratified a new law, which created councils at university and faculty level. In these councils staff and students had substantial influence. This structure eroded when the harsh political climate in the eighties drove university administrators in hearty embracement of New public management principles.

Fifty years ago, staff and students revolted against the hegemony of the professors; now managerialism is targeted. For many persons who are involved in the ongoing protests, the cure is the same: a significant extension of the legislative power of the councils at university and faculty level. Members of parliament – albeit in opposition’s seats – try to pave the path, as I sincerely hope with success. However it is not enough.

The new legislation in the seventies brought another novelty, the departmental structure. The department – often below faculty level – was meant to be a group of professors and other staff members who were responsible collectively for the education and the research within a certain field, for instance sociology.

Onderwijs - Maagdenhuis bezetting 1969
Maagdenhuisbezetting 1969

In a certain degree the departmental structure represented quite a number of principles of self-government. I guess that I never have seen my colleagues as happy as in those years. At the same time, many of them did not feel much affinity with the discussions in the academic councils[1].

In the nineties, responsibility for education and research was allocated to independent institutions, so called schools. Departments lost their formal power and became capacity groups who lend staff to directors of research and education, losing much of their formal influence. Apart from the brake-down of the relation between education and research, many staff members felt alienated, especially when the compensation in hours they received for their work got worse year after year.

What to do? Rehabilitation of the power of the university and faculty councils is one thing; rehabilitation and strengthening the autonomy of the departments – students included – is something else, which in my view earns priority.

Principles of self-government have been introduced successfully in quite a number of organizations. In the nineties I was involved in a rather successful process of implementation of self-government in my former university. It represents the best that I have accomplished ever professionally and many colleagues regained happiness in their work. There is no best way to implement self-government and all organizations, universities included – have to go through a process of redesign and deliberation.

It is of utmost importance that a university that enters the path of redesigning its governance starts at the bottom-end, probably the department level. The question how to redesign the higher levels (faculty and university) should be raised only after the agreement of a satisfactory solution at the bottom-level. In the end, the result probably is a significant decentralization of power and as a consequence a more light governance structure at faculty and university level.

Science fiction? You should read Laloux’ account of the implementation of self-government in 12 companies and institutions[2]. What nurses, employees of a construction company, teachers and consultants have accomplished, must be feasible in organizations like universities with so many smart people on board[3].

[1] Which was my thing in those days…….

[2] Many ideas about self-government come together in the highly praised best-seller of Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations. Nelson Parker 2014. This book is nominated as the best management book of the 21th century.

[3] The author of this blogpost is a member of the committee ‘Decentralization and democratization’ of the University of Amsterdam. This committee is installed to develop principles for a new governance structure of the university in close connection with the academic community.

Universities neglect the role of experience in learning

Dit kunnen jonge studenten waarschijnlijk beter
Here young students probably perform better

I have been working for a long time with initial fulltime students and with full-employed adult students as well. A bigger difference cannot be fancied. For young students encountering each other at the campus and participating in student’s life is mandatory and time-consuming. Most elder students enter university for work-related reasons, varying from curiosity to the need to compensate missing knowledge or to be graded higher. But they want to be spared of the bustle of campus life.

The role of experience

Besides differences in motivational background, differences in experience play a significant role. Adult students excel in practical experience and tacit knowledge. Smart use of this knowledge allows a significant faster progression through the program. Unfortunately, this seldom happens because most teachers usually are not acquainted with this kind of knowledge.

Onderwijs - Knowles Adult LearnerAccording to pragmatist philosophers both reason and experience are involved in becoming acquainted with the world. Educators like John Dewey and Eduard Lindeman have studied the impact of this vision on education. The best-known contemporary theorists of adult learning, Malcolm Knowles (1990) has build on the shoulders of these giants.

Elaborating on students’ experience is subordinated to learning of concepts and theories. This practice is rooted in the rationalist mainstream in western thinking about knowledge and education, As a consequence the seminal work of Knowles is relatively unknown, hence a brief explanation of his thoughts.

Knowles’ theory of adult learning can be summarized in six learning principles:

  1. Adult learners are internally motivated and self-directed in the first place. The most occurring motivations are job-satisfaction and self-esteem and occasionally, the acquisition of better income.
  2. Adult learners will use their own experiences and prior knowledge as frames of reference while acquiring new knowledge. Their experience is the most important source of knowledge but they highly appreciate new knowledge that brings additional insight in and structure of their experience. They expect a personalized approach in order to cope with their own experience and learning needs.
  3. Adult learners are goal-oriented: Their eagerness to learn correlates with the satisfaction of their self-defined learning needs.
  4. Adult learners are relevancy-oriented: Learning is functionally related to cope effectively with real-life situations in the present or near future. In case of lectures, they expect a prior account of their relevance.
  5. Adult learning is practical: Adults prefer a task-centred or problem-centred approach in learning, directly related to better performance of their own tasks.
  6. Adult learners want to be respected and trusted. They appreciate if teachers tune their teaching with their situation and they hate being put-down and not taken serious.

A dedicated curriculum for adult students will improve the efficacy of their learning taking into account these characteristics. However, in most universities students are mixed or curricula for fulltime and parttime students are copies. How will a curriculum for adult learners look like?

The attainment of higher education objectives by adult learners

  1. Knowledge and application
Dit is zelden een goede opstelling voor onderwijs aan volwassenen
This arrangement seldom supports adults’ learning

Taken into account Knowles’ learning principles, learning of scientific concepts and theories occurs in the context of application. As a consequence, the attainment of the first and second Dublin descriptors (knowledge and its application) is an integrated process, starting with meaningful cases reflecting students’ experience. Subsequently, scientific concepts are introduced as conceptual tools for structuring and deepening experience. This does dot imply that each student’s experience always must be made explicit. Curriculum developers can suffice with interviewing a sample of prospective leaners and collect a set of relevant experiences. A variety of didactic models can be deployed, like problem-based learning, case studies and group discussions. Short lectures will do to introduce concepts and theory. Teaching can take place in classrooms or at distance.

  1. Critical thinking

The development of critical thinking skills (third Dublin descriptor) requires a different approach: Here a learning sequence starts with a real life problem that has to be analysed, evaluated, or solved. In the beginning students do not have any clue, which theoretical concepts might be helpful. Adult working students will recognize the problem because of their tacit knowledge.

Projects offer the best opportunity for students to go through this process.  Adult students might be allowed to elaborate problems that they have encountered in their own practice. For them, the conceptualization of the problem with scientific concepts is new and exiting. The supervision of projects is challenging as knowledge of one or more disciplines, methodological expertise and in-depth knowledge of the working environment are required. The combination of these abilities in one person is rare in an academic environment.

Developing business education capabilities in learning networks

Met mijn (volwassen) studenten op bezoek in een operatiekamer
Visiting a hospital with my adult students

Ability to bridge the gap between theoretical, practical and tacit knowledge is a major requirement for viable business education. No single university or other organization has the capabilities that are needed to achieve this goal. Collaborative learning networks have to come in place and universities might be able to contribute significantly. The development of a learning network with participants from different angles (companies, not-for profit organizations, consultants, government and universities) is a necessary step to develop and supervise dedicated academic education and for doing research and initiating innovation as well.

Knowles, M.S. (1990). The adult learner. A neglected species. Houston TX: Gulf Publishing.

Why universities underachieve

European universities consider the Dublin descriptors as their objectives for about 20 years. Consequently, they claim that upon graduation:

  1. Students are acquainted with the knowledge base of one or more fields of knowledge, research methods included.
  2. Students are able to apply the acquainted knowledge, which means that they can relate concepts and theories with related phenomenon in practice (near transfer)
  3. Students are able to think critical about real problems, making references at proper concepts and theories and – if necessary – by gathering and elaborating empirical data (far transfer)
  4. Students are able to communicate at several levels of complexity about scientific knowledge and its application
  5. Students are increasingly able to master their own learning

Having been a member of evaluation panels for more then 10 years, I must say that programs that have realized these objectives are rare.

Insufficient critical thinking skills
Insufficient critical thinking skills

The first (acquisition of knowledge) and the second (application of knowledge) Dublin descriptor dominate the curriculum. Learning to cope with the other three Dublin descriptors stays behind in most programs. I repeatedly asked representatives of programs under evaluation to explain the meaning of the third Dublin descriptor (critical thinking). Unfortunately, I seldom discovered any vision or strategy with respect to the attainment of this qualification, let alone that students were trained in it. The same applies to the fourth and fifth descriptors. The stepwise acquisition of critical thinking, communication and learning skills require that students participate regularly in collaborative research, tackling real-life problems, resulting in papers, presentations and discussions and thorough feedback.

Onderwijs - Underachieving collegesMy observations coincide with Derek Bok’s – former president of Harvard – critical review of higher education in the US. In his book Our underachieving colleges he has collected ample evidence that universities fall short in educating students as critical thinkers, able to judge deliberately and prepared to deal with diversity within the US and in our globalizing world (Bok, 2008).

Virtually no institution that I have been visiting is able to deliver serious proof of the attainment of the outcomes of their programs. Mostly, the thesis is considered as a proxy, which is questionable. Some institutions asked students to indicate the degree of mastery of the objectives of the program themselves, which is better than doing nothing. Some programs have introduced portfolios, but until now they do not convince as proofs of the attainment of the Dublin descriptors.

Onderwijs - academically adriftMeasurement of educational outcomes is not deployed in the US either. The publishing of the seminal reports of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (Arum & Roksa, 2011, 2014) changed the scene. Both authors – employed as professors in US universities – wondered how universities ground their claim that they enable students to think critically, reason analytically, solve problems and communicate clearly. As research to validate this claim is absent, Arum & Roksa deployed the Collegiate Learning Assessment-test (CLA-test). In this test students write a short essay about a real problem. These essays are evaluated from a critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving, and communication skills angle. 2000 freshmen participated in the experiment and repeated the test after 18 month. 45% of the participants did not show any progress. Four years after the second run, a significant part of the original participants participated for the third time and 36% still did not show any significant progress. The authors conclude: Limited or no learning for a large proportion of students characterizes American higher education. The authors also collected data with respect to the average time students spent to their study. In the well-known University of California this appears to be 13 hours, compared with 43 hours for leisure and social activities.

Onderwijs - academically adrift 8The research of Arum and Roksa has been criticized from a methodological point of view. However, it has contributed to a growing awareness that something is terrible wrong in higher education in the US. More in particular if alumni’s debts (more then $1,1 trillion) and unemployment are taken into consideration.

Unfortunately many universities are over-complacent and over-focussed on their ratings, their publications, their enrolments, their patents and endowments. Deep engagement in education, critical evaluation of their programs and determination to realize their objectives stay behind.

Arum, Richard, & Roksa, Jospina. (2011). Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Arum, Richard, & Roksa, Jospina. (2014). Aspiring adults adrift: Tentative transitions of college graduates Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Bok, Derek. (2008). Our underachieving colleges. A candid look at how much students learn and what they should be learning more. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Stop publishing in journals!

Kennis - bibliotheekThis is a plea for radical innovation of the disclosure of research outcomes with the help of ICT[1]

The Publication is the sacred cow of scientists. Number of publications, reputation of journals, number of citations and impact scores have become crucial in their career. Therefore most academics are eager to publish as much as possible.

Because of the growth of the number of publications, publishing in scientific journals is losing its  meaning for the dissemination of research outcomes[2]. Most readers limit themselves to browsing a few journals and reading a couple of summaries.

Many publications are not worth reading at all. The excessive use of references – intended to demonstrate erudition – limits their readability. Research populations are often small and the conclusions lack significance, especially for readers who look for relevance in practice. Worldwide, these publications cost taxpayers billions each year.

Good and relevant research deserves to be widely distributed by a more effective channel than scientific journals. These journals have existed for hundreds of years in their current form; the potential of ICT is largely unexploited. Apart from digital distribution, improved options for search and doubtful options for the calculation of impact scores.

Deployment of ICT enables a radical innovation in the communication of research outcomes. My proposal below is based on two principles, which I will mention in succession.

1. Layered presentation of research outcomes

The research outcomes are presented concisely on a dedicated website accompanied by research questions and methods. Anyone is allowed to react immediately. This summary is containing a set of hyperlinks to the underlying layer. Here, readers who are interested will find an analysis of the literature and the research data. A third layer is disclosing the original literature, data, interviews, protocols and encryptions. Further options are a log of the progress of the research, earlier versions and commentaries.

The image below, the pyramid of originality, shows the three layers mentioned above. The first layer will be sufficient for the vast majority of readers. It is conceivable that the author offers different versions for different groups of readers in different languages too. I short TED-like presentation might be added.

Pyramid of originality
Pyramid of originality
2. Presentations at team level, not by individual researchers

The approach mentioned above will improve the readability of the information but not its abundance. Consequently, research teams report their findings instead of individual researchers. Besides, the units of disclosure have to be sufficiently large. Apart from reducing the number of publications, this procedure will stimulate cooperation.

The first layer will become a platform where teams exchange and compare their research outcomes. The availability of the raw data in the third layer will foster the comparison and replication of research outcomes. External reviewers might be invited to comment, if necessary in a part of the site with restricted accessibility.

Reports from individual group members might be made available optionally at the second layer. This is also the place to unveil discussions between the members of the team.

Nothing prevents individual researchers from composing for private use a portfolio that unveils their contribution to research projects. This portfolio might include critical reviews of literature studied, contributions to discussions, comments upon other research, articles for (remaining) journals and publications for the general public. Interviews, blog posts and so on.

In order to summarize, the proposed innovation of the presentation of research outcomes is based on six ideas:

  1. Publications are findings of teams instead of outcomes of individual research.
  2. Presentations are made available on dedicated websites.
  3. The presentation of the research is layered deploying the pyramid of originality.
  4. The top layer is disclosing the conclusions of the research. These are hyperlinked with underlying insights, data and discussions.
  5. There is ample room for discussion and comment
  6. Individual researchers might compile a portfolio for own use.

The emphasis on research as a collaborative process and the removal of the incentive for individual scientists to produce as many journal publications as possible, will contribute to strengthening focus, mass and quality of scientific research. The layered presentation of results enables the readability and the accessibility of research outcomes.

Van den Bosch, H.M.J., & Bolluyt, J. (2001). The use of hypertext in the writing of group papers. Journal of Computer-assisted Learning, 17(4), 355-362.

[1] The content of this post is rooted in an article that I wrote quite a number of years ago with Jeroen Bolluyt (Van den Bosch & Bolluyt, 2001). I never forwarded to develop my thoughts about alternatives for the derailed institution of scientific journals and their content. Last year I was urged to do so repeatedly. Hence this blog post. The original article can be found here: http://goo.gl/zv33RP

[2]  See http://goo.gl/UkQbtj for a conservative calculation of the increase in the number of publications. The result of this calculation is that since 1950 the number of publications is doubling every nine years.