Tag Archives: Project learning

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

 

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Teachers: Be educators!

The number of competency-based education programs within universities in the US has risen to more than 500. Recently, a manifesto was published, featuring the ten most important design rules for competency-based programs[1]. One of these rules will be highlighted here, because of it relevance for all forms of education.

This rule is: Teachers reflect and discuss in depth how graduates are supposed to behave professionally, intellectually and socially. With other words, which competencies students ought to reveal upon graduation. In still other words, what is the role of the school and its teachers in educating young people?

Onderwijs - frontaal onderwijs 2

The rule mentioned above seems obvious; still common practice differs: Many schools cherish their traditional subjects and the autonomy of the individual teachers in their classrooms. Here teachers transmit the same subject matter year after year, mostly with the help of textbooks whose content is traceable to decades-old and often out-dated scientific knowledge, if any. This kind of teaching is accompanied by a reproduction-oriented learning style aimed at attaining the exams. After leaving school most content will be forgotten. Beyond the classroom it appears to be a load for the memory and not a light for the mind.

Fulfilling the above-mentioned rule requires that teachers engage actively with the redesign of the curriculum. This is a collaborate effort and cannot be accomplished by individual teachers alone within the context of their own discipline.

Onderwijs - silos in onderwijs

This does not mean that teachers have to abolish their subject-related expertise. The design of the curriculum has to balance the acquisition of disciplinary insights by students and their integrated use in the analyses of real-life problems. Students cannot be left alone in this process of integration, as it is the most difficult part of the educational process by far. Problem-based and project learning, community-based learning and role-play are in place; activities that can only be accomplished by collaborative work within teaching teams. As a consequence, teachers must collaborate also in the supervision of their students. Their role in the governance of schools will change as well. An inspiring example is the Evangelische Schule Berlin-Zentrum, Teachers developed the curriculum and the governance structure of the school is based on self-management[2].

Onderwijs - ESBZ

In secondary education in Finland subjects have been abolished in order to enable a debate on what education is about. Before the University of Maastricht opened its doors, the same happened and teachers collaboratively designed a new curriculum with future competences in mind.

The worst that could happen to teachers is the assignment of a state-commission to this job. In that case, the profession of a teacher is reduced to a classroom executive playing a statutory role. Unnecessary to say that under these circumstances improvement in student’s learning outcomes will be minimal.

Teachers must instead take responsibility for the whole educational process within the school and as a consequence recover their authority and leadership not only as individuals but also as a team.

 

[1] The report is called: Shared design elements and emerging practices or competency-based education programs. http://www.cbenetwork.org/sites/457/uploaded/files/Shared_Design_Elements_Notebook.pdf

[2] See for an extensive description of the school and its educational principles: Frederic Laloux: Reinventing organizations, p. 93. Visit the website of the school at: http://www.ev-schule-zentrum.de/aktuell/

 

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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.

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MOOCs: The announcement of the wrong revolution

A litany of recent complaints shows that something is wrong with higher education: Cost are rising with 10% every year (US), content has lost track with the explosive development of new knowledge, alumni’s competences do not match with the requirements of the labour market, teachers deliver lectures in the same way as their predecessors did for centuries, revenues for society are unclear. 40% of all students are leaving without a grade. Universities are inside looking, fixed at ratings, complacent and self-confident and so do not consider any reason for change.

According to Christensen[1], universities are on the eve of disruptive innovation. Disruptive innovation is the fast acceptance by the public of affordable new products and services, which were disregarded by established companies and are mostly offered by new entrants.

MOOC producentenLess than one year ago, the first MOOCs (massive online open course) were launched. Their pros and cons are discussed in an uncountable number of blogs; presumably, papers in academic journals are still in the peer review stage. The appearance of MOOCs is pleasing me. Not because they are free of charge or massive, but because they open the gates towards uncountable sources of knowledge, which will allow students to customize their need for information. I am confident that MOOCs will displace lecture-based teaching at short notice

However, this is the wrong revolution.

The future of the lecture theatre

The future of the lecture theatre

The exchange of lectures for MOOCs does not question the dominance of the acquisition of knowledge in higher education. Yet broad agreement exist that higher education in the first place has to develop ‘readiness for society’. The attainment of this goal is encompassing three learning processes: (1) the acquaintance of relevant knowledge, (2) the application of knowledge and (3) and the exchange between codified and practical (or tacit) knowledge. The best way by far to organize these learning processes is by merging them.

Learning processes

Learning processes

A critical assessment of mainstream of higher education reveals that universities spent most energy on delivery of knowledge. Application of knowledge is dominated by ‘near transfer’, which means that students learn to give practical examples of theoretical concepts. ‘Far transfer’ originates from the analysis and solving of real problems, without prior exposure to cues about relevant knowledge. It occurs in Schools that deploy problem or project-based learning. Exchange of codified and practical knowledge is absent in general. It might take place during internships, but projects outside the university are better and moreover, they offer opportunity for integration with other learning processes.

A balanced and integrated approach of the three learning processes mentioned above is occurring in only few universities. Elsewhere, students learn (and forget) lots of knowledge, have only limited experience with the application of knowledge and are ignorant of the clash between codified and practical knowledge. Consequently, the majority of our universities are disavowing their main goal, the development of ‘readiness for society’. It is this verdict that justifies a revolution in higher education.

Who will smash the first tomato and start the right revolution?

I guess, nobody will, and this brings me back to the topic of disruptive innovation. Corporate universities have the best chance to take over higher education for adults at short notice. They are in a perfect place to organize projects and to exchange codified and practical knowledge. Until now, they are incompetent to organize the delivery of knowledge. Still, the breakthrough of MOOCs will make the difference. Deploying MOOCs will enable corporate academies to organize the three educational processes mentioned above in an integrated fashion at relatively low-cost. This will enable companies to scale up their learning programs and to improve the level of competence of their employees, which is badly needed in face of our society’s need for innovation.


[1] Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn, Louis Caldera, and Louis Soares: Disrupting College: How Disruptive Innovation Can Deliver Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary Education February 2011 http://goo.gl/ogr5r

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