I recently read two good blog posts about higher education: one by Clark Quinn and the other by Andy Cloverdale. In both posts they point out the need for change in the way that education is provided at the University and the way instructors/professors are trained to teach in the University.
This and the extreme budget cuts to our university in the face of rising enrollments got me thinking about the call for "reform" in how our universities are run in the US today.
Current system in the US
To understand what we are up against in the US, it is important to understand the model of education as it currently stands in the US. Our current system is based on a belief that the ultimate goal of education is to become an expert (which was redefined as "specialist" in the 1980's) in a specific field of study. In other words, the Ph.d. holds all knowledge about a content area, thus making them an "expert".
After a broad basic education at high school (secondary school), a person is expected to learn the basic requirements of functioning in our society (through understanding our culture through the study of history, literature, and social studies, to basic written communication skills through the study of language arts, to basic calculation skills through the study of math, to the understanding of our environment, health. and work processes through the study of science). This is the ideal.
What used to be called Junior College but is now called Community College has developed into two tracks: the first is vocational and advanced technical training to meet the needs of an educated workforce (but not management), especially those in manufacturing and the service industry, whereas the second is the preparation for those underprepared or not able to afford a university or college education. In the second case, students are expected to take a broad range of courses across disciplines. In the first case, students are expected to become proficient in a given skill or discipline. However, in our current model of community college education, those that finish community college (usually with an associate's degree) do not hold expertise even if they have specialized in an area. Rather, they are able to work with the experts and/or gain expertise as they work within the discipline.
The current model for undergraduate education is 2 years of general education courses (also known as gen ed or core courses) from categories of disciplines (i.e. quantitative studies, language and arts, culture, social sciences, man and environment, etc...). Then a student will specialize or "major" or "minor" in a field. The traditional majors and minors normally fall into humanities, social sciences, applied sciences, natural sciences, liberal arts, or professional schools (pre-law, pre-med, education, accounting, etc...). Each major normally has a dedicated faculty consisting of tenured and/or full-time professors and adjunct, part-time, or student instructors. In the last two decades, "interdisciplinary" majors consist of faculty drawn from different majors. Tuition flows into the traditional majors to sustain faculty positions and support staff. The interdisciplinary major ends up being "gravy" (extra money) as there is no support staff or dedicated instructors for these majors.
One problem with the interdisciplinary majors (which I suffered at both the undergraduate and graduate level since both of my degrees were interdisciplinary) is that many of the required courses for these interdisciplinary majors are cut during budget crisis because they are perceived as "electives" within the traditional majors. The result is that required courses for interdisciplinary majors are cut and students in these majors are unable to complete their course work in a timely manor. This has just happened with a course I have taught in our major. It now is a part of Public Policy, an interdisciplinary major. Normally the course is offered either every 2 or 3 semesters, depending on the faculty interest. But now that it is part of another major, the demand for the course has increased. It is possible that I will need to teach it more often or if I leave, it won't be offered at all (we are short staffed within the Communication Dept. for our department's required courses as it is).
Once students leave with a Bachelor's degree, at the end of their college experience, they are expected to have a certain cache of skills and abilities that will make them employable. As a result, more and more colleges are basing their curriculum on employer needs (i.e. computer program specific, accounting law specific, ability to be licensed or certified in a field). The college graduate, in other words, will bring away from the college, the content they will need in the work place.
At the Master and Ph.d. level, students are expected to drill down to one area of expertise, that area being specific to the field of study they are pursuing. Graduate studies are based on the expertise of the faculty in a program/ field of study. In our department (Communication), for example our programs focus on Healthcare communication, political communication, and interpersonal communication. Other schools of communication might focus on mass communication, written communication, speech communication and disorders, intercultural communication, communication strategy, organizational communication, communication technology, etc... Many graduate schools try to build up a reputation in a marketable area. They will hire new faculty to reflect trends in specialties and encourage tenured faculty to change their expertise through grant writing support and research funding. A department that does not bring in funding (either through research, grants, or student tuition) usually will have programs or entire departments cut from the university.
Impact of this model on the Current Higher Ed System
This business model of Higher Education does not connect with the educational needs of the 21st century. As our economy and society moves into the knowledge economy, CONTENT is not as important as understanding how to find, interpret, analyze, and update content/expertise. Companies may be looking for specific content from their graduates, but what they need are employees that have critical thinking and reading, communication, analytic, information literacy, technology literacy, creativity, and collaboration skills. These skills might manifest themselves in different ways within different disciplines, but for the most part they can be found in all fields. As a result, it is important that those at the upper end of higher education (Master, Ph.d.), be prepared to cross the traditional disciplines to understand how each functions within a certain field of study.
Likewise, the internet has made content available on a mass basis, whereas it was limited to the university, publishing houses, depositories (such as libraries), and management before social networking. Access to information is not as important as knowing how to find that information and what to do with it when it is found. "Expertise" can be found outside of those trained and educated in the discipline, thus making the expert professor obsolete. The result is a need for professors that can teach, mentor, and develop life-long learning skills, something that was limited to graduate students in the past.
With the focus on new skills over content and access to expertise and content outside of the university, the current system of testing for content and expertise is lacking. There needs to be a deeper level of assessment that objective tests don't access.
Finally, the current process of appropriating funding based on a major or program will limit education to those areas dictated by market needs and tradition. New ideas will not be funded nor will more imaginative, ground breaking approaches to learning and application of student learning. As education becomes more costly, students and stakeholders expect more with less resources, and education is in greater demand from populations that would not have thought of higher education a generation ago, the current system is not meeting the needs (economically or educationally) of the US society.
A new model
With this in mind, I'd like to propose a new model for higher education in the US.
1) The curriculum of higher ed should change focus from general to specific to one of having students work on a specific area they are interested in in order to learn life long learning skills such as critical reading, self-direction, information literacy, technology literacy, communication skills, and collaboration skills. What if freshman were to start their education with a research project, rather than waiting at the end of their 4 years to bring everything together. They would learn the basic skills needed to learn in any profession. This would allow them to work in smaller groups, to be mentored by an educational specialist, and given the ability to work on those areas where they might be lacking. At the Master and Ph.d level, students would be expected to move in and out of various disciplines, learning in a complex system rather than limiting their learning to just one area. There would not be Ph.d. departments but rather one Ph.d. program in which students worked with faculty in multiple settings doing research in multiple disciplines. This would require a much higher level of thinking and abstraction, creating Ph.d's that could work solving society's problems outside of the unnatural boundaries of academic departments. Many are already doing this.
2) Funding would be a combination of educational professionals (with Ph.d's in a variety of disciplines, but training in learning theory for adults), learning centers, research centers, and learning support services (i.e. collaboration, written and spoken communication, critical reading and writing skills, quantitative research methodology and analysis, project based learning and scientific problem solving, etc...).
3) Learning and degree granting would be based on a portfolio of work and oral examinations rather than a testing of "content". In fact, the use of computers to identify content would be encouraged for the assessment tests rather than excluded from the process. My Ph.d. program does this now. We are given some articles to analyze and then given an oral exam based on our analysis. The topic can be anything related to education whether we are interested in it or not, have learned about it or not. We are given 3 weeks to prepare a paper and then defend it to a committee. Not only are they testing our understanding of the field, they are testing our ability to learn something new in a short time, to find resources to support this learning, to collaborate with colleagues when we don't understand something, and then to present a view point and support it appropriately.
These are just some ideas I have been kicking around. I am sure there are others who have better and more creative ideas. But one thing is for sure, the system will need to change if we are going to keep up with the changes and needs of society.
- V Yonkers
- Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.