Guaranteed Educational Outcomes

One of my students recently blogged about a mismatch between graduate skills and industry requirements in the gaming industry. I shook my head as I read that, although the industry is crying out for programmers, fewer than 12% of the graduates from specialist gaming degrees are employed six months following graduation. Fifty eight percent of employers in the industry say that specialist graduates have the skills necessary upon graduation (rising to 71% in larger firms). We have become a dishonest broker between incoming students and industries looking for employees. At one end, our market is made up of 18 year olds who are interested in the student experience while at the other end, our market is made up of employers who are looking for a set of skills. We make the noises that are satisfying to both ends, and end up letting everyone down.

Why not guarantee the skills of our graduates? Why not put an iron-clad guarantee on what a graduate of our department/school/institution can do, backed by our reputation (some would say we already do that) and some cold hard cash?

Let’s look at how that might work. I guarantee that a student who graduates from my degree programme with a 2i (B range average) can write at Level X, speak at Level X, manipulate numbers at Level X, engage in critical thinking at Level X, and evaluate evidence at Level X. If you are not satisfied after one year in the workplace with the quality of my graduate (barring any unforeseen circumstances), I will reimburse you the full year salary that you paid my graduate.

Different skill levels would be attached to different programme outcomes. Students could enrol on the course knowing that it would be tough, but that there would be a guaranteed job at the end, and employees could hire new graduates knowing that if they did not get what they were expecting, their money would be refunded. Intake into the programme would be determined by the number of guaranteed placements available at the end.

We could do this today — so what is stopping us?


What do the Students think?

I was surprised to read in the Times Higher about some recent research indicating that 85% of the incoming students expect us to teach them in lecture theatres using powerpoint slides. However, by the time they finish up their Powerpoint degree, there is an uneasy feeling about value for money.

In my senior undergraduate class about applying the principles of psychology to education, a couple of students dubbed a short video about what they thought of their education for their weekly blog.

Information Abundance

I reblogged a post by Keith Hampson last Friday as a preface to my post about information abundance. I think the points Keith made are central to the arguments I want to present in my blog. In an age of information abundance, significant changes are on the horizon, and I have my doubts about the ability of universities to be either willing or able to adapt to the disruption that these changes entail. Last November, Keith wrote about the work of Clayton Christensen on innovative disruption and its effect on institutions. Although directly referring to the effect of e-learning and digitisation, I think these are only symptoms of the real disruption that is being caused in the change in state from information scarcity to information abundance. In his blog, Keith says “it is rare for incumbents in an industry to maintain their dominant position once a disruptive innovation has run its course“, and I have to say the the scale of the disruption we are facing in education is unprecedented.

This complete inversion of the foundational model upon which our institutions are based has to be considered a significant disruption. To move from a historical state of information scarcity to the currently emerging state of information abundance is a seismic shift. Higher Education has never faced this kind of upheaval before. As I stated last week information abundance has been the ideal state our society has worked toward for a millennia, and now we find ourselves completely unprepared to adjust to the new reality we find ourselves in.

New learning paradigms are emerging to test this change of state.  Although there is no consensus emerging around what the learner of tomorrow will look like, or what shape the learning experience will take, there appears to be some ideas emerging that make some sense among the few academics who are considering the new world order. From my reading around the area, I see four groups of academics or schools of thought that are being taken when discussing the effects of information abundance on education.

The first group are what I would call the apologists. Although not apologists in the narrow sense of defending something controversial, they are working hard to defend an outdated traditional system and model. The thinking around the defence of the traditional model goes something like this: there is simply so much information available that it takes an expert to put proper boundaries, organisation, and perspective on or around some corpus of knowledge for the learner. This is essentially saying that although there was a time when the expert (or institution) was the only person (or place) where a person could find the necessary information in order to learn, that we should continue doing what we do (and have done for a very long time) because as experts, we are the only ones who can define and organise the information that can potentially overwhelm the novice. In other words, we need to keep doing what we have always done, and here is a good reason why. That’s why I call them apologists – maybe there is change coming, but we need to keep doing exactly what we have always done, because that is what is needed.

The second group that I constantly hear and read about (maybe because, as an academic, I go to too many learning technologist conferences) is the “technology will take care of it” refrain. That isn’t really a strategy or answer. It may eventually turn out to be true, in fact, I think it is likely, but that is not an answer as to where we should be going with our learning philosophies and models.

I think the third group I have been able to identify have the most traction, even though I think they are only partially right. This group are staunch advocates of experiential learning. Michael Wesch and Diana Laufenberg fall into this group. Certainly the experiential learning movement is a better solution than the one advocated by the apologists, but I think they are missing the point. I think that experiential learning will play a critical part in the learning landscape that will emerge in the age of information abundance. However, I believe that the fourth group encompasses experiential learning, and better predicts the topography of what will eventually emerge.

The fourth group (of which I am an adherent) believes that the post-secondary educational world will focus on skills. Although HE institutions are currently organised around subject areas, few employers are actually interested in the “stuff” students learn, rather they are interested in what students can do. Numeracy, communications, thinking, IT, and on and on. That is what employers want. There just are not that many employers who need graduates who know how a neurone works, but many employers are be interested in a person who can clearly explain or model how a neurone works. Forty percent of the jobs our HE graduates will be doing in five years haven’t even been invented yet. So what are we preparing our students for? It isn’t here yet. What we can give them are the skills that will prepare them for wherever they find themselves.

I think experiential learning can play its part in that process, but a new, or renewed focus on the higher thinking skills that the higher in HE stands for is the key. Critical analysis is critical analysis whether it occurs in history or in a scientific paper. The evaluation of evidence is a skill in education, nursing, or physics. Clear and concise writing is the same in the technical field as it is in the humanities. These skills are vitally important, and highly valued, in our world today, and yet, we insist on focusing on content in our organisation, our methods, and in our teaching. The content is important as a delivery vehicle for the skills graduates need, not as an end in and of itself. This doesn’t mean that some students won’t go on to become specialists in a field, but the number of specialists needed in any field is limited.

We live in exciting times, and whether or not universities survive as recognisable institutions remains to be seen. However, we need to think, debate and plan different approaches that will lay the foundation of whatever emerges as the new learning paradigm.


Higher Ed Management

Digitization of Information

The emergence of inexpensive and highly efficient information networks has increased the volume of available information. But it has also changed the way in which information is produced and distributed. While the impact of these changes on society is clearly far-reaching, its’ significance to higher education is particularly profound given the fundamental role of information in higher education. Changes of particular significance to higher education include:

  • Information used in education is often now available from sources other than higher education institutions, often at lower costs (or free), and in more convenient forms.
  • It is far easier for individuals to form communities focused on narrow interests and needs, including educational, without involvement of mediating educational institutions.
  • Increasingly sophisticated search technologies make finding relevant information easier, often reducing the value of intermediaries. Forecasts suggest that search capabilities will continue to accelerate in the coming decade.
  • What constitutes current and…

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Information Scarcity

Information scarcity is the model on which today’s educational institutions are founded. The scarcity model is based on the premise that information is expensive to produce, store and transmit. That has been the case in the past, but it is no longer true today.

When information scarcity is the case, it makes sense to concentrate resources and bring those who have knowledge together. Those who want to get information know where to find it – where it is gathered. Information transmission between people – teaching – is best done where the information is held.

Traditionally, this has been the role of schools and universities. With the advent of the factory in the nineteenth century, the idea was to gather together the knowledgeable, and bring the students to them so they could learn. The very structures at the centre of teaching in universities were designed along the same lines – large rooms where many students could assemble together to hear what an expert had to say – lecture theatres. The model is prevalent today.

One of the civilising drives over the past millennium has been to make information more abundant. A drive to move from information scarcity to information abundance. Below are listed a few of the key milestones in that drive from when information began to move from the ancient libraries where copies were laboriously hand made.

Printing press 1450
Encyclopaedia 1728
Wood pulp paper production 1840s
Rotary printing press 1863
Typewriter 1867
Photocopier 1949
Hyperlink 1968
Apple computer 1976
Ethernet network 1979
http:// 1989
Graphical browser 1993
Backrub (now google) 1996
Wikipedia 2000

Over the years, information has become easier and less expensive to acquire and transmit. From a few ancient libraries to the wireless access to the internet afforded by mobile computing devices, the transition has been relentless. From information scarcity to information abundance. Although not free, information is available at a nominal cost to the average citizen of the western world.

The internet today has made information cheap and ubiquitous – information abundance.

Although still at the beginning of the truly digital age of information abundance, we are far enough along to know that the pitiful attempts to put the genie back into the bottle in order to support information scarcity are not going to work in the long run.

Why not embrace it as the culmination of centuries of striving?