Qualifications R US!

Why are we here? I’m asking this from a students’ perspective. The two reasons set out as fundamental reasons for entering a HE institution are to learn or to get an education (a degree). Gibbs (2006) says that “assessment frames learning, creates learning activity and orients all aspects of learning behaviour.” From a student’s perspective, the grades and qualifications are the primary drivers in education today. Joughin (2009) would argue that this is but a small part of the story, however, in work of my own (Martin & Beverley, 2006), I found that significantly more than half the students were in university for career purposes, and fewer than 25% were there simply to learn (there was a significant minority there to understand themselves). It is difficult to dismiss the drive for qualifications (as hyped by governments, businesses and universities) as a significant reason that the majority of our students enter higher education.

When qualifications become a primary drive, learning becomes an obstacle to overcome to reach a goal rather than an end in and of itself. Learning becomes a secondary activity. Students attend university for a list of reasons (social life, great fun and activities, living in halls, sports, getting away from home – and of course getting a qualification) with learning wrapped up in the qualification part. As a package, this is the student experience. Universities exist to provide the student experience. Roger Shank points out that “Most students take four or five courses at a time as full time students at a university. While they are doing this they play football or work for the student newspaper, or maybe even hold down a real job. Plus there a great many social events to attend, in addition to the constant action of dormitory life. In the life of your average college student, a lecture course is something to be barely paid attention to at best, or slept through at worst. The fact that a friend can make a video recording of them for you means you can skip them all together.”

The reason I am bemoaning this emphasis away from teaching and toward the student experience (and obtaining qualifications) is because this is what the majority of our stakeholders want. As far as students are concerned, qualifications are the priority for the university stakeholders. Students want qualifications. Businesses want graduates with qualifications (although they are beginning to make unsettling noises about skills). Governments want prestigious research monuments (as a non-university person to name the top three institutions in a different country) and a place for students to obtain qualifications. Universities want to have world-class research infrastructure, and are in the qualification business to pay for it. Hence, Qualifications R US!

The recent flurry of excitement in the on-line education world is really about qualifications and funding. The xMOOCs being trotted out are transparent marketing tools. The massive funding available through venture capitalists is about selling qualifications. Bill Gates is supporting making qualifications available to more students.

Why is this important. Because I wonder if those of us who care about learning and higher education are existing is an ivory tower. Just because we are excited about new models of real learning that information abundance and digitisation has made possible, is there anyone out there (other than ourselves) who really cares? Is there anyone interested in real learning opportunities? For many years, the world of education has managed to ignore most of the research about how people think and learn, and they are the people who should care. I know that my students get very excited about what we do in my classes in using connectionist theories and information abundance to learn in a fundamentally different way from what they have experienced in other classes, but these are a self selected subset of the students making up about 20% of our student population. Whenever I have tried to introduce initiatives in compulsory classes that include the other 80%, I face massive resistance from the students. They want lectures, podcasts of lectures, and essay and a final exam. They want the most passive route to a qualification that they can get, and aren’t about to let real learning opportunities get in the way.

 

Gibbs, G. (2006). How assessment frames student learning. In Bryan, C., & Clegg, K. (Eds.), Innovative Assessment in Higher Education (pp 23 – 36). London: Routledge.

Joughin, G. (2006). Assessment, learning and judgement in higher education: A critical review. In Joughin, G. (Ed.), Assessment, Learning and Judgement in Higher Education (pp 13 – 28). London: Springer.

Martin, J. & Beverley, M. (2006). Learning Styles and Student Performance in Psychology. Plat Conference, York.

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