07 November 2014

Education, information

This was a busy week for those interested in education. The Conference Board convened its annual PSE Summit, HEQCO held a conference on apprenticeships, and the Society of College and University Planning convened to discuss PSE planning, including physical infrastructure and programs. Of these I was unable to attend the HEQCO, though I have been told it was very good and featured excellent in depth discussion on important issues regarding skills, the skilled trades and the apprenticeship systems in Canada and elsewhere. Also related is a recent conference I attended at Simon Fraser University on Innovations in Undergraduate Learning.

The PSE Summit was presaged by a workshop on Monday held at Ryerson University's Digital Media Zone on "Rethinking the PSE Institution." It was a good discussion on how PSE can and should adjust to the changing world around us. The DMZ was held as an example of this, and rightly so. My read on the DMZ is that it is taking innovation and entrepreneurship and explicitly teaching this in a more competency based learning framework. It works because it is what the world needs, and what student (for the most part) are seeking - relevance of their education.

Relevance is a defining feature of much of the discussion on education, and as well it should be. I've quoted John Godfrey here before: "The goal of education is to make people privately happy and publicly useful." Yet while most people will agree with this, there is still a sharp demarcation between education as a way to better oneself versus education for gaining skills to get a job. I don't think these are mutually exclusive. Education is always both transactional and transformative. We should be focused on outcomes-based education wherein students are told up front what skills and knowledge they will gain from a course or program. This enables students to see themselves on a career trajectory while we instil values congruent with our society. While there are those in the university and college sectors who eschew anything that remotely sounds like practicality, we ignore this at our peril. To these I say: Show me the student who does not want a job. That student does not exist.

That said, we should of course always encourage learning within or learning programs. This means recognizing, as one PSE Summit presenter said (quoting Alvin Toffler), "The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn." Learning how to learn is an essential component of what we need to teach in order to future proof our economy. This creates resilience. It is a defining feature of those innovation skills I've termed innovation literacy. If the pace of technological change ushers in new forms of learning (about and with new technologies, for example), then the pace of credentialing similarly needs to be accelerated and adapted (IBM's M Mindel). In short, not only are there new competencies and skills associated with innovation as J. Salmi put it, these lead to the development of learning models such as what Ryerson's president Sheldon Levy has called zone learning, which is just "an updated form of co-op."

University of Toronto president Emeritus Robert Birgeneau gave one of the better keynotes at the PSE Summit with an overview of the California system. He described, among other things, the excellent articulation that defines credential laddering in the California PSE system (a real "system" I would point out, unlike Canada's many and competing systems). Most tellingly, he also went into detail about the new master education plan California is creating, in which there are community colleges, state universities and large, research universities, which are logically placed in a per capita allocation. To put this another way, Birgeneau pointed out that, if Canada were to structure PSE this way, Ontario would have 5 doctoral granting research-intensive schools, Quebec 3, BC and Alberta 2, etc. and create pathways among these. It reminded me of the U15 proposal for research funding, which is a good way to ensure that we can fund appropriately our best chances for global research excellence. This recognizes that we cannot continue to support everything and anything and everyone to be global research leaders. We have to pick winners. And we need an education system that serves the needs of the research pipeline an the development of human capital (read: potential): colleges, polytechnics and universities, both those that are undergraduate focused and those that are research intensive. Sooner or later this will come to pass for sheer economics. We cannot afford duplication in either credentialing or research intensity.

And so we end where we begin, in the need to focus on the development of a system (education and research) that works together, and provides students with outcomes and pathways throughout lives and careers. These issues arose at the SCUP conference and the SFU symposium. At SCUP there was a focus on planning and building physical spaces to reflect new learning, but also on program prioritization. Engaging in these sorts of exercises forces us to confront the cold reality of relative value of certain programs and types of education. This is as it should be. At SFU, there was a lot of discussion about outcomes amidst some fear that outcomes will restrict the ends of pedagogy, which to some is simply "crating good citizens." A noble goal, to be sure, but the majority of these citizens (95% according to one speaker) are entering universities to get a job and a career.

Those who eschew outcomes based learning I would liken to those who believe in magic. The students enter the educational institution, take some courses, and are magically transformed into a good citizen. To state what skills someone will learn from a given program or course disrupts this magical thinking, pulling back the curtain to lay bare the mechanisms of learning. The course or program is a black box in which magical things happen that are ineffable. This is alchemy, a transmutation that cannot be rendered explicit for fear of disrupting the professorial power to conjure this transformation.

To be fair it is difficult to render everything explicit. But we must be honest with ourselves and our students about what they will gain for their investments, and for those investments of public money we put into education. For if Canada tops the OECD in the percent of population with a tertiary education, yet there is still a mismatch in skills and gaps in career readiness, then there is a disconnect in the publicly-funded system and the needs of the private sector, where the majority of jobs are, in addition to the private needs of the individual to lead a fulfilling life as a participating citizen. This may simply be a communication gap (which is the rationale behind our innovation literacy badging program). And there are good models of public+private partnerships for education and research.

The private and public goals of education are complementary. The discussions held this week at these various venues has shown that there is great potential for the PSE system in Canada. There are good models at home and abroad that can shine a light on how we might reimagine our PSE systems, and make of them a true system.

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