How can we deliver a future proof education?
My July blog post covered what I think we need to add to our current education system to create a ‘future proof education’ for our students, this time I am going to look at how I think we should be doing this, with specific reference to the university I currently work at, Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia.
I strongly believe that universities need to partner with students and industry to develop both disciplinary knowledge and future work skills and mindsets within a transparent framework that relies on authentic assessment and supports dynamic interdisciplinary teaming (Edmondson, 2012) as a key learning strategy. QUT’s branding as the university for the Real World puts us in a unique position to lead the higher education sector in this transformation.
There are constant tensions in higher education: between excellence in both teaching and research, between developing skills for the future workforce and developing depth of discipline knowledge required to effectively use with those skills, and between how we think students need to be educated and what professional accrediting bodies will accept as education. There is a chorus of national and international organisations calling for changes in our education systems to prepare current and future workers to innovate and succeed through what the World Economic Forum has labelled ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’ (Schwab, 2016; World Economic Forum, 2016; CEDA, 2016; The Foundation for Youth Australia, 2015, 2016; O’Mahony, J & Simes, R., 2016; PwC, 2014; Davies, A. Devin, F. & Gorbis, M. 2011). At the same time, government and professional accreditation bodies are increasing the regulation of higher education and enforcing requirements which sometimes seem at odds with both research and recognised best practice in education, and the fact that we are often trying to prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist. (the ‘Priestly 11’ driving a content based design approach and the Legal Practitioners Admission Board requirement for invigilated examinations is a prime example of how policy and regulation limits educational mindsets and practices). Social network theory tells us that established communities with shared identities and high trust (such as disciplinary cohorts) are essential for productivity (Siemens, 2016) and the development and application of deep discipline knowledge, which is an essential function of universities within societies. However social network theory also tells us that the more tenuous and unstructured connections developed through looser, interdisciplinary networks or temporary project teams are the most valuable in sharing novel ideas and producing innovation (Granovetter, 1983). The question is: how do we balance these tensions to provide the kind of education our diverse students want and need?
I propose that we develop a ‘Real World Capabilities’ framework for our students and a flexible, online portfolio-based, authentic assessment policy for the Real World Capabilities that would become a graduation requirement. We would support student learning and development of Real World Capabilities with a suite of flexible online learning modules around the basic elements (e.g. digital intelligence, cultural competency, teaming and collaboration, communication, resilience and mindfulness, computational thinking, design thinking methodology, critical reflection, business model design) and face-to-face team-based ‘Real World Challenges’ which would require interdisciplinary teams of students to address current issues and wicked problems and pitch their solutions to panels of industry partners. The challenge rounds could run in semester long blocks or in intensive mode during semester breaks, giving students options for when they participate. Participation in at least one Real World Challenge would be compulsory for meeting the graduation requirements for the Real World Capabilities, however students could fulfil other portfolio of evidence requirements from a combination of disciplinary coursework, research project experiences, professional placement or WIL activities, co-curricular activities or evidence of capabilities developed in paid employment rather than further rounds of the Real World Challenge if they wished. An important part of the Real World Capabilities framework would be inclusion of the outcomes of Graduate Employability 2.0 (Bridgstock, 2016) and building of a professional network and a real digital portfolio, that students own and control (Watters, 2016) by the time students graduate.
A Real World Capabilities framework and portfolio for students, can reduce, if not fully resolve, the tensions mentioned above whilst the university grapples with whether they want to move towards interdisciplinary and hybrid course design and accreditation (such as programs like the Liberal Arts and Engineering program at Cal Poly) and current curricula could be visually mapped to Real World Capabilities outcomes to enable staff and students to see the connections. Additionally, online learning modules developed for this program, using the various experts across the university, could be strategically re-purposed for CPE and graduate education use. A staff development program for the Real World Capabilities framework could use effective change management methods (Kotter, 1995; Kotter & Schlesinger, 2008) and the practical experience of the recent implementation of the QALT at QUT as its basis. Champions can be identified and included in the design and development of the framework and the assessment policy, working in partnership with students. These champions would be the facilitators and assessors of the first Real World Challenge rounds and then mentor other staff as they are brought on-board as facilitators and assessors of the program.
This solution also allows us to take bold action towards providing the education our students need now – remembering that the graduates from our next intake for three year bachelor degrees will hit the workforce in 2020. Our students cannot wait for the higher education system to overcome the difficulties of discipline silos and traditional models of education if the organisations listed earlier are to be believed, but this approach allows for more time to reimagine discipline-based whole-of-course design for the future and for universities to open a dialogue with professional registration bodies about future ready professionals.
Most importantly though, this approach provides a learning environment where students will be exposed to and develop both close communities and more open, adaptive networks that will form the basis of their learning careers and professional lives. As shown in the diagram below, reproduced from Professor George Siemens’ recent workshop at QUT, an individual’s connections through close communities and looser networks work synergistically to increase innovation and productivity. Even if students don’t remain in close contact with students they work with for Real World Challenge rounds, social media allows for maintaining loose or dormant connections and reconnecting with each other later could be highly beneficial as dormant ties can be a valuable source of knowledge and social capital (Levin, Walter & Murnighan, 2011)
By being exposed to a variety of team environments, we can use the Real World Capability framework to explicitly teach students the skills required for effective teaming (Edmondson, 2012). Edmondson defines teaming is a dynamic activity largely determined by the mindset and practices of teamwork in a fast paced and agile environment (the very type of work environment most of our graduates will enter). Effective teaming relies of people having the skills and flexibility to act on opportunities for potential collaboration if and when they appear, being able to share crucial knowledge quickly, ask questions clearly and frequently and know how to make sure they and their team mates are psychologically safe enough to learn and innovate together (Edmondson, 2012a) It is essential that our learning modules about teamwork focus on teaming skills and that we require students to reflect on their development of teaming skills through the Real World Capabilities framework, so that they capitalise on the opportunities available to them to develop teamwork skills whilst at university and they see this as an asset for employability.
I believe the approach I have imagined will provide opportunities for students to develop into people who are entrepreneurial and work ready; with interdisciplinary networks and disciplinary communities; are innovative, future focused and teaming capable; and professionally recognised and AQF accredited graduates. I believe my approach gives us a clear path for how we can deliver a future proof education for our students, starting today. What do you think?
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