Tuesday, 20 November 2012

What should others expect of our learners?

Overview:
A university education provides something in addition to technical competence, the impact of which connects the values of a society with the behaviors of its participants. What do we expect from colleges and universities beyond the creation of technically competent graduates? 

Like many of us, I generally try to put events in some sort of context to make sense of particular events and to see patterns across events. With so much going on in higher education I am needing a touchstone and have decided to start by actively developing and making explicit a better notion about the purposes of colleges and universities. This was why I started the latent pattern transmission project. I decided to construct the project as a blog rather than keep a private journal because I felt there was a higher likelihood of engaging with more folks and improving my thinking more meaningfully by doing so. I am testing my feeling that latent pattern transmission is an essential part of the purposes of colleges and universities and this is my first posting that addresses its nature directly. I hope to keep developing the idea in this forum as time permits. Just to quickly revisit the notion, I am referring to the act of forming in the college or university student the impulse and ability to create culture of a particular kind through their actions, behaviours, and their influence on others. I tried to capture this idea as well in the first posting I made in the project when I suggested that...
Although a bit awkward, I think the phrase (Latent Pattern Transmission) captures the central idea of education, fundamentally as a particular way of reproducing values and behaviors across generations and among contemporaries through the sharing of knowledge and ideas. The distinction between the exchange of knowledge as a thing and the development of reproducible values is why colleges and universities look and behave differently than other types of organizations. Universities are designed to create conditions for the enduring production and reproduction of culture in which students become teachers who become students through their behavior, the things they create, and the relationships they form, while other types of organizations are designed principally to sell knowledge and certifications as commodities.

I know that this is not a novel idea. It is a central theme embedded in critical theory, which winds its way through notions of oppression and marginalization through cultural reproduction and appropriation. The idea that through education we pass values to successive generations is rather powerful. This perhaps is one of the reasons that during the worst of times educators frequently get the worst of it.

Although these notions have been well treated, they do not seem well represented in much of our public dialogue about higher education - or at least online education. There is a lot of emphasis placed on transmitting knowledge as cheaply as possible to as many learners as possible to better fuel our economy and remain competitive. The focus has been principally on training and little attention has been paid to what we expect of an educated person beyond technical competence. And after all, we know that technical competence is a fleeting asset because it becomes obsolete so quickly. We know educated people not so much by how well they do their job, but by how well they think, the ways they present themselves, solve problems, relate to others, and so on. The "so on" is perhaps the way they contribute to society beyond the technical competency in which they execute their task, craft, trade, and  profession. Beyond the utility they create, the aesthetic quality of their performance, or the advancement of their understanding about the art.

It is true that many students attend university to learn useful skills in order to earn a living. This is perhaps particularly true for online learners, but should we really expect something more? If all a university did was train technicians and professionals to do their jobs, most of the 4 to 6 years spent as an undergraduate would be well wasted. But we know that there is more. To the extent that universities have a commitment to:
  • provide technical and professional skills to graduates,
  • graduate an educated person, and
  • offer online programs,
engaging in a discussion among the online education community about what we expect of our graduates beyond technical competence is an important activity. So what should others expect of our learners and what should students expect of us as we prepare them to be educated people? What are the characteristics, traits, and behaviours we want colleges and universities to engender in an educated student beyond technical skills and knowledge - what do we want them to offer?

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