Speaking heresy – 21st century teaching

We tend to forget that the university as we see it today has followed many paths from its start in Italy around 1088. The ‘idea’ of the modern university, particularly in the United States, dates from the 17th century founding of Harvard with its focus on providing both content and polish to the elite’s social and cultural capital.

A more practical approach emerged for United States’ public education with the creation of the agricultural and mechanical universities in the mid-19th century.

During this evolution, the idea of ‘science’, research and the relationships between academics and students changed, as did the way the university was supported, both for public and private institutions.

What has gone unaddressed, though, is the subtle but substantive shift in the student population from a small, elite cohort to a larger and different socio/cultural/economic community. What has also not been addressed is the function of and promotional path for faculty as research has risen to become the dominant focus.

Previously, faculty, to a large extent, held their position and prestige based on a balance of assessments of their competency, often based on their professional expertise, contributions to the institution and, particularly in recent years, their contribution to the community outside the Ivory Tower.

About midway through the 20th century, this became dominated by publications in scholarly journals. Research output was measured not only by the quantity of publications but also by the prestige of the journals in which this oeuvre appeared. Scholarly credentials, often vetted, almost by default, by journal editorial boards have become a significant, if not dominant, measure along with the postgraduate degrees held by the professoriate.

For faculty, this has shifted the emphasis towards post-baccalaureate programmes and has a strong flavour of the traditional Germanic research universities with a number of repercussions internationally. There is a shift in prestige towards research and away from recognition of scholarly teaching as the default baseline measure of competency.

Research vs teaching

This fails to address the issue that, for society, there has been a shift in the perceived need for individuals to have post-secondary credentials. Thus there is a change in the mix of populations now attending some manner of post-secondary education where the focus has been on attendance at a ‘university’ or four-year institution.

The needs and interests and thus expectations of faculty are significantly different from those of students. There is no evidence that it is critical for faculty to hold a postgraduate degree. In fact, in the United States, the number of ‘adjuncts’ who lack such degrees is increasing, with little questioning by the current faculty regarding competency to meet the needs of students or to make other contributions to the institution or larger community.

Secondly, as noted, particularly for Africa, there is the proclivity to move in lock step following the academic models of Europe and North America without consideration for the unique needs of the cultures on the continent. This includes, by default, adopting the same measures for competency.

The move towards a significant focus on the broad science and technology arena in a context of limited resources may impact the humanities and social sciences which are also necessary to build a sustainable society, and question the idea of a liberal education.

Journals as measures of competency tend to shift the weight away from other critical contributions faculty can make to institutions and the larger community. This impacts disciplines where there are long lead times to complete significant work and influences the choice of formats away from books to journal articles, leading to the proliferation of research journals.

It has created default measures for funding agencies who are dependent on fiscal cycles and other short-term criteria for making awards.

The virtual university

It is important to note that the ‘university’, though traditionally imagined as a ‘campus’, is changing with the rise of the Internet, as is the world outside the Ivory Tower. The increasing use of virtual space without the need for a ‘campus’ such as in Second Life changes the nature of education itself.

The increasing shift to measures of competency for students which do not require a physical presence changes the nature of ‘the university’. It puts different demands on all within and outside its boundaries and on measures of competency for both students and faculty.

For content trained and content driven research faculty, particularly in the science and technology arena and at postgraduate level, a physical campus may be required and the relevant competency will be much the same in today’s laboratories as it was in Bologna in 1088 and in the German university of the 17th century. But the competencies needed when engaged at undergraduate level may also have changed and may continue to change.

Teaching competencies for delivering knowledge virtually have evolved from print to powerpoint to MOOCs – massive open online courses – within our lifetime. It could be argued that Newton’s laws are Newton’s laws whether in a textbook or delivered via an e-learning platform. And they are in their formal sense. But with a changing population and changing demands, perhaps it is time to explore how content, in its most basic embodiment, makes sense.

This raises the question of who is best to communicate the fundamentals underlying most disciplines in the most effective manner and what competencies are necessary to deliver them: is it a scholar, an actor or even a team?

Changing competencies

While universities are beginning to understand that the PhD is not the ultimate prerequisite for teaching undergraduate students, there is also a growing concern about the hegemony of the academic journal as ‘the’ or ‘the major’ arbiter in validating an academic’s competency as a contributor to the larger professional oeuvre.

The open access movement is growing and seeks to remove scholarly works from behind the pay walls of journals. More importantly, the recent founding of the Collaborative Knowledge Foundation provides a platform for common access across disciplines. This has the potential to break the proclivity of publishers to create journals with increasingly narrow content focuses.

The rise of artificial intelligence systems that are able to scan across text at ever increasing speed allows custom assembly of specific knowledge from disparate materials. Thus a researcher can assemble critical knowledge in a form needed at the point of need.

This means it will be possible to measure competency without dependence on such factors as journal ‘impact factors’ and scholars will be able to find materials that they might not be able to access when journals are seen as the gateway and measure of competency.

As academia shifts to competency as a measure both of faculty and students, the traditional, calcified structures that have been patched and re-patched since 1088 in Bologna are starting to crumble.

This is not to point to their imminent ‘collapse’, but it clearly signals how society needs to consider both the demands and the funding of post-secondary institutions, particularly with regard to traditional infrastructure and the evaluation of those who reside within or pass through the gates of the Ivory Towers both physically and virtually.

Dr Tom Abeles is president of Sagacity, Inc, an international foresight consultancy focused on post-secondary education policy and practice. He edits the scholarly journal, On the Horizon.