Friday, February 6, 2015

Learning by degrees

Higher education is steeped in tradition and although many are fine and noble it's healthy to question even the most ingrained ones. Seventy years ago a university education was only possible for a relatively small section of the population and many of those who got a degree went on to an academic research career. It was essential therefore to make sure that 3rd and 4th year students were well grounded in research methods and degrees were designed to lead students towards research. Today, when in many countries over 50% of the population study at university level, this structure is clearly inappropriate and maybe it's time for change.

One radical change is suggested by David Colquhoun in the Guardian, Honours degrees aren't for all – some unis should only teach two-year courses. Offer shorter first degrees taken at a more intensive pace (similar to secondary school) and then have specialist research universities to offer more advanced levels of study. Many students today study at unnecessarily advanced levels and maybe it's better to get a grounding in two years, start working and then top up with more advanced courses as they become necessary.

I believe that all first degrees should be ordinary degrees, similar to those offered by US liberal arts colleges, and these should be less specialist than what is now offered. Some institutions should specialise in teaching such degrees, others should become predominantly postgraduate institutions and have the time, money and expertise to do proper advanced teaching.

The division of higher education into teaching institutions who offer a wide range of ordinary degrees and research institutions offering advanced research-based education would certainly cause considerable uproar in the academic world since the role model of almost every university is the high status research university. However many claim that professional training has become too academic and needs to be more skills-oriented. Maybe it's time to question some traditions. Why must degrees take a certain amount of time? How can we shift the focus from knowledge to skills? How can we integrate education and the workplace? How can we allow people to gain their qualifications without having to move from their home area (combating the brain drain in remote areas)? How can we make it easy for people to retrain, switch career focus and develop their professional competence?

Many current educational trends like MOOCs, open educational resources, competency-based degrees, peer learning and nanodegrees should be seen as part of a quest to find new models and structures for learning and education. Models are constantly being tested; some will succeed, some will fail and some will be reworked and evolve into something new. The idea of two year degrees should not be simply dismissed. It doesn't need to change the system completely but maybe some alternative structures are necessary. We need more people to start asking "What if ...?"

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