Is Continuing Professional Education the future of Higher Education?

Margaret Rhodes’ article in Wired (http://www.wired.com/2014/10/4-smart-proposals-reinventing-college-stanfords-design-school/) offers Four Radical Ideas for Reinventing College.  Her article is based upon a presentation Sarah Stein Greenberg gave at WIRED by Design.  Greenberg argues that our current methods of teaching in higher education are highly structured and because of this, “we’re producing a generation of students that are very highly structured, but entering an increasingly ambiguous world—the world of Ebola and ISIS and climate change and data security breaches.”

To further examine this, Greenberg and her colleagues at Stanford’s design school asked their students, armed with video cameras, to go out and interview fellow classmates about their college experience.  In addition, they visited SpaceX, Cirque du Soleil, and Homeboy Industries to see other aspects of teaching and learning not in the college environment.  Based on this they developed “four smart proposals for reinventing college” that in my opinion look a lot like what we are trying to accomplish in our continuing professional education programs.  So here are their four smart proposals:

Lose the 4-year degree.
What is so darn sacred about the notion of the four-year degree, why four years?  Is it like a toaster — after four years, you will be fully cooked?  Greenberg puts it in a much more clear fashion: “If I told you that you could exercise every day for the next four years and at the end of the four years you would be fit for the rest of your life you would laugh.” The students suggest that college education route shouldn’t be tied to the four-year notion; rather the model should allow students time away to work, travel, and explore life.  I think this is exactly what we do with our professional continuing education programs.  We tailor them for individuals who have “stopped out” (you could read that as “life happens”) and are now ready to pursue their degree.  We not only provide an on-ramp to college, we also honor what they may have learned during their life by providing credit for their learning experiences through portfolio analysis.

Lose the High School to College Model
One of the flaws of the 4-year plan is that we often ask students to make decisions that may not be ready to make.  This includes declaring a major. Are students really ready to declare a major even before they start courses?  The proposal from Greenberg and her students is “Abolish the freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior years, and let students move at their own pace from exploring various topics, to gaining some expertise, to applying those skills in practical settings—maybe failing—and then trying again.”  I really love the notion that the students suggested called “the open loop education,” with the tag line “your pace, your time, your life.”  Again, this is what we try to do with our professional continuing education programs.  We accomplish this in many ways by providing multiple methods of furthering one’s education, be it through competency based learning, non-credit courses, certificate programs, etc.  We provide an open loop for our students to enter when they are ready.

Lose the Transcript
What is a transcript? It is a record of the courses we’ve taken, not necessarily a record of the skills and knowledge we’ve gained.  I hate to admit it, but my college transcript is very ugly related to my second and third years as an undergraduate.  Judging by my grades, clearly I wasn’t learning a lot in class. But I must admit that I learned a lot out of class, because I was trying to balance a job (believe it or not, I worked as a disc jockey at a local disco), school, and my social life.  In the end, what I learned in those two years was that if I was going to succeed not only in school but in life, I needed to focus on the important things, and spend less time with the social life thing.

It really was that moment, that “oh my goodness” moment when things just seemed to click and the over-achiever kicked in. Nah, that doesn’t really show up on my transcript.

Lose the College Major
“What if students declare missions, not majors? Wouldn’t that fuel their studies in some way of real purpose they don’t get?” Wow, now that is a thought. I am convinced that our students come to college, at whatever age, with a mission and passion to take on problems and issues in the modern world.  Well, what we know about our problems and issues is that they are not neatly contained within one discipline but rather they address most big problems. The solutions to things like improving global health are transdisciplinary but yet we continue to structure our universities and degree programs within content areas.  In an earlier blog post, (https://shaeffersforays.wordpress.com/2012/01/05/musings-for-2012/) I mentioned Michael Crow’s efforts by creating colleges not around disciplines but around wicked problems. While I don’t know that other institutions have followed Arizona State’s lead, I do know that one of the features in the programming we develop is often in response to a wicked problem and thus must be transdisciplinary. Certainly one of the great advantages professional continuing education units have is that we can reach across the university in developing our programming.  This is another area where our units need to provide leadership for our universities; how best to bring together individuals across the campus in creating transdisciplinary curriculum to address wicked problems.

If the future of higher education institution begins to look anything like Greenberg and her students suggest, could it be that the future looks a lot like what we are trying to accomplish in our continuing education and professional development units?

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