Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What Employers Want from Higher Education 1: Effectiveness with Quality

For years, we have tracked the academic curriculum, created by faculty, to the needs of the workplace using advisory committees and other mechanisms to "be responsive" to the needs of employers. There has, however, been little or no progress in tracking the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed at work back to the institution and actually building the curriculum around them.
Thee are several reasons for this. First, it has been argued that there is a dichotomy between skills needed for work and the intellectual benefits derived from a general or liberal arts education. I believe that is a false dichotomy, articulated by people who believe that the liberal arts or general education is content defined, not defined by the possession of demonstrable higher order thinking, reasoning, writing and quantification capabilities. Indeed today we know that we can integrate learning outcomes that measure critical thinking with more professional outcomes that measure the hard skills needed in a particular occupation. And the hard and soft skill requirements for most occupations and professions have been defined.
Second, tied closely to the first assumption is another: that doing so lowers standards and, therefore, academic quality. But we know now that both can be integrated in the same course curriculum. And, using learning outcomes and rubrics that assure consistency across multiple sections, we can develop metrics which guide us to course improvement, teaching improvement, and student performance improvement simultaneously.
These enhanced capacities have big implications for employers and workplace-referenced post-secondary education. They also, therefore, have similar implications for traditionally organized post secondary education institutions. They create, for the first time, a way to build curriculum around the hard and soft skills required to do a job well and then place that curriculum in an outcomes degree framework, like the Lumina Degree Qualifications Framework, organized by hierarchy of competence in both skill and cognitive areas. And they invite drawing a direct connection between ability to perform in the workplace and the assignment of academic value for that performance.
Technology adds a third "energizing" component to this mix. It gives us the capacity to do gap analyses between learners' skill and knowledge profiles, job skill and knowledge profiles, and course content skill and knowledge profiles. This three way gap analysis defines at a far more granular level what a learner (or employee) already knows and what they have to learn in order to perform well on day one. And it also lays the groundwork for understanding what the curriculum is actually organized to teach and what it is not.
The implications for tying work to post secondary education in a far more efficient manner while defining and enhancing the standards for quality in learning achievement are enormous. When the working place becomes a learning place as well, the odds of certificates and degrees reflecting the intellectual and skill levels needed for the jobs in question will go way up.

Next Week: What Employers Want from Higher Education 2: public policy that supports better teaching and learning.

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