What ‘learning outcomes ‘ can I put on my PowerPoint slides, that people will pay to hear me read aloud at the start of the class? As I consider my sessions for the beginning of our new academic year, I know that every word I utter should be intended to attract fees. No fee-paying students, no money. No money, no course. In the three brief years since the changes to government funding of higher education, we are all about the money, and so each year now, I have targets for student recruitment.
Students, I am reliably informed by the Internet, want jobs. And for jobs read skills. Well, we all want a job don’t we, and if employers want skills then obviously that’s what universities should sell.
This story is old now isn’t it? Skills have always been an important part of the HE curriculum, but everyone knows that mostly, we learn the functional skills which employers want, from actually doing a job, paid or not. Employers know that, but sulkily insist that universities are responsible for turning out ready to wear employees, with a skills portfolio exactly matching the job description du jour. The thing is, there are different sorts of skills; there are the practical skills that often date quickly, alongside their technological accomplices, then there is the in-house know-how, which evolves with the organization, and which needs replacing every time we change jobs. Moving away from the obvious, there is, still, the skill of possessing some actual subject knowledge and then, the quagmire of ‘transferrable skills’, wispy, smoky tendrils of talent that we attempt to simmer to coherence under terms such as communication, empathy, reflective practice, and life long learning. I keep hearing the word ‘resilience’ in the backchannels too. Finally, I will posit the outrageous suggestion that the ability to think, to derive a way forward when faced with novel circumstances (good or bad), might be of a teeny tiny bit of value to any job in any place or time.
Gosh. It’s a tall order for higher education isn’t it? So we keep writing and rewriting our course descriptions in a vain attempt to settle upon the holy grail of course outlines –searching for the one which will convince prospective students that by taking this course, and this course alone, they will graduate as masters of a unique set of skills, and be guaranteed to get ‘a job’. This is nonsense.
The learning intentions and outcomes of our classes, modules and courses matter, and every lecturer should certainly be able to explain the questions addressed and answered by their material. But, the boundaries between different types of skills are, without question, blurred and slippery, and the proportion of content which translates directly into immediate ability within the workplace will vary significantly between subjects, and indeed, jobs.
I would like to suggest, therefore, that academics should step back from the demands of contemporary job descriptions, and revisit the old-fashioned concept that the critical thinking skills which higher education has traditionally championed and facilitated, might be worth signing up for. These, set alongside some exemplars of related, contemporary practical know-how are surely what HE should, and often does, deliver.
I am aware of the need to constantly reassess the scope of each of our disciplines in our go-faster society. But I am also concerned at the creeping ideology which suggests that university courses should be about coaching students to get ‘a job’.
With all the references to crowdsourcing these days, I wonder if I should perhaps crowdsource my lectures. Perhaps a call for what skill I should cover each week would be the way to satisfy students – maybe employers could vote for a topic too. Service now, tick the box, move on.
Of course I have a personal story. The process of swallowing all those baffling physiology and biochemistry papers as an undergraduate, has allowed me to subsequently read and understand all the sociological, historical and technical papers which underpin my work today. And certainly, I mastered online shopping. I have an affinity with technology which allows me to participate in the information society with relative ease. My technical skills grew out of a first degree in pharmacology however, not computing, but learning how things worked in a 1980’s laboratory subsequently translated into how things worked in general. Even though many of the basic technical skills I learnt as a undergraduate have been superseded, if I think about it, they formed the foundations of any professional achievements I made in the decades that followed my formal education.
So here we go then. Whilst I have a passing interest in what happens on a day-to-day basis in the 21st century workplace, I am far more concerned with longevity. I teach to share my passion and interest in our world, and to connect with others who wish to engage with the ‘why? and how?’ in every aspect of their lives. The academy is not just about what we do today. It is about who we will become, and what will happen tomorrow. And, for the most part, we cannot imagine the world which will slowly become the backdrop for the lives of our children.
So – when attempting to write learning outcomes, I mostly want to scrap the whole exercise. I don’t know precisely what any of my students will know/be able to do, at the end of my session, compared to what they knew, were able to do at the start. Of course, there is a plan for the module, and each session will cover material which I certainly hope makes sense in the context of the subject being considered (library and information science) – but what each student takes away, and what they do with the knowledge or practical experience throughout their lives cannot be predicted and written down in a series of bullet points.
I am keen on promoting discussion and awareness of existing ideas, knowledge, random thoughts and sample practical skills. I hope for the future. But – I don’t care if students are comfortable or ‘satisfied’, although I care deeply about their views of the course concept overall. Comfort and satisfaction, as has often been pointed out, are limiting. Is the point of higher education to breed comfort and satisfaction? A sure fire belief in what you already know? I believe I act as a guide to what’s out there. I want to encourage a delight in learning and a fearlessness in knowing that we will never know everything. The unknown and unexpected are the seeds of our progression and development, not comfort and smug satisfaction. Not everyone will be interested in what I say, many will simply have signed up to get a masters qualification, a few will enjoy the show and even fewer may be inspired. I sincerely hope that I don’t go as far as being offensive. It isn’t about exactly what I say, it is about what happens as a result. I fully appreciate other lecturers in LIS will focus on different aspects to those I find relevant. There isn’t just one answer or viewpoint to any subject is there?
I wonder how many students consider the process of putting together a 45 minute session, let alone a 10 week module, or an entire MA/MSc programme. It’s a lot of work. I have spent the past 10 years thinking and writing about library and information science, a rather short time compared to most academics, but I came to academia from a professional career, which I have to confess, gave me an enormous amount of insight into the fundamental role of information within all societies. I spend a lot of time on scholarship. By this I mean reading and digesting current research, thinking and historical aspects within the broad scope of LIS, so that I am able say something when I get to stand in front of the class. Scholarship, is rarely acknowledged as what most academics spend their weekends engaging with.
But classes are not just a result of my personal interpretation of what I read or encounter, or of my personal research. Most ideas crystalize from interaction with colleagues, from both within and beyond library and information science. Many of my thoughts concern the boundaries and reach of our discipline, and much of what I say comes from what I myself have learned or absorbed from friends and colleagues, both inside and outside academia. I frequently invite other speakers, especially members of the LIS practitioner community, to contribute to my classes, as I alone, don’t have the answer. And I have never met anyone who has. I don’t think higher education is primarily about getting a job, although most of our students readily find employment . The fact that many of our alumni feature as guest speakers testifies to this. I think it is about learning for the joy of learning. A badass cliché perhaps, but what else is unique about our universities? Should higher education not be the mechanism via which humankind can sidestep not only the everyday, but also the prescribed learning outcomes?