Latice 2013 – practice over theory; building process skills over knowledge

The first talk in the second day of Latice was the keynote presented by Roger Hadgraft (RMIT). Roger draws a distinction between what he calls the science of educational engineering, understanding how or why students do things, and the engineering of education, which is how we improve our educational systems. Roger introduced his talk by outlining some of the threats to our current systems – government standards and assessment, our old fashioned structures, changing student expectations and the increase of educational startups. Add to that increasing student numbers, no increase in government funding and the need to address the growing numbers of interdisciplinary problems.

I have heard Roger speak several times about this topic – how can we be better and more efficient at what we do? We need to include more practice, more industry involvement and more active learning, and we need to share best practice so that we don’t waste our time reinventing the wheel. Some of the work that Roger has been doing involves working on the AHELO standardisation tests, and working with the ALTC on discipline standards and threshold learning outcomes. The latter work has really helped us understand how difficult and complex the space is that we are trying to address in our curricula – discipline problems, generic skill problems, innovation and then complicated further from industry perspectives. The industry perspective is often that they want students to come in with process skills, with content as a secondary issue – it can be developed n the job. While academics focus more on content – what is the right balance? What would it look like if we focussed on the process skills? Would a student who had only been taught process actually be able to build content as needed? Probably not, it’s probably always a balance.

One of Roger’s points is that we spend a lot of time teaching fundamentals or enabling technology that is not actually used by engineers – we teach material that represents really only a set of tools that engineers would use. There are many different ways of getting this kind of information – online courses, webapps that contain sets of useful tools, etc. So what are we doing if this content can be provided in other ways? The key issue here is that by spending so much time on teaching the fundamentals (without application) we don’t get the chance to teach the complex problems and skill development.

These are not new arguments – they form the basis for problem and project based learning, but it is an interesting argument that engineering needs these kinds of changes in order to survive the growing threats to higher education. With knowledge so freely available, we need to focus on curricula that builds process skills so that students can learn how to apply processes, and to make sense of all of the available knowledge.

Roger’s arguments also draw parallels with the way that we have restructured our first year programming courses, and the new push to integrate small group discovery experiences across our curriculum. Our focus in first year is to give students opportunities to apply knowledge as the best way to learn new concepts, but we tackle this in two ways – the first is led problems, where the problem is fairly well defined, but with some open ended aspects, and the second is open projects, where students are able to define their own project with its own bounds and requirements.

The small group discovery experiences that we have been asked to introduce into our curriculum, take our approaches into new directions. The focus here is on building research skill, with an explicit focus on process development.

The questions at the end of the presentation focussed very much on the idea of silos. We recognise now that much of the work that we do as professionals is interdisciplinary, but we teach our students in silos. So again, we come back to the idea of project to drive the learning, which then combine elements from lots of different areas. Tony Clear made a good point in that we have tried to address this before – we cycle back and forth from problem based learning to silo-based teaching and back again, as we find that both approaches have problems.

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