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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Pragmatic university education is coming soon

This is not my usual “outrage” article; I am not outraged. I am excited.

Something I have been advocating for years seems actually to be happening.

Twenty years ago, when companies barely understood training via computer much less online training, I was out there trying to make them understand that something new was happening. Twenty years later, training via computer is the norm, but I can't say that I am impressed with what the results. Too often it is still the CBT of old, all about reading, page turning and answering questions. (But now there is animation!)

But, I am not writing about that.

Also, 20 years ago I was talking to the companies with whom we were working about a bizarre situation that I had hoped they would try to fix.  

When we worked with engineering companies, for example, I would take note that their normal procedure was to hire engineering graduates and then train them how to do engineering in a way that was useful for the company.

While this sounds reasonable, it wasn’t. 

At the time, I was on the Engineering faculty of Northwestern, so I would say, why don’t you tell Northwestern what you want in a graduate and help them build a curriculum that would allow you to abandon these massive training facilities that take new engineering graduates and train them all over again?

They refused to consider this. When they did talk to me about it, they usually said that Northwestern (or any Engineering School) wouldn’t go for it. They were, of course, right. 

All university have faculty who feel they know exactly want students should learn and they don’t really care that that isn't what the companies that hire them want in a new graduate.  They justify this by saying they are trying to teach theoretical concepts that will last a student a long time and that they do not work for companies that have particular interests.

I used to be astonished for example, while I was at Yale, that while Microsoft hired nearly of all our Computer Science graduates (this was in the early 1980’s), they then had to teach team how to do the things that Yale faculty found unimportant to teach. Today the world is only slightly different. In fact, the Yale Computer Science students were recently protesting that Google didn't want to hire them because the faculty wasn’t teaching things that made them hireable by Google. 

What a surprise! I was once the Chairman of that department and know full well the difficulty of telling  such a faculty what to teach.

I often wonder why Microsoft didn't create a curriculum and offer it itself with an agreement to hire the graduates of that curriculum. The answer, I suppose, is that this would have infuriated university computer scientists with whom Microsoft wanted to have good relationships. (There are a lot of “Gates Buildings” that house Computer Science departments around the country.) Faculty “know” what students need to know. Companies know nothing.  

But then something weird happened. A not very well known university, one that wants to become better known, started discussions with big companies that are located near them about what their training needs were. The companies are engineering companies that had some highly technical skills they need their employees to learn, and fast. The university does not have a famous engineering school. What they do have is a pragmatic approach to education, which in this case meant contacting me and my team to ask for help. We met with the companies and designed a learn by doing online curriculum that works perfectly for them (they were part of the design team after all). The university wants very much to do this and there are no faculty to say why they know more than the companies about what skills to teach. 

So, what we have is an aggressive university that wants to compete by offering high quality pragmatic education designed by employers who will immediately hire their graduates.

(I can hear my old friend Bart Giamatti screaming from the great beyond: we don’t do training at Yale, Roger.)

This is indeed the future of education.  (Sorry, Bart.) You can only have so many liberal arts curricula and so many faculty who are out of touch with what companies actually need and what employers want.

School needs to be of some use. (Yale and Northwestern not think so, but try asking an English major about what happened to them after college.) Professors all agree on producing people who can think, but this only rarely turns out to be true.  Analyzing literature in not a key thinking skill. (In any case, building a machine that works also requires complex thinking.) This elitist view of education has to stop. Humanities faculty always looked down the noses at Engineering faculty. It never made any sense to me.

I am happy to say that I beginning to believe that change is coming. It sounds very anti-academic to say that employers should dictate university curricula. I know that. But think about it for a while. (Imagine a world in which high schools taught practical employable skills instead of the 1892 curriculum designed by Harvard.)

I am hopeful.


Unknown said...

Which university? Tell us please...

Roger Schank said...

I will when I can

deformador said...

While I agree in general about the problem of fossilized curricula, I can't help fearing that a corporate-driven curriculum will lead to short term, only-profit-driven outcomes. Corporations probably want a few number of innovative and strong-minded employees for key positions, but mostly they want a submissive workforce, and that can be a learning outcome too. I'm not saying that now is being done how it should, but surely there must be some middle ground?

Nils said...

@deformador has a good point. I assume your curriculum includes some "buffering" (not sure what the term would be) so the students have both immediately usable skills that the local companies need today, as well as the skills/aptitude/mindset to be able to go learn the next thing when necessary. I'd be interested to hear how you're balancing these two outcomes - which aren't necessarily in conflict, but could be.

Paul Miller said...

deformador is right to fear corporate driven curriculum. Many of the leaders in the corporate world have zero understanding what it means to provide a viable training program. They tend to mimic what they did and mass produce classes without the vaguest idea what needs to be learned or why. Mr. John Q Businessman becomes the head of corporate training programs because he was a good executive who climbed the ladder and wants to try his hand at putting together some ideas he has. Ever try to understand the alphabet soup certification programs out there in some fields? Reality and certification programs don't always meet nicely in the real world but more letters after your name means something.

SZahnCRCC said...

Are you involved with any of the Federal or state government Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act projects?