Smaller classes, bigger science, and the increasing need to engage

In the middle of checking with colleagues at a variety of peer institutions about the evolving nature of teaching loads, yesterday’s New York Times distracted me with two fascinating articles about forces that are pushing educators and researchers to work with both smaller and larger groups of people.

Small groups and quality learning

On the downward push side, the article ‘At M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard’ by Sara Rimer, explores how physicists at universities across North America are:

pioneering teaching methods drawn from research showing that most students learn fundamental concepts more successfully, and are better able to apply them, through interactive, collaborative, student-centered learning.

The article, which primarily focuses on MIT and the discipline of physics, notes that students still take basic introductory classes, but:

today they meet in high-tech classrooms, where about 80 students sit at 13 round tables equipped with networked computers.

Instead of blackboards, the walls are covered with white boards and huge display screens. Circulating with a team of teaching assistants, the professor makes brief presentations of general principles and engages the students as they work out related concepts in small groups.

Teachers and students conduct experiments together. The room buzzes. Conferring with tablemates, calling out questions and jumping up to write formulas on the white boards are all encouraged.

The article reminded me of a day I spent in the Wharton School‘s lavish building at the University of Pennsylvania (see the pictures below, taken in 2005).  I was impressed with the dialogue-oriented classrooms, and the small semi-private meeting spaces for student teams in the hallways (to the left of the corridor) with more public computer desks on the opposite side; spaces clearly designed from the ground up.

wharton1 wharton2


At M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard’ resonates with debates underway in numerous quarters about the learning process, classroom technologies, pedagogical practices, and so on. Yet one cannot help but wonder how the effects of the current economic crisis will restrain most public universities from moving in this logical direction, one that our institutions have long known about (witness the praise for colleges like Harvey Mudd), yet have resisted or been unable to act upon.  Indeed, as I noted to one of my colleagues in Minnesota yesterday, long term underfunding of public higher education systems generates structural forces that see faculty-student enrollment number balances tilt the exact opposite way – away from small group quality learning – as witnessed in Australia and Canada in the 1980s and 1990s (see some indicators here in ‘Analysing Australia’s global higher ed export industry’). MIT and Penn have the resources to do the right thing, but does the average university in most continents?

Big science, research, and the centralization impulse

The 13 January issue of the same New York Times included a guest column by Aaron E. Hirsh titled ‘A New Kind of Big Science’. This article, which is also getting a lot of attention, discusses what Hirsh deems a “very broad trend” in scientific research: the creation of huge international teams of researchers, and associated research infrastructures, that are enabled by the forces of centralization:

Across many different fields, new data are generated by a smaller and smaller number of bigger and bigger projects. And with this process of centralization come changes in what scientists measure — and even in what scientists are.


It’s not only scientific instruments, but also the scientists themselves who are transformed by centralization. If the 19th century was an age of far-flung investigators alone in the wilderness or the book-lined study, the 21st century is, so far, an age of scientists as administrators. Many of the best-known scientists of our day are men and women exceptionally talented in herding the resources — human and otherwise — required to plan, construct and use big sophisticated facilities.

In a way, centralization seems unavoidable. The governments that fund research have themselves become far more centralized, so perhaps science has been pulled along in the process. But even without that prevailing wind, science would, I think, head in the very same direction.

A young discipline is bound to move first through the data it can gather most easily. And as it does, it also defines more exactly what it must measure to test its theories. As the low-hanging fruit vanish, and the most precious of fruits are spotted high above, bigger investments in harvesting equipment become necessary. Centralization is a way to extend scientists’ reach.

I quote at length, here, for he raises some important issues worth pondering for those interested in the construction of new knowledge spaces. These include:

  • the degree to which collaboration and partnerships (many international) are becoming indispensable to the research endeavor.
  • the need to extend and guide heterogeneous networks to enable such research to be undertaken, and the double-edged role of centralization in enabling this extension/guiding process to function.
  • the rarely examined effects such collaboration, and such centralizing impulses, have upon the subjectivity of researchers (and of administrators, I might add).
  • the difficulties that exist in building an emotional attachment to what Hirsh calls Big Science, an issue ‘outreach’ and development planners in universities (including my university) are also concerned about.

Hirsh’s column, especially his idea of a national initiative in Citizen Science – to complement Big Science – in the US, has generated 100+ comments, some of which are insightful.

In closing, I can’t help but note that both pushes – smaller groups of people when teaching, and larger groups of people when researching – require greater, not less, social engagement, and of both virtual and face-to-face forms. Resource constraints aside, do we have the quality institutions, structures, technologies, programs, etc., in place, and knowledge about them, to enable and facilitate better quality social engagement in the local spaces of the classroom, and the broader spaces of Big Science?  Citizen Science might help resolve some problems associated with Big Science, yet we are arguably lacking up-to-date support systems to enable us to engage better, to be better partners, in the worlds of teaching and research.

In a future entry I’ll come back to the issue of inter-university consortia and associations (e.g., the US’ Committee on Institutional Cooperation) in providing one element of these needed support systems. Enough procrastination for today though…I have syllabi to finish writing!

Kris Olds

Changing higher education and the claimed educational paradigm shift – sobering up educational optimism with some sociological scepticism

If there is a consensus on the recognition that higher education governance and organization are being transformed, the same does not occur with regard to the impact of that transformation on the ‘educational’ dimension of higher education.

Under the traveling influence of the diverse versions of New Public Management (NPM), European public sectors are being molded by market-like and client-driven perspectives. Continental higher education is no exception. Austria and Portugal, to mention only these two countries, have recently re-organized their higher education system explicitly under this perspective. The basic assumptions are that the more autonomous institutions are, the more responsive they are to changes in their organizational environment, and that academic collegial governance must be replaced by managerial expertise.

Simultaneously, the EU is enforcing discourses and developing policies based on the competitive advantages of a ‘Europe of knowledge’. ‘Knowledge societies’ appear as depending on the production of new knowledge, its transmission through education and training, its dissemination through ICT, and on its use through new industrial processes and services.

By means of ‘soft instruments’ [such as the European Qualification Framework (EQF) and the Tuning I and II projects (see here and here), the EU is inducing an educational turn or, as some argue, an emergent educational paradigm. The educational concepts of ‘learning’, ‘knowledge’, ‘skills’, ‘competences’, ‘learning outcomes’ and ‘qualifications’, re-emerge in the framework of the EHEA this time as core educational perspectives.

From the analysis of the documents of the European Commission and its diverse agencies and bodies, one can see that a central educational role is now attributed to the concept of ‘learning outcomes’ and to the ‘competences’ students are supposed to possess in the end of the learning process.

In this respect, the EQF is central to advancing the envisaged educational change. It claims to provide common reference levels on how to describe learning, from basic skills up to the PhD level. The 2007 European Parliament recommendation defines “competence” as the proven ability to use knowledge, skills and personal, social and/or methodological abilities, in work or study situations and in professional and personal development”.

The shift from ‘knowledge content’ as the organizer of learning to ‘competences’, with a focus on the capacity to use knowledge(s) to know and to act technically, socially and morally, moves the role of knowledge from one where it is a formative process based on ‘traditional’ approaches to subjects and mastery of content, to one where the primary interest is in the learner achieving as an outcome of the learning process. In this new model, knowledge content is mediated by competences and translated into learning outcomes, linking together ‘understanding’, ‘skills’ and ‘abilities’.

However, the issue of knowledge content is passed over and left aside, as if the educational goal of competence building can be assigned without discussion about the need to develop procedural competencies based more on content rather than on ‘learning styles’. Indeed it can be argued that the knowledge content carried out in the process of competence building is somehow neutralized in its educational role.

In higher education, “where learning outcomes are considered as essential elements of ongoing reforms” (CEC: 8), there are not many data sources available on the educational impact of the implementation of competence-based perspectives in higher education. And while it is too early to draw conclusions about the real impact on higher education students’ experiences of the so called ‘paradigm shift’ in higher education brought by the implementation of the competence-based educational approach, the analysis of the educational concepts is, nonetheless, an interesting starting point.

The founding educational idea of Western higher education was based on the transforming potential of knowledge both at the individual and social level. Educational categories (teaching, learning, students, professors, classes, etc.) were grounded in the formative role attributed to knowledge, and so were the curriculum and the teaching and learning processes. Reconfiguring the educational role of knowledge from its once formative role in mobilizing the potential to act socially (in particular in the world of work), induces important changes in educational categories.

As higher education institutions are held to be sensitive and responsive to social and economic change, the need to design ‘learning outcomes’ on the ‘basis of internal and external stakeholders’ perceptions (as we see with Tuning: 1) grows in proportion. The ‘student’ appears simultaneously as an internal stakeholder, a client of educational services, a person moving from education to labor market and a ‘learner’ of competences. The professor, rather than vanishing, is being reinvented as a provider of learning opportunities. Illuminated by the new educational paradigm and pushed by the diktat of efficiency in a context of mass higher education, he/she is no more the ‘center’ of knowledge flux and delivery but the provider of learning opportunities for ‘learners’. Moreover, as an academic, he/she is giving up his/her ultimate responsibility to exercise quality judgments on teaching-learning processes in favor of managerial expertise on that.

As ‘learning outcomes’ are what a learner is expected to know, understand and/or be able to demonstrate on completion of learning, and given these can be represented by indicators, assessment of the educational process can move from inside to outside higher education institutions to assessment by evaluation technicians. With regard to the lecture theater as the educational locus par excellence, ICT instruments and ideographs de-localize classes to the ether of ‘www’, ‘face-to-face’ teaching-learning being a minor proportion of the ‘learner’ activities. E-learning is not the ‘death’ of the professor but his/her metamorphosis into a ‘learning monitor’. Additionally, the rise of virtual campuses introduce a new kind of academic life whose educational consequences are still to be identified.

The learner-centered model that is emerging has the educational potential foreseen by many educationalists (e.g. John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich, among others) to deal with the needs of post-industrial societies and with new forms of citizenship. The emerging educational paradigm promises a lot: the empowerment of the student, the enhancement of his/her capacity and responsibility to express his/her difference, the enhancement of team work, the mutual help, learning by doing, etc.

One might underline the emancipatory potential that this perspective assumes – and some educationalists are quite optimist about it. However, education does not occur in a social vacuum, as some sociologists rightly point out. In a context where HEIs are increasingly assuming the features of ‘complete organizations’ and where knowledge is indicated as the major competitive factor in the world-wide economy, educational optimism should/must be sobered up with some sociological scepticism.

In fact the risk is that knowledge, by evolving away from a central ‘formative’ input to a series of competencies, may simply pass – like money – through the individuals without transforming them (see the work of Basil Bernstein for an elaboration of this idea). By easing the frontiers between the academic and work competencies, and between education and training, higher education runs the risk of sacrificing too much to the gods of relevance, to (short term) labor market needs. Contemporary labor markets require competencies that are supposed to be easily recognized by the employers and with the potential of being continuously reformed. The educational risk is that of reducing the formation of the ‘critical self’ of the student to the ‘corporate self’ of the learner.

António M. Magalhães

Autonomous foundations and the reduction of barriers to innovation in higher education

Over the last decade some noteworthy initiatives have emerged within the US to remake science and engineering degree structures and offerings, often with a focus on speeding up the time to graduation, enhancing and broadening the skill make-up of graduates, and building deeper information channels between academia and industry. Yesterday’s Washington Post had an insightful article on just these themes – the emerging professional science master’s degree (PSM). As the Washington Post notes:

The PSM program is designed to provide more advanced training in science or mathematics — with a dose of business skills — and entice more students who receive bachelor of science degrees to stay in the field without having to pursue a doctorate. Most college graduates with four-year science degrees leave the field and don’t return.

The PSM degree, sometimes described as a science version of the MBA degree, is being hailed as one of the most promising innovations in graduate education in years.

The Washington Post article profiles PSM-related initiatives created to date at Washington DC-based universities including George Washington University, Towson University, American University, the University of Maryland, Georgetown University, Virginia Tech, and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. The article notes that “about 1,300 students are enrolled in PSM programs at more than 50 schools nationwide”, with the Washington area base region for “the most programs”.

sloanlogo.jpgFrom a non-US or international comparative perspective, one dimension of the development process that is worth noting is the critically important role of independent non-profit foundations to spurring on initiatives and innovation in higher education. As hinted at above, the PSM is largely an outgrowth of the effort of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to enhance and broaden the skill make-up of science and engineering graduates (especially at the below PhD level), and build deeper information channels between academia and industry. As Michael S. Teitelbaum, Vice President, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, stated in a 6 November 2007 testimony before the Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation, Committee on Science and Technology, U.S. House of Representatives, the US needs to do a better job of improving the:

“signals” about such careers that are publicly available to prospective students. In particular, doctoral programs in many U.S. universities provide far less information to prospective and entering students about the career experiences of their recent graduates than do the law schools and business schools on the very same campuses. This should certainly change; students need to be provided with far better if they are to have realistic expectations as they embark upon a course of graduate study and postdoc research that often can stretch out over most of their 20s.

Universities and disciplines are, despite their reputations in conservative political circles, notoriously risk averse and slow to innovate with respect to course and degree offerings. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which was established in 1893, created the PSM program in 1997 during a period of considerable debate about America’s perceived knowledge deficit (which eventually fueled the creation of the polemical study Rising Above The Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century: An Agenda for American Science and Technology). The ultimate impetus for the PSM, however, seems to be Sloan’s considerably more nuanced concern about the quality of science and engineering education versus the number of science and engineering doctoral graduates. See Teitelbaum’s informative testimony for further information on this issue.

Further information on the background to the PSM is available here, while a PSM locations map (with links to specific programs) is available here. A screen capture of the map below clearly highlights the geography of the PSM.


Ten years on since its establishment the PSM has taken off. Indeed primary responsibility for institutionalizing the PSM is now in the hands of the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS). It is worth noting, however, that the Washington Post article states that “[l]ast year, Congress provided funding for schools to establish or improve PSM programs through the America Competes Act”. This is in fact incorrect for the America Competes Act only authorized the creation of a Professional Science Master’s program at the National Science Foundation (NSF), and it did not provide any funding. Supporters of the PSM degree are hoping for action via the Fiscal Year (FY) ’09 appropriations, but the US omnibus bill approach (which provides for a number of miscellaneous enactments) makes establishing specific program appropriations particularly difficult.

In any case the uplift in PSM support and associated offerings, while not seamless, reflects the capacity of institutions like Sloan to push and facilitate the construction of new knowledge/spaces such that they eventually become institutionalized. As with the entry on stem cell research advances that we published on 21 November 2007 we see, yet again, how foundations can use their resources, linkages to universities, and autonomy, to strategically pursue goals that might get blocked within universities. As the Washington Post article notes:

That it took a foundation, and not a school, to get the ball rolling is not entirely surprising, educators said, despite a broad agreement that the country needs more trained scientists.

PSM supporters expected — and met — resistance from some educators, who thought the science course requirements were too limited or who did not want PSM students in their classrooms because they didn’t think the students had done the prerequisite courses.

In addition, universities are tradition-bound institutions. It can be difficult for schools, especially state-run systems, to get approval to start something new. Schools don’t like to force experts in one field to change their focus or unwillingly collaborate outside their discipline.

“In general, institutions of higher ed pay lip service to interdisciplinary studies,” said Ali Eskandarian, an associate dean at GWU who oversees its PSM program.

In the end universities, especially public universities, need to be pushed, embedded as they are in complex legal foundations and held back by large and complex bureaucracies. We’ll return to a related issue soon: the organizational barriers preventing the development of international double and joint degrees in public universities, though sadly no foundation in North America has stepped in (yet) to spur on developments on this front. And if you want an interesting contrast on this issue compare the North American situation to the European one; a context that has experienced substantial change via the European Commission’s Erasmus Mundus program. In short, the reduction to barriers to innovation in higher education, and the construction of new knowledge/spaces, is increasingly associated with an emerging constellation of socio-economic imaginaries, many of which are derived from non-university quarters. We thus need to focus more attention on the nature of these imaginaries, and the modes of engagement that lead them to become noteworthy forces of governance.

Kris Olds