Increasingly universities and other education organisations are working to provide greater exposure for students in workplace experience. Internships, work placements and practical project work are often integrated into academic programs. It is hoped students will acquire a broader range of practical, technical and generic skills that will aid their employability after graduation. The linkages between education and industry also help students to network with prospective employers thereby enhancing their career opportunities.
This type of collaboration that brings external input into education also helps to keep education relevant. The traditional approach in which students acquire knowledge during their academic program, and then get tested on what they can remember in closed-book exams, is increasingly irrelevant to the professional situations students find themselves in after graduation. Rather, providing students with an environment for self-directed learning and discovery, and with opportunities to collaborate on projects or gain skills in a workplace setting, with an assessment framework to reflect and learn from such experiences, will better prepare students for their future.
The challenge to make this transition isn’t easy because multiple-choice and closed-book assessments serve well as a tool for assessing students in bulk. Work experience can be built into the academic curriculum and it can be assessed (through a presentation, report, summary of findings). However, the requirement to find a standardised grade for each student means that this type of assessment can be periphery. The wide variety of work experience opportunities available for students, the difficulty in providing placements of similar standing, and the variabilities in supervision, adds to the difficulty of making work placement or project outcomes a core educational assessment instead of exams. Another issue is integration of work experience in a crowded curriculum with set educational outcomes. The benefits of work experience are usually derived from placements of at least a semester. This may not fit into a course structure and learning pathway that has to be completed to achieve the required outcomes. As long as education continues to set a standardised bar that all students must clear, it is difficult to see how education can progress beyond pointless memory testing.
A different approach
A starting point may be to rethink what is means to achieve a tertiary qualification. If there is no fixed curriculum with predetermined educational outcomes, the need to undertake formal testing on a large scale is eliminated. Instead the principle of education would be that students can study anything they like to any level they like (with very strong academic and career guidance). Of course, professional standards, such as those required for engineers and doctors, would still have to be achieved. But, generally, students would graduate with a transcript of what they have achieved rather than a parchment of what they should have achieved. For an education provider, their reputation will rest not so much on the currency of a parchment, as the ingenuity and relevance of the full learning pathway and student experience that they provide and record in a transcript for each student.
By freeing up the curriculum, students can undertake their education in a much more exploratory and mobile way – both in terms of the subjects and the activities they take. It could be envisaged that students will have a portable transcript that records different learning, training, professional development and other educational activities undertaken in a range of educational and other organisations. For example, a student could complete a chemistry course in one institution, a computer science course in another, an online programming module elsewhere, work on some research projects in an industry collaboration and undertake a community service or leadership module. All of the achievements of the student would get recorded in their transcript, whether first year foundation courses or advanced research projects. There would not necessarily be an end-point and the student could graduate at any time. Where standards do have to be achieved, such as in medicine, professional bodies or accredited education providers would administer the required assessments. This would be an exciting way to learn and set up a foundation for life-long learning.
While education delivered in this much more flexible way better prepares students for their future, it does of course have significant impact on the business models of education providers. They would no longer ‘own’ a student for the 3 or 4 years of an academic program. They would have a much broader base of customers, of all ages, who would opt in and out of programs according to their needs (perhaps more like the model of online providers such as Coursera). They would gain their reputation from the value of their education delivery, research capabilities, collaborative projects, links with industry and networking opportunities. Most of all, successful education providers will never graduate their students. They will be partners-for-life in facilitating all kinds of lifelong learning and professional development activities. The business opportunities will be enormous.