Tag Archives: Future of higher educaion










Here’s what the ultimate teaching challenge might look like…and in the future it may be the rule rather than the exception

A new book, Motivational Interviewing in Groups (Wagner and Ingersoll) outlines motivational approaches and strategies in group facilitation. While the book’s emphasis is on clinical practice, the principles and applications are also relevant to education settings.

The book’s authors present a table illustrating different types of group format, structure, composition, size, length and admission arranged along a continuum of difficulty (for facilitators) from easier to harder:












This looks different for educational groups, but the essentials still apply. Here is my modification of Wagner and Ingersoll’s framework calibrated for teaching and learning:











In other words:

Elective courses are easier to teach than mandatory courses. Students generally take electives out of interest, as opposed to being forced to take mandatory courses. Teaching students content that someone else thinks they ought to know is tougher than content in which they’re already interested.

Instructor-led courses presuppose a “script” (i.e. lesson plan), versus collaborative or student-led curricula. Paragogical approaches posit peer-to-peer learning and individual autonomy, and demand a proportionately higher level of finesse and facilitation.

Classes where students share more similarities than differences can be easier to work with than heterogeneous class compositions. For example, students who differ widely in age, ability or pre-existing knowledge and skills present more of a challenge in ensuring that all learning needs are met, and establishing an inclusive, cohesive and positive community of learning. Of course diversity, including culture, sex, gender and lived experience, enriches everyone’s learning exponentially – but demands artful facilitation on our part.

Student engagement and interactivity are more straightforward in classes of 25 or less. As class size increases so does the challenge of promoting opportunities for practice and integration of knowledge and skills.

It’s easier to keep peoples’ interest and attention for a single class of 2 or 3 hours than it is for a whole day or for multiple days. The latter demands both a varied menu of instructional strategies as well as formidable stamina (on the part of the instructor and the students).

Strict and highly competitive admission criteria can yield the “cream of the crop” of high-achieving and highly motivated learners. On the other hand, classes where admission is unrestricted means addressing the needs of the best and the brightest alongside those with academic struggles and other challenges.

Like any framework, this conceptualization tends to oversimplify and blur the many complexities and nuances of artful classroom teaching. Real life is always messier than the manual (if there even is a manual). But in general, teaching a mandatory class using a student-led curriculum, among a highly diverse cohort of 100 students or more, over a multi-day course that is freely open to all could well represent the ultimate teaching challenge.

We haven’t added the layer of classroom-based versus online teaching and learning, but does this scenario represent what may well be future of higher education…MOOC 2.0?












The hardest thing about writing is writing (Nora Ephron)


Student plagiarism is a big issue (and apparently an equally big industry) in high school and post-secondary education. It’s never been easier to craft a bricolage of web-based material for a written assignment, and it’s never been easier to detect evidence of academic dishonesty. Tools like Turnitin, iThenticate and online search engines allow for immediate identification of copied source material. Given the high risk and high stakes involved, why do students do it?

The way I see it, a number of interacting factors have created a “perfect storm” kind of context in which student plagiarism can flourish:

1. Stewart Brand, digital social network pioneer, famously said that “information wants to be free”. We’ve seen how intellectual ownership of music and film has been defended vigorously in the courts, yet for every torrent site that gets shut down, a new one pops up. Digital content on the network behaves like water: block one pipeline and it effortlessly reroutes through others. The digital generation has grown up accustomed to immediate access to a gushing flood of “free” content.

2. This leads to the next contributing factor: social media platforms are as much about the flow of content as original content creation. Pinterest, Tumblr, Twitter, and others are about free flow of media and ideas. There is a culture of “content curation”, and the best curators are rewarded by likes, notes, reblogs, retweets, repins etc.

3. Academic databases have traditionally been way less user-friendly than search engines. This is starting to change, but the reality is that if you’re pressed for time, don’t understand Boolean logic, and want easily-digested and accessible information, a quick web search might win out. There have been periodic (and growing) exhortations for researchers to make the products of research more accessible, however we have far to go in realizing this knowledge transfer ideal.

4. I am not sure that students really appreciate the consequences of academic misconduct. It’s a bit like impaired driving: seems worth the risk at the time, but when you find yourself in court, without a license, and facing massive fines, insurance costs and social stigma, the cost of booking a stretch limo is a bargain. Same goes for plagiarism. Universities take it pretty seriously, and that meeting with the Dean is a lot like going before a judge.

5. Finally, writing is hard. Encoding our ideas in abstract alphabetical symbols just doesn’t come naturally for most of us. In fact, sometimes coming up with original ideas to encode doesn’t come too naturally either.

Academic Integrity is the foundation of knowledge generation and production. But somehow there’s a disconnect with digital norms and popular culture/practice. The solution? Still murky, but I think that an ongoing dialogue with students acknowledging and exploring the terrain between these separate realities is a good place to start.


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Unsolicited advice is the junk mail of life (Bern Williams, in Miller & Rollnick)

Compassionate listening – stepping back and allowing learners to individually explore their ambivalence, concerns and ideas about an issue or concept – is at the crux of individual discovery and adult learning.

Here’s the rub: as educators we want to support student success, so when we see someone heading in the wrong direction or struggling, we’re often galvanized into action with all good intentions! This “Righting Reflex” is essentially the imperative to do something…to “fix it”, and often kicks in without any conscious awareness (see Miller and Rollnick’s 2013 text on Motivational Interviewing).

To add clarity: A a quick illustration of the Righting Reflex from a conversation I had on my way in to work this morning (for real):

Me: “I’m thinking that I’d like to buy a Smart Car.” 

Significant other: “Well what about a Honda CR-V? I know someone who has one for sale.” 

Me:   ?   !   ?

O-kayyy…How useful was that unsolicited (albeit well-meaning) advice in helping me think things through? And, to be fair, my own Righting Reflex isn’t hard to activate in both personal and professional spheres. Learner autonomy as being at the heart of constructivist approaches is widely discussed and accepted, yet in practice it’s “simple but not easy”.

In an ideal world, educators validate, explore, question. They evoke and encourage students to critically examine different sides of an issue. This doesn’t negate our roles of teacher, guide or concerned other, but it does place the onus – quite rightly – on the learner’s capacity for decision-making and problem-solving.

A big part of education in health care (and other fields) is less about teaching the correct answer, than in facilitating the process of ethical and nuanced judgment and decision-making. If we can resist the Righting Reflex we’re creating a positive space in which to explore, experiment and make mistakes.

So…as for my own automotive decision-making process…a design endorsement by the MOMA may just tip the balance!














Will it be on the exam?

In-class exams may well be one of the most stressful – and for some, traumatic – experiences in a student’s life. This truism came front and centre last week at a certificate program I was teaching, geared to seasoned interprofessional practitioners. The varying responses to our in-class, summative, multiple-choice exam tended to cluster around the less enthusiastic end of the spectrum.

Why are exams so aversive?

One obvious reason is that they can be high stakes, as in this (admittedly oversimplified) equation:

high grades = approval + scholarship $$$ + grad school admission

Another reason may have to do with lack of autonomy: we didn’t write the exam questions, and we generally can’t know – or in many cases – anticipate – them in advance. And people inherently strive towards personal autonomy.

But I think that radical pedagogical analyses get closest to the crux of the matter, in their critical interrogation of power dynamics in the classroom, the stance of the professor as “expert”, and framing of “curricular content” (for example, Laura Béres 2008 article).

Constructivism frames learning as socially constructed by learners, where learning is meaningful and relevant to real life. In-class exams are, by nature, removed from real life and focus on content domains that the instructor sees as key.

This can be an uneasy alliance in progressive classrooms, and one that I am still struggling to reconcile… Especially in a knowledge landscape where locating information should take precedence over memorizing information (see Julio Frenk’s influential report in the Lancet, “Health professionals for a new century: transforming education to strengthen health systems in an interdependent world”).

Closing thought:

Exams do stimulate affective arousal, which is associated with enhanced memory retention. I’m just not sure that those memories correlate well with the exam content!

Predicting the Future: Higher Education in 2112 (Part 2)

My workplace overlooks a big downtown university campus, and it’s always fun to see the frosh week excitement and back-to-school energy.

This made me think about: what will higher (university) education look like 100 years from now? Hard to imagine, especially because universities have sustained a pretty enduring business model and delivery system for – what – the last thousand years or so?

But I think we’re seeing the fault lines in higher education, some driven by students themselves and their expectations/learning preferences, some changes being driven by new technologies/social media, and perhaps the most significant changes are a result of globalization and rise of “educational megalopolies”.

So – here are some of my predictions:

This first one is kind of a no-brainer: Face-to-face learning will be the exception. Students will design and access knowledge and skills guided by both human and virtual tutors/faculty

Students will register and be affiliated with multiple academic institutions from the same family of university “brands” (as smaller schools become gobbled up by the big names)

Students will travel virtually or geographically throughout their academic careers and access a plethora of institutionally-branded choices in different metropolitan centres and online, with the entire academic record in a single transcript file location

The electronic transcript will look more like a virtual portfolio of students’ work and assessments, and will link to other accomplishments/activities

There will be no such thing as “full” courses (due to over-enrollment) because all courses will be webcast

The most successful university brands will offer programs in multiple languages: for example, English, Mandarin, Portuguese, Hindi, Russian (via automatic simultaneous translation of faculty/instructional materials)

Unique, personalized programs of study will be developed so as to fit specific jobs via proprietary algorithms (and these will be recalibrated as students’ career goals change)

Teaching performance will be graded on a variety of metrics – including student performance and feedback/reviews – and this will be integrated within mobile academic course calendars (inside-out universities).

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