by Tarah Hodgkinson
Once the sole institutions that controlled knowledge, universities must confront the reality that today's internet has made most knowledge accessible to anyone who looks online. And while universities are attempting to adapt to change, they are doing so poorly. Short of making more courses available online, most of the material continues to be something that could be easily found somewhere else and is leaving current and potential students wondering what is the point of going to university at all.
We have written about a better style of teaching in the university classroom in Canada. We spoke about how students, disheartened by their current learning structures, flourished when they were given the opportunity to take control over their own learning and address real-world problems.
I have since moved to Australia and started teaching at a large university here. If North Americans feel like the university system is decaying, Australia is watching it happen at warp speed. Instructors are not expected to change their courses every semester and are often given courses that someone else created. Most lectures are recorded and available online. Colleagues complain that fewer than 20 students attend lectures, despite over 200 students being enrolled. And a month ago, at the University of Melbourne, Professor Danny Hatters posted a photo of an empty lecture theatre.
It is easy to blame this on students these days. We say things like – “they don’t even realize how lucky they are!” “They are just lazy and addicted to their phones.” But this is not reality. I’ve been teaching at the university level for almost ten years. When I started as a teaching assistant, I was barely older than the students (in some cases they were much older than me). The students aren’t lazy, disinterested or unaware of their privilege. Rather, they realize that the current university system isn’t working.
This year, I had the opportunity to take over a third-year capstone course. My students were expected to take all of the learning they had gained over the past three years (assuming they showed up), apply it to a crime problem and then address neighbourhood safety.
The course was one of the few designed with problem-based learning principles in mind. The students were grouped by where they lived and spent twelve weeks addressing a problem in their neighbourhoods. At the end, they had created incredible prototypes that they presented to industry partners and faculty. Many of these presentations led to connections to applying their ideas more broadly.
SKILLS FOR THE FUTURE
More importantly, they learned the soft skills they need to work in the future. They were provided with tools to support teamwork, presentation skills, and emotional intelligence. They practiced these by managing a project with four other people over twelve weeks.
These skills are becoming ever more necessary in both the working world and in creating meaningful change in neighbourhoods, just as we teach in our professional SafeGrowth training. Emotional intelligence and teamwork skills are core to creating citizens of future neighbourhoods. These skills are what students need to be learning more than anything else.
Many instructors and programs are hesitant to include teamwork courses because students complain. And yes, the students did complain! But they also showed up EVERY WEEK. University is no longer about translating knowledge. It is about training students to be active and engaged citizens with emotional intelligence and teamwork skills to make meaningful change.
Students won’t always get what they want in the universities of the future, but if we pay attention to teamwork, real-life learning, and life skills, they just might get what they need.