Our idea comes from the misconception that learning only occurs when a student is sitting in front of professor in a lecture hall. Knowledge is everywhere and in everyone. Students will benefit more from being able to access information in everyone, at their own pace, with the help of advisors that have been specially trained to help develop cross functional, passionate individuals in an environment that truly allows exploration and learning from failure.
More opportunities for student involvement:
If students are no longer just “receivers” of information, they get more ownership of their education. In an environment where they have control over what, and from whom they can learn, it is easier for them to find those valuable pieces of knowledge. Allowing students to become an “input” in the system will help them become more engaged and passionate about what they are learning.
When you have to quickly learn something new, what is the first thing you do? Chances are you browse wikipedia, find a youtube video, or reach out to a friend. Although eventually you might decide to take a course on it, it would be foolish not to consider all the self-learning you did before the course valid. It seems that in higher education, the smallest, indivisible unit of learning is a course, which leaves out a lot of opportunities to learn. Our idea is to unbundle the knowledge that only exists in courses to provide different levels of immersion for learners. One individual might need to have a basic understanding of calculus for their particular passion, but doesn’t need entire course. Breaking the course into smaller modules would allow that particular individual to only take the module he or she truly needs, giving them more time to learn about the subjects that will have a bigger impact in his or her life and career.
Facilitating connections between stakeholders and information:
The idea of bundling knowledge provides a solution to the problem of relevance, but it also comes with challenges. The role of academic advising becomes a lot more important, and will need to evolve to better match the environment. If we want to give students the ability to choose from many different modules, the role of advising almost becomes that of a curator - one who can match students and necessary levels of mastery, but also conveying the importance of the passion on the particular subject. This methodology also relies heavily on connecting people to others, so that they can become sources of knowledge.
As we were brainstorming this idea we discussed our frustrations with higher education. A lot of them revolved around a general lack of flexibility, specifically when talking about taking interest in subjects outside of your direct major. This environment produces students that don’t always get the cross training that is so powerful and useful in the workforce. It also minimizes the opportunities for students to get out of their comfort zone, experience failure, and learn from it - a situation that almost all successful people have truly benefited from.
It is clear that, in today’s society, more and more jobs are becoming automated. While that presents many challenges, it also provides us with a huge opportunity. The jobs that will start filling the job market will be driven more by passion, and will require people to be skilled at multiple areas. If you would like to hear an interesting, data-backed take on this issue, we recommend this TEDx talk by David Autor, titled Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCxcnUrokJo).
Our group is made up of students, alumni, faculty, and staff members of Worcester Polytechnic Institute - a small STEM school in Central Massachusetts. One of central tenets of WPI is to learn by doing. Our motto is “theory and practice,” and it is exemplified by our project-based curriculum. We want to test out this methodology with students that are currently working on projects at WPI. In some ways, our projects already have some of the components of our idea, so it allows us to test out our methods without having to start from scratch:
- Most projects start with an ambiguous goal, so students have to decide what knowledge they think will be relevant
- The short timeframe projects occur in (typically 7 weeks) don’t allow for too much time being wasted, so topics that aren’t entirely relevant aren’t given much focus