Over the last decade I have met, consulted and advised hundreds (perhaps thousands) of students and their parents about which courses to study at University. As we sit and talk about the choices of degrees, one question always emerges: ‘What job can I get when I graduate?’
Historically, this may have been quite a straightforward answer: If you studied accounting, you would be an accountant and so on.
Today, the answer is more complex for at least two reasons. The first is that the pace of change within the economy means that new employment opportunities are always emerging – and some of these now happen to be the most sought after and prestigious.
How do we educate in what has been described as the ‘data age’ where the amount of data is said to double every five years.
The second is that employment opportunities are so competitive that employers are looking for the best people not always the graduates with the ‘right degrees’. For ten years I worked in the banking and finance sector followed by seven years working for human rights organisations. In that time, I employed and worked with people whose degrees had very little to do with the ultimate position that they were fulfilling: architects working in money market dealing rooms; accountants working as human rights advocates; arts graduates working as business analysts and the list goes on.
The attributes these people displayed included creative and critical thinking, ability to work in close-knit teams under high performance demands, and flexibility.
I believe that a more appropriate question to consider is: ‘What graduate attributes will I receive?’
And this is what education for tomorrow – or what the Vivid Idea’s Festival I am speaking titled ‘Education 3.0’ – is all about: preparing graduates in a different way for the different challenges of tomorrow.
There are two issues that relate to the future of universities that are on my mind at the moment that I think we, as academics and administrators, must address.
The first is the issue of educating students in a rapidly changing world. Knowledge is not linear but rather exponential and it has been argued that we live in ‘an age of data‘ where the amount of information doubles every two to five years.
This is an extraordinary concept and we must ask, how do we educate in this environment? How relevant will something that we teach a first year student today when they graduate in three or four years time?
The second concept relates to the credentials that universities issues: the monopoly universities have in issuing degrees. Given the rapidly changing environment, the question must be asked: If we lose our monopoly on issuing degrees, why should someone come to a university? What is it that we offer ‘beyond the degree’?
One of my favourite things about living in a multicultural society is the opportunity to work with people from many cultures. Diverse and multicultural societies are fulfilling, from the sharing of food, music and traditions, to an appreciation of the rich and varied ways we see, interpret and understand the world.
Exposure to multiple methods of seeing, interpreting and understanding is, in itself a process of knowledge making. When this occurs on a societal level, we create a more resilient and robust culture – a culture that evolves, one that is open to learning, and is flexible in response to the unknown: the new, the surprising, the intriguing, the other.
This is not the ‘other’ identified by shock jocks, who, in a narrow and inflexible sub-culture of their own, simply present an ‘us-and-them’ viewpoint: we, the civilised; and them, the alien, who must learn to be like us. This pushes us towards a homogenised culture that excludes and marginalises. It is a violent culture. While stopping violence is a goal on which all can agree, both society and the state allocate resources to not only exclude and marginalise but to forcibly remove those who can be described as not being ‘like us’. And here is the challenge: what does ‘like us’ mean: is it those with the same religion, skin tone, family structure?
One of the disclaimers I always make when invited to speak about my teaching is that I am not someone who has been trained in pedagogical theory. Rather, my journey into teaching has been about figuring out what I loved (and hated) about being taught, a bit of trial and error, not being afraid of making mistakes, learning from those mistakes and asking the students around me for honest and constant feedback.
Once some sort of pedagogical breakthrough emerges from these approaches, I review the literature, seeking pitfalls, opportunities and lessons.
So when I am asked ‘what advice can you give me about lecturing’, there are seven tips tend to share… Here they are and I hope you find them useful!
1. Want to be there…
Have you ever been on a date that you do not want to be on? The lecture room is exactly the same. Unless you want to be there, the students will wonder what they are doing there! I know we have bad days or even bad weeks, but I do believe that being an educator is a real privilege, and we should never forget that.
Just before I start a lecture, I always look at the classroom and think, ‘How lucky am I… I am about to introduce a bunch of exciting ideas and start some amazing conversations…’
It has been an amazing year for me both professionally and personally. Professionally, the highlights are almost too numerous to mention but include being promoted to full professor, delivering 21 keynote presentations, giving five conference papers, publishing a new book on citizenship, appearing on a massive billboard and running a subject with over a thousand students yet still receiving some of the best student feedback ever.
It was the year that I was the Prime Minister’s University Teacher of the Year and carried that honour with pride. On the advice of my University’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Corporate Strategy and Services) Rhonda Hawkins, I took every opportunity to promote ‘good teaching’. It was invaluable advice and established a framework in which I assessed my work. While I also facilitated a number of workshops giving advice on ‘good teaching’, I also learnt more knowledge than I had to give.
On reflecting on all this, here are eight lessons I learnt this year:
One. It is easier to be a cynic than supportive:
For some reason, most academics think it is cooler to be cynical than give credit. Recently I saw someone’s enthusiasm dismissed as ‘not collegial’ rather than celebrating that individual’s passion. Rather than being excited and supportive about each other’s work, it seems it is easier to be dismissive.
It would be hard to argue against the idea that the current political environment is toxic. We have reached a point that political point scoring outweighs what is in the national interest.
This kind of politics tends to split the electorate along party political lines: we take sides, wanting ‘the other side’ to fail no matter what the consequences.
There is no doubt that Tony Abbott and his Coalition made an art form of this in Opposition. The Gillard Government was attacked at every turn and in the move to bring down the government, Mr Abbott made some strange bedfellows – most notably at the anti-carbon tax rallies.
Mr Abbott also said some things that in hindsight, we can only presume he regrets. Most notable is the time when Mr Abbott, referring to the Prime Minister during a debate, stated that:
‘Now, are you suggesting to me that when it comes from Julia, no doesn’t mean no’
The connotations of sexual violence could not be missed.
Now in Opposition, the question is how will the ALP react?
More importantly, how do we progressives act more generally?
I do believe that some things are beyond politics and not only in the national interest, but important for our society.
As established university-based lecturers, it is easy to forget how unnerving attending your first weeks at uni can be.
This is particularly the case if, like me, a student is the first member of their family to make it into university. We forget that it is like visiting a foreign country with its own cultural rules, regulations and expectations.
I have spoken about this experience in detail including in an interview with The Department of Industry to promote their Opening Doors program. While my story is available here, I would certainly recommend looking at the other inspiring stories that outline the many opportunities that outline the opportunities that university offers (click here!).
One of the strategies I use to make the students feel comfortable is to try and make them to feel excited before they even arrive at uni!
The way I do this by setting up an ‘Out of Office’ reply that congratulates them for coming to uni, gets them excited and answers any ‘frequently asked questions’ that most are too shy to ask. I have built these up over the years from queries I have received as well as feedback from students.
Sombath Somphone – Thanks to New Matilda for the image
Long before I become an academic, I described myself as ‘an activist’. Though it is a vague term, most people associate it with left wing protest movements. While I would say that I have an affiliation with these movements, I also never comfortably squeezed into any ideological framework. Once, for example, a dear friend described me as ‘left-leaning neoliberal’ – not quite how I see it, but why not?
When I became a full-time academic, many people commented that my activism would be left behind. While the shape of my activism has changed, I do not see what I do as anything but activism. As I have written before, the role of an engaged academic and an engaged university, is to promote social justice, fairness and attempt to speak truth to power. Academic method, academic and mainstream writing and public debates and interactions are now my preferred tools.
Wits University, Johannesburg
Since being awarded the Prime Minister’s Teacher of the Year Award, I have been lucky enough to be invited to deliver keynotes both in Australia and internationally. While the focus is generally on ‘what makes a good teacher’, invariably, the changing environment that universities confront is raised. The university of today faces new challenges beyond funding: these questions of relevance and accusations of being disconnected from broader society (you know, the one about universities being ‘ivory towers’).
As such, I have been researching the future of universities.
In the contemporary economic environment, universities both as sector and individually, are increasingly called to quantify their value. This is aggravated by the emergence of Massive Online Open Courses that promise all the content without either the costs incurred or the time commitment. In a paper I published recently, I argue that the future of universities is embedded in building community engagement principles. The paper was published by DEMESCI and is available for download (for free) here.