Teaching and learning in a market-dominated environment

As the director of university teaching center, I have been thinking a great deal recently about how to support faculty and teaching in today’s higher education climate. In today’s post, I want to share an except from an article I wrote several years ago on the topic. My thinking has changed some over the years and the market environment may be even stronger since the recession, but I still find these ideas stimulating.

Photo credit: John Williams

The question before those engaged in supporting general education is how to respond to the challenges and opportunities presented by the market.

What do good teaching and learning look like in an institution operating in a deregulated and decentralized marketplace with students demonstrating consumer tendencies? How can we foster a supportive environment for general education when student consumers are fueled by a desire for vocational training for economic gain?

First, we should acknowledge that student consumerism and a focus on the vocational private economic good of higher education are not simply going to disappear.

These trends are ingrained in our students and the larger society, and the time for reversing these ideas is seemingly past.

Rather, what higher education must accomplish is the incorporation of general education principles within the specialized nature of teaching and research.

This is critical for responding to consumerist attitudes among students as well as the capitalistic actions of faculty (Bok, 2003; Slaughter & Leslie, 1997).

We should be addressing critical thinking, ethics, creating a logical argument, writing, and an appreciation of differences across the curriculum.

This type of approach to courses ostensibly designed for vocational purposes is possible, if not necessary, for achieving the proper professional training of vocational programs.

Viewed in this light, instruction can address the fundamental principles and benefits of general education while at the same time acknowledging the demands for job training on the part of students, parents, policy makers, and the business community.

This new conceptualization of general education is helpful in responding directly to the desires of internal and external stakeholders (while remaining true to the liberal education ideal), yet this does not fully respond to the demands of the business and political communities that often cite the graduate who is not prepared to enter and succeed in the corporate setting.

In order to respond to the concerns of the business community and the growing demands of the marketplace, students need to understand the broader contexts of their work.

As Grubb and Lazerson (2005) suggest: “One goal is to teach in more constructivist, meaning-centered, and contextualized ways, following the idea that students need to be better prepared to understand the deeper con- structs underlying practice” (p. 17).

The business community contends that too often the graduates they employ were trained in universities devoid of practical concerns and dominated by research-centric curricula and faculty.

As critical stakeholders in the future support of colleges and universities, political and business leaders are demanding the creation of a competently trained workforce.

This is achievable with an improved nexus between theory and practice. General education con- cepts judiciously brought to bear through the use of interdisciplinary courses, service-learning classes, and pedagogical innovations can bridge the gap between the purely intellectual and solely practical.

A renewed approach to problems in this way leads to satisfying the con- cerns of the market and its consumers. Furthermore, it solidifies the role of liberal education as part of the solution.

Recent years have seen an increase in the number of faculty who use pedagogical approaches designed to foster active student participation, yet there is little discussion about systematic changes to how we teach students and, more importantly, how students learn (Lazerson, Wagner, & Shumanis, 2000).

Research is supported by the reward structure and is the path to prestige—not teaching or improved student learning (Brewer et al., 2002).

A review of the issues of the Journal of General Education over the last few years shows the growing importance (or volume) of the debate over the assessment of learning and reform in higher education.

The literature provides thoughtful information on the challenges of conducting assessment (Burke, 2005; Shipman, Aloi, & Jones, 2003) as well as studies examining the effectiveness of different methodological approaches (Eder, 2004; Erwin & Sebrell, 2003; Marinara, Vajravelu, & Young, 2004).

If this approach to teaching is going to be successful, however, it must be accompanied by an unprecedented emphasis on learning.

Barr and Tagg (1995) suggest a paradigm shift from teaching to learning, and this realization is necessary for the preservation of general education values in academe.

The goals of a general education that prepares students for employment and citizenship are more readily achievable with active student participation in the community of scholars (Gabelnick, MacGregor, Matthews, & Smith, 1990; Goodsell, Russo, & Tinto, 1994; Tinto, 1997; Tinto, Goodsell-Love, & Russo, 1994).

This is no doubt costly; gone are the days of packing 300 freshmen into large lecture halls. Administrators must give up the easy student credit hour production, and faculty cannot habitually send in graduate teaching assistants to instruct introductory courses.

This commitment to learning is possible with the entrepreneurial approach discussed earlier, where profitable perimeter activities can subsidize the revenue loss of large introductory classes.

By assuming a market-smart and mission-centered posture, institutions can use the increased operating revenue from market-oriented programs to support this agenda of improving teaching and learning.

Without the necessary resources created by responding to the market with periphery programs and offerings, one may wonder if implementing this focus on student learning is even possible.

In effect, the market can create a supportive teaching and learning environment necessary to respond to the pressures of consumerism.

Innovative pedagogical approaches serve as a response to the market and consumerism by proactively tackling the desires of stakeholders and addressing competing programs while at the same time preserving the core value of general education.

Additionally, improved student engagement can foster a learning environment that can dispel the traditional complaints against higher education.

Institutions need revenue to implement this type of approach to undergraduate education.

The most readily available source of funds is taking advantage of the revenue-generating possibilities from the marketplace.

By utilizing revenue opportunities and reasonably reacting to consumer demands, colleges and universities can place themselves in a position to be successful financially and academically.