“Looming low and ominous, in twilight premature, thunderheads are rumbling in a distant overture” (Neil Peart, from the RUSH song Jacob’s Ladder).

As a 16 year old New Brunswick boy listening to these words I always imagined impending chaos as the power of nature crept slowly upon an earth that refused to change in any but superficial ways.  Now, as a 46 year old professor returning from a conference focused on “Learning Outcomes” these lyrics again come to mind as the clouds of government, parental concerns, and students’ desires to “get a job” slowly roll in on the ivory tower of universities; silent portents of a battle about to come.

Why should I have such gloomy view of the ultimate impact of attempts to define and measure learning outcomes? After all, the general logic of establishing learning outcomes, and assessing universities, programs, and courses against these outcomes, seems reasonable enough.  Taxpayers give money to governments to support, among other things, the education of our next generation.  Operationally defining the components that go into what we mean by “education”, attempting to quantify these components, then using these indicators to guide and assess seems a very academic process in and of itself. If doing so leads to enhanced learning, isn’t that a goal we all see as laudable?  Wherein then lies the basis of my dread?

As is true of so many of the interesting questions in life, I think the answer to this question lies partly in very different perspectives on a four letter word, and the emotions and defenses it can provoke; in this case the word is JOBS.  Students want jobs, preferably good jobs.  Parents want their children to move off their payroll and get on with their lives, so they also want our students to get jobs, especially good ones.  Both groups rightfully think that university education enhances job prospects, especially with respect to good jobs.  Parents pay taxes and vote, as do many students, so governments are eager to justify that the tax money they gather is being spent wisely.  That is, they want to clearly show that university system is indeed preparing students by giving them the skills they need to get jobs, preferably good jobs.

The problem lies in the fact that universities never have been, and have no intent to be, a place where students are trained for the workforce.  In fact, it can be argued that the goal of a university experience is to remove students from the petty demands of the real world (e.g., jobs) thereby allowing them to focus on the loftier goal of achieving personal growth through learning.  Via access to information, ideas, and differing perspectives within a context that supports debate, discussion, and thought, students become better people who more completely understand the complexities of life and are better able to think and lead.  Thus universities have traditionally represented a rare opportunity for individuals to escape the “real world” for the general purpose of intellectual growth.

Of course, better thinkers and leaders do make better employees, and that is exactly why university graduates do end up getting better jobs.  But notice that the relationship between universities and jobs is more side-effect than primary goal.  This distinction is important, because of another four letter word: LIFE.  The intellectual growth provided by universities is meant to prepare students for life, all aspects of life; choosing a life partner, deciding which experiences one might approach, what causes one might champion, what choices one makes – and yes, what job one might pursue and hopefully excel within.  So yes, a university education does enhance one’s job prospects as part of a much bigger picture of self-improvement but the bigger picture remains the focus. Describing universities as places where students are trained for the job market is akin to describing churches as places where one gets to wear their best clothes— it completely misses the big picture and in so-doing cannot be viewed as anything less than belittling and offensive.

In a nutshell then, as counterintuitive as it may seem to students, parents and politicians, for those of us who work in universities JOBS is an offensive four letter word that immediately triggers a response that typically manifests in the waving of the “academic freedom” flag, academia’s version of flipping the bird.  In the post-WWII era of university growth, it was difficult to get professionals to leave their profession to teach in universities.  The solution came in the form a very unique job perk; tenure and the notion of academic freedom.  Essentially the offer was this: if you leave your profession to teach at a university, we will guarantee you the job for life no matter what position you publically take on any issue.  Professors are essentially free to speak and behave as they like, within reasonable moral constraints of course, without threat of being fired.  The perk worked and it attracted many people to the academy.  But it also set up the “unchanging earth” possibility; no matter what students, parents or politicians might want, if the academy does not see the value then they need not comply. This power of non-compliance goes all the way down to each individual faculty member.

As I described this situation to a person who was deeply entrenched in the articulation of learning objectives, the response was essentially, “Well, governments are going to force this to happen with or without co-operation from the universities. One would think they would want to help shape how it happens.”  In fact, it was this comment that began the RUSH lyric playing in my head, with its image of impending battle.  For one thing, it shows the great naivety at play here.  There is the sense that because governments fund universities they can essentially make them dance to whatever drumbeat they play.  But for all the reasons highlighted previously in this piece, it should be obvious that governments need universities as much as universities need government funding.  If universities feel sufficiently insulted that can simply say no; or better yet, drag their feet until such time as some new government is in power.  How will a government respond, by cutting funding?  That will only result in decreased enrollments that, in turn, will upset students and parents, costing votes.  Anytime two very powerful forces do battle, both lose. Confrontation will get us nowhere and any statement of power, especially when presented with an insulting framework (i.e., a focus on JOBS as the role of universities) … well thunderheads are indeed rolling in THAT distant overture.

All of this brings me to the true purpose of this piece.  One might assume from the previous that I myself am not in favour of the widespread adoption and use of learning outcomes as ways to both assess and improve education, but that supposition would be completely incorrect.  Not only am I in favour of this trend, I am doing what I can to facilitate it.  I am a scientist and, as such, I am a firm believer that knowledge comes from manipulations that are assessed via firm, preferably objective, criteria.  This includes the knowledge of how best to educate.  If we can arrive at trustworthy ways of defining and measuring components of the learning process, this can only help us to enhance learning.  We no longer have to trust intuitions about what does and doesn’t work; we can try and we can measure, weeding out the seemingly good ideas that just don’t have any real impact, and focusing on those that do.  As suggested previously, this is an inherently academic process and there is no reason it should give rise to any sort of clash at all.  I am not against the implementation of learning objectives, I merely worry about the manner in which this is being presented to universities.

John Lennon famously stated “all you need is love”.  I always felt that sentiment was aiming too high and, instead, I’m in closer agreement with Aretha Franklin’s statement “RESPECT: find out what it means to me”.  Respect is what is needed to enable two powerful forces to work together.  For the implementation of learning objectives to be successful, those who want it most must deal respectfully with those who are being asked to change, especially when those being asked to change have a “get out of change free” card in the form of tenure.  That respect simply means not reducing universities to institutes of workplace training.  This would preferably occur by a real change in understanding, an increased appreciation for the larger and more general goals of universities.  But even if that is not possible, a simple substitution of one four-letter word for another would reduce tensions considerably.  Instead of viewing the role of universities as enhancing one’s prospects for JOBS, lets see it as enhancing one’s prospects for LIFE.  This is a goal shared by all parties, and one that none should find demeaning or inappropriate.  After all, of all the decisions we make in life, of all the things we spend time thinking about, at the end of the day … at the end of a life … is it really about JOBS?  I certainly hope not.

Photo by macahanC6R on Flickr.