Thursday, June 5, 2014
What is the Point of a Four-Year Degree?
There has been a bit of talk in the media recently about the need for a four-year degree, and could it not be compressed down to a shorter period. This is a really interesting question and I think gets to the heart of the goal of an academic education. I believe an academic degree should focus on equipping the students with the ability to "learn how to learn" rather than just learning a collection of skills; focusing on developing them as a person rather than just giving that skills that will make them attractive to employers (which I think is reducing the student down to an economic commodity).
Let me put my cards on the table, I believe it is possible, but very undesirable, to deliver a degree course in a reduced format. I think such a reduced model would have an extremely significant detrimental impact on the students' understanding of the material, and reduce their ability to stay employed in their discipline of choice. And if you think this is me just trying to protect my summer holidays, this is what I do over the summer.
It is clear that such material could be presented in a compressed format, we are all familiar with training courses, so we know that the material can be delivered quickly, but we also know that a training course only teaches you a very specific set of skills, and generally doesn't give you time to reflect on those skills, nor do they typically contextualise that material with a body of theory and models that help the students understand WHY we do things in a certain way as well as HOW to do them. As a Computer Science lecturer this is very evident to me, I know that if I am teaching students a programming language, my two main goals are to teach them how to use the programming language (as per a training course), but also how to understand in general how programming languages work, and why we are doing things in a particular way, and this requires a lot of reflection on their behalf. Why do we do this? Because chances are there will be a new programming language invented by the time they get a job, and they need to understand the general principles, and well as the specifics. The same applies to Operating Systems, Software Methodologies, Testing Techniques, etc. In other words, the goal of an academic degree is to teach students to "learn how to learn" not to learn a bunch of specific skills. As well as learning the specific skills of their discipline the students are learning to future-proof their skillset to ensure that they have the opportunity to have a long-lasting career.The students are also learning vital softskills for their sustained careers, including things like teamwork, communication skills, ethics, and presentation skills, these take years to develop.
The students need four years to reflect on their discipline; to reflect on how different subjects on their course link together for them; to reflect on what kind of learner they are; to reflect on how they work in teams; to reflect on what subjects they like and don't, and from there to consider what kind of job they'd like within their discipline. Reducing the duration of a degree course would seem like a good cost-saving measure, but I believe it would be a short-term action that would result in disastrous long-term consequences. The students need time to think about what they are learning and need time to develop into the professionals, and people, we want them to become - accomplished, independent thinkers.