Tuesday 10 November 2009

Learners' needs and expectations

Working on a keynote for the JISC Online Conference I've been reflecting on the assumption that learners' needs and expectations are closely related (theme one, question: can institutions meet the challenges posed by learners' needs and expectations?).

The keynote offers a chance to respond to the government's HE review, Higher Ambitions, a key theme of which is that learners should be treated more like customers and consumers of education (Richard Hall has already blogged brilliantly about the fact that the model here is big business, not social enterprise).

A consumer model sees learners' needs and expectations as one and the same thing. Find out what learners want – or what employers want from learners, but that's another story – and deliver it. But learning isn't like that. Learning in the higher sense, understood as self-reflection, self-actualisation, self-transformation etc means that an individual's needs may be met by challenging her expectations, and that both needs and expectations change if deep learning is taking place. Yes we need to respond to learners' long-term goals and short-term plans, which is what bring them to education in the first place, but we are failing if we let them define the limit of learners' ambitions.

We're also, actually, limiting society's ambitions. There was once a Thatcherite ambition to transform our economy into a financial services economy, because there were short-term gains to be made by liberalising the financial markets ahead of our European competitors. It looks a bit short-sighted today. What Universities are for in the C21st has to have a longer and more critical perspective, more collective ambition, than what governments think they are for on today's policy agenda.

There seems to be a consensus that formal post-school education has been too driven by the 'supply side'. (This is an argument that just doesn't make sense to 'selecting' universities, btw - they have been offering much the same for decades, or centuries, and are still turning 'customers' away - but still...). Let's agree that HE needs to make its offering more relevant to the C21st. If we accept at face value Mandelson's definition of the role of HE as 'competition plus civilisation', it's clear that everybody has a stake in defining what universities 'need' to offer, and in ensuring that they go on to meet our collective 'expectations', since what is at stake is on what terms we compete, and how we imagine our civilisation. Neither next year's undergraduates, nor this year's major graduate employers, can be allowed to define something so important on their own, though they may be the stakeholders with the sharpest stakes.

So while acknowledging the need to become more relevant, many people have been expressing discomfort with the customer model of defining relevance. What do we have to offer instead? First I think we have to widen the debate from what individual learners need and expect. Particularly in a downturn, individual needs are never going to be a good indicator of the wider social good - just in time, just for me is no basis on which to define a civilisation. But second, I think we need to express individual needs and expectations in a developmental way. Learners need to feel secure – to have aspects of their expectation satisfied – only so that they can be challenged and changed, so that they can encounter new ways of thinking and practising and being in the world. Learning isn't something added on to us, let alone something we can purchase – learning is transformation. The wider debate must be about what kinds of transformation are worth devoting our professional lives to support.

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