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Elliott Masie’s Refrain: Try, Try Again

July/August 2013

By Matt Hamill

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Innovation is an iterative process. You have to try five things to discover how to make that one thing better,” argues learning strategist Elliott Masie, head of the Masie Center, a think tank focused on how organizations and emerging technologies support workforce learning. Nowhere is this spirit of experimentation more needed than with the learning process itself, suggests Masie, who serves on the board of trustees for Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York. He thinks colleges and universities should be laboratories for the learning model, where every year, 50 courses are taught differently, with certain evidence measures built in, and with “autopsies” conducted to evaluate their effectiveness. 

Masie’s argument that failure begets success is a critical lesson students likewise must experience firsthand before they are ready for the workplace, he says. In this interview, Masie talks trends shaping higher learning.

What trends in corporate workplace training do you see influencing how we teach college students? 

For years worker training centered on designing highly structured content for groups gathered at a given place and time for a specific outcome. This approach hasn’t gone away, but it has become a discrete part of a much larger construct. 

Visit any major corporation today and you will find few classroom sessions taking place. Training is being replaced with learning, which encompasses a range of processes by which the worker or student gains various competencies, skills, or information sets. In the university setting, only some of what a student learns might be organized by the institution. Some of these experiences may emerge from peer groups, and many will be self-organized. 

Another fundamental shift in workplace education is growing acceptance that when the content employees need is more generic, you should look to harvest that knowledge from the marketplace. Colleges are doing more of this as well, by collaborating to share course content or faculty expertise. Overall, we should look for opportunities to syndicate knowledge rather than build it independently at each campus or in each workplace. 

How else do you think syndicating learning opportunities might occur in the higher education setting? 

Here’s one example: Suppose a student wants to learn Cantonese instead of Mandarin, but your campus doesn’t offer Cantonese. Do you tell that student you don’t have anyone to teach Cantonese? Or, do you identify the hundreds of people halfway around the world who would happily teach your student via Skype? Colleges and universities must get beyond their ZIP code and passport fixation and move into this open environment construct. If the knowledge doesn’t live resident on your campus, get it from somewhere else. And when the knowledge does reside on your campus, and there’s demand for it elsewhere, then find a way to share that knowledge with others. 

What else does this open environment of learning suggest for the way colleges and universities must operate going forward? 

If the nonprofit college or university wishes to remain a student’s primary educational experience, it must be willing to bring new learning opportunities on board for students and to assume the role of aggregator and certifier. The fact that students will look beyond your campus for opportunities shouldn’t be seen as a threat, if you adopt the mind-set that you still serve as the home base for your students. In the same way that our institutions partner for students to take an internship or to study abroad, they should work with other entities to offer the highest-quality learning experiences available wherever they occur. 

When you suggest that institutions become aggregators of student learning, does this go beyond their own degree credentials? 

Yes. As an employer, seeing that someone earned a bachelor’s degree in business or passed microeconomics doesn’t tell me what that individual can do. But the candidate with an e-portfolio—or better yet, a 3D certification—has my full attention. I think you’re going to see more employers ask for third-party or standardized assessments that evaluate readiness. 

So, I would have every liberal arts college graduate earn credentials in project management and negotiation, because no matter what students study, they will need these skills in the workforce. I’m not suggesting the college must provide these credentials, but they can partner with professional groups to aggregate these diverse learning experiences for their students, to better prepare them for the workplace. 

In what other ways must colleges and universities help prepare students for the workforce? 

Employers I talk to are concerned that graduates are “certified without failure.” We would all agree it makes sense that if you’re instructing pilots, you should put students in a simulator and guarantee they crash a few times. 

But what about our business and economics students? Even our science students don’t always get enough practice at failure, and failure is a key component of readiness that signals to employers that an individual has been tested. I teach a Ph.D. course at Wharton and I tell students up front that a third of them will fail the midterm, and that that’s OK, because their final grade will be their final exam. They begin with an understanding that they can literally fail their way to success.

Within higher education many eyes are on MOOCs as a way to extend learning. What is your sense of this particular use of technology in terms of learning effectiveness?

Personally I’m intrigued by MOOCs. I’ve taught two, and I’ve taken five. One that I took had 86,000 participants at the outset. I think 8,000 people finished it, and my bet is that 4,000 would have passed it. This doesn’t mean it was a bad experience. It simply was an experience without a clear end result in measurable competency.

If we disaggregate what a MOOC is, it’s four really interesting things. In some instances, you want a highly personalized one-to-one connection, but for other occasions, massive works extremely well. The open aspect of a MOOC is also quite powerful, particularly if open means we eliminate barriers to participation or allow learners to repurpose the content for additional learning opportunities. Clearly I am excited about online. 

My big problem with the MOOC is calling it a course. If we could call it a massive open online experience, or book, or edu-concert, it would take on a wholly different meaning. When we call it a course we have to consider whether it should generate academic credit or make money for the university. In that case, all we are doing is taking this wonderful innovation and calling it the equivalent of something we’ve done for 200 years. This is akin to when TV came out and people referred to it as talking radio, or video radio, when in fact it represented a whole new phenomenon. 

Bottom line, there is huge capability today for colleges and universities to deliver knowledge to wider audiences, and MOOCs are one way to extend the reach of your campus.

What do you see on the horizon further shaping the higher education learning environment?

No. 1 is that the world of personalization is upon us. When I travel, I use OpenTable to find a place to eat. When I log on it sees where I am, and it already knows my cuisine preferences, so it can give me several user-rated options to make my selection. How this applies to higher education is that even as we assess how to measure learning, we have to think about creating learning experiences that are highly personalized.

A second phenomenon we must address is the fact that people are going to work for a longer duration than in the past. If we want to keep the incredibly talented people we have on our campuses, we need to help them identify their second and third chapters, and those positions may not be in the disciplines in which they hold a degree. 

What this means for students is that our institutions must equip them to see their own career trajectory in this context of multiple acts and ongoing learning. Personally, I would love to see some of the degrees our institutions grant expire, in part so that graduates are compelled to maintain a connection to the learning environment.

A third trend I see is that the successful delivery of education will hinge on the ability of institutions to curate content in a more rigorous fashion. My image of the learning environment is one of hyper-connection and hyper-curation. Even at a beautiful bricks-and-mortar campus, students ought to walk into their classrooms and see plasma screens connecting them with what alumni are doing in the workplace related to the topics they are studying, or what faculty have discovered through their research, or what students spending a semester abroad are learning. 

If you consider the TED model, they’ve created these high-value, face-to-face events, but they’ve also figured out how to repackage some of this into a type of MOOC—without the “C”—and to make it widely available to others around the world. I would love to see our colleges and universities become hyper-curators of content in a similar fashion, capturing and sharing the vast expertise and knowledge that is resident on our campuses.

MATT HAMILL is NACUBO senior vice president, advocacy and issue analysis.


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