Colleges and T-Shaped Training: Build it and They Will Learn?

Though the idea of T-shaped management is gaining traction on American campuses, there are some important roadblocks along the way. Some of those roadblocks are ivy covered. In some ways, the relationship between colleges and major tech corporations is beginning to look a bit like ju jitsu. Ju jitsu, roughly translated, means that when you get pushed, pull, and when you get pulled, push.

fieldofdreamscorn-400In principle, most business colleges clearly want better partnerships with major corporations. Most colleges accept the importance of using business analytics, T-shaping their students, and embrace change when it comes to education, at least in concept. In reality, however, change seems to move at a glacial pace in the halls of higher learning.

In 2011, the president of New York University observed that monumental change in America was something “people love to talk about,” while also referring to universities as islands of stability in that sea of change: “(W)e should not lose sight of the fact that, of the 80 institutions that existed 500 years ago and still do, 75 are universities.”

And while NYU’s president praised university longevity, he also said that academia continued to do some things badly, in the same old way, over and over again. Specifically, he noted universities still hadn’t come to grips with T-shaping their learning: “One thing the proprietary institutions do that is not a good thing is delivering an ‘I-shaped’ education (depth in one area) as opposed to a ‘T-shaped’ education (broad learning, with depth in one area).”

Academic resistance to T-shaped training often seems to be over matters of control, and fears about giving it up. It is true that the enormous potential influence of corporate technology giants, who are donating massive sums of money and expecting nothing less than drastic changes in what universities teach, cannot be overlooked.

The “Gates Effect”

While Bill and Melinda Gates are not the only major influence on university reforms, they are big enough to have a gravitational effect. In the context of their almost $500 million in donations to universities, this is to be expected. In a July, 2013 article, The Chronicle of Higher Education (which has also received Gates Foundation support) noted that the bulk of these donations (over $300 million) have come in since 2008. That’s a lot of money. And a lot of influence.

One example of how the Gates Effect is transforming the future of college education is seen in a sprawling ConAgra plant in Troy, Ohio. Employees there are participating in an Gates-funded program that awards college credits — not for conventional course work — but for mastering “core competencies.”

Working through the University of Southern New Hampshire and taking online course work, students are assessed in such areas as “logic, reasoning, and analysis,” which help the student solve real-world business problems.

Everyone seems to like the potential of this approach: except for entrenched college executives.

“Build it and they will learn”

In the movie Field of Dreams, the apparently crazy idea of turning a cornfield into a baseball field is justified based on the mantra, “Build it, and they will come.” The threat to American competitiveness, in terms of highly desirable T-shaped employee skills, is that there is a whole lot of T-building going on — elsewhere in the world. Until recently, Poland’s national education system was widely perceived as falling apart, regarded as suitable only for low-trained, low-tech, and low-paying jobs. This view changed with the successful adoption of innovative T-shaped education strategies there.

Interestingly enough, critics of the Gates approach have claimed the Gates Foundation is approaching the “problem” as something that “engineering” can measure (through technical algorithms) and fix . Yet the Gates Foundation seems to be hewing very closely to the Polish model of making T-shaped students. We know through example that it works. Confusing the necessity for a better, T-shaped core curriculum with the need to accurately measure that curriculum is confusing cause and effect.

The lesson for America from Poland is the benefit of every college developing a core curriculum that leverages that specific institution’s unique offerings in such a way to develop T-shaped skills. The shift from a traditional, “I” shaped curriculum to a T-shaped one is very much in evidence in what the Gates Foundation has done with the Southern University of New Hampshire. Whether crossing that “I” to get a “T” will happen in the next decade or not may rest on the influence of a new era of outside-the-box, dotcom entrepreneurs. Will it be enough for the U.S. to compete globally? Or will it be too little, too late? We shall see.

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