By Inara Scott
In the not-so-distant past, if you wanted to learn about a specialized content area–say, eighteenth century literature, nuclear fusion, or microeconomics–you had to go to college. Specialized information about these subjects lived in the mind of professors, and often, nowhere else. The college professor was the sage on the stage precisely because that was the best or only way to deliver specialized content. Of course, this is no longer the case. Thanks to my friend Google, not to mention online MOOCs, vast amounts of specialized information is publicly and readily available to anyone, whether or not they attend a college.
If the college professor no longer holds the exclusive key to specialized content, what does she hold? In business lingo, what’s her value proposition? As the title of this blog post suggests, I would argue that the professor in today’s classroom must shift their value proposition away from content and toward skills.
The ready availability of specialized information does not necessarily mean information is readily usable. I can access information about nuclear fusion, but that doesn’t mean I can make sense of it. I can find literature online, but that doesn’t mean I can engage in meaningful analysis of it. I can read legal cases, but I may have no idea how to structure a legal argument. This, then, is the new value proposition. Professors must be able to teach students the skills they need to understand, analyze, and apply the content to which they already have access.
This doesn’t mean higher education courses shouldn’t include content. They must. It also doesn’t mean professors don’t need to be skilled in curating, mixing, interpreting, and engaging students in content. These skills remain essential. But it does mean we cannot stop there. We must take students to the next level, where they learn to create their own content.
In a blended classroom, we have a unique opportunity to rethink the structure and content of our courses. It may be tempting to translate existing content to the hybrid environment, but I suggest we resist that urge with everything we have. Rather than delivering content, we should be thinking about what unique skills we are building in students, and how we can engage them in the process of finding, interpreting, and creating their own content.
Let me give a concrete example. I teach business law. When I started teaching, I tended to focus on having students learn the rules of law. I taught about Title VII and employment discrimination, product liability and negligence. Now, I may skip product liability and negligence and focus on how to read cases, how to write persuasively, and how to put together a legal argument. Today, I know my students can google “what is negligence” and find thousands of pages with explainers about the rules of negligence. But if they lack the basic skills for reading and applying those rules, the information they have access to does them no good.
I suspect, twenty years from now, my students will retain little of the content I deliver. And thank goodness–the law changes constantly. If my students retained what I taught them in 2008, it would be that it was constitutional to deny same-sex couples access to marriage benefits. Instead, I focus on skills that will not lose their value over time. I teach them how to analyze a case, how to read critically, and how to put together persuasive and compelling arguments. Today, when I teach about employment discrimination I tell them that we are waiting for a Supreme Court opinion on whether sexual orientation is covered by Title VII. My hope is that after they graduate, I’ve taught them the skills to do their own research about whether we ever get that opinion, and if so, what it says.
- Note: this post addresses pitfalls #3 and #4 of the article Five Common Pitfalls of Online Course Design.