The Wicked Problem in Higher Education: Conclusion

In the first two posts on this series about the wicked problem in higher education (introduction, stakeholder perspective) I have tried to paint the picture. Let’s recap: A wicked problem is a step up from an ill-structured problem, as the solution is not easily determined. Depending on how the problem is defined, the possible pool of solutions changes. Also, for various reasons, it is not possible to test the solution for its feasibility and ability to solve the problem. Lastly, while implementing the solution, the problem is changing.

Important for the tackling of wicked problems is the collaboration between stakeholders to come to a problem definition and solution which suits the impacted parties. Collaboration implies sharing of ideas, lenses through which the world is perceived, building on each other’s understanding, and finally coming to a shared mental model, a framework to make sense of the problem on which all stakeholders agree.

The selected stakeholder groups were students, universities, organization, and society. Of course, some of these groups are pretty broad (e.g. universities could be further separated into teaching vs. research universities), the list could be extended or limited by some criteria.

I would describe the wicked problem as follow:

Universities face a push to highlight their relevance to society beyond providing further education. Education beyond secondary school (Grade 12) can also be obtained outside of a physical university (e.g. MOOC, on-the-job training). In addition, obtaining a university degree does not provide the necessary employment security and brings considerable financial burden (at least in some countries). Lastly, the content and manner in which knowledge is transferred from experts to novices in universities does not always satisfy the needs of students. Resulting out of this, universities face the need to rethink a) their learning environments and methods and b) their place within society (their identity/ essence of existence).

Looking at a couple of examples of how different a university could be, the common theme seems to be that graduates do not need to possess a great deal of knowledge, but possess the ability to think and create or in other words, the ability to create the change they want to see in their environment. Especially Quest University, Singularity University, and Knowmads Business school highlight the importance of competencies over knowledge. It is not declarative knowledge which these institutes teach, but procedural knowledge. As most of us have quick access to knowledge via mobile devices, the value of knowing has been replaced by the need to be able to find knowledge and evaluate its correctness and relevance. A danger with this is that, given the increased specialization in all fields and the exploding amount of knowledge, most people do not understand a domain good enough to judge if whatever they are reading is correct or not. This danger further highlights the need for critical thinking (to be able to judge the correctness of knowledge) and establishing networks/ working in teams (to have direct access to people who have the expertise to judge the correctness of information).

Focusing at the individual stakeholders, does any of the presented universities addresses their needs ?

  • Students require different learning environments and paths, in line with the reasons for them to pursue an education. I don’t think any of the examples I listed provides the necessary learning experiences to all types of students. However, they address a specific type of student. Thus, for this group of stakeholder, the solution could be a move away from large universities to smaller learning institutes which target a specific group of students.
  • Organizations want flexible graduates who can deal with change, collaborate, and cross (domain) boundaries. Quest University, Knowmads Business school, and Singularity University do address this need by focusing on the skill side and offering a team based learning environment. To a certain extend, Maastricht University also addresses this need, however education in this institute is too much organized by discipline to truly teach graduates to collaborate with individuals from different disciplines and create new knowledge out of boundary-crossing. The move away from knowledge to competency based education answers the problem organization face.
  • The universities listed as examples tried to address a specific need and through this defined their identity (an exception to this could be Maastricht University, whose mission sounds a bit broad and ‘typical’). With the exception of the University of the People, these institutes also do not see themselves as “knowledge preserving or transferring institutes”, but as “places for personal reflection and growth”. University of the People resembles more closely a “knowledge preserving or transferring institutes”, with the goal to transfer the knowledge to those individuals who would normally not have access to it. The need for a new identity seems to be answered by a focused and niche-based mission.
  • Lastly, society wanted to be connected with the work of universities. Singularity University and Knowmads Business school clearly address this need by focusing on education which address (global) societal problems. However, it seems that the society as a stakeholder is most often neglected. This could be because of how broad this stakeholder group is. An answer to the problem of this stakeholder could be a closer connection between the work of an university and its direct environment, the community in which it is embedded. This implies not only organizations (profit or non-profit) in its community, but also other groups (e.g. schools, elderly care homes, civic groups, youth organizations, governmental organizations etc.)

Based on the couple of cases and the needs of each stakeholder, I think the solution to the wicked problem is a focused mission and a learning method which puts greater emphasis on skills than on knowledge. The future could bring a larger amount of small-scale learning institutes, addressing a specific learner.  I do think that (some) larger universities will remain, but with a more decentralized structure to allow the individual schools to build their own identity.

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