Skip navigation
College Quarterly
Winter 1995 - Volume 3 Number 2
Learning-Centred Education in Ontario’s Colleges: A Critique
by Ed Ksenych

The Council of Presidents’ white paper, “Learning-Centred Education in Ontario’s Colleges”, presents a needed opportunity to discuss the future direction of Ontario’s colleges in the context of changes currently taking place in our society. At the same time, the paper also presents a position on the current situation, and recommends a general direction for the colleges which has now become the basis of the Ontario Presidents’ Action Plan for 1996.

Despite its imaginative proposal for organizing and administering college education, there are some significant omissions and oversights which need to be considered in developing a future direction for Ontario’s colleges.

Analysis and Recommendations

The paper identifies four significant conditions or forces which are compelling the colleges to change: (1) fundamental shifts in our economy are changing the nature of work, jobs and careers, thus creating new student needs and expectations; (2) there is significant decrease in government funding available for post-secondary education; (3) educational research has expanded our understanding of how individuals learn; (4) information technology is affecting learning and our roles as learners as much as any other aspect of our lives.

Then, the paper proposes a new direction for the colleges which essentially consists of two major initiatives:

  1. redesigning the educational process, along with its institutional roles and processes, around learning-centred education; and
  2. using current educational research and information technology to create a variety of approaches to learning that are effective and sustainable within the new reality.
The General Framework

There appear to be some significant omissions in the framework used to discuss the realities facing Ontario’s colleges and to develop a response to those realities.

  1. The resources which were consulted, as cited in the bibliography, are predominantly American. Generally, there is little attention given to Canadian research, theory and views on current changes in our society and educational issues. The absence of references to Canadian journals is significant since discussion of educational issues in Canada has often reflected a distinctive Canadian concern with themes such as technology and communication, inequality, authority and the relationship between government and civil society, as well as Canada’s relationship with the United States.
  2. The paper also appears very selective in its representation of the American debate over educational issues. First, it draws heavily on literature from the American Association for Higher Education, which primarily reflects administrative concerns and viewpoints. Second, there is a general framing of current changes and educational issues in terms of a rational/utilitarian perspective, which has been popular in American organizational, managerial, administrative and business literature. This perspective describes a world in which people rationally make exchanges among themselves by examining consequences and by considering the costs and benefits of choices. The perspective is empirical and economic in its orientation, tends to be behaviouristic, and is concerned with effectiveness and productivity.
  3. By contrast there is little or no mention of other approaches or perspectives that are part of the American debate on educational issues such as: i) the various approaches focusing on critical education; ii) the existentialist-phenomenological approach with it’s current challenge to behavioursim in education; iii) the liberal education tradition, or iv) the various perspectives that reflect a cultural or socio-economic approach to education such as feminism, the labour perspective or cultural studies.
  4. Most surprising, there is no reference to any of the background papers, research, theory or opinions which were part of Vision 2000, nor to the views offered by the different sectors of the province which emerge from its consultative process of discussing the future of Ontario’s colleges.
Financial Viability

One of the principal forces compelling the colleges to change is reduced funding. Given the concern over the reductions, it would be important to have some estimate of the cost of the proposals.

  1. I was unable to find any research on the costs of this proposal in the references (which were available to me) cited in the white paper. Has anyone in Ontario actually costed the proposed redesign of the educational process? Is this information publicly available? Has there been any study done of any institutions where such proposals have been implemented?
  2. The oversight of costing is particularly important if we consider the financial implications of the report’s second major recommendation, which was to use educational research and more information technology. Again, I was unable to find any costing of this recommendation in the references cited by the white paper. However, I was also unable to find any discussion of costing in reviewing seventeen journals devoted to higher education over the last two years, many of which had articles as enthusiastic about information technology as the white paper - except for one. Curiously, the white paper overlooked consulting the one recent issue of the AAHE journal, Change, exclusively devoted to considering information technology in higher education. This journal issue included some discussion of costs:

“It becomes clearer and clearer that investing in IT applications for academic purposes is necessary to advance the missions of most colleges and universities. It also becomes increasingly clear that this investment is an additional expense, unaccompanied by commensurate cost savings during the first few years” (Gilbert, 1995).

If the author is correct, how will the colleges manage an adjunct cost with no return in savings over the next few years at a time of budget reductions and layoffs?

>
Educational Effectiveness

As the white paper states, another force compelling the colleges to change is that “information technology is affecting learning and our roles as learners as much as any other aspect of our lives.” I don’t really understand what is meant by “affecting”; however, given the cost of the technology and the use of an utilitarian perspective to address educational issues, an important consideration would certainly be its educational effectiveness.

Any references cited in the white paper which may have discussed studies that demonstrate effectiveness were unavailable to me. However, recent educational journals indicate that, overall, the results are inconsistent.

The most positive results are with self-paced, computer-based tutorials in mathematics and/or grammar exercises.

However, this is the very sort of information technology which presently holds the least promise for the kind of educational reforms advocated by the white paper. IT is an essentially conservative drill and practice system.

In addition to the inconsistency of assessments of information technology, there are also difficulties comparing the effectiveness of such technologies with existing educational practices, or what the white paper has called “teaching-centred education”. Characteristically, writes Stephen Ehrmann, “the term ‘traditional methods’ is used to represent some widely practiced method that presumably has predictable, acceptable results…A neat picture, but ‘traditional methods’ is a concept that doesn’t define the higher education I know and love, nor the higher education revealed by research. Post-secondary learning is not usually so well structured, uniform or stable that one can compare an innovation against ‘traditional’ processes without specifying in explicit detail just what those processes are…what materials, what methods, what motives…”

Educational Research

A third force compelling the colleges to change is that education research has expanded our understanding of how individuals learn. The white paper does not actually describe the research or discuss the results, so it is difficult to know for sure what is intended. And unfortunately, the principle reference to “Teaching and Learning in the College Classroom: A Review of Recent Literature” was not listed in any of the libraries I was able to visit, including OISE’s. Nevertheless, there is some research related to the proposed “learning-centred approach to education” which the white paper seems to have overlooked.

As the white paper states, learning-centred education shifts more responsibility to the learner. Hence, its effectiveness is based on having self-directed, motivated autonomous learners. In Self-Direction for Lifelong Learning, Philip Candy provides a profile of “the autonomous learner”. Some of the general characteristics of such a learner are being methodical and disciplined; being reflective and self-aware; demonstrating curiosity, openness and motivation; being flexible; being persistent and responsible; having developed information seeking and retrieval skills; having knowledge and skill in “learning processes”, including strong communication skills; and developing and using criteria for evaluating.

The paper has overlooked examining the degree to which this profile actually describes our college students. Certainly the background research done for the Vision 2000 report (some of which is referred to in its section on “Preparing for Success”) suggests that, despite the many strengths and qualities our students bring to college education, presupposing they generally possess most of the attributes of the autonomous learner may be inappropriate.

The Changing Nature of Work

The final force which is compelling colleges to change are fundamental shifts in our economy which are altering the nature of work, jobs and careers, thus creating new student needs and expectations. On the one hand, there is little explicit discussion of these shifts, although some specific works are cited in the bibliography which may clarify what in particular is intended. On the other hand, the paper itself is primarily a proposal for changing the nature of work, jobs and careers within Ontario’s colleges, and in this sense, says a great deal about what shifts are being considered and how they should be approached.

The paper appears to have overlooked an abundant social scientific literature on the economy and the changing nature of work as well as the views of the different sectors of our society, and focused on the views of two management consultants, William Bridges and Nuala Beck, on the topic.

William Bridges’ Job Shift: How to Prosper in a Workplace Without Jobs, argues that the traditional idea of a job is disappearing primarily because work is being re-eingineered.

He recommends that individuals should adapt to the transition and reinvent their work life by becoming more entrepreneurial, identifying what work needs to be done in the marketplace, and contracting themselves out to do it.

Beck’s Shifting Gears: Thriving in the New Economy argues the economy has moved away from a manufacturing-based to a technology-based, service-oriented economy, and is now shifting into a knowledge-based economy. Those organizations which have and effectively use knowledge workers will be best suited to the new environment.

Both authors offer important views on the changing economy and work. However, why have the views of two management consultants been selected to represent opinion on what economic changes are taking place and what should be done about them in setting a new direction for the province’s entire college system? There is a plain political agenda implicit in these views that is not acknowledged by the white paper nor are any other views even given the courtesy of a mention. Instead the white paper participates in the kind of cynical exercise of power for which corporate leaders - both public and private - have been increasingly criticized in recent years.

Denigrating teachers with talk about “their role as ‘sage on the stage’; “the cookie-cutter approach to learning”; transforming “teaching and learning process from one that is teacher-centred to one that is learner-centred”; “shifting from a system of higher education in which the leaner replaces the faculty member at the centre is equivalent to replacing the earth in the centre of the Ptolemaic university with the sun of the Copernican”, as well as by the simplistic dichotomizing of teaching and learning (as if anyone actually committed to teaching wasn’t genuinely concerned with learning) is revealing. Collectively, such phrases convey a subtext of privileged faculty engaging in outdated activities while unappreciated and unrespected administrators contend with current trends and economic realities.

The basis for the cynical exercise of power appears to be a very real contradiction between the desire of administrators to affect change and the inability to actually do so; a contradiction, however, which results from a decision to accept and further, for all practical purposes, the very system that established the dysfunctional arrangements which have generated the impossible conditions under which faculty are expected to teach, support staff are expected to assist, administrators are expected to manage, and students are expected to learn.

Overall, the issues of “McDonaldization”, commodification, inattention to the affective dimension of human activities, the relationship between colleges and the producers of information technology, as well as the connection between cynicism and power within public institutions would seem neither unimportant nor settled, and should be addressed.

The Learning-Centred Environment

If we probe the background of the recommendations collected around the notion of learner-centred education, it is not clear the white paper is proposing a “new” educational direction for the colleges at all. Rather the framework being advanced and the trends being supported reflect a business/management paradigm, however imaginatively portrayed, which is quite familiar. While the white paper correctly acknowledges the pressures to move in the directions being proposed, it does not provide the good reasons for complying with them in the post-secondary educational context. An examination of the good reasons, or the good theory, for undertaking the proposed “new directions” is primarily what has been omitted from the paper.

References

Candy, P. A. (1991) Self-Direction for Lifelong Learning. Jossey-Bass, as reviewed in The Teaching Professor, November 1994, pp.3-4

Ehrmann, S.C., (1995). “Asking the Right Questions: What Does Research Tell Us About Technology and Higher Education”, Change, March/April, 1995, pp.20-27.

Gilbert, S.W. (1995), “The Technology ‘Revolution’”, Change, March/April 1995, pp.6-7.


Ed Ksenych teaches at George Brown College in Toronto.