University education offers a variety of learning and teaching methods and learning contexts. In recent years, the education on offer has expanded significantly to include IT programmes in the form of online courses and MOOCs. But do these really work? Are today's students – educated via these modern teaching methods – really equipped to tackle the complex problems of tomorrow? Prof. Perry den Brok, professor of Education and Learning Sciences at Wageningen University & Research, explains the road to the educational ecosystem of the future in his inaugural address on 20 September.
In his address, Professor Den Brok describes the lack of knowledge about the effects of educational approaches and learning environments. 'There are countless teaching methods in academia intended to help students achieve their academic goals: lectures, group work, practical courses and newer methods, such as online education, in which student-lecturer contact is organised very differently. At the same time, we want to train students to become experts with specialised knowledge, skills and insights, and with an attitude that suits their professional environments. The problem is that we don't really know the effects of these teaching methods,' explains Professor Den Brok in his inaugural address entitled 'Cultivating the growth of life-science graduates: on the role of educational ecosystems'. 'We lack the necessary information to determine the value of learning scenarios and teaching methods,' he continues. ' The practical developments in education are at a more advanced stage than knowledge about their effectiveness.'
Educational innovations at WUR are currently evaluated too sporadically. 'We don't know which supportive IT developments work and which don't. Virtually no comparisons are available.'
At the same time, the society of today and tomorrow calls for a new type of graduate, particularly in the field of life sciences. They are expected to possess new knowledge, new qualities and new competences in the future. 'Developing these outcomes calls for other learning processes than our traditional learning environment can provide. We need an educational ecosystem,' says Professor Den Brok.
The need for the knowledge, competences and skills that the new generation of graduates will need are described in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as formulated by the United Nations, as well as in the national vision on green education. Education should prepare students to deal with these goals and challenges. According to the WUR educational vision, students are expected to demonstrate state-of-the-art scientific knowledge; to be critical, inquisitive and creative in their thought processes; to have a talent for policy and the market; to work together in a flexible, analytical, reflective and intercultural way; to have a talent for writing, debating and argumentation; to possess the necessary design and technical skills; to be enterprising and capable of interdisciplinary collaboration; and to demonstrate leadership and strive for excellence. 'According to this list, the graduates of the future are expected to become superheroes', says the professor.
In order to achieve this superhero status, students must participate in robust, relevant, authentic and effective activities that stimulate the acquisition and development of qualities and competences. This requires an excellent learning environment and highly-qualified educators. According to Den Brok, a better word for such a learning environment is an 'educational ecosystem', which not only includes fixed elements, such as the physical environment and student-lecturer interactions, but all living and non-living elements and players and their interactions, similar to a complex and dynamic natural ecosystem like a coral reef. It is important to understand how and why relationships and networks are formed (e.g. between students) and how learning materials are used. A consequence of such a complex educational ecosystem is that it requires a complex evaluation. That evaluation is carried out at Wageningen University by Den Brok and his research group. Wageningen also works with the other four technical universities, for example in the 4TU Centre for Engineering education, of which Den Brok was appointed president last week.