The goal of this learning environment optimization series has been to identify in broad outline the totality of factors that contribute to making of Sfax University an environment where learners are optimally equipped with the tools and attitudes of success in the modern, networked, knowledge-driven and globalized society. In part one of this series (Asdaa Al-Jamiaa, Issue 1, 2008), I looked at the requirements for participating in the knowledge-making society and argued basically that a difference in attitude has to be fostered among Sfax University students whereby they should not be at the receiving end of products, but that they should rather be in position to contribute to the design, creation, upgrading, and marketing of products. The purpose of the second series is to look more deeply into the learner profile characteristics.
It seems to me that there are a number of abilities, competencies, skills, and attitudes that our students have to develop if they are going to actively partake in the running and shaping of the knowledge-making society. For now, I tend to see this configuration as inclusive of three central elements: communication, specialization and attitudes.
By way of prelude to this analytical exercise, I hurry to say that these elements are not necessarily totally new or unheard of. For example, our previous and current educational systems have always had an eye on the ability for our graduates to communicate with ease and clarity. The only thing is that there was a prevailing attitude on the part of some students to see communication and languages in general as not being a priority for them, on grounds of their being into a different area of specialization than language and communication. Likewise, our educational system has always made it a point to focus student learning on a clearly-determined area of specialization, but there is now more to specialization than many would have thought in the past.
Let me start with a very common occurrence among our colleagues in the social and hard sciences. I personally know this to be fact, as do many of my colleagues in the English departments that we are often requested by high-ranking teachers and professors to do translation or editing work for them, in English, of abstracts of papers they wish to publish or present at international conferences. For all students, regardless of major, the need to be able to communicate their knowledge, ideas and findings has never been more acute. There was a time when it was felt that knowledge of languages was for the Letters and Humanities students, and that students in engineering, chemistry, and other scientific specializations did not need to be so much versed in languages.
This change of course is taking place at the level of the curriculum; the ongoing higher education reform, LMD, places a premium on communication. All students are henceforth required to upgrade their skills in the national language, Arabic, in Tunisia’s second language, French, and more and more in English. Secondary schools and universities are at the vanguard of a movement to open up our language curricula to an array of other foreign languages. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, more language choices will be made available, in addition to Spanish, Italian, German, and Russian, to include Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Bahasa, Hindi/Urdu, Persian, Swahili, etc.
And as I pointed out in the first part of this series, learning to communicate is not solely a function of knowledge of languages. Our students need to be given a fair chance of practicing with the channels in which communication is being transacted. We are fast moving into paperless communication, and thus a strong component of ICT has been put in place. Back in the 90s, creating a web site was all a person/company aspired to. Nowadays, much communication takes place via radio and television, land and mobile telephony, text messages, emails, web sites, chatting, voice over IP (VOIP), wikis, podcasts, vodcasts, and what have you. The ICT component can no longer be safely fixed for more than a period of one or two years maximum. Changes that are sweeping the scene have to be reflected in the ICT curriculum, until such a time as all types of modern communication become evenly and widely available for all students in their educational institutions, homes, halls of residence, local public libraries, and other access points.
There is no doubt that any higher-education program of study, by dint of its very label, carries a strong component of specialization. In this sense, students who study law or medicine will have been presented with materials and attitudes that provide them with the specific knowledge necessary for making them experts at their levels in their chosen area of specialization. As a result, students are normally able to read, understand, explain, and produce text that is cognizant of the depth and breadth of issues in their fields. They should also be able to act and display the attitudes and skills of an expert at their level of graduation. The LMD system recognizes the value of specialization, but, in recognition of the dangers ensuing from too much specialization, from pursuing a one-eyed view of expert knowledge, LMD has deemed necessary to enlarge the students’ purviews through the introduction of so called ‘unités transversales’, which are subjects to be studied across and regardless of discipline or area of specialization. For the moment, these include human rights, ICT, and entrepreneurship. I have come across people who argue for the addition of such subjects as mathematics or philosophy, or even agriculture. It is certainly the case that a received understanding of the major/minor distinction can be expanded to allow students to take on subjects totally outside their immediate areas of specialization. In this sense, for a student in biotechnology to take an ethics course, or for a student of French to take a math course should not sound like a wild course of action.
Attitudes are a set of mental dispositions or acquisitions that students should be led to develop in the totality of the courses that they take. It may equally be a good idea that an attitude-centered course be designed which fosters in students certain abilities, mindsets, approaches, and understandings to impart certain thinking traits.
One key attitude that can serve as umbrella for many others is adaptability. The sum-total of the knowledge and skills each of us now possesses can be safely said to be appropriate for this time, for this moment, the time at which we live. Short of learning to be adaptable, there is a strong possibility that much of what carry by way of competencies and know-how may turn out to be antiquated and obsolete by the time we wish to impart it to others as valuable knowledge. Now, more than ever, a degree is no longer enough to be a knower. You don’t gain the knower status once and for all; you need to constantly brush up your knowledge, upgrade your skills, and maintain an attitude of readiness to catch up, to learn, to be ahead of the game, in all manner of things. Thus, lifelong learning is not just a banner that we carry from our heritage or from the buzzwords that permeate this era; it is a true imperative that we have to live up to, as students, teachers, parents, administrators, and citizens of the global village.
Needless to say, in addition to adaptability, lifelong learning, communication, specialization, depth of knowledge and breadth of view, students need to develop the tools for confronting an ever-changing world. A world changing without a map is likely to produce some promises but also many critical moments. It is the ability to devise solutions at these critical moments that will determine whether our graduates and our enterprises sink or swim in the tumult of change. Being a critical thinker and a problem solver both require a deep understanding of the mechanisms of change, and the ability to invent and create innovative solutions that are cognizant of local and national needs as well as of international regulations governing the concept and practical implications of global citizenship.
Perhaps, of all the constants we have learned about in our lifetimes, the only certainty is change. Our curricula as well as our program designers need to be attuned and sensitive to this change and to the need to prepare our students for living in and being able to manage change.
Raddaoui, A. H. Learner Profile Optimization Series: Reconfiguring the Sfax University Learner Profile, Part One. Asdaa Al-Jamiaa. Issue 1, 2008.