Education Should Begin with Problem-Solving

When schools compete, who wins?

That depends partly on how they compete. In the world of higher education, universities compete for enrollment: more students, and more funding. They compete for prestige: better students, and more acclaimed faculty. They compete for funding: more research, more graduate students. Do they ever compete to solve real world problems.

It is easy, amid all the competition for these benchmarks, to forget that the mission of any school–university or otherwise–should be to solve problems, and to teach students to do the same.

Solving Problems, or Hogging the Spotlight?

You can see the difference when it comes to the hype cycle that is so prevalent in today’s technology-obsessed reporting. Catching wind of the Next Big Thing in education–from the augmented reality classroom to the gamified lesson plan, the personalized learning system to the responsive test–may make headlines, but it may also drive us to lose sight of what all these new tools and old practices are really all about.

Online learning has been guilty of both in the past. MOOCs were heralded as the end of formal college education as we knew it, only to then be decried as non-starters that students were more likely to drop out of than use as a ladder to success. For-profit colleges, in the interest of maximizing enrollment (and profits), became synonymous with “online degrees,” even as major universities tried to bring their own curriculum and faculty into the internet age. Both are still struggling to win the credibility game.

All this, despite the fact that more and more students say they prefer online learning to traditional classrooms. It all can start to look like higher education is just a pie, and schools are just looking to get their slice, rather than ensure everyone is fed.

But between the breaking stories, there is some innovation quietly targeting not general acclaim or government-backed student loans, but the real world problems and challenges an educated populace is supposed to solve. When a program begins its life as a solution, rather than as a novelty or an obligatory offering, it makes an important difference–and not just to the students.

The UNProject

Several years ago, the state’s Department of Children and Family Services cut funding to travel training for agents working in the rural areas of Nevada. No longer could these welfare agents be compensated for pursuing professional training and continuing education by traveling.

Considering the geography of Nevada, as well as the socioeconomics of such a large, dispersed, and often underserved population, this put both the social workers and the families they served at a meaningful disadvantage.

Today it is easy to suggest that the circumstances clearly called for a distance education system to bridge the gap and keep rural social workers equipped with the best knowledge and practices available. That is the model used to deploy telehealth services like primary care to the nation’s rural and remote communities, after all.

But when the University of Nevada in Reno (UNR)’s social work department took on the challenge, they recognized that they had to do more than just digitize a curriculum–they had to make it practical, and accessible to people who would put their education directly into action.

This is what led to their UnProject: UNR’s attempt to broadcast training and learning opportunities using a new, online, education system that ran on the same Blackboard-based platform the university already used.

Blending Innovation with Accountability

Students, parents, professors, employers, and politicians all recognize the historical void of accountability in higher education. Graduates with exceptional records are still routinely seen as unprepared to do real work, and the growing burden of student debt is often cited as an example of waste and reckless spending when it doesn’t produce a growing economy or cutting-edge workforce.

Simply giving students material and holding them accountable for digesting it wasn’t a viable model. UNR was a stakeholder in the success of everyone who used their online classroom to serve real clients and their families around the state; outcomes were practical, not just grades and test scores. The faculty behind the curriculum of these programs were collaborating with the Nevada DCFS to determine areas of need, both on behalf of the clients, and of the social workers serving these families. They couldn’t drop the ball when it came to delivery.

The UnProject at UNR took questions of accountability head-on, because the very nature of the program was to solve a problem. Solving that problem required innovation, which meant the instructors were creatively designing course materials and accommodating their delivery platform in the interest of finding what worked best–not just adding bells and whistles for the sake of modernity or bragging rights.

Feedback was instant and continuous. The instructors learned what worked, what didn’t, and what had the biggest impact on the social workers in the field. They also helped these workers bridge the mental gap to see the new platform as a tool for them–not a novelty, and not a half-measure, but an evolving response to a felt need.

The best part was, their most effective tools weren’t something they had to purchase, or build from scratch: they were the basics already built-in to their Blackboard platform. They were free to focus on disseminating best practices and responding to their students, rather than troubleshooting with an unwieldy, untested new system.

Where You Start Informs Where You Go

This foundation in practice, in problem-solving, and in going from state bureaucrats to rural families and workers, underscores what is now the online social work degree at UNR.

Yes, it is still just another online degree–but the faculty and resources that power the program are as much a tool of the state government as they are a product delivered to paying students. The program grew from something solving a problem, to a pathway to certification. This is the broad sort of model that makes education meaningful and resilient–not just incorporating the latest gimmicks.

A focus on problem-solving answers more questions than simply format and packaging: rural child welfare workers are not looking to put feathers in their caps by taking online classes; these are professionals on the fringes of society (literally: Nevada is a huge state with many rural, impoverished, and marginalized communities and families). That means the curriculum, the materials, and the medium are all, by necessity, whittled down to what works.

It wasn’t a PR stunt. The people who benefited from the new system were in no position to publicize the success story. It was a case of educators doing what they do best, and the domino effect that results from effective instruction.

What is Valued

Online education can solve similar problems even for those who aren’t out in the field or limited by the realities of rural life. Non-traditional students–adults, working professionals, drop-outs, parents–have long lived and worked on the margins of higher education, unable to gain the credentials to validate and certify their skills, knowledge, and experience, to fully participate or reintegrate into the professional workforce.

When schools look at these potential students not just as enrollment figures and dollar signs, but real people with real needs and a capacity to solve problems themselves, the value of a degree and a school are maximized.

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