In a recent accreditation visit at work, a comment was made in the visiting team’s report that the college and engineering program need to better demonstrate the rationale behind program changes that are tied to something called “graduate attributes.” I won’t bore you here with the details of how an engineering degree gets accredited since it’s a bit more complex than a short blog post would allow. The main point is that the visiting team wanted to understand the motives we had when making updates to the courses in our continuous improvement process.
This reminded me of my KWCF experiences, specifically the Engage!KW program. One of the activities we did was to reflect critically on our values. We were asked to come up with a list of our values, and compare our espoused values with how we choose to spend our time in a week. The point of the exercise is to a.) see whether you are living according to your values, and b.) to reinforce that you should make decisions based on your values – and if a decision does not align with your core values, it’s probably not something worth pursuing.
The visiting team’s comment didn’t sit well with the faculty and administration, largely because we felt that all of our decisions were made in the spirit of making graduates from the program better prepared for their careers. The idea that we need to somehow demonstrate or explain better what we are already doing was hard to understand.
My best explanation for how this would work goes like this:
Suppose you receive feedback from your industry partners that in order for graduates to be successful, the college needs to buy every student a pink hat. The students must wear the pink hats at all times, and they must bring them with them into their careers after graduation.
Now, it might be the case that these pink hats are a good idea. The idea originated from our industry partners, whom will be the very people hiring our grads. However, buying the pink hats is an expensive endeavor. The money we spend on pink hats means we can’t allocate those resources elsewhere to improve the program.
When the team evaluates the idea, they should look to the core values of the program and see whether the pink hats falls in line with those values. In our engineering programs, we have twelve graduate attributes that we seek to instill in our students. Every student who graduates from an engineering program will possess these attributes if the program is designed well. If we look at the attributes (our values) we won’t see a connection of how pink hats are essential to making a better graduate or a better engineer, even though industry is telling us this is the case. And so, we would make a decision to ignore industry’s suggestion, and instead allocate our money elsewhere.
Pinks hats might seem like a silly example, but the situation is the same for any piece of technology that industry wants us to teach, such as 3D printers and proprietary programming languages for manufacturing robots. It costs a lot of money to adopt these technologies, and it takes a lot of time to teach and reinforce the skills in our students. At each point, we have to ask ourselves whether this investment materially improves the students, or whether there is a better way we can allocate our time (such as teaching good computer modelling for 3D printers, or teaching good programming foundations so that our students can easily teach themselves any programming language used in industry).
The key lesson is that these decisions should not be made on a whim, but nor should they be made because a stakeholder tells you they are important. Input from industry is only one point of data in a sea of information. In order to tease out the signal from the noise, it’s important to use your values to help determine what’s worth pursuing, and what’s worth leaving behind.