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The evolution of learning


Aaron Farnsworth
Arizona Daily Wildcat

UA President Dr. Peter Likins participates in a teleconference concerning tuition increases for the 2000-'01 academic year.

By Ryan Gabrielson
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
March 31, 2000
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Students pile into a classroom - possibly as many as 500 - and take a seat facing the stage. Social Sciences 100 is packed tight for another lower level Traditions and Cultures lecture class.

With pens moving quickly, they scribble down their professor's words, which have also been projected on a screen in the front of the lecture hall.

"The focus has been historically on the teacher," University of Arizona President Peter Likins said.

Many courses offered at the UA, as well as at four-year institutions across the country, are lecture-based with little or no student participation in creation of course content.

Likins said there is a movement taking place in the realm of higher education toward more student involvement, which has been discussed at length by the Arizona Board of Regents.

"There is a revolution going on in higher education, it's shifting to the learner," Likins said. "A student learns more deeply when actively involved in the learning process."

At the past few ABOR meetings, the regents have seen presentations that demonstrate how learner-centered education could potentially change the face of the instruction that takes place in higher education.

"It's the transformation of higher education," said Regent Judy Gignac.

ABOR has defined learner-centered education as a "strategy of education that places the improvement of student learning at the center of the decision making process and policies at all levels of the institution.

"It is characterized by the use of clear, measurable goals and student outcomes, and the increased involvement of learners in activities that produce deeper understanding of the contact through the development of skills that are readily transferable to life and work.

"An additional central goal is to prepare self directed learners who can continue learning beyond their formal education."

A discussion item concerning the application of learning-centered education is scheduled to take place at ABOR's April meeting in Flagstaff.

The regents are also considering making a change in the university system's mission statement to make learning a strategic direction.

"(Arizona) will probably be the first state that places learning in its mission statement, never before did it mention learning," Gignac said.

Likins said the application of learner-centered education would bring changes at every level of the university.

"It changes the way you structure the classes," Likins said. "A lot of that learning is from student initiative."

In theory, learn-centered education would take much of the learning process out of the hands of the instructors and place it in real-life situations in which students would be the driving force behind the learning. In essence, the students could be learning something the professor doesn't know.

Most of these experiments, projects and other group work would still be initiated by the instructor, but their impact on course content would diminish.

"It changes things quite fundamentally," Likins said. "You see the whole process through a different lens."

As with every other aspect of the university, cost must be one of the first things discussed.

"It's not a financial boom, it's a financial challenge," Likins said. "Maybe that's more cost effective, that's a very big unanswered question,"

Within the UA's budget - about $900 million - there is no room to support new programs.

"The purpose of a university is to maximize the social benefit while operating within financial constraints," Likins said.

Neither the cost or impact of a change in structure can be determined yet.

"Everybody understands that the learning that you do after graduation is learner-centered," Likins adds. "We teach you how to learn."

The future and other budget cuts

Likins finds himself considering what type of world the UA will be operating in during the next 10, 20 and even 50 years.

"If you look at the long term, first find out what's right and then find out how to get there," Likins said.

"We are in a time where the importance of nations and national boundaries is diminishing," Likins said. "(We are) more and more a global society tied together by technology."

Now is a time that looks at downsizing and budget cuts across industry lines with an increased emphasis on higher education.

Now is a time where alternatives to the conventional university system are realistic threats to the universities themselves.

The future may be a time of a great diminishing for state-funded universities.

"We're trying to hold our faculty and invest in information technology," Likins said.

In order to keep the faculty that the UA has state funding is vital, Likins said, but the Legislature hasn't responded at all.

"I believe it's not just ignorance, it may be ideology," Likins said. "Many act as though they don't believe in public higher education."

"Over time the good of the people will be served," Likins said. "The fundamental challenge is controlling cost."

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