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Can staff competencies sufficiently be enhanced through Kaizen?

Updated: Jan 28, 2020

Today’s higher engineering education faces an existential crisis. The changing world of work, the blurring of boundaries between disciplines and between industry and academic boundaries, the rise of continuous learning, the evolving globalisation and digital behaviour, and the increasing international competition. They all shift the demand for learning to a very different paradigm. They disrupt the teaching-learning dynamics in higher education.

Throughout the 14th International CDIO Conference in Kanazawa, Japan, in June, we heard the same message: One of the biggest challenges for higher education institutions is the agility and the learning, unlearning and relearning of the teaching staff, and their willingness to co-design together with industries (more) student-centred self-directed expansive curricula, for students and lifelong learners who are much more “consumerised” than we are used to. If staff is not able to think, act and deliver “differently” they may soon be redundant.

Can small ongoing changes reap the major changes in higher education that are necessary?

Outdated educational systems

The education systems in engineering and technology at the present time were designed for a world that no longer exists, the world of the Second Industrial Revolution. That was the first statement made by Teri Balser, Dean of Learning and Teaching within the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Curtin University. At high tempo she explained in her keynote that engineering education is challenged by numbers and scale, and by a major change in human needs. Massification (explosive growth in student numbers), diversification (wider range of learners), personalisation (self-paced learners who know what they need) and globalisation (education reaching everywhere) are factors that impact what and how we will have to teach in the next decades.

Emerging technologiesy can only provide part of the solution. Humans will be part of the story as well. The social expectations change. The expectations of Generation-Z, the Post-Millennials, about learning and teaching change. Their needs change also. Good employability needs excellent adaptive capacity. Cognitive abilities, communication, empathy as well as the ability to connect to people are set to play an ever more critical role.

University diplomas may soon no longer be the only pre-requisite for the engineering professional world. Increasingly learners want more control of their learning path, prefer unbundled courses to linear curricula, in order to rebundle them in individual curricula. “12 jobs, 5 careers and 15 different homes in a lifetime is going to be the norm”, Balser said.

The Kanazawa castle (private photo)

Design learning for humans

Teri Balser stressed the need to design learning for humans. Modern teaching will be about training and coaching students in autonomy, self-efficacy, lifelong learning and societal purpose. Generation-Z is driven to succeed, aware, concerned, and accustomed to being treated as a peer by adults.

For too long universities have been “fixing the teacher” in teaching content better, she said. Academic staff are subject matter experts who focus on content delivery. Many of them are stuck in the “mechanised” modes of doing things and are unskilled or uninterested in training, or better, coaching students the more social or psychological aspects of personal development. The higher social skills is where the needs will be in the emerging Artificial Intelligence age of learning machines, avatars, automation and robotisation.

Making Japan the most innovation-friendly country in the world

In the second keynote, Dr. Kazuo Kyuma, Executive Member of the Japanese council for Science, Technology & Innovation, addressed the comprehensive strategy on science, technology and innovation policy, which is not technology-driven but human-centred. He started his speech by saying that the “Super Smart Society”, Society 5.0, will require professionals who master a good mix of physical and social sciences and technology. The traditional focus in engineering on performance, quality and cost shifts to end-to-end systems and service. Understanding of overseas’ worlds, the fusion of different fields, creativity, deep technological knowledge, knowledge about open innovation and business acumen are crucial for an innovative generation.

He expressed his concerns in Japan about the converging effects of the declining volume and impact of research, the weak ICT-based innovation in Japan, the “graying”of the population due to citizen’s longevity and declining birth rate, and the Japanese xenophobia that prevents the immigration of young talents and leads to opportunities that are missed because researchers and educators work too much within the Japanese context: Japanese universities are becoming less international and need more opening up for international students.

To mitigate, the government has initiated Strategic Innovation Programmes to prepare for the “super smart society”. The integration of physical and cyber systems will get the highest priority in engineering education, research and innovation. Schools and universities will put more effort in training students and upskilling staff and employees in ICT. Projects on robotics, Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence for intelligent transport systems, food production, health care, disaster prevention will start. Also agriculture will be in the spot lights with the development of smart breeding machines, the use of machine learning, and research for genetically modified silk worms (for producing glowing silk). Engineering and agricultural studies are being transformed to train students specifically to collaborate with both people and intelligent machines and have impact on society.

“To think and not study is a waste. Thinking without learning is useless” “To study and not think is a waste. Learning without thinking is useless” (from the analects of Confucius)

Constructive Response Tasks

The third keynote by Dr. Satoko Fukahori of the National Institute for Educational Policy Research, Department of Higher Education Research in Japan, addressed the results of OECD’s AHELO project: “Measuring how well engineering students can think like an engineer at graduation”. The study assessed outcomes in generic skills that are common to all engineering students (such as critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem-solving, written communication), and discipline-specific skills in engineering and economics. 23,000 Students were monitored in 17 countries worldwide, representing a wide range of cultures and languages. The AHELO project evaluated student performance at the global level, across diverse cultures, languages and different types of institutions. The major purpose was a benchmarking of institutional achieved learning outcomes against that of peers.

The results showed that the assessment by Constructive Response Tasks (CRT) required a thoughtful balance between preciseness and open-endedness. The close alignment of a CRT and the very specific learning outcome was key. Many of the CRTs turned out to be more context (discipline, culture, language, politics) dependent than expected. It seemed more challenging than anticipated to establish a test item bench with common CRTs that are usable for different engineering disciplines for universities worldwide .

Dr. Fukahori stated that it was unfortunate that particularly the achievement levels of generic engineering skills were difficult to assess through common CRTs. In the professional engineering world, technical skills can be easily (re)trained and upskilled on the job, whereas generic skills cannot. So these generic skills should be trained well during the academic study. It are these generic skills that are considered so important for ingenuity, innovativess, interdisciplinary thinking and entrepreneurial behaviour, she concluded.

Kaizen enchancing faculty agility and competences

The new Innovation Hub of Kanazawa Institute of Technology where a select group of undergraduate students will enrol in a dedicated programme about learning innovation in an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural environment in collaboration with local community, to revitalise rural areas that experience long-term population decreases (private photo)

Kaizen is a Japanese term phrased from two words. It translates to mean change (kai) and good (zen). Roughly, it stands for “change for better”. It is the process of continuous improvement in small steps and is Japanese key to success. The modern sense of the word originated in the Toyota factories who created effective management systems to generate, capture, and review improvements in never-ending cycles. An important element of the Kaizen culture is that it is perceived as a mindset, a way of life, where it is common practice to share knowledge between members and encourage the development of each. In the Kaizen philosophy all employees are active sources of improvement initiatives.

Needs for learning, unlearning, relearning

Let me say it mildly: there is room for improvement for Kaizen in academia. It’s no secret that most academics are traditionalists. Many teachers lack the methods and competencies to teach content knowledge and train social skills and foster mindsets in a coherent ensemble. Their institutions often don’t feel the need to upskill the staff, because innovative teaching represents a departure “from how things are done”. But the CDIO conference showed, that engineering education is far from static and full of experimentation. Most changes that were demonstrated tried “to fix the teacher” (in teaching content), but some also reimagined the education.

Seeds of change are everywhere. In the paper that questioned if the existing University Teacher Qualification training prepares their staff to become good personal, interpersonal and professional role models, demonstrating engineering approach processes in practice, introducing team theory, organisation theory, professional behaviour and career planning skills. Another paper was about the pros and cons of using the agile Scrum management method instead of the traditional maybe outdated waterfall method in modern project education. Other papers about the training of decision-taking skills in complex rapidly changing environments, or about validating student peer evaluations by academic staff as validated evaluation criteria in student-centred projects. And about Intelligence-Assisted Advising that has been developed by Kanazawa’s Institute of Technology, which is in use as a spine of study support and self-reflection, as a human advisor and self-coaching system for the students, using the interface of IBM’s Watson Explorer and based upon accumulated data of 15,000 students over a 10-year time frame.

Under the umbrella of the Dutch 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education, TU Delft presented their design-based framework of future engineering roles that have their origins in desired behaviour by society of engineers in 15 to 20 years’ time. The framework stimulates policy makers and programme directors to think differently about future engineering curricular frameworks that allow for diversification and adaptation to personalised learning for both students and alumni. Adoption of such framework will require a major reimagining of engineering curricula and unlearning and relearning of staff.

All these examples require staff to think, act and deliver “differently.”

First tentative steps

Some degree programmes make their first tentative steps to adapt to the impact of the avalanche of information and the automation and digitalisation of Industry 4.0. But at the conference I hardly saw examples of educational change that develops the computational literacy the engineering students need to prepare for the technology-driven age. I did not see examples of change that take advantage of the digital skills our students bring to the classroom, who are more advanced than those from the teaching staff. I missed examples of real student-centred learning where students have full control over their own learning process and are no longer subject of the test-obsessed culture. (I have been puzzled for long time why we think that marks of summative assessments inspire learners further understanding and learning).

Can Kaizen reap major change?

Much engineering education will need radical change in the next decades. Staff and leaders have to anticipate and prepare to adapt programmes to changing needs, different structures, changing pedagogy, emerging technologies in the classroom, different roles of the teacher and many more.  Making continuous improvement should always be the norm, but since big steps will be required to transform education, gradual improvement in small steps through Kaizen will not be enough.

Incentivizing academic staff to learn, unlearn and relearn will be one of the most important challenges for higher education institutions.


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