Thinking beyond students in education for environmental technology

Education in environmental disciplines does not have to end when you leave the college gates and at the ET show in Birmingham the Open University's Dr Gordon Wilson talked about why continuing training and building up skills is vital for those in the industry.

As senior lecturer in technology and development and director of curriculum in environment, development and international studies at the university Dr Wilson is well positioned to know that industry and academia are different.

“They have different concerns, different relationships with their ‘customers/students’, and different cultures,” he told edie.

“But for too long that difference has been seen as a problem. In one corner industry has been questioning the relevance of what universities do and in the other academia has been shouting about its need for complete independence, bordering on isolation.

Difference, however, can be seen as a resource rather than a problem, a resource for mutual learning and enrichment out of which grows innovation. Nobody learns anything when we’re all the same.

“Learning is predicated on difference – comparing and even confronting what we already know with what we don’t know. Rather than engaging in mutual suspicion and perhaps barely concealed hostility, industry and academia should be friends, where, like all good friends, they can be highly critical of each other if necessary.”

When difference is viewed as a resource, said the doctor, the issue becomes one of maximising our returns from that resource through finding synergies between the different kinds of knowledge that all sides bring.

A classic way for industry to engage with universities has been for the latter to provide training packages and courses for the former. But this is akin to selling products to industry, when the key difference is that education has to be more like an ongoing relationship between educator and learner.

It has been accepted in educational circles for years that simply trying to transfer education as a product is inefficient and ineffective, and what is needed is a much more active relationship on both sides.

So why persist in these packages and courses with often little or no critical interaction in terms of practice.

“We can do better than sell education and training as a product, even if the product is excellent as many undoubtedly are,” said Dr Wilson.

“The key lies in blurring the boundary between ‘students’ and ‘practitioners’, and to think of the former as ‘reflective practitioners’. In this model the erstwhile students engage critically with what they learn, forever thinking about it in their own domain of expertise, that is their everyday practices, and in so doing come up with something new and relevant.

“In other words they use education and training as a tool, a tool that they can handle roughly and adapt, and reject where necessary.

“Part-time, distance learning as operated for example by the UK Open University helps enormously to realise the potential for reflective practice because, in general, you carry on working while you are studying.

“So the distinction between work and study is automatically blurred and you can be encouraged to think critically about what you study in terms of your actual practice all the time.

“You can’t get away from it as both are in your face. Nor should one be afraid of using practice in this way, like others might use a book. It is as good a source of knowledge as any other.

“There are other obvious benefits of part-time distance learning too, such as not taking people away from their jobs for long periods, but we should also note that there are many challenges.

“A major one for industry lies in turning individual learning into organisational learning. This is why groups of people in a firm learning together is undoubtedly a good idea. Individuals always have difficulty in effecting wider change and innovation.

“Groups of people working together stand a much better chance.

All of this has added importance when we think of environmental technology, because this sector by its nature goes beyond profit and loss towards social responsibility and all that entails.”

At the end of the day, he said, universities and industry have a common mission here, and a responsibility to take that mission seriously.

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