Teaching to the Big Questions - Changing the Framework of Higher Education

So much about education, from the classroom to the textbook has changed, largely due to educators setting a clear vision for the future. What initially began as a lecture-based style of teaching in the days of Greek philosophers has moved past teaching solely from the question and answer format. Engagement and creativity have found their way into the classroom, pushing students to think critically rather than just absorb knowledge. And in a world of iPads and Google Glass, educators too have had to find new ways to teach and adapt over the years, but the box can be pushed further if we allow it. We know the goal of all educators is to enhance the learning process, but can that goal be furthered by looking at new ways to approach classroom learning? The tried-and-true principles that have created the fundamentals of what a classroom education means are vital, but can also drive us into new ways to examine the educational process, rethink the concept of learning and forge new pathways for higher education success.

So how do we get to that next step of educational innovation? We as educators must build upon the current framework that drives our teaching and create a new space for innovation to take place. Consider today's higher education framework, which revolves around the goal of engaging students in critical thinking, inquiry and thoughtful discussion. The method itself opens the door to creativity, illuminates ideas and stimulates conversation that may have never been considered. But are we satisfied with stopping there, or are we ready to take the next step in engaging students in the classroom, from where they live, where they work and in perspective to how they learn?

If engagement and creativity are what will change education, the concept behind what a traditional classroom means must be redefined. But are we willing to take the risk to uncover what the redefinition would look like? Rethinking the idea behind the learning experience itself forces us to break away from the traditional brick-and-mortar setting, geography or location of an educator. The shift toward a new idea of a classroom will help create a well-prepared and forward-thinking workforce because engagement has taken the lead. Students are exposed to ideas, cultures and concepts previously impossible because the classroom has gone beyond traditional walls and into the virtual world we all live and breathe today.

Consider the Wright Brothers who dreamed of the first flight, and after doing so famously said that "if we worked off the assumption that what is accepted as true really is true, then there would be little hope for advancement." Questioning the known and the unknown simultaneously is what will drive education forward. Asking questions, even the questions we as educators may not have the answers to, will help us create an engaged classroom that focuses on application of knowledge as well as solving real-world challenges. By taking a global worldview of today's most pressing problems, embracing methods and ideas from all educational disciplines and expanding our idea of what the classroom looks like we create a pathway to innovation that embraces problem-solving in both the traditional and online arenas.

These methods bring students with diverse ideas together and help professors teach them to solve questions with no current answer. A student may not know the answer to a problem, but if they know how to engage with fellow students and professors to work on a solution, they will be ready to tackle real-world issues. Incorporating real-world engagement into our classrooms not only prepares students for the workforce, but shifts students into an active learning style, where they take ownership of their education and are empowered by a platform to think differently.

When students become truly empowered to put classroom engagement into action, the possibilities are endless. Creative minds have the chance to become thought leaders that guide emerging fields and change the makeup of the modern workforce. This kind of cross-collaboration is put into clear action at Artist's Asylum, a converted factory just outside Boston that serves as a collaborative incubator for ideas, inventions and businesses and invites the community to participate in the creative process. This classroom of sorts brings engineers, artists and others together to engage in answering the questions of "What's next," and "How can we do it?" Due to the combined work of engineers and design professionals, the 3Doodler pen, the next innovation in the 3D printing trend, has gone from an idea on paper to full-scale manufacturing. This type of innovation is made possible through the active engagement of people who want to know more about their world. Consider education, and how approaches such as these cultivate creativity through community. This concept has the potential to change how we view higher education and its ability to meet the needs of a constantly changing, increasingly competitive modern workforce. Quality online education creates an innovative, collaborative space that allows students to forge a community regardless of demographic or other barriers. When students can borrow from each other's experiences, they can passionately pursue answers to the unknown and become a force to change the modern working world.

If we are going to prepare students to revolutionize the workplace of tomorrow, we need to break down the walls between our world of higher education and the business world which new graduates will soon enter. Integrating higher education and the business community means finding new ways to enhance the dialogue between students and industry leaders. Community partnerships help institutions create a laser-focused education curriculum that develops career-minded students from the start. Getting students engaged in a learning process that is directed toward what businesses actually need from a graduate is critical. This approach creates highly marketable innovators who have their entire tenure in higher education to develop creative skills essential to a successful career.

Creative, real-world engagement early on can take a multitude of forms. Why not utilize the skills of journalism majors to help failing newspapers create new, more sustainable business models? Why not leverage the knowledge of tech-savvy computer science students by having them find new ways to protect an organization's intellectual property? Creative engagement like this is the key and is what will drive colleges and universities into think tanks for students and for businesses worldwide by leveraging the minds of tomorrow's leaders.

The power behind the minds of our students is limitless, and if we can find new, innovative ways to tap into their knowledge and creativity, we may end up turning higher education on its head. The shift has the potential to change higher education completely and into an arena where innovation is the driver because students are empowered to solve problems for which there may not be a current answer. The concept itself allows students to forge their own pathway to career success outside of the traditional format, by really thinking and uncovering ways to engage and solve problems in ways that have yet to be done.

Jayson M. Boyers is the vice president of the Division of Continuing Professional Studies at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, a private institution that offers bachelor's and master's degrees in professionally-focused programs balanced by an interdisciplinary core curriculum.