Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Quest University: a unique venture into change in post-secondary education in Canada

By Erin Millar, Globe and Mail, March 27, 2012
They gather around tables in groups of four or five, preparing to bid on land that will be auctioned off tomorrow. Some analyze complicated geological maps and manipulate models made of modelling clay, theorizing about ground water patterns. Others sketch on graph paper and scrutinize rock samples in an effort to identify the most promising spots for exploratory oil drilling.

This isn't a room full of oil executives, but an undergraduate class in geology. These first-year students at Quest University, an unusual undergraduate-focused school in Squamish B.C., are learning more than the difference between a quartz and a feldspar; they are also studying how the fundamentals of geology are used in the real world and the political processes involved in exploiting resources.

The classes here are anything but typical. A class on volcanoes includes a ten-day field trip to Hawaii. An international relations class is taught by the Canadian ambassador to Mozambique. Instead of taking five classes during a standard semester, they study only one at a time, intensively, for 3-1/2 weeks in a block system. “It's the opposite of multitasking,” explains Quest president Dr. David J. Helfand.
The Quest model is not about graduating job-ready students with specific skill sets. Rather, the school encourages students to intellectually wander and explore, hoping they come out at the end with a broad understanding of many topics and creative abilities they can apply in many possible careers. According to Dr. Helfand, this unorthodox style of undergrad learning is a valuable solution to a very Canadian mystery. Although Canada ranks highest of OECD countries on the percentage of university-aged people attaining some higher education, we lag behind when it comes to indicators of innovation, such as patents. One theory as to why: We need more creative graduates.
Employers are increasingly looking for applicants who can analyze disparate sources of information, critically analyze data and approach problems from various perspectives, according to Dr. Helfand.
Quest students must take set classes for their first two years, but they aren’t standard fare. For instance, one class, on asymmetry in nature, is taught by a variety of professors from disciplines such as molecular biology, astrophysics, philosophy, psychology and French literature. The theory is that disciplinary mobility is essential for fostering creativity.
Bjorn Munte, who was part of Quest's first graduating class last spring, says he applies his broad education daily to his new job in real estate investment at a Berlin bank. He says the creative skills he gained at Quest make him better at analyzing complicated real estate investments, by giving him a knowledge base to examine potential investments from many perspectives and encourage him to question assumptions. “To me, this is what creativity is about: Adjusting your solution to a problem if the assumptions don't make sense, and being able to respond to a new problem quickly and eloquently,” he says.
Quest's unique approach is not universally admired, however. The university is non-profit, private and expensive (tuition is $28,000 a year, although many scholarships are awarded), and whether it could be adapted into a larger public institution is far from clear. When Dr. Helfand presented about the advantages of the block system at a small undergraduate-focused university in Ontario, he was heckled by faculty. The university also has difficulty getting its courses recognized; Quest has been unable to access membership in the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, which many universities consider de facto accreditation.
Dr. Helfand chalks up this hesitancy to deep conservatism in universities. “There is clearly interest in changing the way we teach undergraduates, but the resistance to change is strong in highly bureaucratic, unionized institutions like universities.”
Dr. Helfand, for his part, was initially skeptical that this style of learning could work in his field of astrophysics, but he is now entirely convinced of its merits. He has taken an extended leave from his role of chair of the department of astronomy at Columbia University to work at Quest. “It is a measure of how excited I am about the educational project that I am willing to live here in Squamish,” he says. “Let's just say that there is no Metropolitan Opera eight minutes away by subway.”
To say that the university system is too conservative to permit Quest to gain accredititation for its courses from the Association of Colleges and Universities in Canada is quite an understatement. In fact, it is a statement with so much freight that one has to wonder how long Quest University's lifeline will last.
The block system of studying one topic, rather than five or six different "subjects" is only one part of the difference. Solving real problems, and acquiring the skills that are needed for that problem provides a unique window into a variety of perspectives, bringing them into focus on a real set of variables.
Doing this work among small groups is another of the differences, and so is adjusting solutions to the problem if the assumptions don't make sense is another of the significant differences.
It is the assumptions under the traditional university undergraduate programs that have become the holy grail of those programs. And many of those assumptions may, in fact, be based on religious adherence to some of the precepts that have come to us from centuries previous, whereas the current conditions are so radically different as to require whole new perspectives and graduates steeped in those new perspectives.
In Canada, unless and until university "experiences" like Quest are integrated into the public university funding programs, the likelihood of a long life, and a generation of graduates and post-graduates seems tenuous at best. Only the very affluent, plus those who earn scholarships will be permitted entry.
However, if Quest is successful in demonstrating the weakness, in fact the fallacies inherent in mere "job training" to other traditional and formerly liberal arts institutions, it will have served an invaluable purpose on the Canadian university landscape
The Quest model is not about graduating job-ready students with specific skill sets. Rather, the school encourages students to intellectually wander and explore, hoping they come out at the end with a broad understanding of many topics and creative abilities they can apply in many possible careers.Our culture and society must move away from multi-tasking by specialists to a more concentrated focus on fewer tasks from a multiplicity of perspectives, if we are to begin to explore the future needs of students expecting to be creatively integrated into the work that will be available in the next three or four decades.
And one of the ways all universities could begin to adapt to that "amorphous" goal would be to integrate "future studies" into the undergraduate curriculum. Future studies would begin to integrate perspectives from a variety of traditional academic disciplines, and those studies, in themselves, would be useful for university visionaries, in their long-range planning sessions, eventually to become part of the long-term curriculum planning of those same institutions.
And in order to make that change feasible, we have to unshackle the universities from a single-minded purpose of producing "job-ready" graduates in professional fields, who might hit the ground running, without the need for additional training by those hiring them.
Quest's ground-breaking existence is worthy of periodic watching, to ascertain if the public system can and will permit their courses to be accredited.

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