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K-State Today

March 20, 2012

Great minds thinking together: Project allows citizens to create policy possibilities for higher education

Submitted by Communications and Marketing

Every day, individual freedoms are entrusted to juries made up of citizens who are randomly chosen to critically evaluate information and make informed decisions. One Kansas State University researcher is using this principle to improve higher education.

"The jury is a hallmark of our political system, but reliance on citizen input is not present in other aspects of the political process," said Tim Steffensmeier, associate professor of communication studies. "People typically are called upon to react to ideas that have been created by experts. Yet, citizens have much to contribute."

With help from a grant from the Interactivity Foundation -- a group that engages citizens in developing public policy possibilities through small group discussion -- Steffensmeier recently recruited and facilitated two citizen groups from Manhattan for a discussion report to explore the future of higher education.

Steffensmeier put together an expert group consisting of citizens with a professional background in higher education and a generalist group of citizens without this background. These two groups met separately for one year to discuss the possible answers to what society wants and expects from post-high school education.

"Traditionally, policymaking is handled by experts, but this project allowed citizen groups to develop ideas for higher education policy," Steffensmeier said. "We're getting citizens involved in the front end of policy creation."

After meeting separately for a year, the two groups came together to merge their ideas and came up with six policy possibilities for higher education to be used as a springboard for public dialogues:

* Career training: Goals include a higher education system that prepares individuals for specialized careers. Possible actions include partnerships between businesses and education stakeholders.

* Education for a better world: A higher education system that integrates its curriculum around problems and engages civic groups is ideal for the common good.

* Innovation labs: There is a lack of critical thinking and new ideas being applied to today's learning. Fostering an experimental learning culture and a method for gauging innovation could increase the capacity to innovate.

* Guided learning for well-being: To create balanced individuals and reverse an imbalance toward book learning, communities could create a mentor system and embed experimental learning into core curriculum.

* Community-focused education: Serving local communities is impossible when there is an inability to solve local problems. Solutions include establishing a governing board with community and educational members.

* One-world education: To develop a uniform higher education system that is accessible throughout the world, communities could develop global curriculum standards and create enhanced digital learning tools.

These six policy possibilities were included in a booklet that is meant to start discussions in communities and classrooms across the nation.

Steffensmeier said that the generalist citizen group added as much content to the project as the expert group.

"This shows the intelligence of groups, whether they have expert knowledge or not," he said. "If groups are given a process by which to deliberate, they have the capacity to come up with sophisticated ideas."

Some of the groups' conversations revolved around the idea that the community should be the focal point and accountability mechanism for higher education. This idea would commit a land-grant university, such as Kansas State University, to reshaping the way we experience community.

"The community could almost set the agenda for higher education," Steffensmeier said. "Another intriguing idea was an education model in which a student could pop in and out of any higher education institution in the world -- similar to the 2+2 arrangements Kansas State University has with community colleges in Kansas, except on a global scale."

Steffensmeier said Interactivity Foundation reports are not meant to be the answer, but rather spark conversation about policy possibilities on important issues like higher education.

"The economics around higher education are fragile right now, but at the same time the way it's being delivered is changing," he said. "It's being discussed as the next financial bubble -- and that conversation isn't going to go away. Technology has caused a disruption in the traditional delivery method of higher education; the system is in the middle of substantial change. For these reasons, public discussion and deliberation on this topic is timely."

The higher education report was the first Interactivity Foundation report that was not done in-house, Steffensmeier said, as well as the first to be completed in Kansas. The materials from the report are free for any institution or group to use, and are available at http://www.interactivityfoundation.org.