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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:31 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (September 17, 2002)

Learning Colleges: One Path for Japanese Education Reform

Daniel Dolan (Director of Global Communication Strategy, Weber Shandwick Japan)

In IMD's World Competitiveness Yearbook for 2002, Japan was ranked 30th out of 49 countries in overall competitiveness and 49th—dead last—in the education sector. As embarrassed bureaucrats in Japan huddle to make sense of the many options and obstacles on the path to meaningful education reform, I offer for consideration the concept and practice of Learning Colleges. Although the idea of a Learning College may seem redundant ("What else are colleges for?"), the term actually refers to a fairly recent trend in the United States—particularly among two-year or community colleges—to make colleges learning-centered in a holistic, rigorous and measurable way.

In three earlier essays --"Japanese University Reforms: Time to Ask the Big Questions"; "Best Practices for Education Reform in Japan: Principles and Priorities"; and "Value of University Ranking Scheme Not Clear"-- I discussed general issues related to agenda-setting and re-conceptualizing the mission of higher education in Japan.

In this essay I position some of my earlier ideas and further thoughts in the context of one college that is successfully building a dynamic and innovative learning environment grounded in the Learning College model.

Cascadia Community College: A Community of Learners

Cascadia Community College is a public institution located in Bothell, Washington (20 miles northeast of Seattle) that offers two-year degrees and a variety of professional and continuing education courses. Opened in 2000, the most visible innovation associated with the school is its unique co-location arrangement with the University of Washington Bothell campus. The schools share facilities such as library access, and administrative agreements and curriculum design allow for smooth transition from Cascadia to the University of Washington.

Perhaps more intriguing are the stated institutional core values of Cascadia: Community, Diversity, Access, Success, Learning, Innovation, and Environmental Stewardship. These values are tied to four over-arching learning outcomes: "Learn (actively), Think (critically, creatively and reflectively), Communicate (with clarity and originality), and Interact (in diverse and complex environments)." In this model, ideally every administrative decision, every course syllabus, every evaluated learner product should be crafted to reflect and re-generate the seven core values and the four learning outcomes.

What Does This Mean for Japan?

One of the main factors driving the complex and challenging development of Learning Colleges in the United States such as Cascadia Community College is pressure from a variety of stakeholders for accountability. Employers, government, parents and taxpayers want to know that their investments in higher education are "paying off". I have argued elsewhere that attempts by Japanese education bureaucrats to measure university value by numbers of patents and publications is misguided. That strategy reflects a focus on instructor productivity. A Learning College, in contrast, reflects a focus on student learning by measuring the degree to which learning outcomes are met, with learning outcomes assessed at a variety of levels including students, courses, programs and institutions.

Dr. Victoria Richart, President of Cascadia Community College, proposes in a series of essays on Learning Colleges accessible from the Cascadia website that addressing issues related to student learning is a central challenge for community colleges in the next decade. According to Richart (and based on the research of Terry O'Banion, Arthur Chikering, Zelda Gamson and Alexander Astin), "focusing on student learning turns our thinking about the future of our colleges and universities upside down: from faculty productivity to student productivity, from faculty disciplinary interests to what students need to learn, from faculty teaching styles to student learning styles, from classroom teaching to student learning".

In Japan at present the Learning College concept may seem radical, but small incremental steps in the direction of learner-focused reforms are necessary to energize a bureaucratic dinosaur that by most accounts is stumbling toward the tar pits. As it has so many times in the past and with great success, Japan must free itself from the old ways and stake a claim in the future.

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