Friday, 28 September 2012

Education again

Josephus yesterday made a couple of interesting points, the first being that the universities are today close to what was proposed in 1972 and the second being that while 'teaching' is a group activity, 'learning' is highly individual. In a sense, yes, I have to agree with that last point, we each learn at different rates and by different means. There is no 'one size fits all' when it comes to the way individuals learn. The best teachers know this and encourage the individuals in their classes to discover how they can best learn.

One thing which has struck me recently - it takes a while sometimes for this old dog to decipher the more heavy German articles he attempts to read - is that commerce and industry in Germany use the universities in what appears, to me, a very different way to their counterparts in the UK. If a German manufacturer wants something tested, explored or even designed, he (or she) approaches a university with an exact set of proposals for a research project and a budget. If the university accepts the project, they agree a support system and the research goes ahead. In this way many PhD students, some Post Doctoral and lots of undergraduates get to work on real world projects as they study. Industry benefits because they get the things they want, the university benefits because it gets to give its students a meaningful experience in research and development - which they then carry on into the workplace.

This may be why Germany currently occupies the Number 2 spot in the world when it comes to new patent registration. They rarely fund a 'Chair' in some esoteric subject, they go for projects and the projects are clearly specified. Interestingly, if the research does result in a viable product, the university benefits from that as well. Coupled with this there are 'Institutes' set up to do research on behalf of the government, commerce and industry. Institutes like the Max Planck and the Frauenhofer receive some funding from the Federal government and some from commerce and industry seeking specific research from projects.

This 'investment' in research obviously pays off well. Most of the current Mars 'rover' is systems and electronics designed, tested and made in Germany. Nor is this the only example. Current research being funded by Germany's motor industry (but probably not GM Opel) is going into more efficient and longer duration batteries. BMW will launch an all electric luxury car next year - its been designed, built, tried and tested exhaustively as a part of their ongoing search for 'clean' energy transport. Other manufacturers here are not far behind either.

So what has all this to do with 'education?'

Simply put, German universities are diverse, but they do seem to have a clear focus on turning out students who, even at them more esoteric and academic end of the scale, have at least some grounding in how what they are learning fits into the workplace environment. I'd need to do a lot of research to find out exactly what makes them so different in their teaching/learning environment, but perhaps someone in the UK really should take a closer look - after all they'd be better placed to spot the differences.

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