Constraints and freedoms of practice-based education: Being and becoming future engineering professionals

Llew Mann, Jacqueline Dohaney, Alicen Coddington, Gloria Dall'Alba

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Higher education institutions are increasingly incorporating business-centric practices, with job-ready graduates the key ‘product,’ through academic capitalism and neoliberal politics. Within the higher education sector, institutions are holding up graduate employment metrics as primary measures of success. In a world where the class divide increases and structural inequality becomes the norm, the somewhat optimistic ideals of developing citizenship and learning as the core values of higher education, are losing out to the ultimate goal of landing new jobs (Slaughter and Rhoades 2004). Can meaningful personalised learning journeys, that acknowledge and enable individuals to become multi-faceted professionals, be developed within an increasingly constrained higher education paradigm?
Our case study:
The Engineering Practice Academy, based at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia (or ‘the Academy’ below) is an innovative approach to higher education that deliberately extends beyond job-readiness. It is centred on learners becoming professional engineers through engaging in real engineering practice throughout the degree programme, as well as attending to learning in higher education, and learning for global citizenship.
It is a purpose-built degree with a curriculum that is embedded within practice-based pedagogy – with engineers, clients and a service-facing portfolio. In one way, it is a constrained higher education degree, with 6-week projects completed by all Academy Associates (i.e., students) throughout the four-year degree. However, within these constraints, Associates exercise freedom in selecting individualised areas of interest to explore meaningful “life projects” (Thomson 2004), centred around being and becoming multi-faceted professionals. Early in the degree, we provide distinct themes to their life projects, which embrace the skills of the future of engineering: personal development, citizenry, thinking, research, design, making, operating, professionalism, communication, teamwork, project management, business acumen, and engineering fundamentals. Later in the degree, Associates may specialise into distinct areas, growing their individuality through exploration and expansion of their capabilities, while learning to work collaboratively. Through engagement with the world of engineering, the accumulation of ongoing and past experiences, the Associates come to frame their own professional becoming, as engineers.
Philosophical position of the Engineering Practice Academy
The pedagogy of the Academy contrasts with conventional engineering programmes, which generally focus on imparting knowledge and skills (Dall’Alba and Sandberg 2006) in a relatively linear fashion, with the assumption this will lead to students becoming future- and job-ready engineers. This usually means there is a mismatch between the focus of the programme - on what students know and can do - and the broader programme aim, directed to becoming engineers. While knowledge and skills are important, they are insufficient for transformation of the self that is entailed in being and becoming professionals. Instead, there is a need for integration of knowing, acting and being in support of a process in which ways of being continue to develop over time, including into professional practice (Dall’Alba 2009). For Martin Heidegger, being human entails having possibilities, or possible ways to be (1962/1927, p. 42). A central task of a higher education is to critically interrogate and expand these possible ways of being. A focus on job-readiness imposes, then, incongruous constraints by limiting the broader benefits a higher education is expected to provide, through promoting development of the self as learner, professional and citizen.
Practice-based learning and the future engineer
This paper aims to start a discussion concerning the validity of practice-based higher education that returns to the consideration of education for the whole-self. Within the context of the Academy, this entails addressing ways in which individuals are becoming multi-faceted professionals with a wide breadth of capabilities, specialisms, and experiences through practice. The Academy presents an opportunity, through its constraints and freedoms, to question and test its appropriateness as an educational framework across broader sectors of higher education.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 12 Sept 2018
EventPhilosophy and Theory of Higher Education Conference 2018: Student Being and Becoming in the Future University - Middlesex University, United Kingdom
Duration: 10 Sept 201812 Sept 2018


ConferencePhilosophy and Theory of Higher Education Conference 2018: Student Being and Becoming in the Future University
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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