Person-Centered Graduate Education--The Roots of Union

Discussion in 'General Distance Learning Discussions' started by Rich Douglas, Oct 3, 2019.

  1. Rich Douglas

    Rich Douglas Well-Known Member

    Person-Centered Graduate Education

    Traditional higher education doesn’t vary much from traditional secondary or primary school. The main delivery philosophy is based in pedagogy—the teaching of children. We’re all familiar with it: teacher-centered, student-passive, and the school tells you what to learn, how to learn it, and how to demonstrate that you learned it. In return, you get the school’s recognition (credits, diplomas, degrees, etc.) All good, right?

    Well, no. At least, it isn’t optimal. Especially for working adults. There are more effective ways to go about this.

    Beginning in 1968, educator Malcolm Knowles introduced the concept of andragogy—the methods around adult learning. No longer would the teacher be the “sage on the stage” with students furtively writing down every utterance in case it showed up on the test. With andragogy, the student is the owner of the his/her learning, and the teacher becomes more of a facilitator of that learning—the “guide on the side.” Although the instructor doesn’t disappear entirely—still assigning and grading work—the student takes responsibility to not only learn, but to apply what is learned. But for some educators, andragogy didn’t go quite far enough.

    As I said above, schools traditionally determine the content of the course of study, how it is to be learned, and how the student’s mastery of the subject will be demonstrated. But what would happen if we handed all (or, mostly all) of that to the student him/herself? What if we truly put the learner in the center of the learning? Could this be done? What would be the outcome?

    It was this foundation upon which person-centered graduate education was formed. In it, the learner decides these three things—with the approval of the school, naturally.

    We’ve heard of learning contracts. Some are used to individualize courses, but some are also used to design and deliver degree programs. In a typical learning contract, the student and the teacher negotiate how the student will cover the course/degree material and how he/she will demonstrate that learning. But the course or degree subject and content are still determined by the school. In person-centered graduate education, the learning contract is taken to an even further extreme.

    In the early 1970s, there arose from a consortium of schools something called the “Union for Experimenting Colleges and Universities” (UECU, or “The Union”). The Union was originally designed as a group of schools cooperating to develop new ways for adults to complete college degrees. In fact, from this consortium rose the “University Without Walls” (UWW), a design shared by more than a dozen schools where students could complete their college degrees at a distance, using a variety of learning methods (including learning contracts). A set of guidelines was established, but each participating school could customize their UWW program. The Union created its own degree-granting institution and began its own UWW bachelor’s program. Oh, and something else. Something much more exciting and more than a little subversive. The Union began a PhD program based on learner-centered principles that would be individualized, focused on the needs of the learner, and could be completed with very little residency. It was called the Union Graduate School (UGS), and it was even cooler than it sounds.

    One of the founders of the Union Graduate School was an educator named Roy Fairfield, who went on to describe the UGS, as well as a few other short-residency doctoral programs emerging at the time in his book, Person-Centered Graduate Education (Fairfield, RP, Prometheus Books, 1977). But the jewel was the UGS, the most innovative and creative PhD program ever created. And the learner was smack-dab in the middle of it all.

    In the UGS program, UECU (now a fully independent school named Union College and University) the learners (not “students”) spent a great deal of time and effort up front designing their programs. They had to determine the degree objectives, the areas of study, how the degree would be interdisciplinary, how they would learn and meet the degree’s objectives, and how they would demonstrate that learning. All of this would be documented in a learning agreement between the learner and the school. Like a traditional PhD, degree programs contained two major areas: the body of knowledge—covered by coursework in traditional programs—and the doctoral project—comparable to a PhD dissertation. But there were five distinct differences in the UGS PhD: who designed the program, who supervised it, residency, personal growth, and the doctoral project. All of this would be described in great detail in the learning agreement—mine was more than 100 pages—and would result in two documents: the Program Summary and the Project Demonstrating Excellence, or PDE. Each of these are described below.

    As I’ve described, the learner was the center of the learning experience. In fact, he or she was the chair of his/her doctoral committee, which was made up of several other members. primary Core Faculty member came from the Union faculty, and like all committee positions, was nominated by the learner (as the committee chair—cool, huh?). His/her role was as guide, responsible to ensure the learner’s program (and its execution) met the school’s standards for doctoral study. The core faculty member did not have to be a subject-matter expert—some were and others weren’t. The process, not the content, was his/her responsibility.

    The learner also appointed another core faculty to the committee to act as a quality control monitor. He/she didn’t typically participate in the execution of the learning agreement, but acted—in concert with the primary core faculty member of the committee-to ensure the school’s standards were maintained. This “second core” read all final products, and was key at two points: approval of the learning agreement and approval of the Program Summary (learning) and the PDE (doctoral project).

    Because Union learners were free to pursue just about any subject consistent with doctoral study, they also nominated two “adjunct faculty” members to the committee. These outside experts provided supervision over the content of the degree program. They were expected to be experts in their fields and to hold relevant doctoral degrees. They came from both academia and the workplace.

    Union was committed to a quality learning experience and to provide as much support as possible to each learner. So, the learner (again, as chair of the committee) appointed two “peers” to the committee—current learners or graduates of the program. These peers were considered equals on the committee and had full say in the execution and approval of the learner’s program.

    So, the learner, as chair of his/her committee, appointed all the other members of the committee—with approval from Union, naturally. And while committee members technically had equal voices, it is safe to say that the core faculty member was “more equal” than the others. (Apologies to Orwell.) Still, the learner remained the center of it all. But what was “it”?

    Learners created and executed a learning agreement with the approval and support of the doctoral committee they chaired. (Learning agreements were also approved by the school.) Learning agreements described what the doctoral learner would master—the body of knowledge—plus how he/she would learn it, and how that learning would be demonstrated. This, as you can imagine, could get quite creative. It was the committee’s responsibility to ensure the learner did doctoral-level work—sufficiently rigorous (the core faculty’s responsibility) and comprehensive (the adjuncts’ role). Peers also provided supervision along with support. And the second core faculty (the “second reader”) remained at arm’s length to review it all.

    In addition to the body of knowledge to be covered, the learner would participate in several residencies. First was a 10-day “entry colloquium” designed to introduce the learner to the Union process, begin working on the structure for the learning agreement, and to meet faculty members for possible inclusion on their committees. During the program, learners would participate in at least 3 5-day seminars (on a variety of topics and held in locations around the world), as well as 10 “peer days,” one-day learning experiences designed and conducted by groups of learners. (These could get quite creative!) Early on, the program also ended with a 30-day “terminar,” but this requirement was later ended. All other learning took place non-residentially—wherever the learner needed to go or to be. The minimum time to finish a program was originally just 12 months, but this was later expanded to 2, then 3 years. Most learners took much longer, but a significant percentage—those really ready to take it on—did it in the minimum.

  2. Rich Douglas

    Rich Douglas Well-Known Member

    Each learner committed to some aspect of personal growth and incorporated into the learning agreement. This was a way to take care of the rest of the learner during a rigorous process. In my program, I decided to create a training regimen that would culminate in running a marathon. (Hey, I was in my early 30s and a military officer—it made sense at the time!).

    Finally, the degree program culminated in a doctoral project called the Project Demonstrating Excellence, or PDE. The PDE was designed to result in an original contribution to one’s field. But it didn’t have to be a traditional dissertation (with either theory-building or theory testing). It could be a work of art, or writing, or some other creative form. The learner still had to do the contextual aspects expected—an introduction to the topic, a literature review, an analysis of the project and it’s relevance or value to the field—but it could really unleash some creative work. (One learner I met did her PDE on the unnamed women in the Bible. She did the research, then brought their voices out through poetry. Very cool.) But about 90% of learners did a traditional dissertation for the PDEs.

    All of this work was bundled up into a Program Summary, except the PDE (which was published separately). The committee would meet to approve the work (typically after requiring revisions) and to celebrate the learner’s accomplishments. Then the work went to the second reader, who could and would ask for further improvements. Once that hurdle was passed, the documents were sent to the dean’s office for review (and more modifications, typically). Then the degree was awarded. (Oddly, The Union would hold a very traditional graduation ceremony in its home city of Cincinnati each year!)

    Graduates would receive a PhD in the major area of study. This was later modified to award a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration and specialization in one’s field of study. That’s what I received—a PhD with a concentration in higher education and a specialization in nontraditional higher education. (After writing all of this, do you wonder?)

    Union graduates went out and furthered their careers in academia, organizations, businesses, charities, private practice, or myriad other ways. Each journey was unique, as was each destination. So what happened to it all?

    In my judgment, the greatest tension in all of this was between the drive to make each program centered around the learner, yet compliant with the degree-awarding requirements of the school (and its accrediting agency and state licensing board). In Union’s case, they really gave a lot of power to the doctoral committee and, by extension, to the learner. Because the institution itself struggled to supervise so many different learners studying so many different fields, it relied too heavily on the committees and not enough on institutional reviews. Thus, the quality of the work being done to do the PDE and earn the degree varied tremendously. Don’t get me wrong: there was some fantastic work being created by Union learners. But there was also some mediocre work slipping by, and this ultimately led to the end of the learner-centered, self-designed PhD program. The Union, as Union College and University, still lives on, still conducts and awards the doctorate through short-residency programs, but the unique aspects of a learner-centered experience is gone. Now the school dictates the content, how it will be learned, and what students (not “learners”” must do to graduate. It is still andragogical and short-residency, but it is no longer consistent with Roy Fairfield’s vision of “person-centered graduate education.” The quality is generally more assured, but the excitement, the flair, the excellence is gone. It’s a pity.

    (Final note: My work? I’d judge my PDE—dissertation—as pretty routine, down-the-middle, and traditional. But my learning? That has never stopped.)
    Helpful2013 likes this.
  3. Steve Levicoff

    Steve Levicoff Well-Known Member

    Point of Order, Mr. Chairman . . .

    I second Dr. Douglas' motion across the board, but note for the record that the school's name is not Union College & University, but Union Institute and University.

    Once UECU changed its name to The Union Institute, they also changed their website to Subsequently, Touro University International started using the TUI acronym (which many people pronounced "too-ey"), so Union simply stopped using it. After they purchased Vermont College from Norwich University, they changed their name to UI&U and their website to Why not Because Upper Iowa University beat them to that one.

    Union has always been a popular name for colleges (like Trinity - there are several of both of them), but Union was always married to its original concept of being a union of the many schools that comprised it in the first place. And that's how ended up with a ridiculous name like UI&U. For what it's worth, on my own curriculum vita I list my alma mater as The Union Institute because that's what they were when I gradated. (I also list my undergrad alma mater as TESC, not TESU, for the same reason.)

    Anyway, well done, Rich . . . Now when people question why I think today's online programs are inferior, I can point them to this thread.
  4. sanantone

    sanantone Well-Known Member

    This explains why Union was unique in its approach. It does not explain why low-residency programs in the 80s and 90s were superior to low-residency programs after the advent of online education. If anyone has empirical research on learning outcomes, then that would be interesting to see. For adults, we already know that online education is as effective as in-class education.
  5. Rich Douglas

    Rich Douglas Well-Known Member

    "I second Dr. Douglas' motion across the board, but note for the record that the school's name is not Union College & University, but Union Institute and University."

    Typo. Long night. My bad. The history:

    The Union for Research and Experimentation in Higher Education
    Union for Experimenting Colleges and Universities
    The Union Institute
    Union Institute and Universities

    The PhD program was commonly known as the Union Graduate School, but the degrees were technically awarded by UECU.
  6. Steve Levicoff

    Steve Levicoff Well-Known Member

    Um . . . you must still be a little tired. It's Union Institute & University (singular, not plural).

    No big whoop - overall, it's the best explanation of Roy Fairfield's original concept of Union that I've seen in years.
  7. Rich Douglas

    Rich Douglas Well-Known Member

    Man, I need an editor. Just another typo, but twice on Union's names!

    I'm with you regarding Union Institute and University. I hate the name. It's a real clunker. They didn't want to lose "Union" and they really wanted "University." But my favorite was "The Union Institute" because it really, really fit. And it incorporated "the Union" (lowercase intentional), a term we all used (and still do).

    They really had to change from UECU since there really wasn't a consortium anymore. It was also a clunker, so most (?) people used "Union Graduate School," the teaching body of the degree-awarding UECU.

    I agree with Steve on another naming issue. He prefers the title of the awarding school when the degree was awarded. So do I. My bachelor's degrees were earned through the Regents External Degree Program, but were awarded by the Regents themselves. (Who go by the very cool name of The University of the State of New York, not to be confused with the SUNY system.) So I use that name for those degrees. I do not mention, at all, "Excelsior College." They didn't award my degrees.

    I go with "Union Institute and University," although I'd love to retrograde to "The Union Institute." It just sounds like a place to have been, man.
  8. Helpful2013

    Helpful2013 Active Member

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Rich, I appreciate it. I hope someone in future picks up that ball and runs with it, as I think a healthy dose of Fairfield’s creative thinking would go a long way towards curing what currently ails higher education.

    Some aspects of this do remind me of my research doctorate in Britain. I was granted research supervisors from two departments to manage my proposed topic, given tremendous freedom in revising my thesis topic once admitted, the option to take any additional coursework I thought would be helpful, and complete independence in selection of my thesis examiners (one internal, and the other from an outside university - the research supervisors aren’t a part of the examining committee). In short, they treated me like an adult and I thought it was wonderful.

    For people considering a doctorate, I do think PhD students in Britain are given much more freedom compared to students in (highly structured) North American programs. Clearly not as much as in the Union of old, though!
  9. sanantone

    sanantone Well-Known Member

    If we're discussing dissertation-only PhD programs, then they can't be compared to American PhD programs. As my Spanish professor explained it, all of her coursework was done at the master's level. Then, she entered a dissertation-only PhD program in the UK. In many traditional PhD programs in the U.S., you can enter right out of a bachelor's program. Of course, the American doctoral programs that require a master's degree are still course-based, but Union was also course-based. They just let students design interdisciplinary programs.
  10. Helpful2013

    Helpful2013 Active Member

    I just did.

    But even if I compared it only to the typical post-coursework phase in N. America, it's much more learner-centered: no comprehensive exams; much more freedom and space in the dissertation/thesis research.
  11. Rich Douglas

    Rich Douglas Well-Known Member

    I hate to contradict you, but Union's learner-centered PhD program was most certainly NOT "course-based." Not at all. Each area of learning was defined by the learner and described in the learning agreement. What was to be learned, how it would be learned, and how that learning would be demonstrated. Union offered no courses at all. If a learner had courses in his/her learning agreement, they were (a) offered by other institutions and (b) the learner's choice. (And a rare one.)

    Your comment implies learners selected from a panoply of courses to form an interdisciplinary mix. No. And the program's interdisciplinary nature was reflected in using multiple disciplines' theories, practices, etc. in approaching the learning. It was threaded through one's degree program. Sorry.
  12. sanantone

    sanantone Well-Known Member

    Actually, that is not what I meant. It doesn't matter if you're choosing from pre-designed courses or designing your own curriculum. If it's not a dissertation-only program, then you're still following a curriculum to gain more knowledge about a subject. I hope old Union students were following a curriculum to learn stats and research methods at the very least because many master's programs in the U.S. don't cover them in depth or at all. It would also be a little concerning if someone didn't have a master's in a related field, and they went on to earn a doctorate in that field with no foundation in it.
  13. Rich Douglas

    Rich Douglas Well-Known Member

    I didn't start this thread to create an argument, but you repeatedly misrepresent the Union's doctoral program.

    One did not "follow" a curriculum. One "created" a learning program.
    Again, this reveals a misunderstanding of person-centered graduate education. Some learners would require it, others would not. It varied from person-to-person. (Later, Union decided every learner would have to address this in his/her Program Summary, but not necessarily with new learning.)
    Again, no. Try to let go of institution-based thinking for a moment. If a learner pursued a new field, he/she would have a lot more learning to do to reach the degree program's objectives. Those objectives were set out in the learning agreement, each of which were reviewed and approved by the school. Learners with extensive backgrounds in their doctoral fields would have much shorter journeys than those with little or none. This acknowledged the real fact that one's prior learning was not fully captured by a master's transcript.

    I'm not interested in defending the merits of this program. But I am very much interested in having it accurately represented.
  14. sanantone

    sanantone Well-Known Member

    If you don't mind explaining, how would a student prove competency when he or she is lacking in an area? Would they have to read articles and textbooks and write papers? What would a learning agreement entail?
  15. Rich Douglas

    Rich Douglas Well-Known Member

    This is a fair question, but muddled.

    You're conflating the learning with the demonstration of mastery of that learning. They're separate ideas.

    The learning could take place in myriad ways. Just about anything you can think of. Reading, experiences, training, didactic conversations, seminars, and just about any other learning experience you can think of.

    Demonstration of mastery could take many forms, too. Sure, people sometimes wrote papers. They also did presentations, conducted colloquia, carried out projects, performed, created, and myriad other things.

    The learning agreement had many components. Mine was more than 100 pages. I wrote a lot about my field. I drew up a list of literature to be reviewed (much of which eventually found its way into my dissertation). I wrote a self-reflection piece. I set out the components of my program, how I would learn about them, and how I would demonstrate that I'd mastered them. Just like everyone else.

    In order to fully appreciate the Union experience, you must let go of pedagogical thinking and truly embrace adragogical thinking.
  16. Kizmet

    Kizmet Moderator Staff Member

  17. Rich Douglas

    Rich Douglas Well-Known Member

    Too bad. Andrgogical principles are what drive innovation in higher education as well as workplace learning, and have done so for decades.

    Many online or distance learning programs are merely classroom learning stuffed into a different--and less effective--medium. But many schools are switching to andragogy, even in prescribed curricula--recognizing that the "teacher" can not be the center of learning online. That person must assume the role of facilitator, and the student must therefore take responsibility for his/her learning. The instructor is not longer "the sage on the stage" but instead is the "guide on the side."
    SteveFoerster likes this.
  18. SteveFoerster

    SteveFoerster Resident Gadfly

  19. chrisjm18

    chrisjm18 Active Member

    I find it odd that Steve L. thinks Organizational Leadership is a useless doctoral major but doesn't have anything to say about a doctorate in Interdisciplinary Studies...
    JBjunior likes this.
  20. JBjunior

    JBjunior Active Member

    I am not sure if it meets the pure definition of what you are describing but in essence it meets what I experience in my USC doctoral program. The professors/program call it a “flipped classroom” and most of our learning comes from readings, demonstrations, written assignments, etc. during the week and then each class is weekly for 2 - 3 hours synchronously. During this time, the professor will introduce prompts and the majority of the class is spent “making meaning” from what we learned that week by discussions, small group environments, deliverables, and answering the questions from our various perspectives. I honestly look forward to sitting through 5 hours of classes every week because of what I learn from my colleagues. In some ways I am saddened that I didn’t have this type of learning experience early on.
    Rich Douglas likes this.

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