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PhD, Union Institute / Doctor of Social Science, University of Leicester

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.

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.