Focused Fulbright
Australian Fulbright Scholar explores innovative teacher-training ideas

Mark Harris was a mid-career educator at a Brisbane institute of technology when he decided to “have a go” that put him on track to retrain faculty instructors in new techniques for vocational teaching.

Mark Harris.He’s now a visiting Fulbright Scholar at SUNY Oswego, having another go: taking his research and his ideas international.

“As a Fulbright Scholar, you’re in a group of individuals where you are completely humbled,” said Harris, whose campus sponsor is Susan Camp, associate professor of vocational teacher preparation. “But really the tradition of the Fulbright is so rich in American history, there’s a responsibility that comes with that.”

His challenge is tackling again, in a different country, an issue that has emerged in both nations: How do you deal with the loss of people and knowledge in an era of aging workforces, when public colleges and universities have less money yet more need to prepare teachers and students for new jobs in a new economy?

It sounds daunting, but Harris exudes enthusiasm as he talks about his Fulbright research here and his work at home. He speaks not only as an agent of change, but of transformation in the government of his native Queensland, in northeastern Australia, where he is senior strategy officer for product services with the Department of Education and Training.

“We’re moving away from the traditional four walls, the didactic model,” Harris said. “It’s more problem-based, work-based learning in an open-style room, with a world of technological resources at hand.”

Replacement issues

In the United States, Harris has until mid-November to visit technical and community colleges across the state, to learn how schools here deal with workforce development as many baby-boomer teachers take retirement, or soon intend to.

Camp, who during a 2006 sabbatical met Harris at his former job at Southbank Institute of Technology in Brisbane, knows the problem well.

“How are we going to replace instructors who are aging out?” she said. “We’ve seen that in a really big way at the BOCES centers, as teachers from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s leave. They’re often replaced by people who don’t have the history and traditions.”

Camp added, “Right now, we’re at a juncture in vocational technical education. People realize we have to create jobs, but what are those jobs going to be?”

Harris plans to study SUNY colleges’ recruitment of vocational training faculty, professional development strategies, performance assessment, quality of teaching and learning, faculty members’ retirement intentions, and supply and demand of vocational teachers.

At Southbank, Harris began with a study to determine the scope of the aging-workforce challenge. “I did a major study on retirement intentions of aging faculty,” Harris said. “We didn’t have an exit strategy on how we were managing those departures of knowledge and expertise from our organizations.”

The global financial crisis brought the matter to a head, as cost-cutting came to the fore in Australia and around the globe. Rather than shedding employees, Harris maintained, it makes economic sense to retain the ones you have and retrain them to meet new challenges.

To keep working, Harris said, all that many established employees need to know is that they’re valued. “How much does that cost?” Harris said. “Nothing. It doesn’t cost money. It’s a key point educational administrators are missing.”

Educational ‘ecosystem’

New faculty need to be recruited thoughtfully, and greeted with a comprehensive plan for integration into the college’s and department’s culture, teaching ethos, social life and so on. Why spend large sums to recruit bright new faculty if you don’t have an energetic and creative plan to retain them?

“My plan is not simplistic,” Harris said. “My model is more like an ecosystem. There are so many external and internal variables.”

One strategy Harris has tried and urges others to adopt is to establish a real-life working environment in the classroom. For example, he set up a “practice firm.” Students arrived in business attire, used sign-in sheets, had office furniture and filing cabinets, took communal lunches and so on. Each afternoon, they were presented with a business problem to solve, as a team. And that puts a special challenge on faculty.

“The teachers need to be industry-current,” Harris said. It’s crucial for college administrators to give faculty time to stay current, and that can be difficult in an era of strained resources, he said.

“But it’s important,” Harris said. “It’s at the core of the quality of your product, and that product is teaching excellence.”

Harris is not all about work. In tropical Brisbane, in the same state as the Great Barrier Reef, he’s a swimmer. He’s also a longtime “urban adventure walker,” often putting more than seven miles on his feet on the way home from work. So Camp has organized walks to help introduce Harris to his colleagues here.

He also has set up a blog to share his adventures with friends at home. One fond wish for something to tell them? “I hope to see a snowfall here before I have to go.”

(Posted: Aug 27, 2010)