President's Message: "Just-in-Time" Education


There is a new phrase finding its way into the argot of postsecondary education: "Just-In-Time" education. Recent conferences and publications are replete with the term. Stanford Professor Martin Conroy mentioned this concept in his address to our Spring 1998 Plenary Session. This philosophy is succinctly described by Professor James Duderstadt of University of Michigan in the Winter 1998 edition of CAUSE/EFFECT.

"We are beginning to see a shift in demand from the current style of "just-in-case" education in which we expect students to complete degree programs at the undergraduate or professional level long before they actually need the knowledge, to "just-in-time" education in which education is sought when a person needs it through non-degree programs...."

The "just-in-time" approach has the potential to seriously undermine sound educational planning and to produce an "educated" generation with little ability to independently cope with the shifting terrain of their own learning needs. How would other professions fare if they approached their learning needs this way? Shall we have doctors who learn about a treatment "just-intime" to save a patient? Or should that doctor have such a broad and thorough understanding of the field that knowledge of the full range of conditions and treatments is part of the expected prior learning? How much confidence would you have in a "justin-time" stock investment advisor who learned about a particular stock just before advising you to invest?

There are two fundamental principles of a comprehensive educational program that the "justin-time" approach fails to recognize. First, a complete education prepares that person to deal with eventualities which evolve as their profession evolves. A well-rounded student has a knowledge and skill basis that is broad enough to face more than just the present situation. Second, a complete education prepares the person to learn independently. As new information and abilities are needed to do the job, this person identifies those needs, assesses their own talents, and acquires the essential upgrades on their own.

In my opinion, the "just-intime" approach is a symptom of a larger problem. Increasingly, educators are expected to justify their programs on immediate outcomes. We are becoming a society which values only instant gratification and current utility. If the benefits are not obvious at the moment, why should I invest my time and effort?

As faculty members, we have often faced questions from students such as "why do I need to know this?" Indeed, a good deal of our own time is spent keeping our curriculum current and relevant. However, almost all occupations require an extensive knowledge base that must be woven like a tapestry. And, like a tapestry, the role of an individual thread can rarely be discerned until the weaving is complete. It does not make good sense that a novice would even have the ability to ask the right questions, let alone judge what they need "just-in-time" to meet the current challenge.

We need to redirect the poorly-conceived "just-in-time" rhetoric toward more constructive purposes. There certainly is a need to have instruction available at times, places, and manners that are more accessible to students. We must, and indeed we are, looking beyond semester-based and classroom-based delivery. Short-term, block-scheduled, technology-mediated, and asynchronous distance-based instructional modes are increasingly common. Pedagogies appropriate to these methods are advancing dramatically. As these changes take place, faculty are working hard to maintain the comprehensive and coherent nature of the curriculum. We cannot let these goals be turned aside by those who only value short-term gains.

As you, the faculty leaders on your campus, encounter this "justin-time" double speak, respond by emphasizing the need for increased access through multiple delivery modes while maintaining the commitment to a quality, thorough education. We can't afford the risk that "just-in-time" will become "if-only-I-had-known!"