Higher Ed for Human Development?

Current literature has vastly recognized that the lack of accessibility to education exclude population and promote the deterioration of their human capabilities. However, one may wonder if current educational trends, specially in the higher education context, are actually emphasizing the elements that contribute to student’s empowerment and therefore human development.

Traditionally, development is a concept that has been measured in terms of the metric of income or access to material goods as with the economic growth approach (Fraser & Naples, 2004; Sen, 1985). Human development, however, “is a process of expanding the real freedom of persons to lead the kind of lives they value and have reason to value” (Keleher, 2007; Sen, 1997). The capabilities approach assess human development as an alternative to the traditional economic growth-centered development theory (Nussbaum, 2011). It also recognizes that individuals are free to employ their own agency as they chose to achieve certain functionings/capabilities (Keleher, 2007) Sen/Nussbaum describe, such as education, employment, among others.

It follows from this understanding that human development is assessed within the capabilities approach in terms of what capabilities a person is free to achieve (Keleher, 2007). I operationalize capability as the several alternate functionings combinations a person is free to achieve to live a valued lifestyle (Keleher, 2014). With this context, it is important to recognize if current educational systems are actually promoting the expansion of capabilities and freedom of their students. Is it within our educational curriculums that we learn about the injustices in the world, and the available tools to overcome them? If it is not the case, one may question current education to human development.

Promoting Diversity as a World-changing Strategy

Diversity in higher education is a strategy that has been used for several institutions to promote peace and social justice, and one great example is the worldwide “Bridge. Connect. Act” (BCA) program who have now extended to basically all the United States. BCA is a program that facilitates abroad experiences within college students all around the world. It has study abroad programs with countries in almost all continents, and it works in a way in which a student from the US goes to study abroad in a different country while a student from that country goes to study abroad in the US.

What is most interesting about this program is that its vision goes beyond promoting diversity, but is is about changing the world with these types of experiences. It is a program that recognize that exposure to diversity enriches the educational experience, but it also aims that from those experiences, students get to understand other’s people’s beliefs, perspectives and even different lifestyles. And it is this understanding, according to BCA, that will help students to challenge stereotypes and preconceptions, to encourage critical thinking, and to become better citizens in an increasingly complex overall.

“BCA Study Abroad facilitates opportunities for growth in intercultural understanding and global awareness through educational programs that foster scholarship, community engagement and guided reflective learning.” (http://bcastudyabroad.org/)

BCA is a great illustration of how incorporating and promoting diversity in higher education can lead to build professionals with high values of mutual respect, tolerance and teamwork capacity. Which will contribute, ultimately, to build a better world.


Education and Empowerment

Alfie Kohn elaborates on the effects of how an educational grading system can be problematic for student learning, as well as it can reduce the quality of students’ thinking. From my point of view, Kohn’s analysis arises as a consequence of educating people so they can get a job, but not to empower them.

Empowerment is defined as the authority or power an individual has to control one’s life and claim one’s rights (Conger & Kanungo, 1988). However, this complex construct can be understood by both the economic growth and the capabilities approach. Within the economic growth approach, development is associated with efficient economic growth and productive forms of market participation (Keleher, 2007). In this context, empowerment is the ability of a person to make market-related decisions and autonomously control his/her economic status (Keleher, 2014).

On the other hand, empowerment within the capabilities approach is a process of expansion of the substantive freedom people enjoy, and it relates to an individual’s ability of being freely to perform in life (Keleher, 2014; Sen, 2011). This approach positions empowered people as owners not only of their economic activities but also as owners and managers of all the different spheres of life (Alexander, 2008). Additionally, unlike the economic-growth perspective, in order to achieve a lifestyle that a person has reasons to value, empowerment cannot be delivered by anybody, but it can only be achieved by individuals their-self (Conger & Kanungo, 1988), and each individual has to do it at his/her own pace (Rowlands, 1995).

Based in those two delineations, I consider essential to understand that education is a process in which students can get the tools they need to get empowered so they can achieve the lives that they want. Seems to me, that an education system which focus on its majority in the importance of grading, is a system that will be limited to prepare students so they can get a job, accordingly to the economic growth perspective. Consequently, by realizing that any education system should go beyond numbers and grades, and by focusing more on student’s learning experiences, education will be about empowering students so they can find the tools they need to make their difference in the world.



Alexander, J. M. (2008). Capabilities and social justice: The political philosophy of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=H4DcWEDqAngC&oi=fnd&pg=PR9&dq=Alexander,+J.+M.+(2008).+Capabilities+and+social+justice:+The+political+philosophy+of+Amartya+Sen+and+Martha+Nussbaum.+Ashgate+Publishing,+Ltd&ots=I2mZsvg5Gp&sig=Z9I7DrTWlDOsYF_FT1mCVw703eo

Conger, J. A., & Kanungo, R. N. (1988). The empowerment process: Integrating theory and practice. Academy of Management Review, 13(3), 471–482.

Keleher, L. (2007). Empowerment and international development. Retrieved from http://drum.lib.umd.edu/handle/1903/7584

Keleher, L. (2014). Sen and Nussbaum: Agency and Capability-Expansion1. Retrieved from https://papyrus.bib.umontreal.ca/xmlui/handle/1866/10936

Rowlands, J. (1995). Empowerment examined. Development in Practice, 5(2), 101–107

Sen, A. (2011). The idea of justice. Harvard University Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=OM4RBAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PR5&dq=Sen,+A.+(2011).+The+idea+of+justice.+Harvard+University+Press&ots=0soNdLyTdy&sig=vB8F0R0yo6Y_yNn9zuUbkXk4XzE


Mindless vs Mindful Learning – My experience in Australia


My academic/professional training has been shaped by different elements that helped me understand how the environment where you learn enhance either mindless or mindful learning. In this post, I elaborate on the different aspects that lead to one or the other, and the reflections I’ve got from experiencing for two years the Australian Academic system.

Prior to Virginia Tech, I got a bachelor in architecture from USFQ university in Quito, Ecuador; and studied a year abroad in Juniata College, PA. In both liberal arts universities, I experienced two types of classes: the very “technical” ones, and the “social/abstract” ones. The technical ones (such as structures, calculus and statistics) were the type of classes where you would sit in auditorium with 40 other students to learn from a lecture with very limited participation/interaction. The social/abstract ones (design studio, sustainable development, NGO managements) were the ones with all the interesting discussions and a lot of participation. These experiences, led me to the construct that it is difficult to overcome mindless learning in those very technical subjects, and that social/abstract subjects are the ones that usually promote mindfulness learning.

However, it was only until I studied my masters in Australia that I was able to break that paradigm I had mistakenly built. The University of Melbourne, as any other Australian university, has a completely different approach to learning. As a student, you are required to enroll in two different classes per each subject: a lecture and a tutorial. For instance, for a “3 credits” methodological class, I enrolled in a 1-hour lecture and in 2-hours tutorial. Lectures had the classical approach where you would sit in a classroom to receive all the information/material the professor prepared to facilitate your learning. Tutorials (which were usually run by T.A.s) in the other hand, were the space where you were expected to read articles so you can contribute to the class with opinions, arguments and discussions.

This experience helped me realize how achieving mindfulness learning, no matter what the subject is, is very possible when providing the right environment to allow students contribute to the learning process.

Old school vs New school

Nowadays, the effectiveness of lectures seems to be decreasing as technology develops. Sitting in a classroom listening to a professor talking about a subject is not enough motivation for students to engage. Somehow the methods that were used for our parents to learn are no longer effective and they are killing the motivation for students to learn in the classroom. I personally think that it is not just one party to blame. I think this is an adaptation struggle, parties who participate int he educational system are having troubles adapting to the new contexts.

Students should feel motivated to learn, to understand that the courses they take in college, and the material they learn there, has been designed to somehow prepare them for the professional world. While society should eliminate as many barriers as possible for enrollment–For example, the article that describes Obama’s attempts to reduce the financial barriers–, students should also work hard to earn grades, and pass courses.

Similarly, the subjects of learnings, students, are no longer the students that the educational system was designed for. Current students have access unlimited information in their pockets. Students learn to solve problems and adapt through video games and digital applications. The peace of communications has increased exponentially and accordingly, their learning habits. We need to continue evolving and adapt to the new world, without discarding the previous successful methods of education.

Information production is key, but readers’ role matters

In an era where academics, students, professionals, families and citizens are constantly adapting to new emerging technological and communication modes, it is worth reflecting what does this adaptation means and what are the parameters that should be taken into account. Campbell, in his “Networked Learning as Experiential Learning” article published in 2016, establishes the significance of a digitally mediated network of discovery and collaboration in experimental learning. However, despite all the benefits that have been recognized by an existing vast body of literature, Campbell assures that without a clear understanding of the organizations principles behind the digital era, users could be excluding vital information.

The reliability of the used sources, for instance, is a critical component that although it determinates the validity of the used information, is often ignored in the digital world. Since digital anonymity -and the tensions it brings to the table- is not the only dimension that is often avoided in emerging technological and communication modes, it is important to reflect on how does the reliability of information has been validated in the past and why is it that it is easier to avoid it now.

Is it that the current digital revolution has convinced us that what happens behind scenes when information is digitally produced is not worth of our analysis? Or is it that in an attempt to avoid our own commitment -often exhausting- to seek reliable information we have chosen not to? Seems to me, that as far as citizens’ commitment to seek deeper remain a discretionary choice, our current and future understanding of the world will very often be based in unreliable and biased information.