Australian Fulbright Scholar Explores Innovative Teacher-Training Ideas

Submitted by SUNY Oswego

Mark Harris, a Fulbright Scholar who is visiting SUNY Oswego this semester, will travel the state to research vocational-teacher preparation at technical and community colleges.
Mark Harris, a Fulbright Scholar who is visiting SUNY Oswego this semester, will travel the state to research vocational-teacher preparation at technical and community colleges.

OSWEGO — SUNY Oswego visiting Fulbright Scholar 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.

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?

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.”

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.”

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. That puts a special challenge on faculty, he said.

“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.”