Higher Education Perspectives: Training & Education: The Trend to Combine Certifications for Credits

W hen I joined the fire service some 20 years ago, I found it a great opportunity to put my practical training to use while providing a valuable service to my community. I didn’t know that being the only person in the department who possessed a bachelor’s degree at that time would be an issue. It was. One fellow firefighter expressed it best for most of the department:

“What are you doing working here?”

“It’s a great job…what do you mean?”

“You’re an educated man, and this is a blue-collar job.”

That was then, and things have changed concerning higher education in the fire service. It has evolved from being merely accepted to a sought-after commodity for promotional points, administrative jobs and, yes, bragging rights. But an interesting blending of philosophies has occurred. A good example of this is the newly combined Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) and Training Resources and Data Exchange (TRADE) conferences hosted by the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA); see page 120. The overlapping philosophies of the two programs and the need to reduce duplication and cut costs were the driving forces in this merger, according to Mike McCabe, education program specialist and one of the creators of the new National Professional Development Symposium.

 

Training vs. education:

What’s the difference?

The arguments of what constitutes the philosophy of each go back to Plato and Aristotle. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge described the rift, we are born either realists or idealists: perhaps the first discussion of what separates training from education.

Training uses a template to teach skills, actions and procedures to perform an orderly execution of a task to yield desired outcomes, such as improving performance. By its very nature, training involves instruction, practice and summative evaluation. It typically does not elicit new ideas or require critical thinking from participants. In the fire service, it’s the correct procedure for wrapping a hydrant or donning an airpack. If an academy student realizes inefficiency in either procedure, I’m certain the instructors would make sure he or she would receive the needed practice in their procedure to erase any future innovative thoughts.

Education, on the other hand, could include some of training’s components, but is widely believed to be of greatest value when it produces good decision-making and an analysis of conditions, based on research and critical thinking to make informed – and often innovative decisions. College students are pushed and prodded to look at ideas, sort through them with the aid of research and be able to apply them to real-life scenarios.

With the growing pressure on higher education institutions to reduce costs, increase enrollments and deliver educated graduates with ready-made jobs, it is little wonder critics have educators in a quandary. But fewer and fewer educators are running universities these days. Decisions once relegated to the faculty senate are made in the CEO or COO’s office. Administrators with little or no classroom experience are making decisions, a departure from the Western model of university leadership that has been in place for 1,000 years as two higher education veterans, Melanie Winter and Frank McCluskey, point out in their new book, The Idea of the Digital University. One outcome of this centralized, business-model management is that marketing has become a key ingredient in higher education.

 

Classroom credits cannot

replace fireground training

Marketing, competition and the notion that jobs should be the result of higher education are not intrinsically bad ideas, but they can prompt some unfortunate consequences. Just because college A is ranked in the top 10 universities by U.S. New and World Report does not mean college B, with a ranking of 20, is a lesser institution. Some colleges are better for some students than others. A student wishing to study fire administration at a college to better his or her chances of becoming a fire service administrator is problematic only when the student has not completed fire service training. Fire service jobs follow training first, education second.

Training is fundamental in the fire service, which distinguishes it from many other professional pursuits. But when a university offers prospective students college credit for courses that were taught in a vocational atmosphere, the equation may not work. Not to minimize what is commonly called articulation, but careful scrutiny must be used to ensure a course in building construction for the fire service from a local vo-tech is equal in design and rigor to the same course at a community college. Often, they are not. I have sat through two days of rapid-fire lecture at a privately run training academy and received a certificate for little effort that some universities would see as three college credits.

 

Managing the process

to ensure qualifications

The fire service educator Dr. Barb Klingensmith makes a solid case for how to proceed with accepting certificates for college credits.

“I think the process of articulating state certifications, as opposed to individual course credit from either adult technical centers or approved training centers, has great potential to be a process for students to gain college credit,” Klingensmith said. “However, it is a process that needs to be carefully managed to ensure students complete the college-required general education credits and other degree requirements, before granting the articulated credits. Consideration needs to be given to the qualifications of the instructors and the accreditation requirements of the institution. A professional development matrix, such as the one developed by FESHE project, is useful in evaluating curriculum and doing a crosswalk from training or vocational student learning outcomes to higher education requirements.”

As one fire science college professor points out, “I wouldn’t want a Harvard graduate on my fireground, nor would I want a rookie firefighter doing my department’s budget.” The division remains between education and training. We need to make sure to understand what constitutes each to keep from diluting their critical attributes – regardless of the market-driven forces in place. n

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