In this article, we address the process of designing a new programme for the export of education. Naturally, there are many and diverse types of educational programmes in the export of education, but we believe that all of them share the same characteristics that imply a typical complex design. In this case, our idea is to use the “wicked problem” conceptual model as a useful tool to handle complex problems.
Educational projects for export of education: main characteristics
If we want to characterize the export of education projects, we can at least mention the following aspects:
Cultural difference: One of the first aspects that increase the complexity of these projects is typically the cultural difference between the educational provider and the client organization.
There is no clear definition of the problem and the objective: in many cases, the definition of the main problem is not clear from the beginning, therefore, the solution requires more time to be found.
Economic challenges: these projects involve a significant amount of resources.
High expectations of the client-organization: based on the reputation of the educational provider, it has high expectations about the results of the project.
Diverse stakeholders within the client organization: Generally, also, there are different stakeholders with different ideas and expectations related to the project and its objectives.
What makes a project a wicked problem?
Generally speaking not all projects and related problems can be considered as wicked. Social complexity (individual diversity, varied discipline, own language, etc) can be the driving force towards failing to solve a wicked problem. It is therefore “essential to understanding the properties of wicked problems in order to counter and manage their fragmenting impact on projects”.
You do not understand the problem until you have a solution because the problem is ill-structured in nature and dynamic.
Wicked problems have no stopping rule in the sense that there is no definite solution to a problem. You have to reach a “good enough” solution.
Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong. Instead, they are the results of a social process whereby several opinions emerge from the interaction between stakeholders until a consensus is reached.
Every wicked problem is essentially unique and novel thus leading to unique and novel solutions that fit a particular context.
How to categorize a wicked project in the export of education context?
This matrix by Heal and Alford (2017) provides a model for categorizing the degree of wickedness of the problems. We can show how the matrix works with concrete examples from our export of education programmes.
In the case of Uruguay, as part of a larger project, we implemented a programme of 40 ects points (European Credit Transfer), for a group of 24 participants working in the field vocational education. We defined this project as a “very wicked problem”. In this case, the solution was not clear from the beginning and required a lot of discussion with the different actors involved in the project. The idea was to create an atmosphere of trust and mutual understanding as a first step in the process. One of the challenges was the existence of different actors with different perspectives about the right final solution.
In the case of South Africa, what could be so far described as a “tame problem” (several similar 60 cr vocational teacher education implementations ) has now turned into a “complex problem” due to the consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic. The start of the new programme originally scheduled for April 2020 has been postponed to an unknown date. This exceptional situation is also disrupting the planning phase as it is no longer possible to proceed with the planning of the first contact week. Would offering the programme 100% online be a realistic solution? What would that mean in practice?
The current project with a Colombian university can be considered as an “analytically complex problem”. The customer is planning to offer a new online Master’s degree programme in education and we provide consulting services focusing on the scope and key contents of the programme. Even if the problem is clear, the solution remains unclear as the design process is ongoing and requires the collaboration of many lecturers.
We hope this article will offer an analytical tool in order to evaluate the complexity of a project in the early phase as well as in the evaluation phase of the results of a project.
- Rittel, H. & Webber, M. (1973) Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169.
- Head, B. (2018) Forty years of wicked problems literature: forging closer links to policy studies. Policy and Society.
- Head, B. & Alford, J. (2017) Wicked and less wicked problems: a typology and a contingency framework. Policy and Society, 36, 3, 397-413.