Tuesday, March 19, 2013



I can tell I’m getting older by what gets me excited.  There was a time when a story had to feature Winona Ryder and/or Paul Westerberg to get my attention.  Now I read about the Department of Education issuing a guidance letter on competency-based education and financial aid eligibility and get all worked up.

Reader, aging isn’t pretty.

Apparently, the U. S. Department of Education has gone on record saying that degree programs that use documented student competencies, rather than the traditional credit hour, will be able to apply for federal financial aid eligibility.  Southern New Hampshire University’s “College for America” program is the first on the docket.  

For those of us who sleep and breathe higher ed, this is huge (and very good) news.  

As I’ve mentioned a few times (cough), credit hours measure time, rather than learning or ability.  When a product is denoted in units of time, increasing the economic productivity of the enterprise -- without watering down the product -- is impossible by definition.  (That’s because productivity is denoted in units of time, too.)  When the rest of the economy realizes productivity gains every single year and higher ed doesn’t, a cost squeeze is a mathematical inevitability.  Yes, public disinvestment is a real factor, but even without that we’d be caught in a vise of cutting spending and increasing tuition.  It’s called Baumol’s cost disease, and it’s insidious.

Moving away from time and towards actual student learning offers a chance for a breakthrough.  If nothing else, at least it will break the mathematical logjam.

I have to admit, I’m curious about the mechanics of it.

From a community college perspective -- that is, from the perspective of a “sending” school -- I wonder about how transfer would work.  While credit hours don’t actually tell us anything about learning, they at least make certain kinds of bureaucratic work easier.  If a student does a year or two in a community college and then transfers to College for America, does anything come over?  Does the student have to re-test everything?  

How is faculty work denominated?  (Most colleges have a set number of “courses” or “credits,” which is part of the productivity logjam.)  How does the actual teaching work?  The one efficiency that the “herd thirty people into a room at ten o’clock” method has is the economy of scale.  If everyone is moving at a separate pace, presumably the economies of scale are lost.  What replaces them?

And what happens to students who transfer out?  A student who has demonstrated, say, 73 competencies gets tired of the program and wants to go to Mediocre State.  Assuming that Mediocre State is on the credit hour system and isn’t a national leader in outcomes assessment, how will that student land?  How will Mediocre State know what to do with her?

If the instruction is entirely modularized, do students lose a sense of continuity?  Is there a sort of
major or course of study made possible in this model that the credit hour system stifles, or would a college basically have to reverse engineer from the old model?  And if it does just work backwards, where’s the gain?

Presumably, the Department of Education would have to weigh in, eventually, on which outcomes are “college level.”  That may involve a level of academic judgment at the federal level unlike anything we’ve seen so far.  (Alternately, regional accreditors could do the same thing, but initially they wouldn’t have much basis for judgment.)  

I can imagine some unscrupulous for-profits jumping on this with unrealistic promises about what adults can learn quickly, and with not-too-subtle pressures on instructor/evaluators to grease the skids.  If it were up to me, I’d love to see the instruction function separated from the evaluation function.  Without that separation, the conflict of interest is just too great.

So there’s plenty of work to be done.  But I say “Bravo!” to the department of ed for giving a green light, and yet another in a series of “bravos!” to SNHU for stepping up.  The transition to the new system could be hairy, but if it’s done right, it could be a real breakthrough.  As Westerberg put it so many years ago, color me impressed.

Maybe I'm being over-cynical, but I don't see what there is to this other than the opportunity for "...unscrupulous for-profits..." and, *ahem* publics, getting a way to "improve their productivity". (read: extract federally subsidized tuition money from students more quickly irrespective of whether or not they've learned anything.)

Or maybe I'm just clueless.

I'll freely admit: probably both.
I'm glad that this is in response to SNHU rather than for-profits or WGU. You're correct that even if institutions agree to use "competencies" as currency, there are huge questions about what that means in practice.

In the end, it might have been simpler to just say that institutions can talk about "credit hour" or "credit."
I have never worked in a competency-based environment, but nay time there is an attempt to deviate from the credit hour or from the examination-based evaluation, a majority of persons in my institution are against it.

They do not offer sensible reasons for the opposition but, I suspect that they prefer to do things as they have done their whole life.

Modular teachinmg can possibly work in Math-- the present system of integrated curriculum allows to people to move on who fail in certain aspects of arithmetic and it must be agonizing to attempt to relearn math evry time you join a new class.

Arithmetic and basic algebra should be like swimming, you can't forget.

My concern is also the impact on the workload of a teaching faculty. Whenever some new thing is introduced we are asked to to that in addition to what we already do.

And as I've reminded you a few times (cough), the idea of using a single exam to determine competency in a particular subject as part of a college degree has been around for more than a half century. Extending this concept to an entire degree program, based on the vast suite of benchmarks established for competencies and learning outcomes over several centuries, was inevitable. Note that the issue here was one of federal financial aid, not the educational justification for the degree. The regional accreditor approved the program last year.

Historically, this is how graduate degrees were conferred. What mattered was what you wrote in your dissertation and whether you could defend it, not how long you were in your seat working on it. The modern university wants a minimum fee for the degree, of course, but I don't know if there were rules like that in the past.
How are the assessments done in their Chemistry, Biology, and Physics courses at SNHU (limited in number)?

How can true assessment not be labor intensive? In General Chemistry, I could give a multiple choice test, relatively quick to grade (scantron). If they get it wrong, I don't really understand why, I have to investigate to determine why (look at what answer they did select assuming the test was designed & validated appropriately, a non-trivial task, or perform another diagnostic), or I have a test that isn't multiple choice (slower to grade). I can determine relatively quickly while grading if the student understands the chemistry, algebra and or how to use their calculator (scary how troubles tend to be the latter). Rubrics help but still takes times.

Please enlighten me: why is a credit-hour (i.e. seat time) based course WITH ASSESSMENTS like homework, tests, term papers, labs, etc not just as compentency-based as some (yet to be invented) way of determining competency after the student decides to pursue the testing instead of registering for the course?
Seems fairly straightforward for the students to me, at least in the STEM courses. The prerequisite for Calc 2 was never "3 hours of Calc 1", it was "passed Calc 1 with a grade of (x)". If a prospective Calc 2 student can pass a combination of the Calc 1 Final and additional work sufficient to correspond to the level of learning represented by non-Final elements (not "do all the course assignments" - in the context of display of mastery, much of the graded homework and even the mid-term are meaningless, as their topics are re-tested in the Final.) Having passed the modified standalone Calc 1 test, the student now has a credit in Calc 1. If he transfers to a credit-hour institution, the success/grade would transfer (per existing agreements) with the credit value assigned based on the new school's equivalent.

While this might seem unfair for the student who spent the equivalent of 5 credit hours on what becomes a 3-credit course, the likelihood is that they would have failed if limited to those 3 hours, and had to take the class again (with possible repercussions to financial aide and GPA).

How it works from the faculty end, is a bit more murky. My assumption is that "teaching" becomes more a case of single-topic lectures (acknowledging some lectures will actually span multiple days), that are typically more in-depth then they are currently.
If the "competencies" are set by an external authority, those instructors that do best will be those that teach to the test. Which means their students will know what's on the test(s) very well, and not much of anything else.

That sounds a lot like "No Child Left Behind" to me. I've heard college profs complaining about how my students lack the skills they need in college — which is true, because all my classroom time goes into teaching them to pass those standardized tests. Same thing in my AP classes: they master passing multiple choice tests and solving some problems, without taking the time to really understand physics — because solving a problem based on deep understanding is slower than practicing a rote solution.

So my question is: why would you want to extend a failing system to college, when you don't like the results it produces in K-12?
The credit hour measures only time and not competency only if it is divorced from grades.

Exams can replace grades only if teachers base their grades only on exams.

Divorcing exams from teaching means turning colleges into high schools. Subject matter, class schedules, etc. will be necessarily centralized for purposes of transferability across the nation.

What I'm always wondering at is how all these things are presented as if new. But we have had for many years CLEP, AP, Wintermester, Maymester, summer schedule, flextime classes etc.

In other words grading is already divorced from teaching, credit hours are already divorced from any specific time frame.

So the argument must be yes but we need to do more of what CLEP, AP, Flextime etc. do. There is already a body of evidence that those approaches are superior to traditional semesters. Evidence ignored by students and faculty and administrators.

Maybe Baumol’s cost disease is the great evil you say it is, but there are evils associated with those other approaches you seem unconcerned with. Are you really unaware of them? Or do you think them not worth discussing?

It is not clear to me which is the greater evil.
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