Thursday, October 15, 2015

Academic Freedom for Format, Not Just Content

If I could ask the Education Department one question, it would be this:

If you’re so willing to explore alternatives to credit-hour based education, why are you clamping down on the definition of the credit hour?

It’s almost as if people there don’t talk to each other.

The Education Department has announced a pilot program to make coding boot camps and similar short-term job training programs eligible for financial aid.  Although some of my colleagues may disagree with me, I actually think it’s a good idea.  How it’s implemented will matter a great deal, of course; too little specificity could lead to a resurgence of the kinds of abuses that many for-profits committed, and too much could stifle innovation.  But if it’s done well, it could open the door to other ways of educating students.  

After the initial wave of MOOC hype receded and reality set in, many providers shifted from competing with community colleges on freshman classes to something closer to a corporate training model.  Restricting your student body to people who already have undergraduate degrees and who have ten or twenty thousand dollars to plunk down while going unpaid for a few months takes certain issues off the table.  You can leave general education behind, assuming that someone else has taken care of it, and focus exclusively on the specific training that defines your market niche.   The major flaw is that it leaves you wide open to charges of elitism.  (Between the lines, some techies consider that a feature, not a bug, but that’s another discussion.)  

Opening up the boot camps to students who would need financial aid to attend them could, at least theoretically, allow folks with more talent and drive than money to have a shot.  And to the extent that those camps eschew the credit hour in favor of some other measure of learning, the Feds could learn to tie financial aid to actual learning, rather than seat time.  As they get better at that, I would hope that other providers -- such as community colleges -- could start to explore similar avenues.  As a side benefit, we could also establish more sensible rules for financial aid for people who already have a bachelor’s degree.  That’s a growing demographic in community colleges, as students who want to change careers come back to pick up a different set of skills.  If boot camps motivate the Feds to revisit how to treat those students, then more power to them.

At the same time that the Feds are looking closely at alternative formats, though, they’re becoming much more exacting in enforcing the existing ones.  It’s a fascinating study in mixed messaging.

The common denominator, I think, is fear of abuse.  But the real solution to that isn’t to tighten the screws on a format that even its partisans admit has nothing to do with student learning.  It’s to focus intently on developing measures that show whether students are learning.  If they do, I say, let a thousand methods bloom.  Apply “academic freedom” not only to content, but to format; as long as students get what they need, why count minutes?