In the 1966-67 TV series “It’s About Time,” two astronauts travel back in time and visit with some cave people (including the 20th-century character actress Imogene Coca), and then some of the cave people travel forward in time to the 20th century. Both the astronauts and the cave people learn things in usual, and unusual, places and times. Similarly, there is increasing recognition in higher education that students today can learn anywhere, any time. So whether or not you are old enough to remember this sitcom, you may be aware that learning in today’s institutions of higher education is becoming more independent of the dimensions of time and space.
Where, when, and how learning takes place in higher education is going through significant changes. These changes are for the great benefit of students, but they also have consequences for our institutions of higher education, consequences that reach far beyond the classroom itself. These consequences reach into, not just the area of technology, but the areas of governance, labor practice, and policy.
First, higher education’s increasing independence from time and space is coupled with an increasing emphasis on learning outcomes — that it is what you learn, not where or when you learn it — that matters. You could learn while you are a matriculated student in a Tuesday/ Thursday 10-11:20 a.m. course in your local community college, or you could learn on occasional Saturday afternoons while you are sitting on the beach. The important thing is that you learn. Further, if what is important is the actual learning outcomes, it is essential to be able to tell whether those outcomes have been achieved.
A focus on outcomes is not new in higher education. Nevertheless, American higher education has historically focused largely on the mechanisms that produce outcomes, and not so much on the outcomes themselves. Thus state, regional, and professional accreditors require colleges and universities to demonstrate that they have qualified faculty, appropriate syllabi, and the proper numbers of class hours — all examples of assumed inputs to good outcomes — rather than requiring the institutions to demonstrate that their students know what they should in order to receive their degrees. The most commonly mentioned outcome is graduation, as part of what is known as the college completion agenda.
But, unfortunately graduation does not necessarily mean that a student has learned anything. For graduation to be meaningful it must represent measurable, verifiable achievement of specific learning outcomes, a goal toward which many organizations and institutions are working. For example, according to the Lumina Foundation’s work on the Degree Qualifications Profile, a baccalaureate student in a certain field "defines and explains the boundaries and major sub-fields, styles, and/or practices of that field."
A relatively recent example of more outcome-based focuses is the LEAP initiative of Association of American Colleges and Universities. LEAP (Liberal Education and American’s Promise) specifies a set of "essential learning outcomes” that every 21st-century college graduate should achieve. For example, “…continuing at successively higher levels across their college studies, students should prepare for twenty-first century challenges by gaining… intellectual and practical skills, including... critical and creative thinking... practiced extensively, across the curriculum, in the context of progressively more challenging problems, projects, and standards for performance.”
For many years the City University of New York has worked diligently to turn its focus to learning outputs rather than inputs. One example is CUNY’s Performance Management Process, which began in 1999, and which encourages CUNY colleges to set outcomes goals such as “increase licensing examination pass rates” as opposed to “increase the number of classroom instruction hours for students preparing to take the licensing examination.” The latter may be a perfectly valid activity, but it is not a learning outcome.
A relatively recent example of CUNY’s focus on learning outcomes concerns CUNY’s Pathways initiative, approved by the CUNY Board of Trustees and then-Chancellor Matthew Goldstein in 2011. Designed to smooth transfer for CUNY students, Pathways includes a framework for general education that applies to all 19 undergraduate colleges of CUNY. This framework is defined, not in terms of particular courses that students must take (which would be inputs), but in terms of learning outcomes.
Now that the Pathways project has been essentially completed, with its courses first offered in fall 2013, CUNY students are supposed to achieve certain learning outcomes by virtue of taking the Pathways courses. However, each individual CUNY college determines which specific courses will be offered to achieve these learning outcomes. Thus a student at one college might take a course entitled “Contemporary Asia” to satisfy the world cultures learning outcomes of Pathways, and a student at another college might take a course entitled “World History to 1500.” In both cases, the expectation is that on completion of the course, the student can, for example, “analyze culture, globalization, or global cultural diversity, and describe an event or process from more than one point of view.” Yet, though CUNY has decided to focus on learning outcomes for its general education courses, how to measure those outcomes is still under discussion. Assessing learning outcomes can be much more difficult than checking off inputs, such as the amount of time students spend sitting in class (see this link for an example of how the AAC&U suggests that the learning outcome of critical thinking can be assessed).
CUNY’s focus on learning outcomes for the Pathways general education curriculum directly promotes space-independent learning in that students can take Pathways courses anywhere at CUNY and then receive credit anywhere at CUNY. However, although Pathways enables students to complete their degrees more efficiently, some CUNY faculty have stated that Pathways interferes with the faculty having complete control over the curriculum and decreases educational quality. The CUNY administration has countered that New York State Education Law gives control over the curriculum to the CUNY Board of Trustees, and that the actual curricular content of Pathways has in any case been created and approved by the faculty. The conflict has reached the courts.
More generally, assuming that we can measure outcomes, the focus on outcomes rather than on inputs brings us back to the independence of learning from time and place that is increasingly characterizing higher education. For it is this very focus on outcomes that validates, for example, assessment of prior learning (including learning done outside of a college or university) as a method for determining whether someone has sufficient learning to be certified as having completed a particular course or degree. The American Council on Education standards regarding how to evaluate learning achieved as a result of military service are a good example of how to standardize the assessment of learning outcomes. For example, ACE recommends that people who have served as Coast Guard copilots receive a total of 40 college semester-hour credits in topics such as aviation meteorology, flight physiology, and crew resource management.
Some universities have gone further, explicitly and actively seeking ways to help students proceed very efficiently in accumulating certified achievements. These universities may use traditional classroom-based study only when necessary (see Western Governor’s University’s competency-based education, Southern New Hampshire University’s competency-based general studies degree, and Northern Arizona University’s new competency-based education). Such approaches constitute a key component of President Obama’s recent college cost control plan.
Also in the recent news is higher education’s use of MOOCs (massive open online courses). Because these courses are free and open to everyone, students can take them at their own convenience, and then, by means of some official assessment, students can be certified as having learned a particular topic and, ultimately, be awarded a degree. However, because of MOOCs’ low completion rates, there are currently many attempts to modify MOOCs (so that they are no longer massive or open) to try to facilitate MOOC students’ completion rates (and thus achievement of the MOOCs’ learning outcomes). For example, Georgia Institute of Technology is structuring a master’s program so that it exposes students to MOOCs that are open and online for all (with the MOOCs serving the traditional roles of lectures and textbooks), but that also provides the Georgia Tech students with individualized tutoring and proctored exams, such that the Georgia Tech students do not experience traditional MOOCs.
Another example of higher education’s increasing focus on outcomes as opposed to space and time involves the unbundling of course learning. In such cases students are first assessed to see what they already know, and then they are instructed only on what they do not know. This is not a new approach, but the current focus on learning outcomes highlights this technique’s usefulness.
The unbundling of learning such that students only need to spend time learning what they already know, assessment of prior learning, and online (particularly asynchronous) learning are all examples of the same goal: Freeing learning from time and space constraints and focusing on learning outcomes.
All of these trends should help students finish their degrees, and finish them faster. However, this degree acceleration will only occur if colleges and universities provide the conditions needed to facilitate this kind of work — enabling students to achieve the desired learning outcomes by whatever path is easiest for them. To do this the college and university infrastructure that supports learning should not be tied to particular times or places. Students should have opportunities to access what they need at any time and in any place — with or without an instructor, and with or without an adviser in physical proximity. Learning tools should be available that are easy to use in different places (i.e., they should be portable and accessible no matter what someone’s abilities), and those learning tools should function in the same way no matter what time it is (i.e., they should be asynchronous).
There should also be easily available — at any time and in any place — other sorts of supports such as reference material, technology support, tutoring, counseling, colleagues with whom to discuss the material, cocurricular activities, etc. Finally, of course, there must be good assessments of the outcomes and everything must be affordable, not only for the students and their families, but also for the institution and, in the case of public institutions, for taxpayers. Not an easy list to accomplish, by any means, but ongoing technological developments are facilitating institutions of higher education providing all of these types of physical and virtual infrastructure supports.
Providing all of these student supports is not the only change occurring in colleges and universities as a result of the increasing emphasis on learning outcomes and the concomitant decreasing emphasis on time- and space-dependent learning. How an instructor best structures the learning experiences is also changing. Lessons should be different for students engaging in learning activities for 30 minutes whenever their children are napping or have gone to sleep for the night than for students attending a traditional lecture course every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 9 a.m. Lessons may need to be broken into smaller units with the material presented in a variety of ways, accompanied by optional multiple examples, and with continuous opportunities for learning assessment and feedback. The Khan Academy incorporates just these sorts of elements, which are possible contributors to its apparent significant success.
In other words, if the goal is truly to focus on learning outcomes, and to facilitate reaching those outcomes by whatever mechanisms work best for each individual, then it is necessary to enable all aspects of the learning process to operate independently of time and place. The lessons, assignments, and infrastructure supports for at least some students must be different than they were in the past.
Increasingly, federal, regional, and state regulations are permitting institutions to provide and certify learning that is place- and time-independent. For many years, much of the higher education system has been built around the concept of the credit hour (a similar concept is the Carnegie unit): students in class for a certain amount of time receive a credit. Credits earned by students count toward their degrees and are also the basis for how much tuition is charged, how much financial aid can be obtained, and how much workload credit a faculty member receives. As learning becomes independent of time and place, these uses of a credit hour become difficult, impossible, or irrelevant. Recognizing these consequences, in March 2013, the federal Department of Education issued a letter stating that it will consider giving financial aid based on how much a student has learned, rather than based on time in class. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the originator of the Carnegie unit in 1906, is also exploring ways of students being certified for having learned certain material without the intervening use of Carnegie units.
At the same time, hardware manufacturers and software developers are working intensively to make their devices and applications useful in supporting time- and space-independent learning. All of these developments will enable students to progress in ways that recognize the needs and accomplishments of each individual.
Nevertheless, colleges and universities themselves need to do more than simply measure outcomes and provide infrastructure support. Time- and space-independent learning requires changes in the very foundations of these institutions. If not by number of traditional credit hours taught, how will faculty workload be defined? Will faculty agree that prior learning that is achieved by means other than direct instruction can be just as valid as direct exposure (and often extended direct exposure) to themselves? Put another way, will faculty endorse the view that what is important for students is that they learn widely accepted correct information, obtained by whatever means best enables student progress, rather than information that each faculty member him- or herself specifically provides? Or will most faculty react to the changes in the learning process as did some CUNY faculty regarding the Pathways initiative? Or as did the philosophy faculty at San José State University when their campus administration suggested that their department make use of a MOOC produced outside of San José State University: “There is no pedagogical problem in our department that [this MOOC] solves, nor do we have a shortage of faculty capable of teaching the relevant course.” Colleges and universities may have to change many of their labor and governance policies in order to best facilitate the sort of learning described in this piece.
Thus the focus on outcomes, as well as the independence of learning from time and space constraints, is indeed about moving us along on the college completion agenda. However, this work has many additional implications for higher education and its associated industries. Just as in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, higher education may involve lots of seemingly (at least at first) strange people doing strange things in strange places — a complex and difficult journey, but one with highly desirable outcomes.
Alexandra W. Logue is executive vice chancellor and provost of the City University of New York.