ACE will create a pool of 100 low-cost courses, some from non-college providers

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ACE continues online experimentation with proposed pool of general education courses from colleges and providers like StraighterLine.

Accreditors' role in the expansion of competency-based education

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Competency-based education is hot, which keeps accreditors busy trying to ensure quality control without stifling innovation.

Harvard Launches Education Research Website

What's the point of research if it doesn't get into the hands of practitioners? That's the idea behind Useable Knowledge, the new education research website from the Harvard Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. The website features interviews with and discussions among Harvard researchers and their co-investigators elsewhere about new research, books and best practices. The site will be updated regularly with new content relating to both K-12 and higher education. Current offerings include a discussion about remediation with Bridget Terry Long, the school's academic dean, and recommendations from Harvard's Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) about how to make the tenure and promotion process clearer and less "painful" for faculty members.

AAUP Opposes Trigger Warnings

Trigger warnings alerting students to potentially sensitive material have been polarizing on college campuses in recent years. Now the American Association of University Professors is weighing in. In a new report, the AAUP calls trigger warnings “a threat to academic freedom in the classroom.” The report says that even voluntary trigger warning policies for faculty such as the one proposed but tabled last year at Oberlin College run counter to the goals of higher education.

“The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual,” the report says. “It makes comfort a higher priority than intellectual engagement and — as the Oberlin list demonstrates — it singles out politically controversial topics like sex, race, class, capitalism, and colonialism for attention. Indeed, if such topics are associated with triggers, correctly or not, they are likely to be marginalized if not avoided altogether by faculty who fear complaints for offending or discomforting some of their students.”

The report, which also extends to university libraries, continues: “Although all faculty are affected by potential charges of this kind, non-tenured and contingent faculty are particularly at risk. In this way the demand for trigger warnings creates a repressive, ‘chilly climate’ for critical thinking in the classroom.”

The Pulse podcast explores the future of 'flipping'

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This month's edition of The Pulse podcast looks at what the future holds for efforts to use technology to "flip" the classroom.

Purdue to Create Competency-Based Bachelor's Degree

Purdue University on Thursday announced a plan to create a new cross-disciplinary bachelor's degree. The Purdue Polytechnic Institute, which is a recently launched "transformational engine" housed in the College of Technology, will design the degree program. Mitch Daniels, the university's president, in January announced a contest for departments to submit proposals for a three-year degree and competency-based programs. The institute won the $500,000 prize for its competency-based degree idea.

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Essay on reports that the idea of a course is dead

With the start of the academic year upon us, it may be surreal to suggest that the college course is going the way of the dinosaur. Twenty million postsecondary students are streaming back onto college campuses, filing into lecture halls, and bracing for yet another semester of study. Sure, a fair portion of them will be doing this on their laptops. But even then, they’ll still have a professor and all the trappings (a syllabus, an overarching theme, a grade that gets put on their transcript) of a traditional semester-long course.

And yet, “The very notion of a ‘class’ may be outdated.” So suggest the authors of a just-released Massachusetts Institute of Technology report. MIT has spent over a year investigating the question of the future of residential education and has begun to systematically explore, among other things, the “modularization” of the curriculum into smaller Lego-like units that can be taken apart and put together in a myriad of ways.

"This,” the report argues, “in many ways mirrors the preferences of students on campus. The unbundling of classes also reflects a larger trend in society — a number of other media offerings have become available in modules, whether it is a song from an album, an article in a newspaper, or a chapter from a textbook. Modularity also enables 'just-in-time' delivery of instruction, further enabling project-based learning on campus and for students worldwide.”

For MIT and other institutions who have come to similar conclusions (see, for example, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Harvard University), the push comes from both the successes and challenges of digital learning technologies (such as MOOCs) that have proliferated in the last few years. But even more than that, they are well aware of what’s on the horizon.

“Might the Online Skills Academy,” muses Paul LeBlnac in a recent op-ed about the U.S. Department of Education’s “experimental sites” initiative, “be a first step to creating a new alternative pathway to a degree, one that actually creates a new higher education ecosystem that can sit beside and maybe improve our existing system?” For LeBlanc and many others,  competency-based education offers a credible alternative to today’s “deeply flawed” system. “I am instead thinking about a nationally offered, extremely low-cost, competency-based model degree program that includes stackable, industry-embraced credentials.”

This, dear reader, is the beginning of the end for the college course. Not everywhere. Not for everyone. Not immediately. But for much of our current postsecondary system, much of what we do in our “chalk-and-talk” educational model can be automated and replaced by cheaper and more efficient systems. And I, for one, can’t wait to see it happen. Because, I suggest, it will allow us and force us to develop a system that sees the college course as not just the transmission of academic knowledge but as its use and transformation.

For the competency-based education (CBE) crowd, this will be about demonstrating proficiency – through portfolios, exams, or other standardized means where “time is irrelevant and mastery non-negotiable” – that shatters the monopoly of the credit hour. It suggests that the product matters, not the process. It is a one-for-one swap: forget the four years on campus; just show us that you have learned.

For the MIT crowd, this will be about finding the sweet spot of deep learning – through a blended mix of online and on-site modules, projects and courses curated by faculty and informed by the learning sciences and data analytics – that shatters the monopoly of an “is it on the exam?” student mentality (yes, it happens at MIT as well). It suggests that we must fundamentally revise the process if we are to change the product. It is backward design approach: the four years on campus are useless if you don’t come out transformed.

But in either case, the traditional course is dead.

I am not simply talking about the fact that, as the saying goes, “online education starts in the seventh row.” Sure, there is nothing to be gained from sitting in a lecture hall when you can watch the archived lecture online while pulling up a tutorial or a peer’s comments about the lecture as you go through it. I am talking about the realization that CBE and digital learning technologies give us the unique opportunity to rethink and revise our models of teaching and learning from the ground up.

I, of course, have to voice some caveats and concerns.

CBE, for all its emphasis on “mastery as non-negotiable,” has no theory of learning. CBE advocates avoid talking about how students will actually learn to demonstrate mastery. This has troubling implications for who supposedly can and can’t learn and the structural impediments to and stratification of academic success.

Similarly, MIT’s model confuses the way we learn with the way we teach. A single module is actually not like a single song, book chapter or newspaper article. A song can stand on its own, as it has a self-contained narrative arc and structure. But to see a module as a “mini-course” – kind of like a highlight reel of best lecture quotes – is to cater to a style of teaching rather than to a way of learning.

If I could mix and match these two perspectives, I might suggest that we view the MIT module in exactly the way that CBE proponents view their competencies: as transmitting information to gain highly bounded skills and knowledge that are linked explicitly to specific learning outcomes.

Think of modules more like a football player training certain fundamental skills and moves that he can then deploy automatically and fluidly and improvisationally in a game depending on the situation. Such skills and knowledge are crucial – as they form the foundation for the habits of mind and repertoires of action that we think of in experts – but they are in and of themselves almost irrelevant if they do not get used in practice. In this vision, a “course” becomes a set of mastered units of knowledge (modules) that are integrated into a project- or practice-based outcome. Put otherwise, the transmission of academic knowledge is a necessary but not sufficient condition to count as a course, which must be able to apply and transform such academic knowledge.

In either case, though, when both Southern New Hampshire University and MIT are grappling with the future of the college course – which has served as the basic unit and building block for all of higher education – we are seeing a system truly shattering. The question for all of us is what will be built up instead. 



Dan Butin is dean and associate professor in the School of Education and Social Policy and executive director of the Center for Engaged Democracy at Merrimack College.

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U.S. Approval for Wisconsin Competency-Based Program

The U.S. Department of Education last week granted approval to a self-paced, competency-based program from two institutions in the University of Wisconsin System, the system announced Tuesday. The associate of arts and science degree track is a form of competency-based education called direct assessment, which does not rely on the credit-hour standard. The University of Wisconsin Colleges and Extension programs are offering the degree. It's part of the system's broader competency-based offerings, which are dubbed the UW Flexible Option.

Students who enroll in the degree program will now be eligible to receive federal financial aid. Wisconsin is the third institution to receive such approval, and the first public one. The university had submitted an application to the department in January. The feds' long delay in approving another direct assessment degree had caused some confusion among backers of competency-based education. But the department later gave a boost to the emerging model of higher education through its experimental sites program, which grants waivers for colleges to experiment while retaining federal aid eligibility.

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat, last month wrote to Arne Duncan, the education secretary, urging the department to approve Wisconsin's application. He applauded the news this week in a written statement.

Compilation of Articles on Critical Thinking

Inside Higher Ed is today releasing a free compilation of essays -- in print-on-demand format -- on how colleges seek to promote and measure critical thinking by their students.

This booklet is part of a series of such compilations that Inside Higher Ed is publishing on a range of topics.

On Tuesday, September 23 at 2 p.m. Eastern, Inside Higher Ed editors Scott Jaschik and Doug Lederman will conduct a free webinar to talk about the issues raised in the booklet's articles. To register for the webinar, please click here.

Nearly 4,000 Starbucks Employees Apply to Arizona State

Arizona State University is seeing the results of its partnership with Starbucks in the form of nearly 4,000 new applicants. The news was first reported by The Arizona Republic, which noted that the applicants included "lots of English majors."

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