Students in Kerry Cronin's Boston College course on philosophy and ethics have an unusual way to earn extra credit: go on a date. The Boston Globe described how Cronin responded to student questions about the concept of dating but encouraging them to actually do so. She said most students seem comfortable going out in groups and having hook-ups, but not dating. To qualify for credit, the dates must focus on personal interaction. Dates must be 45-90 minutes, must be with a person of potential romantic interest, the invitation must be made in person (not electronically), and the date can't involve alcohol, kissing or sex.
In 1869, Charles W. Eliot, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote an essay in The Atlantic Monthly entitled “The New Education.” He began with a question on the mind of many American parents: “What can I do with my boy?” Parents who were able to afford the best available training and did not think their sons suited for the ministry of a learned profession, Eliot indicated, sought a practical education, suitable for business “or any other active calling”; they did not believe that the traditional course of study adopted by colleges and universities 50 years earlier was now relevant. Less than a year later, Eliot became president of Harvard. Among the reforms he initiated were an expansion of the undergraduate curriculum and substantial improvement in the quality and methods of instruction in the law school and the medical school.
The debate between advocates of traditional liberal learning and partisans of a more “useful” education, Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, reminds us, has deep roots in American soil. In Beyond the University, (Yale University Press) he provides an elegant and informative survey of the work of important thinkers, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, W.E.B DuBois, Jane Addams, William James, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty, who, despite significant differences, embraced liberal education because it “fit so well with the pragmatic ethos that linked inquiry, innovation, and self-discovery.” At a time in which liberal learning is under assault, Roth draws on the authority of these heavyweights to argue that “it is more crucial than ever that we not abandon the humanistic frameworks of education in favor of narrow, technical forms of teaching intended to give quick, utilitarian results."
Most of Beyond the University is devoted to claims by iconic intellectuals about the practical virtues of liberal learning, which Roth endorses (with occasional qualifications). Exhibiting a “capacious and open-ended” understanding of educational “usefulness,” Roth indicates, Thomas Jefferson opted for free inquiry at his university in Charlottesville, Va., to equip citizens in the new republic to think for themselves and take responsibility for their actions. Ralph Waldo Emerson resisted education as mere job training; but, he indicated, it should impart knowledge to develop individuals willing and able to use what we now call “critical thinking” to challenge the status quo.
Acknowledging that different people need different kinds of educational opportunities, W.E.B. DuBois nonetheless insisted that the final product of training “must be neither a psychologist nor a brick mason, but a man.” Liberal learning, Jane Addams emphasized, inculcates “affectionate interpretation,” which prepares individuals not only to defend themselves against those with different points of view, but to empathize with others and act in concert with them. And John Dewey, the most influential philosopher of education in the 20 century, looked to a liberal education, according to Roth, to help students learn the lessons of experiment and experience, by trying things out and assessing the results, by themselves and with others, and, then, if appropriate, revising their behavior.
Roth’s approach – a reliance on the authority of seminal thinkers – is not without problems. As he knows, the nature of higher education – and its perceived roles and responsibilities – has changed dramatically since colleges focused on liberal learning. In 1910, only 9 percent of students received a high school diploma; few of them went on to college. These days, about 40 percent of young men and women get a postsecondary degree. Undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degrees, moreover, are now required, far more than were in the days of Emerson and Eliot, for entry into the most prestigious, and high-paying, professions. Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, is surely right when he asserts that “to deny that job skills development is one of the key purposes of higher education is increasingly untenable” – and that integration of specific skills into the curriculum can help graduates get work and perform their assigned tasks well.
Roth does not specify how liberal learning might “pull different skills together in project-oriented classes.” Nor does he adequately address “the new sort of criticism” directed at liberal learning. A liberal arts education, many critics now claim, does not really prepare students to love virtue, be good citizens, or recognize competence in any field. As Roth acknowledges, general education, distribution requirements, and free electives are not effective antidotes to specialization; they have failed to help establish common academic goals for students. And, perhaps most disturbingly, doubt has now been cast on the proposition that the liberal arts are the best, and perhaps the only, pathway to “critical thinking” (the disciplined practice of analyzing, synthesizing, applying, and evaluating information).
President Roth may well be right that liberal learning “will continue to be a fundamental part of higher education” if (and, he implies, only if) it rebalances critical thinking and practical exploration. The key question, it seems to me, is how to rebalance, while preserving the essence of liberal learning, at a time in which higher education in general and, most especially, the humanities are under a sustained attack by cost-conscious advocates of an increasingly narrow vocationalism, who are certain to be unpersuaded by the testimony of long-dead intellectuals. The task, moreover, is all the more daunting, moreover, because it will have to be carried out by proponents and practitioners of the liberal arts, many of whom, unlike Michael Roth, are now in despair, in denial, or have lost faith.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
Competency-based education has been available to students for several decades, but there’s been a jump in interest over the past year. The White House is encouraging innovation in new delivery models. Federal agencies and foundations are weighing in with studies and grants. And think tanks and higher education associations are organizing convenings and webinars.
Meanwhile, more colleges and universities are beginning to offer competency-based education (CBE) programs and many others are considering them. There has been plenty of attention, at the 30,000-foot level, concerning the potential benefits and risks of CBE, but little has been shared about what the programs entail on the ground, particularly for traditional institutions.
Over the past year, Western Governors University (WGU) has been working with 11 community colleges in five states as they create new competency-based programs (with support from the U.S. Department of Labor’s TAACCCT programs and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). We found that faculty are creatively adapting to CBE based on their students’ needs and within their existing practices.
The colleges and programs
All these pilot programs are in information technology and most are starting with certificate programs that lead to degrees. The certificates range from computer system specialist and business software specialist to network+ and programmer training.
All the colleges provide traditional classes in brick-and-mortar settings, as well as online and hybrid courses. The group includes large and small, urban and rural colleges. They serve large numbers of working adults, part-time students and students with families (see box).
Austin Community College, in Texas
Bellevue College, near Seattle
Broward College, in south Florida
Columbia Basin College, in southeastern Washington State
Edmonds Community College, near Seattle
Ivy Tech Community College, Ft. Wayne, Indiana
Ivy Tech Community College, Lafayette, Indiana
Lone Star College - University Park, Houston
Sinclair Community College, in Dayton, Ohio
Spokane Falls Community College, in eastern Washington State
Valencia College, in central Florida
We interviewed faculty, department chairs, deans and vice presidents of instruction at the colleges about the development of CBE courses. Here are some preliminary findings:
What is competency-based education?
One critical characteristic that distinguishes CBE from other courses is that students can progress at their own pace. They progress toward course objectives and toward a certificate or degree, based on demonstrating the knowledge and skills required at each level. That is, learning becomes the constant -- and is demonstrated through mastery of learning objectives, or competencies -- and time becomes the variable. Some students can accelerate their progress as other students might take more time and practice to advance. This requires faculty to think differently about how they support learning. Course materials need to be available whenever the student is ready for them. Faculty will work with a variety of students who are learning different things at any one time.
At all 11 colleges, faculty are responsible for course development in the pilot programs, based on their college’s policies. Working mostly in teams and sometimes through processes that included industry representation, faculty modified existing course templates, enhanced course mapping to learning objectives and changed assessment processes so that students could progress at their own pace. There was a broad range, however, in how the faculty handled course development.
Prior to beginning course development, faculty at Sinclair Community College revised the curriculum to align with new Ohio standards in information technology and with industry certifications, which entailed submitting changes through the college's curriculum approval process. Faculty then worked in teams of two or three with instructional designers to develop the courses, with each template redesigned to support CBE delivery. For each course, they mapped competencies to content and assessment items to ensure that all required competencies were met. At the end of each semester, faculty review assessment results to ensure students are achieving all competencies, and adjust assessment and content items if needed.
In comparison, faculty at Columbia Basin College are making fewer modifications. This approach is about changing a delivery mode rather than developing a new curriculum. They are using existing student objectives for their courses, with existing textbook chapters serving as course units that students draw from to master the learning objectives. Each faculty member takes on all the course roles, including collecting learning materials, delivering all content and developing assessments.
The pilot programs are gathering data, and faculty will assess student outcomes and make adjustments over the next year. So far, the following elements appear to be important decision points:
The mapping of content and assessments to student learning objectives (or competencies)
Faculty at many colleges preferred the term “student learning objectives” to “competencies.” They said it was more familiar. Most existing courses already have student learning objectives, but not all content or assessments are aligned with them. At Lone Star College in Texas, faculty are working in a committee process to rebuild courses for a competency-based approach. “Mapping course objectives to student learning outcomes to achieve student success; that is not new,” said Gina Sprowl, workforce education chair and professor of accounting. “But taking the course and building it to achieve specific outcomes from the outset, that was new.”
Alan Gandy, assistant professor at Lone Star, said the idea is not to compartmentalize learning, but rather to show students how each competency relates to the overall curriculum. He said faculty are “breaking down the competencies, matching them to the assessments, so the student will see what piece they are working on in the puzzle. They’ll see the big picture, why they’re studying this and how it matches to the overall competency.”
Each program is developing its own systems for supporting student learning. For example, faculty at all the colleges are serving their traditional roles as content experts and mentors. But these roles have shifted, as they often do in online courses, from delivering lectures to providing timely academic tutoring and engagement with students individually and in groups -- online, by phone or in person. The role is closer to that of a tutor than a lecturer.
In addition, some colleges are developing new roles to support student retention. Edmonds Community College has hired a “student mentor” to contact each student weekly to check in, find out how they’re doing, provide them with feedback and advice, and direct them to additional services as needed. The mentor serves as coach, troubleshooter, strategist and enthusiast, to address each student’s challenges and encourage their progress in these self-paced programs. Some colleges use faculty in this type of role and others use student services professionals.
Why do it?
Students attending community college in the United States are diverse, and there’s no single delivery system that serves all of them well. The faculty we interviewed described CBE not as a panacea or big risk -- but rather as another way to provide students with high-quality programs that meet their needs. Tom Nielsen, vice president of instruction at Bellevue College, said of his college’s new pilot program: “This feels like the transition when we started talking about online instruction 15 to 18 years ago. Many people at that time said we couldn’t do it. To me, it’s just another evolution. It’s another choice, another avenue for our students.”
Deborah Meadows, a dean at Columbia Basin College, said she wants to target the CBE program in information technology to women: “Our distance program tends to have more women. They tend to be working and have kids, so they're looking for ways to go to school and build options for the future.”
As colleges gain experience with competency-based programs, we’ll learn more about its impacts. Meanwhile, the programs appear to be popular at some campuses. As Suzanne Marks of Bellevue College said, “Students are voting with their feet. There’s definitely demand. Students are already asking about summer classes in this model.”
Sally Johnstone is vice president for academic advancement at Western Governors University. Thad Nodine, a novelist and writer specializing in education policy, is tracking the colleges’ experiences in creating competency-based education programs.
The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education has adopted a policy to make civics a part of every undergraduate degree at the state's community colleges and public four-year colleges and universities, The Boston Globe reported. Each institution will develop its own plan to do so.
Economics students in 19 countries have issued a joint call -- published in The Guardian -- to change the way economics is taught. The students' analysis (similar to that of some professors in the United States and elsewhere) is that economics has become too uniform in its approaches and too removed from real life. "[I]t's time to reconsider the way economics is taught. We are dissatisfied with the dramatic narrowing of the curriculum that has taken place over the past couple of decades," the letter says. "This lack of intellectual diversity does not only restrain education and research. It limits our ability to contend with the multidimensional challenges of the 21st century – from financial stability to food security and climate change. The real world should be brought back into the classroom, as well as debate and a pluralism of theories and methods. This will help renew the discipline and ultimately create a space in which solutions to society's problems can be generated."
The University of California at Los Angeles -- with strong support from Chancellor Gene Block -- is again considering a requirement in its largest undergraduate college that students take at least one course about diversity, The Los Angeles Times reported. Faculty in the College of Letters and Science have rejected such a requirement three times previously. Supporters say that diversity is so crucial to today's society that all students should have at least one course in the subject. Critics question whether such courses improve race relations, and note that many UCLA students are pressed to meet existing requirements.