At best, so-called competency- and proficiency-based higher education is a world of good intentions and uncritical enthusiasms. At worst, it seems to be the fulfillment of conservative cost-cutting visions that will put our most enriching higher education experiences still further out of reach for many Americans.
In the U.S. these programs are aimed at sidelining the familiar credit hour in favor of personalized and flexible learning experiences for enrollees. They push the idea that some students will achieve mastery with fewer instructional hours than others and should thus be spared that expenditure of time and money. Online, real-world or self-guided experiences may also stand in for some conventional classroom approaches. Students who demonstrate mastery need not continue instruction in a particular area.
Through the use of all of these innovations, an affordable alternative to the conventional bachelor’s degree is envisioned, meeting the demands of many audiences -- funders, taxpayers and students -- for lowered higher education costs. The promise is that some students will clock fewer hours using the most costly college personnel and resources, and thus face lower debts upon graduation. Students’ “hours in seats,” once the sine qua non of higher education in contrast to vocational instruction, is seen to be an obsolete metric.
The University of Maine Presque Isle is a good example of such priorities, with a new proficiency-based undergraduate program the university rolled out recently with much fanfare. According to Inside Higher Ed, Presque Isle hosts many first-generation, underprepared students, and the campus seeks to help each student to work at his or her own pace along an affordable path of workforce preparation. Let me be clear: I believe, without a shadow of a doubt, that students learn at different rates in different ways; that current student debt levels in the United States are crushing; and that the status quo is deeply disadvantageous to Americans of lower socioeconomic status.
But this plan to save college students and their families money through the use of individualized curriculums; standardized instructional measurements; and reductions in classroom, lab, shop or studio hours will only increase those disadvantages. The university envisions a heightened accountability for its new instructional approach, through a newly careful matching of pedagogical experience and student achievement. But consider the criteria against which such matches will be assessed: success in teaching and learning will be defined by lowered spending. If we focus our attention on that contraction of institutional outlay, the promises of this new educational model start to seem less than solid.
In his recent work on personalized education, Oxford education theorist David Hartley has warned of the ways in which such market focused pedagogy constrains democratic opportunity, and I follow his lead here in considering the university’s new programs. First, if competency-based programs are accepted as cost-saving equivalents to conventional elements of bachelor’s degree curriculums, they render those conventions (because more costly) moot, and even undesirable. The idea that MORE MONEY (as in, public funding) might optimally be spent on higher education for Americans then becomes unreasonable.
And with that move, the notion that every student (not just those of affluence) might learn best by taking more rather than fewer courses, staged as small classes taught by well-compensated, securely employed (tenured!) instructors, in well-resourced facilities, is being taken off the table. The notion that our nation, if it wishes to promote workforce preparation and global economic competitiveness, would do best to EXPAND funding provisions for education is dismissed. Although naturally, crucially, the new cost-saving techniques are never, ever explicitly said to constitute a contraction. That elision makes it seem even more illogical, more irresponsible, to suggest that public monies be raised or reallocated in support of our colleges. To be inclusive is now to be profligate.
Second, we must recognize that despite the consumer-flattering appeal, a personalized curriculum is not automatically an optimized curriculum. For example, the university’s new program emphasizes “Voice and Choice”:
We offer students a freedom of choice that creates ownership of their degree and allows them to discover their unique identity. Students can choose to demonstrate their deep understanding of a subject by writing papers, taking multiple-choice exams, designing a project, completing a research study and more.
I’d ask: what is such choice, clearly part of the school’s new branding, really providing? I’m all for teaching students to question their instructors’ methods and priorities (see below), but if my students tell me they loathe the conceptual challenges involved in writing a paper, I know that’s one thing they’ll need to attempt before the term ends. If they balk at the logic challenges of multiple choice tests, that’s something I’ll be sure to expose them to. In other words, I suspect that “freedom of choice” is provided here not to facilitate “deep understanding,” but rather to provide a satisfactory customer experience.
While I am excited that the university’s instructors want to introduce students to “problem-posing” and emphasize real-world and hands-on experiences, all potentially engaging and genuinely flexible elements of college teaching, the valorization of market freedom and consumer choice here makes me wary. Like all performance standards, these efficiencies and controls are double-edged, providing a floor for student attainment but also a ceiling, as I’ve written before.
But what is most concerning is that in my experience, it is the errors, dead ends and confusions that launch students into the most profound and transformative moments of learning and self-discovery. These “off rubric” experiences are uncomfortable, and in no obvious way get anyone closer to passing a class or completing a degree. Just the opposite. And yet these are exactly the points at which the learner (not to mention the instructor) is most open to the unfamiliar and unexpected.
I fear that the deployment of “competencies” and “proficiencies” as instruments of economy and brevity is simply antithetical to the open-ended inquiry that is foundational to rigorous critical thinking, for learner and teacher. However concerned and inventive the professors involved in proficiency-based teaching might be, they are now facing clear disincentives to conceptual messiness. Learning, I believe, must be shot through with dissatisfaction, with frustration and moments of utter uncertainty about where one is heading intellectually -- all experiences that are now to be treated as inefficiencies. If these most-perfect conditions for inquiry and invention are the very ones that are now seen to be fiscally unwise, what hope for the creativity and growth of American college-goers?
Amy Slaton is a professor of history in the department of history and politics at Drexel University.
Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the two institutions behind the massive open online course provider edX, on Thursday released a set of tools that visualize the age, gender, location and level of education of their almost 2 million MOOC users.
Called Insights, the tools were developed by Sergiy Nesterko and Daniel Seaton, research fellows at HarvardX and MIT, respectively. In a news release, Nesterko said Insights “can help to guide instruction while courses are running and deepen our understanding of the impact of courses after they are complete.”
A side-by-side comparison of HarvardX and MITx’s enrollment numbers shows Harvard’s MOOCs have attracted more than 1 million users to MIT’s roughly 820,000. More than one-third of Harvard’s MOOC students are in the U.S., compared to about one-quarter of MIT’s. The only other country to register in the double digits among either institution is India, whose students account for 15.5 percent of HarvardX’s total enrollment.
Similar to the student bodies at the physical campuses, MITx students are more likely to be male -- 66.2 percent to HarvardX’s 59.5 percent. They are also younger -- MITx’s median age is 27; HarvardX’s, 28 -- and, by a few percentage points, less likely to hold a postsecondary degree. MOOCs are still dominated by students who hold such a degree, however. Among MITx students, 64.6 percent hold at least a bachelor’s degree, and for HarvardX, those students make up more than two-thirds, or 67.8 percent, of the total enrollment.
Insights will be made available to the member institutions in the edX consortium.
As Inside Higher Ed has observed, few issues have risen to national attention as quickly as “undermatching,” the problem of high-achieving low-income students choosing to attend non-selective colleges.
Now, in the study by Bastedo and Flaster summarized by Inside Higher Ed, we are beginning to see the first critiques of the methodology and assumptions underlying the original undermatching studies. In response, the earlier researchers argue that the quality of this new work is low. Other scholars defend the new critics and suggest that undermatching is indeed “overrated,” because it looks at only a small minority of low-income students -- the smartest and luckiest ones.
Into this mix I’d like to insert another perspective, one that raises additional concerns about the concept of undermatching as currently defined and studied, and at the same time argues that the problem is more, not less, pervasive and important than we have yet understood.
Matching, more broadly and deeply defined, means thinking from the beginning, at school and at home, about finding a good fit between students' ongoing educational opportunities and their emerging abilities and interests. Matching should not be a one-time idea that we introduce at the 11th hour, when it's suddenly time to choose a college. It should be a guiding principle and a fundamental goal of educational theory and practice from preschool forward.
As we consider this kind of matching, which is far more complicated, I'd also like to propose that we avoid the typical either/or approach that has plagued educational theorizing and policy-making. In particular, I submit that helping “a very small number” of top low-income students is not a bad thing, nor does it require us to divert all our attention and resources away from the “vast majority.”
What happens to low-income, high-achieving students who beat the odds, often with the help of highly effective interventions, is important to everyone. And matching, as I understand the concept, improves learning opportunities and outcomes for all students: It expands our capacity and our responsibility as educators not only to “personalize” education -- to know each student very well, as a whole person and as an individual -- but also to help all students know themselves.
On the academic side, matching each student's abilities and interests to the appropriate level and type of challenge is not a new idea. Good teachers have always done it.
When I was in first grade, already reading at an advanced level and bored by addition and subtraction, I missed 40-plus school days because I cried so often, complained of stomach aches, and threw up on the bus. In second grade, my attendance improved dramatically when my teacher, who understood my problem, let me finish my worksheets and read. My mother dropped out of high school and my father started full-time work at 17, but from middle school on, I was “tracked,” matched to curriculum, activities, peers, and expectations all designed to help me choose the most rigorous college that would have me.
My personal experience is supported by a solid body of research, work educators, families, and policy makers may not know today. Decades ago, University of Washington psychologists Halbert and Nancy Robinson developed the notion of “optimal match.” Julian Stanley founded the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth on this idea that capacity and passion for learning flourish when students pursue education at the pace of their intellectual abilities instead of their chronological age. In the 1990’s, the authors of Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure collected evidence showing how and why “the close, well-paced match between task complexities and individual skills” helps students identified as talented in ninth grade sustain their abilities in later years.
Despite the evidence and experience supporting matching as an educational principle, we have recently forgotten what is good about this idea in the name of inclusion. The rise of inclusion was fueled in part by reasonable concerns about the social inequities of tracking and labeling students as “gifted” or not. We should not set these worries aside. Some definitions of gifted and talented children imply a fixed notion of intelligence, and we know that this mindset stifles achievement, just as we know that different children and different abilities may develop at varying rates. And challenge for its own sake is unproductive, as we see in the recent results of pushing underprepared students into Advanced Placement classes and pretending that we are giving them greater opportunities. Instead, we have given some of the poorest kids yet another opportunity to fail and give up on themselves.
Despite the legitimate concerns about tracking and labeling and the rhetorically persuasive benefits of inclusion, the evidence is clear that we've too often defined and pursued inclusion in ways that ignore advanced learners and fail to identify and develop potential talents among rich and poor alike. No evidence can be found to show inclusion has been good for high-potential students, especially the poor ones. The gifted and talented programs that still exist in many states are too often underfunded, controversial, and poorly designed. Academically advanced learners are routinely taught by teachers with no special training in a field that is not even studied in the top schools of education.
Parents who recognize their children have unmet needs for appropriate challenge are among the most desperate people I talk to today. Some find their way to supplemental programs as a lifeline. Those with resources may choose specialized private schools for talented children, and some may choose home schooling. These options are rarely viable for poor families.
There is another dimension to the matching problem, one that goes beyond what schools and educators can address. The more we know about the role non-cognitive abilities (like interest and motivation and self-esteem and resilience) play in realizing potential, the more we must consider what's going on outside the classroom. As a first-generation African-American college student on full scholarship once said to me during a conversation about how we could improve our campus culture to promote inclusion, “The administration and faculty can only do so much. This is home stuff.”
At the recent White House Summit on education -- where undermatching was a major topic of discussion yet appeared in few written plans for increasing opportunity submitted by colleges and other institutions attending -- President Obama indirectly alluded to home stuff by noting that his daughters and their Sidwell Friends classmates received college advice starting in seventh grade. I suspect that few of these students need much advice about college match by middle school. Most have grown up in a world where it’s natural to assume a good education is a birthright, that it’s their responsibility to strive to attend a highly selective college, and that their parents will help them get into the best college they can.
As I have already argued, it's not good enough to wait until the end of high school to tell poor students to start thinking about matching ability and challenge, when many of their more well-resourced peers have been implicitly and explicitly taught, at school and at home, that this is the secret to success. We can't expect that earlier and better matching, in and of itself, will solve all the problems of social and economic inequality. But if we want to improve the likelihood that all students benefit from practices aimed at this goal, what we must do is simple and clear.
At the next White House Summit, and in future studies of college-matching patterns, we should bring college leaders and others focused on improving college access to the table with teachers, parents, administrators, and educators who know and care about pre-K-12 education and talent development.
Our policy and research agenda should include proposing, discussing, carrying out and evaluating plans to ensure school and home recognize as early as possible the need for a close, appropriate, productive match between individual skills and the level of difficulty, challenge, and risk each child is encouraged and enabled to pursue.
These plans must include putting resources into asking and answering many tough questions, like how do we identify potential academic talent in the early years of a student’s life? Where, when, and how do we give all students a chance to aspire beyond their comfort zone, while at the same time assuring them it is safe to take risks and learn from mistakes?
These and other questions are not going to have easy or simple answers. But who knows what would happen if we started treating the space between preK-12 and higher education as a critical intersection rather than a no-man's land? Maybe we would reinvest in a school counseling system that has enough resources to see, nurture, and direct potential in every child, even the bright ones. Perhaps we would improve our capacity to recognize students with advanced talent and interest in specific domains and support them in learning at a pace based not on age but on ability. We might even develop and fund an integrated research and teacher education agenda focused on how exceptional minds develop that would in turn further our understanding of how all students learn.
Forty days of first grade are too many to miss. And 13 years of formal education is too long to wait to match up with appropriate and fulfilling academic challenges that can help set one’s life course.
Elaine Tuttle Hansen is executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, and the former president of Bates College.
Reuter talks with Rodney B. Murray, host of The Pulse, about how colleges and universities are using Pruvalu for such purposes as institutional accreditation, assessment of student learning and faculty development.
Of the litany of offenses commonly attributable to for-profit education, MOOCs, and other forms of distance education, one of the most incendiary is the thoughtless “unbundling” of the faculty role from the holy trinity of teaching, research, and service. This unbundling, a corporate approach to education, is blasted as a blasphemous affront to the core values that all educators share about teaching and learning. But as a recent presentation at the Association for the Study of Higher Education demonstrated, faculty unbundling has been happening for centuries.
Ever since the good ol’ days when Harvard University’s president was also the chief faculty member, admissions officer, and resident director, the faculty role has continually moved toward narrow specialization. As Sean Gehrke and Adrianna Kezar demonstrated in their paper “Unbundling the Faculty Role in Higher Education: A Theoretical Review,” events such as the formation of the student affairs profession in the late 1800s simply made official a trend that had been informally occurring for many years. The wholesale transition at many large research institutions to formalizing graduate assistants as the primary instructors in many courses unbundled the faculty role even more, enabling tenured professors to focus more on highly-valued research. But never in higher education have we seen such clean distinctions as we do now in the distance education sector.
At some of these institutions, one faculty member will design a course, another will provide the content, and still another will lead discussion and grade assignments. This approach is not a distinctly for-profit invention however, as some of the leading non-profits use this same strategy with their MOOCs. To listen to more traditional educators, this commodification of education is an atrocity. I would argue, however, that the current state in most colleges is actually more heinous. By forcing most faculty into a one-size-fits-all job description, we are not only using faculty resources poorly but diminishing educational quality in the process.
For example, consider Professors Smith and Wesson. Professor Smith loves the classroom and has a knack for it. He dedicates significant time to class preparation and student feedback. He’s beloved by his students, but not quite respected by his colleagues because of his relative absence of peer-reviewed publications. Professor Smith has a weak research agenda and will be denied tenure next year because of this lack of productivity — a looming reality that distracts him away from what he does best.
Professor Wesson has no such problems. An able researcher and writer, she publishes prolifically and received tenure last year. Her research draws significant attention and funding to her department. But because she can’t quite buy out all of her courses, her students are annually afflicted by her dry lectures and perplexing tests. She is unresponsive and openly disinterested in anyone but her graduate assistants. Her advisees often leave her supervision and instead work with Professor Smith, conveniently freeing Professor Wesson to focus more on her research agenda and graduate students.
To be fair, this could be a bit of a caricature. But like any good caricature, this picture draws attention to the dominant characteristics of the subject. What it reveals is that a one-size-fits-all model ends up rewarding research, penalizing teaching, and poorly serving students.
This approach stands far and away from what we know about effective organizations. Gallup, publishers of the StrengthsFinder assessment, shows again and again how organizations that utilize their employees’ strengths are more productive and have a more satisfied workforce. That means that if an institution were to adopt an approach that enabled each faculty member to specialize in his or her areas of strength and interest, faculty members would be happier, students would be better served, and the organization overall would be much more effective.
On paper, the shift is simple. Instead of hiring three faculty to each teach two classes a year, advise 10 students, secure a few grants, and write two peer-reviewed articles, each faculty member would specialize in (or carry a higher volume of) one of the areas for the whole department. A researcher could, dare I say, just do research and advise the few students who shared that agenda. A teacher could focus on understanding and honing the classroom craft and spend less time on committee work. Each department would tweak its balance according to the unique strengths and interests of its faculty and could use new hires to recalibrate that balance as time went on and interests or personnel shifted. In sum, excellence in research would not be valued at greater or lesser levels than excellence in teaching or service. Instead, excellence would be valued in every area. If what Gallup says is true, this strengths-based department would outperform a traditionally-oriented one by leaps and bounds in terms of total research output and teaching quality. After all, what faculty would honestly argue with getting to spend more of its time doing what it wanted to do while simultaneously benefiting its institution?
The reality is much more complicated, though. Teaching, even at many liberal arts institutions, is at best a second-rate cousin to research production, and quality of advising or service may not even be truly considered in the tenure and promotion process. Thus, many colleges have backed themselves into a corner by espousing the equal values of teaching, research, and service while only truly rewarding research.
This discrepancy between an institution’s mission and its rewards structure is most apparent at universities that already seem to take this diverse approach by designating certain faculty members as lecturers (teaching), research associates (research), or coordinators (service). Experience shows that these roles do not command nearly the same level of prestige or job security that a traditional faculty member experiences. Consequently, a shift toward a true strengths-based approach would necessitate a concurrent shift in policies, and more importantly, institutional culture. And since a cultural movement of this caliber would directly conflict with the values cultivated by the research universities that grant most faculty members’ doctorates, these changes are no insignificant matter.
I don’t pretend to have any magic solutions to make those shifts happen. I can say with some assurance that it would need to start with strong senior leadership and a willing (or at least adequately dissatisfied) faculty. But if these changes are worth making, then the conversation is also worth having. Perhaps rather than denouncing for-profits or MOOCs for unbundling the sacred faculty role, faculty members should welcome the challenge and propose their own ways to do so.
Josh Wymore is a doctoral student in the higher education program at Pennsylvania State University.
The “flipped classroom” is the idea of the moment, advocated by everyone from Bill Gates to Eric Mazur, the pioneering science educator. This educational innovation is exciting and promising – but I’d argue for a slight revision to the discourse to make sure we don’t replace one rigid format with another. My suggestion: let’s scramble, not flip, the classroom.
Educause, a leading organization for advancing the effective use of instructional technology, defines the flipped classroom “as a model in which the typical lecture and homework elements of a course are reversed." In the well-known Khan Academy model, students view short video lectures at home, freeing up class time for heads on and hands on engagement with course content, guided by the instructor. Proponents are definitely on to something – why did practice so often happen as “homework”?
Isn’t it better for a student who is stuck on a problem to have access to an instructor who can ask the right questions, offer feedback or explain difficult concepts or processes? Isn’t it better for students to analyze texts and images together in a community of learners, taking in new perspectives as they build understanding, rather than going it alone and then coming to class to hear what the professor thinks?
The “flipped” classroom seeks to be an antidote to the traditional model in which content is delivered in class by a lecturer, and homework becomes the site for students to practice. Some of the excitement is due to recognition of the power of active learning, and suspicion about the effectiveness of long lectures. Lecture can be a useful teaching tool, but we now know that lecturing for 50 to 90 minutes straight is money into an incinerator, so to speak. Given limits to students’ attention spans, there is a law of diminishing returns when lecturers persist in “covering the material” past the 20 minute mark. The flipped classroom model uses short, more digestible, lectures.
"If we enact truly flipped or reversed classrooms, we have missed an opportunity."
Yet I believe the lexicon for this change – flipping, reversing, inverting or overturning -- is problematic, and might encourage some to stop short of conceptualizing a more promising transformation. Manifestations of the “flipped” could become as rigid as the 19th century “all lecture, all the time” mode being critiqued.
Faculty should not stop lecturing to assembled students in favor of “all active learning, all the time” in classrooms. In the 21st century, the lecture plays an important role in helping students find a path in the avalanche of text and information. How does a disciplinary expert organize and evaluate this information? What ideas rise to the top and what are the relationships among them?
The best lecturers clarify key concepts with concrete, relevant and sometimes timely examples. They also inspire students, by investing their delivery with passion and enthusiasm. The bottom line: lecture has persisted because students need to hear from teachers. When trimmed down substantially and used intentionally in combination with other methods, lecture need not be relegated to video clips.
While not all proponents are advocating for a simple inversion that places all lecture online and all active learning in class, this reversal is the dominant way of discussing the phenomenon. If we name this innovation more precisely, we could lead some faculty to adopt it in more nuanced and effective ways.
Words matter. If we enact truly flipped or reversed classrooms, we have missed an opportunity. I think it is time to update our vocabulary, guiding the dominant conceptualization toward a more nuanced practice for the good of our students. What is good for our students is a scramble or mix of direct instruction and practice and feedback. The beauty is that technology affords us opportunities to provide for both needs in both online and face-to-face contexts. We need to use these two teaching approaches -- direct instruction versus facilitated practice -- intentionally to help students meet our learning goals.
What does this look like? Students in a scrambled class might start in the online environment by watching a short lecture or reading a course text, before engaging in an online discussion with fellow students. After engaging in these learning activities (which entail direct instruction and practice with the course material) they might complete an assessment that would enable the instructor to evaluate student learning and identify areas of difficulty or misconception.
This model of regular assessment before face-to-face class meetings is a key component of Eric Mazur’s version of the flipped classroom, known as “Peer Instruction.” (Indeed, Mazur has been experimenting and writing about his own robust and flexible version since the early 1990s.) Assessment activities online might include inviting students to submit questions, take a quiz or write a response to a targeted question.
Instead of coming into a “flipped” classroom for the engagement and practice, the mix of content transmission, practice and assessment has already begun.
The scrambled classroom enables a variety of approaches for the face-to-face environment as well. Class meetings in this model could include short lectures which introduce new concepts or address misconceptions that were revealed by online assessment. Direct instruction can then be mixed with active engagement, giving students the opportunity to practice new skills like applying, evaluating or synthesizing course concepts. Ideally, students will have opportunities to collaborate with each other. Students can also take advantage of the instructor’s presence as a responsive facilitator, as they wrestle with new ideas or skills.
The instructor might end face-to-face class sessions by assessing for understanding, using low-tech classroom assessment techniques like the “one-minute paper” or “the muddiest point” or with technological tools like classroom response systems, better known as “clickers.” If questions or misconceptions are revealed, the professor might use that knowledge to build his/her next lecture, to be delivered in either the virtual or face-to-face environment.
We are at an exciting moment in education, with an abundance of technological tools to use for delivering content and engaging students. Wherever we teach on the continuum from face-to-face to hybrid to fully online instruction, we can and should be using technology in accordance with best practices.
With the scrambled classroom model, we are challenged to learn new possibilities, but also to design instruction based on principles we have known about for some time. In the scrambled classroom model, the innovation is not so much “online learning,” but “human learning” supported by all that the 21st century brings to the table.
Pamela E. Barnett is associate vice provost and director of the Teaching & Learning Center at Temple University.