Competency-based learning

Essay on how nonelite law schools can survive an existential market threat

The current existential threat to many law schools represents the canary in the coal mine for higher education.

Law schools have typically long enjoyed budget surpluses, and the universities in which they sit have benefited. But over the last few years, the financial situation of most law schools has reversed. Facing multiple years of declining enrollment and public support, alongside increasing costs and tuition discounting, law schools often are no longer a source of surplus revenue. Many law schools now are relying on financial support from their universities to stay afloat. This reversal is a harbinger for the rest of higher education, which is beginning to face some of the same challenges.

The steps law schools are taking -- in the hope they can survive just long enough for precrisis status quo conditions to return -- represent a doubling down on their traditional strategies. What’s so punishing is that because the precrisis status quo is gone forever, they are only worsening the overall outlook for the sector.

As we write in our new research paper published by the Clayton Christensen Institute, “Disrupting Law School: How Disruptive Innovation Will Revolutionize the Legal World,” the precrisis status quo is gone in large part because of the disruption of the traditional business model for the provision of legal services. Simply put, disruption is lessening the need for lawyers, which means law schools are producing too many lawyers for positions that increasingly do not exist.

Disruptions are bringing three significant changes in the legal services market.

First, from LegalZoom to Rocket Lawyer, more affordable, standardized and commoditized services now exist in an industry long dominated by opaque, highly customized and expensive offerings only accessible on a regular basis to a limited part of the population.

Second, from ROSS to the Practical Law Company, to e-discovery and predictive coding, disruptive innovations are allowing traditional law firms and general counsel’s offices to boost their productivity and perform the same amount of work with fewer lawyers. New technologies are able to do tasks that lawyers -- particularly entry-level lawyers -- performed traditionally. This is hollowing out the job market for newly minted lawyers.

And third, disruptive innovations are breaking the traditional rationale for granting lawyers a monopoly on the practice of law. Just as disrupters like Southwest Airlines and Uber changed who could operate in highly regulated industries, if a nonlawyer aided by software can provide the same service as a lawyer, then it is not the public but the lawyers who are being protected by the legal profession’s monopoly on the provision of legal advice.

State regulators of bar licensure are taking note. Some states are beginning to experiment with providing non-J.D.s limited licenses to provide legal services that until now only J.D.s could provide. The state of Washington was the first to license legal technicians -- non-J.D.s who are specially trained to advise clients in a limited practice area, in this case family law. Akin to a nurse-practitioner, under new regulations, a limited license legal technician (LLLT) can perform many of the functions that J.D.s traditionally performed. Only two years old, this new model is already gaining traction outside of Washington; the bars in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon and Utah are each considering similar steps.

Because there are fewer jobs for lawyers, fewer people are seeking to enroll in law schools -- hence the crisis.

When disruption is afoot, incumbents typically remain tethered to their longstanding habits to sustain themselves. In the context of an increasingly competitive marketplace for law students, this is playing itself out in a quest to retain prestige in the legacy system for ranking law schools, the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Law schools continue to chase prestige by luring students whose LSAT scores and undergraduate grade point averages will help them move up the rankings. They are attracting students by offering tuition discounts -- during the 2013-14 school year just under 40 percent of law students paid full tuition.

But this push to retain prestige in turn reduces revenues and places the schools in a vicious cycle as the expenditures to remain competitive and improve continue to escalate, as has been true in all of higher education.

Lawsuits challenging the veracity of claims that law schools make around job placement are increasing, and if a verdict goes against a law school, the floodgates against them could open that much wider.

On top of all these challenges, higher education itself is, of course, seeing a variety of potential disrupters emerge, all powered at least in part through online learning.

To this point, disruptive innovators have not directly attacked law schools by offering new versions of a legal education. But were entities to emerge that paired online learning, with its flexibility and competency-based learning attributes, with place-based boot camp-type clinical experiences that trained students to practice law in a more affordable and practice-oriented fashion, the pressure on law schools would only increase.

We see four possible solutions for nonelite law schools.

First, launching an autonomous entity is a proven way to combat the impact of disruption. By harnessing an existing law school’s superior resources to pioneer the disruption and create enough separation so the parent entity’s existing processes and priorities do not stifle the new entity, a law school-based educational start-up could itself become the first disrupter.

Second, schools could use online learning technologies as a sustaining innovation to improve learning and control costs. By blending online learning with face-to-face instruction, law schools could incorporate more active learning and professional skills development into the existing three-year educational model.

Third, they could specialize by creating programs that allow J.D. students to focus deeply on a particular area of law. Students could learn core subjects through online, competency-based programs and their in-person experience would focus on extensive training in a particular area of law through experiential learning courses, live-client clinics, simulations, capstones, directed research and writing, moot court and trial advocacy exercises, and field placements.

And, finally, innovative law schools could build new, non-J.D. degree programs that specialize in training students for careers that combine elements from law, business and government -- in international trade, for example -- but do not fit neatly into existing law, business or government schools and are less time-consuming and expensive than, say, a joint J.D.-M.B.A. Or they could offer new credentials that prepare non-J.D.s for the many fields that intersect with the law but do not require a J.D. degree, such as regulatory compliance.

The future is coming for law schools; the question is whether law schools themselves will play a role in shaping that future or be shaped by the cascading circumstances surrounding them.

Michele R. Pistone is a professor of law at Villanova University's Charles Widger School of Law and an adjunct fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Michael B. Horn is a cofounder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute and a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions, which offers innovation services to higher education institutions.

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Understanding the differences in what credentials are being stacked and why (essay)

Credential innovation is a hot topic in higher education, from microcredentials to digital badges, from competency-based and clickable transcripts to stackable credentials. Case in point: to facilitate dialogue, Lumina Foundation launched the Connecting Credentials initiative to help shape the vision and align the work of some 80 co-sponsoring education, labor and business organizations (including Parchment, where one of us serves as CEO).

While numerous articles have been written (by Kevin Carey, Ryan Craig and others) and conferences held on credential innovation, for many people in academe the concepts are new, with an emerging vocabulary that includes both familiar and unfamiliar terminology. Of those terms, “stackable credentials” is perhaps the most commonly and differently used. In our view, it is also the most important concept in the broader discussion. The term itself is clever, invoking the image of Lego blocks and the metaphor of assembly. But assembly of what? With what linkages?

The most common description of stackable credentials goes something like this: over a lifetime of learning, individuals can assemble, or stack, a series of traditional degree-based and/or nontraditional credentials -- certificates, certifications, licenses, badges, apprenticeships and more -- that recognize achievements and provide an accurate assessment of knowledge, skills and abilities. The more credentials learners accumulate and stack, the more they increase their currency in our knowledge economy, creating more direct pathways to better jobs and higher wages. While that narrative captures a number of key ideas, it glosses over important differences in what credentials are being stacked and why.

Stacking Credentials: Vertical, Horizontal and Value Added

Attainment of the four-year degree has increasingly become the primary focus of higher education, as evidenced by the shift of many two-year institutions toward transfer-friendly programs for learners whose final aspirations are a bachelor’s degree. At the same time, the longer history of community colleges, as well as many land-grant and technical four-year institutions, has been to provide educational programs and credentials tied to occupational fields at the certificate level, tied to a certification or, at the associate level, with a tight vocational focus. Those distinct types of educational programs and pathways have given rise to distinct forms of credential stacking.

In short, credentials can be stacked in many ways. We think the best framework is vertical, horizontal and value added, although we are not sure who actually coined these terms. (Will the master builder please step forward?) Most citations go back to Salt Lake City Community College.

Vertical Stacking. The original and more traditional version of credential stacking, vertical stacking, thinks about credentials in a hierarchy -- with one level building on another, enabling the learner to progress toward a higher degree. For example, a high school graduate earns an associate degree with a specialty, followed by a four-degree in a selected industry, like engineering, and finally an M.B.A. in preparation for a corporate upper-management position.

Vertical stacking is driven by the social forces at play in what Burning Glass Technologies calls the credentials gap: the difference between the education levels of currently employed workers and those employers are demanding for new hires. According to Burning Glass, an increasing number of jobs that nondegree holders historically filled now require degrees. For example, 65 percent of postings for executive secretaries and executive assistants now call for a bachelor’s degree, while only 19 percent of those currently employed in these roles have a B.A.

Horizontal Stacking. With horizontal stacking, the level of the credential is less important than the subject matter. Learners expand their subject matter expertise by earning credentials in related fields that, collectively, prepare each person for a specific type of job. Unlike vertical stacking, there is no explicit ordinal ranking or prerequisites, although some credentials may build on others.

For example, many highly skilled, highly sought after and highly compensated IT professionals don’t follow a traditional baccalaureate path, stacking degrees vertically. Instead, they build a series of nondegree certificates and certifications horizontally across an occupational field. A learner could earn a CompTIA certificate, Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert certificate and Cisco Certified Network Associate certificate with the goal of broadening his or her skills as a systems administrator or analyst.

Value-Added Stacking. Combining the concepts of vertical and horizontal credential stacking, value-added stacking is when a learner adds an area of expertise to an existing two- or four-year degree with shorter-term credentials to prepare for a specific type of job. In South Carolina, for instance, many of today’s health care professionals follow this path. A learner could add patient care technician and phlebotomy certificates to an associate degree or supplement a bachelor’s degree in health management with an information services certificate -- all leading to a position as a medical office administrator.

Why Stackable Credentials Are Worth Defining

Increasingly, Americans are earning many kinds of credentials to improve their position in the labor market. In 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 46.3 million adults (aged 18 and over) held a professional certification or license, and 19.1 million held an educational certificate. So while Burning Glass is right that a degree still matters, as research by the Georgetown Center for Workforce Development demonstrates, nondegree credentials can have a significant impact on earnings as well.

On average, says the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, high school graduates receive a 20 percent wage premium with a certificate. And certificate holders, especially those in high-earning fields of study, do better than many with an associate or bachelor’s degree. For example, in computer and information services, male certificate holders have higher earnings than 72 percent of men with an associate degree and 54 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree. Women certificate holders in the field earn more than 75 percent of women with associate degrees and 64 percent of those with bachelor’s degrees.

At the center of credential innovation and its related lexicon are the learners and the pathways they take. Increasingly, the best advice we can give students is not simply to get the highest degree possible. Instead, we need to think clearly about occupational goals and the different ways credentials can enable access to the fields they aspire to enter.

Most learners will never know the term stackable credentials or recognize that what they’re doing when they earn follow-on credentials is stacking. Instead, the responsibility falls on higher education institutions to have a clear conception of the term as we work to make our programs truly stackable and help our learners turn more credentials into more opportunities.

Jimmie Williamson is president of South Carolina Technical College System, and Matthew Pittinsky is an assistant research professor at Arizona State University and CEO of Parchment Inc.

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Essay on how to create a direct-assessment degree program

A little over a year ago, I left my post as vice president for education attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education to become chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and University of Wisconsin-Extension, a job I was attracted to because of the strong access, attainment and innovation values that are at the core of these institutions.

For example, UW-Extension is the home to the UW Flexible Option Program, and the UW Colleges offer their entire two-year liberal arts transfer curriculum in a competency-based format.

Having spent the past year overseeing one of the first and most visible direct-assessment competency-based programs in the country -- and the only one within a major public university -- I’ve had a number of aha moments that could only come from hands-on involvement in the real day-to-day work that makes these programs an exciting new option for institutions and their students.

However, developing a competency-based program, especially of the direct-assessment variety (no classes, per se), is not easy. Everything is new: identifying and describing competencies; developing meaningful assessments; gaining accreditation and federal approval (which we did); recruiting faculty and staff to participate; developing workarounds to student information systems while we develop new ones to support these programs; and explaining the concept again and again to the public, business and government leaders, and prospective students. Add to that the complexity that partnerships bring since, in our case, our current programs are offered in collaboration with other University of Wisconsin institutions.

We relish our role as pioneers because we believe we can make a dent in the need for postsecondary attainment in our state -- and beyond. But to make competency-based programs work, you need to find your allies -- people who can tolerate ambiguity at times and many roadblocks along the way. You need to establish the means to reward them financially and in other ways, because forging new territory takes enormous time, energy and commitment.

Classroom Teaching

Though we in higher education have been focused on student learning outcomes in broad terms for decades, faculty who developed our UW Flexible Option programs embraced the tasks of delineating competencies on a far more granular basis than they had done before. They also took on the enormous job of creating meaningful authentic assessments, not simply multiple-choice exams, and guiding our academic success coaches, who in turn guide our students.

Our first programs were in professionally oriented fields like health care and information technology that naturally lend themselves to a competency-based approach. I am particularly impressed with the faculty within the UW Colleges (the 13 high-access two-year transfer institutions that are the on-ramp to the UW System), who created a direct assessment version of the first two years of liberal arts general education, providing a strong rebuttal to those who say the liberal arts cannot be taught in a competency-based format.

I know that any time faculty take a close look at the curriculum, courses get better. I have heard from our faculty that they believe their involvement in designing UW Flexible Option programs improved their classroom teaching. Surfacing competencies and shifting to a mastery model, where one competency must be mastered at a particular level before moving on to the next, is finding its way to various degrees within our traditional programs.

Second-Class Citizens?

A recent interview-based briefing by the Education Advisory Board highlighted the difficulty some students and employers have understanding the direct-assessment competency-based model. I agree with the EAB finding that emphasizing flexibility in student recruitment, rather than using the term “competency based,” is more effective.

I disagree with the EAB recommendation that the competency-based format is best suited to and should focus on short postgraduate degrees and programs. While it is true that the most experienced students will tend to adapt to the format more quickly and will persist to completion, it would be a shame if we did not deploy this effective and flexible teaching model to address the critical need for postsecondary attainment at the associate and bachelor's degree level. Our experience with UW Flexible Option gives us great optimism that competency-based education is here to stay and through this modality, we will make a difference.

The general media often describe competency-based education as a “shortcut” to a degree. For example, The Atlantic titled its September 2015 article about Western Governors University, “The Online College That Credits Life Experience.” A recent survey by Public Agenda indicated that nearly 600 colleges are creating competency-based credentials. I worry somewhat that all these new programs may try to take shortcuts in program design, will shortchange students and sully the reputation of CBE.

We have an advantage because regular UW faculty are directly involved in program design. Students earn a standard degree from a University of Wisconsin campus and understand these credentials have and are perceived as having great value.

The earliest graduates who took part in UW Flexible Option’s bachelor’s degree completion programs finished their degrees quickly, in less than two years. These nontraditional working students with some college experience but no degree were able to avoid one of the greatest barriers to degree completion in this student population -- obtaining academic credit for courses completed elsewhere. Other forms of credit for prior learning (transcripted credit and portfolios) have not been shown to break down barriers significantly for nontraditional students, the majority of whom will have attended three different institutions before finally earning a degree.

Direct assessment allows students to leapfrog the current credit transfer miasma by completing assessments designed by faculty, thus proving what they already know or can do. This is not “credit for life experience,” but recognition of university-level work that was accomplished elsewhere, whether in a formal class at another institution or in the workplace. It doesn’t matter where, when or how the learning took place. As long as the student can demonstrate it, he or she gets credit for it along the pathway to completing the program.

Another positive consequence of direct assessment program design is greater use of faculty-curated open educational resources that students can access as they learn new material and prepare for assessments. Faculty who design for us may have been exposed to the OER world for the first time, realizing the wealth of quality materials available for free and perhaps integrating more OER into classroom-based programs. Greater use of OER is especially important for institutions that have a high-access mission and a focus on affordability, such as ours.

Direct-assessment competency-based programs are not for everyone. A younger, first-time, first-generation student needs more face-to-face interaction and support. Students enrolled in competency-based programs should have a smooth pathway to transfer into a traditional online or classroom-based program if they find that the format is not the best choice for them.

Our need for greater postsecondary attainment -- and the highly diverse nature of students in the U.S. -- calls for multiple pathways to a degree, including flexible means for meeting the needs of older, experienced, working students and getting them to the finish line.

Cathy Sandeen is chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and the University of Wisconsin-Extension.

An alternative view on competency-based education (essay)

We read Steven Ward’s Feb. 1 critique of competency-based education -- “Let Them Eat Cake (Competently)” -- with some sense of weary bemusement.

Where to start? Let’s start with a simple fact: CBE programs that offer associate or bachelor's-level degree programs and are regionally accredited (in other words, the majority of programs) have to include liberal arts and general education.

Indeed, we would argue that CBE strengthens the case for liberal arts by more clearly outlining the claims for that part of the curriculum, defining those competencies with well-designed rubrics and administering rigorous assessments.

While Ward’s students can slide by with a B or C in his class and one would be hard pressed to know what students actually learned or can do with their learning based on their transcripts, our students must demonstrate mastery, even if that takes two or three times longer than the mere 14-week term Ward’s students experience. When CBE students are successful, we know what they have learned and what they can do with that knowledge, and employers do not have to guess.

Ward erroneously posits liberal arts in CBE as “a light, fast and vocation-friendly version,” but in our CBE models learning is fixed and nonnegotiable, and we can stand behind the claims we make for our students. Can the professor say the same for his classes in a traditional model, where nationally students routinely graduate with poor writing, math and critical-thinking skills (and in half the cases don’t graduate at all)?

Consider this post from College for America graduate Shannon Lougee:

“While in the program, I learned about so many things. I learned about lean principles, the Federal Reserve, globalization and the moral philosophies of Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. I learned about the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment while exploring art from masters such as Giotto, Donatello, Rembrandt, Manet and Picasso. I studied how the earth cycles water, carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous; the enormity of the Great Pacific garbage patch; and the devastating impact pollution is having on sea turtles, birds, fish and the overall health of our precious oceans. Through CfA, I strengthened my listening skills, practiced giving and receiving feedback, and improved my ability to resolve conflict while working on teams. I even learned how to better manage stress, which helped me juggle work and family while earning my degree.”

Shannon’s education does not sound merely “vocation friendly” or reflective of “mundane knowledge,” but full of the breadth, depth and richness of liberal learning that we value and that Ward worries about.

What he seems to worry less about is evoked in Lougee’s last sentence, her life as a student while also taking care of a family and working full time. Ward imagines CBE as “an education system that is ‘restructured to stream youth into the flexible labor system, based on a privileged elite, a small technical working class and a growing precariat.’” The great majority of our students are not youth. They are in the labor system, often making minimum -- non-family sustaining -- wages, and looking for the competencies and credentials that will allow them to get better, more meaningful work, so they can take better care of their families.

A hallmark of CBE is to assess a student's prior learning and to add efficiency to the student's pursuit of education. Why force students to relearn what they already know or to learn at the same pace? Ward makes an assumption that not only do all his students come to the class with the same background and experience, but that all will follow the course calendar and are moving on whether material is learned or not.

So yes, an important part of CBE is that it is focused on labor market value, and we won’t apologize for helping our students get better-paying jobs.

We think CBE can work in almost any context for any kind of student, assuring quality in learning in ways that the traditional models simply do not touch, but we know that it can be transformative for students who have been marginalized or failed in the traditional models Ward valorizes. For those students, real skills and a college degree can mean food on the table and a pathway to advancement. This end result of “democratizing knowledge” through CBE is what higher education was always intended to do.

Workplace relevancy aside, it is telling that Ward seems oblivious to the considerable failings of the model he defends, whether it be high attrition rates, slow completion rates (isn’t it telling that we measure success in four-year programs by using a six-year measuring stick?), high costs and the amount of debt students are now asked to assume, and the general loss of faith in what it produces in terms of quality, knowledge and skills.

Quality is ostensibly Ward’s chief concern, and as such, he should embrace CBE. Not only because it can strengthen the liberal arts by making clearer its value and making sure our graduates meet the claims we make for them, but because well-designed CBE programs work so well.

Consider that Western Governors University, a pioneer in the CBE world, has the top-ranked teacher education program. Or that associate-level students in College for America outperformed 7,815 of their peers from 27 conventional institutions in seven of eight categories on the externally validated ETS Proficiency Profile.

We of course worry about poorly designed CBE programs, as we worry about poor online programs and poor programs on traditional campuses.

But we know that well-designed CBE programs that make very clear the claims for student learning -- all kinds of learning, including the liberal arts -- and then subject their students to rigorous assessment can not only offer very high-quality learning, but we also believe they will have a positive impact on traditionally delivered programs.

Indeed, it is our belief that CBE, with its focus on quality, disregard for time and prices that working people can afford (the majority of College for America students graduate with zero debt), can save higher education in many ways.

Paul LeBlanc is President of Southern New Hampshire University, and Jim Selbe is a higher education consultant.

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Competency-based education threatens to further stratify higher education (essay)

Among the calls for university reform currently in circulation, competency-based education appears to be the one, at least at the moment, that has gained a bit of traction.

This is due largely to a funding push by the Lumina and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations, advocacy by groups such as the American Association of Colleges & Universities that have promoted a particular version of CBE, and a somewhat hesitant thumbs-up from the U.S. Department of Education, which has recently put in place a program to encourage experiments with competency-based approaches and other forms of experimentation in its Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) program.

In the presidential campaign, CBE has also gained some limited attention for being one of the central planks of Marco Rubio’s plan to transform higher education.

Resurrected from the archive of failed education experiments, CBE has recently undergone a conceptual makeover to become the poster child for various reform-minded groups seeking to disrupt higher education. Some see it as a way to provide a “more relevant 21st-century general education curriculum” (i.e., to turn universities into soft-skill vocational programs, aka Jebification).

Others want to use CBE as a means to “personalize learning” (i.e., to place all students in front of a screen, aka Zuckerberging). While still others see it as a way to “increase time to degree completion” (i.e., to get students in and out as quickly and cheaply as possible, aka Gatesification or Merisotising).

In some higher education settings, CBE has led to the creation of entirely new degree programs, primarily at online universities such as Capella, Western Governors and Southern New Hampshire’s College for America. In other, more brick-and-mortar locales, it has served as a means to restructure general education, such as found in institutions that are part of the AAC&U’s General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) project.

However, in the rush to emphasize marketable skills over a deeper liberal knowledge content, proponents of CBE in all forms are forcing students (particularly the underserved in lower-tier institutions, whom they claim to be helping) into a “knowledge-less” version of liberal learning in order to “hurry things along” and not get in the way of their job training.

Despite the rhetoric of “serving the underserved” and “closing the skills gap,” they are responsible for generating new hierarchies between those who receive a cheap, fast food-style or “good enough” education from those who receive a quality one. They are forging new barriers and strata in an already highly stratified higher education system, not removing them as they often claim.

CBE stands in marked contrast to a past emphasis on quality, across-the-board liberal learning to be acquired regardless of the type of student or institution that was at the heart of general liberal education. This was partly what a Dewey-style social democratic vision of liberal arts education was supposed to be about -- general knowledge available to and shared by all -- a kindergarten for adults.

CBE essentially gives up on this dream of democratizing knowledge and promotes a division between those who need a thorough, content-centered liberal education and those who only need a light, fast and vocation-friendly version. It suggests that the big questions, or what the British sociologist Basil Bernstein referred to as powerful or sacred knowledge, where the unimaginable becomes imagined, is not really relevant for most middle- and working-class students who attend community colleges and regional state universities where most of the CBE experiments are being played out.

These students will not need to concern themselves with the bigger questions of theoria -- those can be left up to those with more elite training who will occupy the corridors of power, making laws and running things, but can instead stick to the mundane knowledge and the basics of everyday praxis happening in their assigned cubicles.

In this new model, students in more elite institutions will go on receiving broad liberal training and having access to powerful knowledge as a core part of their university experience, while those at lower-tier public institutions will be loaded up with watered-down, box-checking skills and vague competencies like “critical thinking” or “intercultural understanding” to be provided by standardized, online platforms.

In the market-centered spirit of our times, the move to CBE is presented as simply a matter of the new economic realities of higher education in the age of austerity and state budget constraints, or as a matter of “consumer choice” where wily student consumers and their parents comparison shop at the knowledge mall and select the educational experience that provides “more bang for the buck.”

However, on closer inspection the move to CBE is much more politically scripted than mandated by the inevitability of the economics of higher education. It is, in short, an economically biased political experiment of epic proportions. It creates, as Guy Standing describes it, an education system that is “restructured to stream youth into the flexible labor system, based on a privileged elite, a small technical working class and a growing precariat.”

CBE as a policy only makes sense if we place it in the larger ongoing political project of public realm minimization. Here the activities of public institutions and publicly funded services are reduced to a bare-bones, absolute minimal level of functioning in order to “create efficiencies” and induce “taxpayer savings.”

When this happens public services, such as schools, some hospitals and public transportation, and even the public domain itself, become chronically underfunded and prone to dramatic and often willy-nilly cuts. This minimization generates uncertainty, competition and conflict within the organization servicing the public and produces the inability to provide adequate or even second-rate services.

This often magnifies calls for public sector reforms, such as more businesslike models of new public management, privatization and increased auditing and accountability. As this process continues onward, budget cycle after budget cycle, services may become so reduced that the system either slows to a crawl or breaks down entirely (think of the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Flint, Mich., water supply). In turn those who are serviced by these organizations develop an extreme cynicism and even revulsion toward public services. When politically inflamed, as with Scott Walker in Wisconsin, this cynicism stokes antiunion and antiprofessional sentiments, where public sector unions are blamed for having too much guild-like power and draining away public resources.

What this all means is the CBE is not just a statement about the future of a certain segment of American higher education but one about what opportunities should be there for those who partake of public services. Are these services to be on par with those in the private sector in the social democratic spirit, or are they to be cheap, reduced-rate imitations that can only be avoided by those with the right purchasing power?

Steven C. Ward is professor of sociology at Western Connecticut State University and author of Neoliberalism and the Global Restructuring of Knowledge and Education (Routledge).

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Why new U.S. experiment with alternative higher ed models really matters (essay)

In every generation since 1862, America has innovated on the form of the university. Until ours.

From the land-grant universities to Clark Kerr’s seminal work, America’s higher education landscape has faced almost continuous “innovator’s dilemma.” Competition in its purest sense reigned as new forms of institutions continuously forced America’s universities to be the best in the world or be overtaken by upstarts.

America’s higher education institutions have a history of embracing change because the ecosystem is very different from other industries. While each new institutional form was extremely controversial in its time, new providers in higher education tend to expand access (or the definition of what higher education is) rather than replace existing institutions.

For example, community colleges became feeders to four-year schools while research universities brought a research agenda to almost every university. It’s the equivalent of cars complementing rather than replacing the horse-drawn carriage or AltaVista retaining its market after the rise of Google.

This period of stagnation in higher education innovation is tied to an anniversary we just celebrated -- the 50th year of the Higher Education Act. The Higher Education Act began the Title IV financial aid program that provided government-guaranteed loans and Pell Grants to students at colleges that follow the strict, input-based metrics of success effectively required by the Higher Education Act.

The impact is clear. Only colleges willing to follow the government’s strict guidelines could access “free” government money. Without new entrants, prices for college rose inexorably for the last 50 years and, especially in the last decade, policy makers, parents and students started asking serious questions about the efficacy of the university system.

The Department of Education is finally offering the catalyst for our generation of education innovators to continue the tradition of new institutional forms. The source of hope is the awkwardly named Education Quality Through Innovative Partnerships (or EQUIP). At its heart is a refreshing challenge to innovators: How would you reimagine the university of the future without the strictures imposed by the Higher Education Act and Title IV? If you didn’t have regulations driving an antiquated system of input-driven variables, what postsecondary experience would you design?

There are many concerns about the EQUIP program. As with any new program, the first participants and how they are overseen will define the success of EQUIP. The Department of Education, accreditors and university partners face a compelling challenge: ensuring that the programs approved are high quality.

There appear to be two mechanisms. First, the department is limiting the initial program in scope and number. Second, the department and quality-assurance bodies must closely scrutinize the new models to ensure the academic integrity of the higher education ecosystem and protect government funds and students from undue risk. History will decide if these guardrails are sufficient.

The department is not taking the risk to launch EQUIP in a vacuum. New entrants have emerged that fill specific massive workforce demands or highly disruptive models. MOOCs with tens of millions of viewers are reaching a whole generation of potential college goers. Galvanize and General Assembly will train more technology workers than traditional universities will grant computer science degrees by 2017. Udacity is selling nanodegrees tied to employment in high-demand areas.

These new providers have all realized a fundamental disconnect: while 96 percent of provosts feel they are preparing students for work, only 11 percent of business leaders think colleges are effectively preparing graduates for work. Into this gap, students have been willing to pay out of pocket -- without federal financial aid -- for these services.

In effect, students are willing to pay out of pocket tens of thousands of dollars more for coding schools than traditional computer science classes by forgoing federal government subsidies. The results are clear: the average student who starts at Galvanize has an average salary of $45,435; after a six-month immersive experience, the average graduate makes approximately $76,821.

While the MOOCs and boot camps are front-page news, other new models are emerging -- for example, experiential providers like UnCollege creating gap year opportunities. Universities are not left out of the new models -- in fact, some of the most promising examples of new models involve partnerships between traditional universities and Silicon Valley like the Minerva Project.

The boot camps, MOOCs and nontraditional providers are only the start of what will likely be one of the greatest periods of revolution in higher education. A thank-you to the Department of Education for recognizing this trend and creating EQUIP.

The entrepreneurial spirit of American higher education innovators has been stifled for too long and is now ready to bloom.

A Bit of History

Below is a brief list of the types of revolutions/evolutions of the higher education form over the past generation. While historians of higher education may differ on certain trends, the overall scope of change and innovation in higher education is clear.

Key Year

Driver

Sample Universities Formed

State University System, 1862

Railroads and the Civil War made clear that industrialization of economy was coming. New technology drivers of old industries (e.g., farming) portended massive shift from rural economy to urban.

Michigan State University, University of Maryland

Research University, 1880s

American industrialists saw the need for combining teaching and research into one institution, and made large philanthropic gifts to create the modern research university.

Johns Hopkins University, Stanford

Community Colleges, 1920s/1930s

“New economy” workers realized that a BA degree was not required for numerous jobs and skills in the 20th century.

Pima Community College, LaGuardia Community College

California Plan, 1960s

Mission creep among the public university systems required a new rule book for higher education systems.

University of California System

EQUIP, 2015

Technology portends change in teaching methodologies and rise of new disciplines (like coding).

To be determined

 

Daniel Pianko is a co-founder and managing director of University Ventures, a higher education-focused investment fund.

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At U of Wisconsin, some question expanded role for outreach arm

The extension arm of the University of Wisconsin System is given degree-granting authority, but not all institutions in the system agree the change was necessary.

Early glimpse at student achievement at College for America, a competency-based degree provider

Southern New Hampshire U's College for America releases a promising early snapshot of the general-education learning and skills of students who are enrolled in a new form of competency-based education.

How and why American Council on Education developed the Alternate Credit Project (essay)

Last month the American Council on Education launched the Alternative Credit Project Ecosystem. Through this project, students who successfully complete courses in a pool of 111 low-cost or free lower-division general-education online offerings will have a transparent pathway to determine, prior to transferring, whether certain higher education institutions will accept those alternative credit courses. ACE has engaged 40 colleges, universities and systems that all have a strong commitment to access and attainment and that have agreed to accept a large amount, if not all, of the courses in the pool.

The project is meant to give nontraditional or underserved learners introductory knowledge upon which they can build as they pursue a formal degree or credential. It also aims to encourage greater acceptance of alternative credit recommendations among higher education institutions.

ACE believes it is important that colleges and universities consider and accept such alternative credit courses. Nontraditional students find them useful as low-cost points of re-entry into the higher education system and helpful as they strive to complete a degree program. Institutions have indicated that these types of courses serve as gateways or filters for student success, since nontraditional students who successfully complete such alternative credit courses tend to persist and graduate at higher rates than nontraditional students who have not taken such courses. These courses are thus important for the nation’s postsecondary attainment agenda on several levels.

With the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ACE has designed a process to deepen the shared understanding of how to evaluate the quality, content, scope and rigor of courses nonaccredited providers offer. The 25 founding institutions -- an additional 15 joined the project earlier this year -- provided input to ACE on subject areas to include in the project, the development of the course rubric, and the process by which institutions would determine which courses they would accept for transfer credit.

ACE invited seven nonaccredited course providers to join the project and offer the online courses: Ed4Online, edX, JumpCourse, Pearson Learning Solutions, Saylor Academy, Sophia Learning and StraighterLine. These providers submitted more than 160 courses for consideration, and we selected the final pool based on the outcomes of ACE faculty evaluation teams and institutional acceptance rates. Some of the courses that the providers submitted fell outside the scope of the project because they were in non-general education disciplines, such as criminal justice or allied health, and did not receive reviews.

Selecting the Courses

As many higher education institutions and policy makers are discovering, evaluating these types of courses requires somewhat tailored standards to ensure the quality of learning that takes place in a self-paced environment compared to that which goes on in a college classroom. Because ACE has a long history of leading academic quality evaluation processes through previous work evaluating learning that takes place in military and workplace settings, we understand that while the wide array of nontraditional courses share common features, we must also take into account key differences in assessing the effectiveness of teaching and learning that take place in different settings.

For example, we would evaluate a training course provided in a military setting somewhat differently than a training course provided in a workplace setting. The types of instruction vary -- and the kinds of assessment also vary -- in these very distinct contexts. Evaluation of alternative credit courses should differ, too, from these types of evaluation -- and the Alternative Credit Project provided us with the opportunity to learn more about the most effective methods for assessing this type of learning.

In studying how best to evaluate these nonaccredited provider courses -- across disciplines such as business, critical thinking and writing, foreign language, humanities, mathematics, natural and physical sciences, and social and behavioral sciences -- we have remained committed to providing an assurance of academic quality based on faculty evaluations that institutions can rely on. ACE does not accredit a course, a company or an institution. Rather, we recommend that a particular course is worthy of credit due to its subject matter, the knowledge a student will gain and how that knowledge aligns with what typically takes place in a formal college class in that subject area.

As with all ACE credit reviews, experienced college and university faculty members have operated as independent teams and carried out rigorous evaluations to assess the content, scope and rigor of each organization’s courses in order to make appropriate recommendations for comparable college credit. These are individuals who are teaching college-level courses at an accredited institution recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, and who have been teaching for at least five years.

The faculty reviewers used a newly designed course quality assessment rubric to evaluate the courses that qualified for review. All of the courses that were included in the Alternative Credit Project pool successfully met the rubric standards and were reviewed by faculty evaluators to ensure that the content, scope and rigor of the course aligned with what is expected in a similar course at colleges and universities across the country.

Specifically, the rubric outlined seven mandatory minimum standards for which each course was required to receive either an “effective” or “exemplary” rating in order to be included in the final pool. Those standards are: 1) articulating student expectations, 2) course organization/navigation, 3) course syllabus, 4) course objectives, 5) curriculum alignment, 6) mastery of concepts and 7) assessment criteria.

If a course failed to meet one of the mandatory minimum standards, it did not receive a credit recommendation and was not included in the final pool. If it met those minimum standards, it was evaluated against 11 additional mandatory standards: 1) student support services, 2) course provider policies, 3) functional design, 4) grading standards, 5) learning engagement, 6) active learning, 7) references and resources, 8) student grades, 9) student assessment of learning, 10) learning technology and tools, and 11) technology requirements and aptitude. Nine of those had to be deemed “effective” or “exemplary” for a course to be included in the final pool.

As an example, one course in the area of English Composition was found not to have adequate assessment criteria because a 50-question multiple choice test was used to measure learning rather than the submission of a writing sample. In another example, a humanities course did not provide adequate course organization or navigation for a student, which may contribute to low completion and success rates.

One key difference in the process used to evaluate courses that are part of the Alternative Credit Project compared to a workplace credit review is that a traditional syllabus was required for a nonaccredited provider course to be considered for inclusion in the pool. Since the participating institutions are guaranteeing that they will accept for credit a large number, if not all, of the courses in the pool, they and ACE felt that this portion of a course needed to align more closely with traditional higher education methodology. In some cases, that requirement resulted in submitted courses not receiving a credit recommendation.

Other standards against which courses did not pass muster under the rubric include grading standards, course provider policies, technology requirements and aptitude, and learning technology and tools.

In total, seven courses with prior credit recommendations under ACE’s traditional process did not measure up against the rubric and were not included in the final pool. Among them was a JumpCourse Introduction to Sociology course, which Daniel F. Sullivan, president emeritus of St. Lawrence University, recently critiqued in an Inside Higher Ed column. While the Introduction to Sociology course has value, it did not meet the parameters of the Alternative Credit Project rubric because the course learning objectives did not align with what would be found in an Introduction to Sociology course at a regionally accredited institution. In addition, most postsecondary sociology courses today require a written project, which was also missing from this course. However, seven other JumpCourse courses were accepted into the pool.

Lessons for the Future

As we continue a process of continuous improvement based on what we are learning through the Alternative Credit Project and other self-assessment processes, it is possible that some of the courses that currently have credit recommendations may have to meet an updated set of standards the next time they come up for review. In addition, ACE will be evaluating, along with participating institutions, the results for student success in the coming months and years -- both in terms of this pool of courses and also how this work might be adapted to our workplace-credit recommendation processes. That fits with ACE’s commitment to exploring new ways to improve all of our quality assessment methods.

What we have learned so far in applying the new Alternative Credit Project rubric to this pool of courses offered by an array of nonaccredited providers is insightful and promising. For example, we have found that evaluating new kinds of content and methods of delivering instruction to nontraditional students requires refinement of the processes used to evaluate other types of content and instruction more applicable to and aligned with how adult students with some prior college experience learn.

We have also learned that various approaches to online instructional design can each be successful, as long as they all meet certain basic criteria. Finally, we have found there are multiple ways in which students can demonstrate learning in different settings, even using the same modality across those settings -- such as online workplace training versus online alternative credit instruction by nonaccredited providers.

Most of all, we’ve learned that the objective is ambitious but achievable: providing nontraditional learners with additional tools to speed their path to a degree or credential, while giving higher education institutions the quality assurances they need to help those students succeed.

Deborah Seymour is the American Council on Education’s chief academic innovation officer.

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Overregulation of competency-based education (essay)

In a recent letter to the Higher Learning Commission, the largest of the regional accreditors, the Office of the Inspector General offered a scathing review of the commission’s approvals for direct-assessment competency-based education programs. The review highlighted the fundamental challenges facing a movement that has been washing like a wave over higher education. The OIG’s more rigid reading of the rules for faculty interaction with students may have a chilling effect on accreditors, who could become more concerned about running afoul of the OIG than of heeding calls to be supportive of much-needed innovation in higher education.

In just two years, we have gone from a handful of CBE programs and almost none offering direct assessment -- the unwieldy name for CBE programs not tied to the credit hour -- to more than 600 institutions working on such offerings. Those institutions include community colleges, independent colleges and universities, and public institutions like the University of Michigan and the University of Texas. In contrast to the rapid expansion of for-profit online education a decade ago, the primary providers today are nonprofit institutions. While most programs are still being designed within traditional credit-hour frameworks and thus Title IV rules of financial aid disbursement, an increasing number seek to be untethered to the credit hour and its trumping of time over actual learning. They have the support of leaders in the Education Department, the White House and both parties of Congress.

Enter the OIG, which operates independently within the Education Department, auditing and investigating department programs. The recent letter to the Higher Learning Commission reasserts the use of the “regular and substantive interaction between faculty and students” rule to distinguish between conventional Title IV-eligible programs and correspondence programs, which have greater restrictions on aid eligibility and ruinous stigma attached to them. The OIG, acutely aware of the abuses in correspondence programs in the 2000s, takes a very conservative interpretation of the rule and posits a traditional faculty instructional role.

However, many of the most innovative CBE programs unbundle that role, using faculty members in various ways, such as subject matter experts, reviewers and for learning support, while relying on “coaches” for some of the advising and mentoring roles often associated with faculty. Such programs are also introducing breakthrough technologies that can offer personalized learning and robust support not possible just 10 years ago.

The Education Department’s own guidance to institutions tacitly acknowledged such an unbundling process in its December 2014 dear colleague letter when it talked about interactions between students and "institutional staff," and it offered more explicit guidance this September in its Competency-Based Education Experiment Reference Guide. That detailed and much-awaited guidance reaffirms the need for students to have “access to qualified faculty,” but it allows for the unbundling of faculty roles, for “regular and substantive” interaction to be “broadly interpreted,” and for “periodic” interaction to be “event driven.” It shares the OIG’s basic concern when it asserts that “it is incumbent on the institution to demonstrate that students are not left to educate themselves, a chief characteristic of correspondence programs.” But it also understands that there are now many exciting alternatives to “self-learning” that do not look like traditional classrooms.

A lot of the innovation underway in CBE rests on adaptive learning technologies, powerful analytics and customer relationship management tools, learning science, and improved practices in everything from advising to learning design. But those advances -- all emerging after the correspondence program abuses of 20 years ago -- are unacknowledged in the OIG’s report. And the report’s authors continue to use time as a proxy for learning, as when they use phrases like, “even though the applications described the proposed programs as self-paced ….” Pacing is largely irrelevant in a direct-assessment world where outcomes, not seat time, matter.

The report rightly points out a need for clarity of approval processes and better communications. Institutions have long been frustrated by the opaque nature of both the Education Department’s and at least some of the accreditors’ approval processes, including the Higher Learning Commission’s. Yet, ironically, just as the accreditors and the department have improved their guidance -- witness the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions' guidance in June and the department’s expanded CBE guidance in September -- the OIG report will very likely make things worse again as both parties scramble to respond and alter their processes in whatever ways they feel necessary.

New Regulatory Frameworks

Congress can fix this mess (come on now, hold back that snickering). It can create a demonstration project that allows non-credit-hour CBE -- let’s please drop “direct assessment,” as all CBE programs directly assess student mastery of competencies -- the kind of latitude for providing the functions that faculty have traditionally provided, while not reifying their roles. It can use the occasion to also provide for subscription models of disbursing Title IV, rethinking time-based measures like Satisfactory Academic Progress, tying aid disbursement to mastery of competencies and finally, getting Title IV rules to align with the legislative intent of an alternative to the credit hour.

It can then use that demonstration project and what we learn from it to inform the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Given the bipartisan support for CBE, the demonstration project can be easily created, and it would be a useful mechanism for informing the more complicated process of reauthorization. Republican Congressman John Kline of Minnesota, chair of the House Education and Workforce Committee, can immediately address the need by reintroducing last year’s widely supported CBE bill. Former Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa and then chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, would not take up the bill, a missed opportunity. His successor in the Senate, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, should consider a demonstration project as a useful step towards reauthorization, a source of learning to inform better policy making, and act to support the innovation he has rightly called for in HELP Committee hearings.

In the end, the OIG is simply enforcing the law and rules that Congress and the Department of Education have created. While its lawyers, auditors and investigators are by nature and training biased toward a more conservative, even rigid, reading of the rules, it is not their job to make the rules. They will enforce what Congress creates.

So the onus is on policy makers to create new regulatory frameworks with enough latitude to better provide for innovation and the learning still underway, enough quality assurance to discourage shoddily designed programs, and enough regulatory oversight to prevent the abuses that still inform the OIG’s concerns with CBE programs.

Paul LeBlanc is president of Southern New Hampshire University. He worked as a senior policy advisor to Under Secretary Ted Mitchell in the U.S. Department of Education from March to June 2015, focusing on CBE programs and innovation.

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