During January’s White House opportunity summit, policy makers and higher education leaders announced over 100 new initiatives designed to bolster first-generation and low-income students’ college success. While students who overcome the odds to gain access to college bring with them significant grit and resilience, the road through college is often a rocky one.
First Lady Michelle Obama described the obstacles that first-generation and low-income students commonly confront. No stranger to these challenges, she said:
You’re in a whole new world. You might have trouble making friends because you don’t see any peers who come from a background like yours. You might be worried about paying for classes, and food, and room and board because you have never had to set your own budget before. You might be feeling guilty when you call home because Mom and Dad are wondering why you didn’t get a job so you could help support their family. Those are the kinds of obstacles these kids are facing right from day one.
Even among the select group that make it to college, first-generation and low-income students, on average, find it harder to fit in, receive lower grades, and drop out at higher rates than do students from higher income backgrounds with college-educated parents (i.e., continuing-generation students). Study after study demonstrates that the financial, academic, and psychological barriers that these students encounter can significantly undermine their performance.
The summit shined the national policy spotlight on this persistent social class achievement gap. Our own and others’ research shows that these feelings of exclusion and difference that the First Lady described are key factors that fuel the gap. While all students tend to question whether they belong and have what it takes to succeed, these concerns are magnified for first-generation and low-income students because of the mismatch they experience as they enter this “whole new world” of higher education.
Our research provides compelling evidence that talking about social class equips first-generation and low-income students to succeed. In our recent study, published in Psychological Science, we invited first-generation and continuing-generation students at the beginning of the school year to attend a one-hour program designed to help them transition to college. Unbeknownst to them, half of the students attended a “difference-education” program while the other half attended a “standard” program. In both programs, newly minted first-years at an elite university listened to a diverse panel of junior and senior students talk about their transition to college, challenges they faced, and how they found success. In the difference-education program, however, panelists’ stories also included a discussion of how their social class backgrounds mattered in college. In the standard program, panelists did not reveal their social class.
We found that the difference-education program closed the achievement gap between first- and continuing-generation students. First-generation students had higher year-end grade-point averages and better learned to take advantage of college resources that could help them succeed — like seeking mentorship and extra help from professors — than their peers that participated in the standard program. An added bonus was that all students who participated in the difference-education program — both first- and continuing-generation — gained a deeper understanding of how students’ diverse backgrounds and perspectives mattered in college than their peers in the standard program. They also experienced a smoother college transition — they were less stressed, felt like they fit in socially, and were more connected to their home and school.
When we talk with educators and administrators about the success of this research, many are inspired to start a program like ours and reap the rewards; yet, they also voice trepidation. What happens if talking about social class leads students to feel threatened? What if students are not receptive to the message? What if we get accused of stereotyping or stigmatizing students because of their backgrounds?
These are understandable concerns. Talking about difference is threatening to many people, especially since Americans don’t like to talk about social class. Drawing on key insights from social psychology and multicultural education, engaging students in a conversation about how their different backgrounds matter can be instructive and empowering for all involved. But, you need to do it in the right way. Below we outline key guidelines that educators should follow:
Show how all students can experience college differently – the success of this type of program hinges on framing it as relevant to all students, rather than as a “diversity initiative” directed only at disadvantaged students who need extra help. A unique benefit of our approach was that all students learned about how their backgrounds can shape what they experience in college. We recommend that both the senior students who share their stories and the incoming students who participate in the program are first- and continuing-generation. First, it will ensure that first-generation students do not feel “singled out” or stigmatized as students in need of extra help. Second, it will help students learn about each other’s different backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences. Representing difference as a normal part of the college experience — and life, more generally — is a crucial lesson in today’s increasingly diverse world.
Start with a solid foundation — the college transition is rife with uncertainty. Our own work and that of others consistently shows that these types of transitional programs benefit students the most when they are conducted during or immediately after students’ first weeks on campus. Students’ initial social and academic experiences are the foundation upon which the rest of their experiences will be built. Give them a strong foundation right away.
Let senior students share their own stories — incoming students need to be able to see themselves and hear their own voices reflected in the stories the older students tell. To do this, select a diverse group of students who take pride in their backgrounds and are comfortable discussing their social class (in addition to race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and so on). This sends a strong signal that difference is a source of pride and strength rather than shame.
Don’t be afraid of the negative (but offset it with the positive) — incoming students need to hear the real stuff, not an idealized version of what other students have gone through. First-generation students confront a lot of adversity during the college transition. For example, many struggle to choose a major, identify a future career path, or reconcile their life back home with their new life in college. They need to learn about the obstacles they are likely to face, but also need to understand that each obstacle is surmountable when they use the right strategies and rely on their resilience.
Deliver a powerful (but subtle) message — we know that Americans don’t like to talk about class. We recommend giving students a subtle nudge to show them how it matters — through hearing other students’ stories — rather than telling them directly that class is something that they need to watch out for. Encourage them to think about and apply what they learn to their own lives and let them come to their own conclusions. Give students the chance to process the information and make it their own – for example, by writing an essay or making a video about what they learned to share with next year’s incoming students.
Colleges and universities have a responsibility to prepare students for success in our increasingly diverse and multicultural world. When done the right way, transitional programs have the potential to help to make this “whole new world” of higher education a less alienating, and more welcoming place, for all students — especially for those who need it the most.
Nicole M. Stephens, MarYam G. Hamedani and Mesmin Destin
Nicole M. Stephens is associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
MarYam G. Hamedani is associate director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University.
Mesmin Destin is an assistant professor in the department of psychology and the School of Education & Social Policy at Northwestern University.
Although these sound bites slight the seriousness of their subject, Cuomo’s critics raise a fundamentally important question: When low- and middle-income students are burdened by tens of thousands of dollars of debt, how can government support for college prison programs be justified?
And the issue matters not only in New York State, where Cuomo’s proposal has captured public attention, but nationwide, where the idea of promoting college education in prisons is mostly ignored by politicians fearful of the kinds of attacks Cuomo is receiving.
We agree that any argument for funding college courses and/or degrees for prison inmates must reckon with the reality of the financial pressure on students who incur onerous college loans only to face an uncertain job market. In New York State, 6 out of 10 college seniors graduate with debt averaging $25,537, a reality not lost on some of our students in the Cayuga Community College-Cornell University Prison Education Program. Many men in our program have sons, daughters, nieces and nephews on the outside who are struggling to pay their own college loans.
That said, approaching college programs for prison inmates as a matter of “them or us,” the middle class or the undeserving poor, distorts what is at stake. This happened before. In the mid-1990s, Congress eliminated the use of federal Pell Grants for college programs in prison in response to critics who claimed that they drew resources away from worthy young men and women who were struggling to pay their way through college.
That was misguided then, and it remains so now.
First of all, the cost is relatively small. Governor Cuomo has proposed 10 programs, each with about 100 students, at a cost of $5,000 per individual that totals about $5 million. Compare this to the financial support available to New York college students more generally. In 2013, close to $2 billion in federal Pell Grants were disbursed to about 97,000 students in New York State, a figure that does not include a vast array of other federal and state as well as private scholarship and loan money available generally to students in New York’s two- and four-year colleges.
Second, the us-vs.-them frame is blind to the crime reduction and tax benefits that even a small college-educated prison population can deliver. College programs lower the incidence of crime both inside the prison and beyond its walls. Facility superintendents are usually eager to have college programs. A good discipline record is required to join and remain in the program. In those facilities with college classes, the incentive for staying out of trouble rises sharply.
When college-educated individuals are released to the street, recidivism drops dramatically. The Bard and Hudson Link prison education programs record low single digit return-to-prison rates of their students and graduates. A careful, synthetic analysis of multiple studies done in Ohio reports college as contributing to a one-third decline in reincarceration.
Even under conservative assumptions, the program will pay for itself and more. Assuming a $5 million cost, the release of no more than one-tenth of the 100 students in each of the 10 graduating classes, and recidivism rates of not more than 25 percent (much above the single-digit recidivism rate that New York State’s college programs currently experience), the savings during the first year are close to $5 million. Compounded over many years, they are substantial.
Third, it would be a mistake to see the benefits only in quantifiable monetary terms. Many student recipients of a college education behind bars play a role in urging young members of their own families to stay in school, to work hard, and to consider college. On returning home, many of these former students become passionate mentors of younger adults who face the same choices they once did. And the “us-them” divide is blurred still further in that many prison students become us returning to OUR families, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and our communities.
We ask that voters and our elected representatives act on the proposition that all New Yorkers – and all Americans – are better off by ridding ourselves of the legacy of binaries that force us to choose between the morally pure and the undeserving poor and by implementing public policies that reflect a commitment to provide education free of any racial, class, or moral litmus test.
Glenn Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. Mary Fainsod Katzenstein is the Stephen and Evalyn Milman Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
Matt Reed’s recent column on experimental sites and competency-based education (CBE) offers just the kind of thoughtful analysis we’ve come to expect of his columns. He raises important questions about the role of faculty, the efficacy of approaches that include less instructional interaction, the viability of pay-for-performance aid models, and more. The answers to those questions today? We don’t know. And that’s why we need to support the Department of Education’s experimental sites proposal, to create safe places in which to explore the kind of thoughtful and constructive questions that Matt poses.
Last year saw the dizzying ascendency of the massive open online course, driven by some combination of their blue chip provenance, their creators’ triumphant claims, and the smitten embrace of popular media outlets (especially TheNew York Times).
To the satisfaction and relief of some, MOOCs have come back to earth. Still in search of a purpose (the job they are “hired to do,” to use a Clay Christensen phrase), a business model, and an ideal user scenario, MOOCs are entering a more useful and realistic phase of their development. A lot of smart, mission-driven people are working on MOOC 3.0 (everyone forgets about MOOC 1.0 that came before Coursera and edX put MOOCs on the map) and we’ll see if MOOCs are 21st-century content, a platform innovation, or a powerful new disruptive presence in the educational landscape.
Competency-based education is the hot new innovation, at least in its latest incarnation, largely untethered to the structure of courses and credits, the basic building blocks of curriculums and thus learning. In truth, CBE has been around for decades and pioneered by accredited nonprofits like Excelsior, Charter Oaks, and Western Governors University. They have been joined by a growing number of new providers including the University of Wisconsin System, Northern Arizona University, Brandman University, Capella University, Lipscomb University, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, and my own Southern New Hampshire University. Another 30 or more institutions are working on their own CBE offerings.
The Department of Education is exercising its authority to create experimental sites and has invited proposals for administering federal financial aid funds in new ways that support CBE models, and the White House is calling for more innovation and putting its weight behind CBE. The leading higher education associations – including EDUCAUSE, CAEL, AAC&U, and ACE – are joining in and announcing new initiatives, webinars, and meetings.
Accreditors are releasing new guidelines for CBE programs and the administration continues to pressure them by raising the possibility of new validation systems better suited to support innovative new delivery models. Think tanks and foundations have added their intellectual and financial backing to the effort. The hope, one I share, is that CBE can deliver on the holy triad of quality, cost (access), and completion.
This is a very different set of circumstances than those that have characterized the MOOC movement. CBE has an actual track record of success in its earlier iterations, is being embraced by powerful stakeholders, is being developed by institutions with deep understanding of the students they seek to serve, and is being tied into the established financial system of funding.
More importantly, CBE offers a fundamental change at the core of our higher education “system”: making learning non-negotiable and the claims for learning clear while making time variable. This is a profound change and stands to reverse the long slow erosion of quality in higher education. It is so fundamental a change that we hardly yet know all its implications for our world. For example:
If the claims we make for student learning really are non-negotiable, we will likely see a drop in completion rates, at least for some length of time;
We will have a lot of work to do around assessment, still difficult terrain in higher education;
The Department of Education, entrusted to protect billions of taxpayer dollars, will need reassurance that we have in place measures that guard against fraud;
If competencies are a new “currency” replacing credit hours, we will need to work out the “exchange rates” if we are to have a system that does not replicate the waste and inefficiencies of the current credit hour and transfer system.
Faculty roles are likely to be redefined, at least in some models, and a profession long in transition, and some would say under siege, will be further impacted;
Student information and learning management systems are not designed for these new models, yet form the administrative backbone that supports everything from registration to transcripts to billing to financial aid to... well, almost everything we do.
Accreditation standards, even new ones, will be tested and will have to evolve to reflect the lessons we learn over time.
In other words, if CBE is finally a movement, it is like many new movements still in search of the basics. It lacks a taxonomy, an agreed-upon nomenclature, the aforementioned exchange rate, a widely accepted form of documentation (what is the right form of CBE transcript?), the supporting systems, and experience with a wide variety of students.
This is why the Department of Education’s proposed experimental sites are so important. The key word here is experiment. Institutions need safe spaces in which to try new things, new rules by which to operate, the ability to rethink fundamental assumptions about how we deliver learning and support students, trying new models for costing and paying, and tolerance for mistakes. If we are not making mistakes, it isn’t really innovation that’s going on.
We need a range of approaches to see what works best for what students in what settings. In return, institutions engaged in the work have to do their part. That includes collecting and providing data with a level of transparency that our industry has historically resisted (higher education is a culture that innately resists accountability outside of student grades), putting aside underlying competitive impulses to share what we learn, and finding ways to support students and quickly address the mistakes we must inevitably make (remembering that we never “play” with student welfare).
Experimental sites are important for what they allow, but also for what they (should) fend off. We should beware a premature setting of standards or guidelines. We should beware a premature overturn of the credit hour, flawed as it is, before we have worked out its substitute (or more likely, complementary system). We should beware an opening of the gates like the one that attended online learning, when unscrupulous players entered the market and abused the system for enormous gains at enormous costs for students and the federal government.
In other words, we need just the kind of good questions that Matt Reed poses in his recent column. We need leading thinkers like CAEL and AAC&U to help us think through the big questions before us. We need EDUCAUSE to help us spec out new systems and technologies. And we need to try various models, collect data, and work through the significant questions still in front of us so we can better inform policy-making and the reauthorization discussion now getting under way.
Traditional higher education is not going away any time soon, but CBE has the potential to both provide new affordable, high-quality pathways to students and to challenge our incumbent delivery models to better identify the claims they make for learning and how they know. Those demands, whatever CBE turns out to be, are not going away either and CBE can function like the industry’s R&D lab. The proposed experimental sites align with that very useful role and deserve our collective support.
Paul LeBlanc is president of Southern New Hampshire University.
That college you have your eye on for your teenager? It may be going out of business. Your alma mater, too.
Here’s why: we keep seeing reports that the financial model undergirding much of higher education is weak and getting weaker. The way colleges are financed is out of date with the demands of a much larger student population. Few people outside higher education are aware of this, but college and university leaders are deeply concerned.
As director of the Postsecondary Success Strategy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I have spent the last year talking with chancellors, provosts, faculty, policy makers, and education technologists. Pretty much all of them recognize that higher education is at a tipping point, and that it will soon look nothing like it does today, except perhaps at a few ivy-covered, well-endowed institutions.
This is not hyperbole.
Bain & Co. looked at hundreds of colleges and universities and found that about one in three is on an unsustainable financial track. “A growing percentage of our colleges and universities are in real financial trouble. And if the current trends continue, we will see a higher education system that will no longer be able to meet the diverse needs of the U.S. student population in 20 years.”
The report found that, at a time when college revenues and cash reserves are down, too many institutions face bigger debt service bills and ever-increasing expenses. Colleges were once able to make ends meet with annual tuition hikes, new fees and by securing more government support. Those days, though, are gone. Too many students now must borrow heavily just to keep pace with tuition increases, and government coffers are bare.
Last summer Inside Higher Ed and Gallup surveyed campus chief financial officers on their thoughts on the sustainability of their higher education institutions. Only 27 percent of them expressed strong confidence in their institution's financial model over the next five years. When asked to consider a 10-year window, the number expressing strong confidence in the financial health of their institutions dropped to 13 percent.
Improvement is needed on the academic side, as well. Data shows that our higher education system currently serves only about a third of students well, any most of those come from generally well-off families. Institutions of all types–two-year, four-year, public, private and online–need to adapt to the realities of today’s students even as they grapple with shrinking resources and increasing demand.
Only one student in four graduates from high school ready to succeed in a postsecondary program. Too many of the rest end up stuck in remedial programs that drain their resources and don’t prepare them to successfully complete postsecondary coursework.
Many of these students are from low-income families, or they are older, juggling life, jobs, and family as they pursue their educations. They are often first-generation college-goers who lack the support and guidance crucial to navigating the thicket that is higher education. As a result, too many students end up leaving college with a lot of debt but no degree.
We used to call these students “nontraditional.” Now they are the “new majority.” And their struggles were highlighted recently in data released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that showed U.S. adults have below average literacy, math and problem solving skills when compared to their peers in the world’s richest countries. We have to make the system better for these students — but how?
Technology is often looked at as an answer. Yet, it has to be more than just bolting new technology on an antiquated platform. Technology-driven innovation has the potential to help colleges and universities address some of these challenges while helping faculty do their jobs by helping them offer students more personalized instruction and academic support. Done thoughtfully and well, technology can help faculty provide a more personalized learning experience for their students and ease some of the financial pressure on colleges and universities.
Today’s students need highly personalized coaching, mentoring, and other supports tailored to their individual needs and goals. Technology holds huge promise for making this kind of personalization possible by enabling colleges to effectively target the most costly and most important aspect of any education – the interactions with instructors and advisors.
Too often, we are debating the wrong things about technology and higher education. For example, we can’t just compare online or in-person classes. We need new business models that include technology and allow colleges and universities to put scarce dollars where they matter most. For today’s student, what can make a big, positive difference is access to an education tailored to their needs, their learning styles, and their goals, with appropriate coaching and advising.
Look at the State University of New York, which plans to add 100,000 new students over the next three years through its Open SUNY initiative. It will make online classes at each of its 64 campuses available to all of the system’s 468,000 students. Personalization will be an important part of the initiative, combining on-site and online academic support. Arizona State University, for its part, combines face-to-face learning, hybrid classes, and online instruction to increase enrollments, even as it faces severe physical space limits.
The cause is urgent. For higher education to fulfill its historic role as an engine of social mobility and economic growth, we must continue to seek big technology breakthroughs. This means thinking creatively about how to serve students as individuals, while also ensuring that many more students get the learning opportunities they deserve.
This might sound paradoxical, but investments in education technology will be increasingly crucial to humanizing and improving the student experience. And it might just keep your alma mater – or your child’s future alma mater – in business, and more purposeful and student-centered than ever.
Dan Greenstein is the director of postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Follow him on Twitter: @dan_greenstein.
In the 1966-67 TV series “It’s About Time,” two astronauts travel back in time and visit with some cave people (including the 20th-century character actress Imogene Coca), and then some of the cave people travel forward in time to the 20th century. Both the astronauts and the cave people learn things in usual, and unusual, places and times. Similarly, there is increasing recognition in higher education that students today can learn anywhere, any time. So whether or not you are old enough to remember this sitcom, you may be aware that learning in today’s institutions of higher education is becoming more independent of the dimensions of time and space.
Where, when, and how learning takes place in higher education is going through significant changes. These changes are for the great benefit of students, but they also have consequences for our institutions of higher education, consequences that reach far beyond the classroom itself. These consequences reach into, not just the area of technology, but the areas of governance, labor practice, and policy.
First, higher education’s increasing independence from time and space is coupled with an increasing emphasis on learning outcomes — that it is what you learn, not where or when you learn it — that matters. You could learn while you are a matriculated student in a Tuesday/ Thursday 10-11:20 a.m. course in your local community college, or you could learn on occasional Saturday afternoons while you are sitting on the beach. The important thing is that you learn. Further, if what is important is the actual learning outcomes, it is essential to be able to tell whether those outcomes have been achieved.
A focus on outcomes is not new in higher education. Nevertheless, American higher education has historically focused largely on the mechanisms that produce outcomes, and not so much on the outcomes themselves. Thus state, regional, and professional accreditors require colleges and universities to demonstrate that they have qualified faculty, appropriate syllabi, and the proper numbers of class hours — all examples of assumed inputs to good outcomes — rather than requiring the institutions to demonstrate that their students know what they should in order to receive their degrees. The most commonly mentioned outcome is graduation, as part of what is known as the college completion agenda.
But, unfortunately graduation does not necessarily mean that a student has learned anything. For graduation to be meaningful it must represent measurable, verifiable achievement of specific learning outcomes, a goal toward which many organizations and institutions are working. For example, according to the Lumina Foundation’s work on the Degree Qualifications Profile, a baccalaureate student in a certain field "defines and explains the boundaries and major sub-fields, styles, and/or practices of that field."
A relatively recent example of more outcome-based focuses is the LEAP initiative of Association of American Colleges and Universities. LEAP (Liberal Education and American’s Promise) specifies a set of "essential learning outcomes” that every 21st-century college graduate should achieve. For example, “…continuing at successively higher levels across their college studies, students should prepare for twenty-first century challenges by gaining… intellectual and practical skills, including... critical and creative thinking... practiced extensively, across the curriculum, in the context of progressively more challenging problems, projects, and standards for performance.”
For many years the City University of New York has worked diligently to turn its focus to learning outputs rather than inputs. One example is CUNY’s Performance Management Process, which began in 1999, and which encourages CUNY colleges to set outcomes goals such as “increase licensing examination pass rates” as opposed to “increase the number of classroom instruction hours for students preparing to take the licensing examination.” The latter may be a perfectly valid activity, but it is not a learning outcome.
A relatively recent example of CUNY’s focus on learning outcomes concerns CUNY’s Pathways initiative, approved by the CUNY Board of Trustees and then-Chancellor Matthew Goldstein in 2011. Designed to smooth transfer for CUNY students, Pathways includes a framework for general education that applies to all 19 undergraduate colleges of CUNY. This framework is defined, not in terms of particular courses that students must take (which would be inputs), but in terms of learning outcomes.
Now that the Pathways project has been essentially completed, with its courses first offered in fall 2013, CUNY students are supposed to achieve certain learning outcomes by virtue of taking the Pathways courses. However, each individual CUNY college determines which specific courses will be offered to achieve these learning outcomes. Thus a student at one college might take a course entitled “Contemporary Asia” to satisfy the world cultures learning outcomes of Pathways, and a student at another college might take a course entitled “World History to 1500.” In both cases, the expectation is that on completion of the course, the student can, for example, “analyze culture, globalization, or global cultural diversity, and describe an event or process from more than one point of view.” Yet, though CUNY has decided to focus on learning outcomes for its general education courses, how to measure those outcomes is still under discussion. Assessing learning outcomes can be much more difficult than checking off inputs, such as the amount of time students spend sitting in class (see this link for an example of how the AAC&U suggests that the learning outcome of critical thinking can be assessed).
CUNY’s focus on learning outcomes for the Pathways general education curriculum directly promotes space-independent learning in that students can take Pathways courses anywhere at CUNY and then receive credit anywhere at CUNY. However, although Pathways enables students to complete their degrees more efficiently, some CUNY faculty have stated that Pathways interferes with the faculty having complete control over the curriculum and decreases educational quality. The CUNY administration has countered that New York State Education Law gives control over the curriculum to the CUNY Board of Trustees, and that the actual curricular content of Pathways has in any case been created and approved by the faculty. The conflict has reached the courts.
More generally, assuming that we can measure outcomes, the focus on outcomes rather than on inputs brings us back to the independence of learning from time and place that is increasingly characterizing higher education. For it is this very focus on outcomes that validates, for example, assessment of prior learning (including learning done outside of a college or university) as a method for determining whether someone has sufficient learning to be certified as having completed a particular course or degree. The American Council on Education standards regarding how to evaluate learning achieved as a result of military service are a good example of how to standardize the assessment of learning outcomes. For example, ACE recommends that people who have served as Coast Guard copilots receive a total of 40 college semester-hour credits in topics such as aviation meteorology, flight physiology, and crew resource management.
Some universities have gone further, explicitly and actively seeking ways to help students proceed very efficiently in accumulating certified achievements. These universities may use traditional classroom-based study only when necessary (see Western Governor’s University’s competency-based education, Southern New Hampshire University’s competency-based general studies degree, and Northern Arizona University’s new competency-based education). Such approaches constitute a key component of President Obama’s recent college cost control plan.
Also in the recent news is higher education’s use of MOOCs (massive open online courses). Because these courses are free and open to everyone, students can take them at their own convenience, and then, by means of some official assessment, students can be certified as having learned a particular topic and, ultimately, be awarded a degree. However, because of MOOCs’ low completion rates, there are currently many attempts to modify MOOCs (so that they are no longer massive or open) to try to facilitate MOOC students’ completion rates (and thus achievement of the MOOCs’ learning outcomes). For example, Georgia Institute of Technology is structuring a master’s program so that it exposes students to MOOCs that are open and online for all (with the MOOCs serving the traditional roles of lectures and textbooks), but that also provides the Georgia Tech students with individualized tutoring and proctored exams, such that the Georgia Tech students do not experience traditional MOOCs.
Another example of higher education’s increasing focus on outcomes as opposed to space and time involves the unbundling of course learning. In such cases students are first assessed to see what they already know, and then they are instructed only on what they do not know. This is not a new approach, but the current focus on learning outcomes highlights this technique’s usefulness.
The unbundling of learning such that students only need to spend time learning what they already know, assessment of prior learning, and online (particularly asynchronous) learning are all examples of the same goal: Freeing learning from time and space constraints and focusing on learning outcomes.
All of these trends should help students finish their degrees, and finish them faster. However, this degree acceleration will only occur if colleges and universities provide the conditions needed to facilitate this kind of work — enabling students to achieve the desired learning outcomes by whatever path is easiest for them. To do this the college and university infrastructure that supports learning should not be tied to particular times or places. Students should have opportunities to access what they need at any time and in any place — with or without an instructor, and with or without an adviser in physical proximity. Learning tools should be available that are easy to use in different places (i.e., they should be portable and accessible no matter what someone’s abilities), and those learning tools should function in the same way no matter what time it is (i.e., they should be asynchronous).
There should also be easily available — at any time and in any place — other sorts of supports such as reference material, technology support, tutoring, counseling, colleagues with whom to discuss the material, cocurricular activities, etc. Finally, of course, there must be good assessments of the outcomes and everything must be affordable, not only for the students and their families, but also for the institution and, in the case of public institutions, for taxpayers. Not an easy list to accomplish, by any means, but ongoing technological developments are facilitating institutions of higher education providing all of these types of physical and virtual infrastructure supports.
Providing all of these student supports is not the only change occurring in colleges and universities as a result of the increasing emphasis on learning outcomes and the concomitant decreasing emphasis on time- and space-dependent learning. How an instructor best structures the learning experiences is also changing. Lessons should be different for students engaging in learning activities for 30 minutes whenever their children are napping or have gone to sleep for the night than for students attending a traditional lecture course every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 9 a.m. Lessons may need to be broken into smaller units with the material presented in a variety of ways, accompanied by optional multiple examples, and with continuous opportunities for learning assessment and feedback. The Khan Academy incorporates just these sorts of elements, which are possible contributors to its apparent significant success.
In other words, if the goal is truly to focus on learning outcomes, and to facilitate reaching those outcomes by whatever mechanisms work best for each individual, then it is necessary to enable all aspects of the learning process to operate independently of time and place. The lessons, assignments, and infrastructure supports for at least some students must be different than they were in the past.
Increasingly, federal, regional, and state regulations are permitting institutions to provide and certify learning that is place- and time-independent. For many years, much of the higher education system has been built around the concept of the credit hour (a similar concept is the Carnegie unit): students in class for a certain amount of time receive a credit. Credits earned by students count toward their degrees and are also the basis for how much tuition is charged, how much financial aid can be obtained, and how much workload credit a faculty member receives. As learning becomes independent of time and place, these uses of a credit hour become difficult, impossible, or irrelevant. Recognizing these consequences, in March 2013, the federal Department of Education issued a letter stating that it will consider giving financial aid based on how much a student has learned, rather than based on time in class. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the originator of the Carnegie unit in 1906, is also exploring ways of students being certified for having learned certain material without the intervening use of Carnegie units.
At the same time, hardware manufacturers and software developers are working intensively to make their devices and applications useful in supporting time- and space-independent learning. All of these developments will enable students to progress in ways that recognize the needs and accomplishments of each individual.
Nevertheless, colleges and universities themselves need to do more than simply measure outcomes and provide infrastructure support. Time- and space-independent learning requires changes in the very foundations of these institutions. If not by number of traditional credit hours taught, how will faculty workload be defined? Will faculty agree that prior learning that is achieved by means other than direct instruction can be just as valid as direct exposure (and often extended direct exposure) to themselves? Put another way, will faculty endorse the view that what is important for students is that they learn widely accepted correct information, obtained by whatever means best enables student progress, rather than information that each faculty member him- or herself specifically provides? Or will most faculty react to the changes in the learning process as did some CUNY faculty regarding the Pathways initiative? Or as did the philosophy faculty at San José State University when their campus administration suggested that their department make use of a MOOC produced outside of San José State University: “There is no pedagogical problem in our department that [this MOOC] solves, nor do we have a shortage of faculty capable of teaching the relevant course.” Colleges and universities may have to change many of their labor and governance policies in order to best facilitate the sort of learning described in this piece.
Thus the focus on outcomes, as well as the independence of learning from time and space constraints, is indeed about moving us along on the college completion agenda. However, this work has many additional implications for higher education and its associated industries. Just as in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, higher education may involve lots of seemingly (at least at first) strange people doing strange things in strange places — a complex and difficult journey, but one with highly desirable outcomes.
Alexandra W. Logue is executive vice chancellor and provost of the City University of New York.