Submitted by Dan Butin on September 4, 2014 - 3:00am
With the start of the academic year upon us, it may be surreal to suggest that the college course is going the way of the dinosaur. Twenty million postsecondary students are streaming back onto college campuses, filing into lecture halls, and bracing for yet another semester of study. Sure, a fair portion of them will be doing this on their laptops. But even then, they’ll still have a professor and all the trappings (a syllabus, an overarching theme, a grade that gets put on their transcript) of a traditional semester-long course.
And yet, “The very notion of a ‘class’ may be outdated.” So suggest the authors of a just-released Massachusetts Institute of Technology report. MIT has spent over a year investigating the question of the future of residential education and has begun to systematically explore, among other things, the “modularization” of the curriculum into smaller Lego-like units that can be taken apart and put together in a myriad of ways.
"This,” the report argues, “in many ways mirrors the preferences of students on campus. The unbundling of classes also reflects a larger trend in society — a number of other media offerings have become available in modules, whether it is a song from an album, an article in a newspaper, or a chapter from a textbook. Modularity also enables 'just-in-time' delivery of instruction, further enabling project-based learning on campus and for students worldwide.”
For MIT and other institutions who have come to similar conclusions (see, for example, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Harvard University), the push comes from both the successes and challenges of digital learning technologies (such as MOOCs) that have proliferated in the last few years. But even more than that, they are well aware of what’s on the horizon.
“Might the Online Skills Academy,” muses Paul LeBlnac in a recent op-ed about the U.S. Department of Education’s “experimental sites” initiative, “be a first step to creating a new alternative pathway to a degree, one that actually creates a new higher education ecosystem that can sit beside and maybe improve our existing system?” For LeBlanc and many others, competency-based education offers a credible alternative to today’s “deeply flawed” system. “I am instead thinking about a nationally offered, extremely low-cost, competency-based model degree program that includes stackable, industry-embraced credentials.”
This, dear reader, is the beginning of the end for the college course. Not everywhere. Not for everyone. Not immediately. But for much of our current postsecondary system, much of what we do in our “chalk-and-talk” educational model can be automated and replaced by cheaper and more efficient systems. And I, for one, can’t wait to see it happen. Because, I suggest, it will allow us and force us to develop a system that sees the college course as not just the transmission of academic knowledge but as its use and transformation.
For the competency-based education (CBE) crowd, this will be about demonstrating proficiency – through portfolios, exams, or other standardized means where “time is irrelevant and mastery non-negotiable” – that shatters the monopoly of the credit hour. It suggests that the product matters, not the process. It is a one-for-one swap: forget the four years on campus; just show us that you have learned.
For the MIT crowd, this will be about finding the sweet spot of deep learning – through a blended mix of online and on-site modules, projects and courses curated by faculty and informed by the learning sciences and data analytics – that shatters the monopoly of an “is it on the exam?” student mentality (yes, it happens at MIT as well). It suggests that we must fundamentally revise the process if we are to change the product. It is backward design approach: the four years on campus are useless if you don’t come out transformed.
But in either case, the traditional course is dead.
I am not simply talking about the fact that, as the saying goes, “online education starts in the seventh row.” Sure, there is nothing to be gained from sitting in a lecture hall when you can watch the archived lecture online while pulling up a tutorial or a peer’s comments about the lecture as you go through it. I am talking about the realization that CBE and digital learning technologies give us the unique opportunity to rethink and revise our models of teaching and learning from the ground up.
I, of course, have to voice some caveats and concerns.
CBE, for all its emphasis on “mastery as non-negotiable,” has no theory of learning. CBE advocates avoid talking about how students will actually learn to demonstrate mastery. This has troubling implications for who supposedly can and can’t learn and the structural impediments to and stratification of academic success.
Similarly, MIT’s model confuses the way we learn with the way we teach. A single module is actually not like a single song, book chapter or newspaper article. A song can stand on its own, as it has a self-contained narrative arc and structure. But to see a module as a “mini-course” – kind of like a highlight reel of best lecture quotes – is to cater to a style of teaching rather than to a way of learning.
If I could mix and match these two perspectives, I might suggest that we view the MIT module in exactly the way that CBE proponents view their competencies: as transmitting information to gain highly bounded skills and knowledge that are linked explicitly to specific learning outcomes.
Think of modules more like a football player training certain fundamental skills and moves that he can then deploy automatically and fluidly and improvisationally in a game depending on the situation. Such skills and knowledge are crucial – as they form the foundation for the habits of mind and repertoires of action that we think of in experts – but they are in and of themselves almost irrelevant if they do not get used in practice. In this vision, a “course” becomes a set of mastered units of knowledge (modules) that are integrated into a project- or practice-based outcome. Put otherwise, the transmission of academic knowledge is a necessary but not sufficient condition to count as a course, which must be able to apply and transform such academic knowledge.
In either case, though, when both Southern New Hampshire University and MIT are grappling with the future of the college course – which has served as the basic unit and building block for all of higher education – we are seeing a system truly shattering. The question for all of us is what will be built up instead.
Dan Butin is dean and associate professor in the School of Education and Social Policy and executive director of the Center for Engaged Democracy at Merrimack College.
Amy Slaton's February 21 essay is a good example of how a well-intentioned effort to defend the value of higher education ends up portraying competency-based education as something it’s not and perpetuates the view that there is only one true approach to higher education.
To understand the recent focus on competency-based education, it’s important to recognize a few critical realities.
Second, state support dropped in 2012 to its lowest rate in 25 years.
Third, technology has yet to generate the dramatic cost savings we’ve seen in other arenas. For example, in 1900, the average American family spent 50 percent of its income on food and more than half of the American workforce was engaged in farming. Today, food consumes just 8 percent of household income and farming requires only 2 percent of the labor force.
Fourth, the American public has very mixed feelings about higher education. On the one hand, we know that better-educated individuals are happier on average, make better personal financial decisions, suffer fewer spells of unemployment and enjoy better health. On the other hand, there is a widely shared view that higher education is overpriced, inefficient, elitist, and inaccessible.
Fifth, research by Richard Florida (The Rise of the Creative Class) and Thomas Friedman (That Used to Be Us) and others has shown the importance of higher education to the future welfare of this country, just as global competition is mounting and our worldview is being shaken.
This is the reality in which higher education is operating as it tries to solve the problems of access and cost, while protecting quality and rigor.
Slaton’s solution to the cost problem is to typographically shout that higher education should get “MORE MONEY (as in, public funding).”
Unfortunately, shouting and wishing it so seldom works. The fact is that Americans are not willing to spend more money on the public good, let alone agree on what the public good is. The bottom line is that higher education is going to have to help itself; no one is coming to its rescue.
Enter competency-based education. It was introduced in America towards the end of the 1960s, but it applied only to small niche markets. Back then, cost and access were not the acute problems that they have become. The reason that new models are emerging now is that competency-based education is a well-conceived effort to meet at least some of the challenges facing higher education today. It is not the only effort, but it is promising because if done well, it addresses the issues of cost, quality, scaling and individualized learning all at once.
Competency-based education is a team effort. Similar to traditional higher education, faculty continue to be on center stage; they are the experts and the specialists. They set the standards and the criteria for success. They decide what students must know and how they must be able to demonstrate their knowledge in order to qualify for a degree.
Faculty in competency-based education work collaboratively to determine the structure of curriculum as a whole, the levels of competencies, and assessments that best measure competency. When constructed well, a competency-based curriculum is tight, with little ambiguity about how students must perform to demonstrate mastery, move through the program, and qualify for a degree.
The individualized nature of teaching changes. In their relationships with students, faculty function more like tutors and academic quality guarantors, attending to those students who need their expertise the most. Other staff, including advisers, coaches, professional tutors, instructional designers, and others, all pull in the same direction to make the learning and mastery process for students individualized, comprehensive, effective and efficient.
In his January 30 piece on Inside Higher Ed, Paul LeBlanc wrote that competency-based education "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.”
Competency-based education is not a panacea that will save higher education, but no one claims that it is. It is one approach to higher education that expands students’ options for learning and most importantly, expands their access while focusing on what they know and are able to do (instead of focusing on how many hours students spend in a classroom or the number of credits they pay for).
Today 40 percent of college students are nontraditional (U.S. Department of Education): they work full time, they have families, they care for aging parents and they attend to myriad responsibilities that make going to college in the traditional time blocks impractical if not impossible. In addition, many adult students have knowledge and experiences that are worthy of academic recognition that’s unavailable through traditional programs.
The view that the status quo is the only correct model of teaching and learning is the kind of hubris that makes higher education appear haughty and conceited, rather than as a vehicle for growth and opportunity. Competency-based education is a viable and important approach that provides students with another option for accessing and benefiting from higher education. We should support its development, and we should strongly encourage students to create ownership of their degrees and allow them to discover their unique identities.
If not this, what else is higher education for?
David Schejbal is dean of continuing education, outreach and e-learning at University of Wisconsin-Extension.