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Competence, Excellence, and Innovation in Higher Education

So I’ve gotten several emails this morning asking me what I think about this article by Paul J. LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University.

It’s a plea for accrediting agencies to take seriously competency-based, as opposed to credit-based, higher education.  Southern New Hampshire and its offshoot—the College for America—claim to be riding on “the new wave of innovation” that allows college degrees to be offered at very low prices.  This “new innovation” will often be delivered by for-profit institutions, which will have the right incentive to get you the product you want most efficiently.

The president claims that historians “will likely point to online learning as the disruptive technology platform that radically changed higher education, which had remained largely unchanged since the cathedral schools of medieval Europe — football, beer pong and food courts notwithstanding.”  Anyone who could take that claim seriously knows nearly nothing about what historians have said about higher education so far.

It’s not history but fairly clever rhetoric.  Today’s “higher education” for a student majoring in, say, public relations or marketing or exercise science has little to nothing medieval about it.  There have been many radical changes—mostly in a techno- and secularizing direction—since those “cathedral schools.”  I doubt the president has achieved competency on what went on in those cathedral schools or what Thomas Aquinas actually taught.  What he really means is that anything “medieval” is outmoded and otherwise worthless.  There have been so many “new innovations” since those days, and we just haven’t been keeping up.

I can’t help but think:  What’s medieval isn’t the lecture as such.  After all a MOOC is mostly a bunch of lectures for the masses.  What’s medieval are the “real book” (sometimes called “great book”) and all the other leisurely pretensions of “liberal education.”  In medieval times they used to think some about education of the soul—or not just about competency for productivity.

So I’ve recently heard about various pushes to use technology to make courses more “blended.”  You use technology to listen to some lecture outside of class—a MOOC or a TED or whatever.  And then class time is free up for discussion and other modes of “engagement.”  Professors might even have their class presentations recorded one semester.  Next time around, the students can watch them on YOUTUBE, again freeing class time up.

I could object that this is based on a profound misunderstanding of what goes on in at least MY class.  It’s different every time fellas, and all I do to prepare is read (every semester) what I assign the students to read.  But my bigger objection is that “homework” becomes watching instead of reading.  And teaching becomes talking about watching.  I know the competency-based approach adds a dimension of “doing” too, but I can’t help but focus on what remains conspicuous by its absence.

The president suggests that the only real innovations since the cathedral school we find at our colleges are “football, beer pong, and food courts.”  That means that today’s colleges—prior to his kind of radical disruption (I’m sorry, but I have to say that “disruption” has been completely emptied of meaning by its promiscuous overuse)—are a self-indulgent mixture of medievalism and educationally irrelevant amenities.

I’m with him to some extent on the amenities front.  Higher education would be a lot cheaper if it were separated from sports, entertainment, health clubs, housing, and gourmet food.  And if I were starting a liberal arts college tomorrow, I would do it without any of those.  But I wouldn’t put “beer pong” and what the president thinks of as medieval in the same disposable category—the category that has nothing do with the point of education (competence).

Now I’m not saying that accrediting associations should have the power to deprive the Southern New Hampshire On-liners of federal aid if their programs are really teaching students what they say they are.  And I appreciate the intensity by which they intend to prove they are doing just that.

The trouble, in my opinion, is more that the “competency” and “assessment” understanding of what higher education is being imposed on all colleges and universities by accrediting associations.  They’re actually buying far too much the claim that, without such measuring rigor, we have no reason not to believe that our colleges are some combination of medieval irrelevance and animal-house revelries.

One way to see the limits of the assessment “rubric” of the competency-based guys is just to notice that the president’s article is fully of trendy and needlessly abstract jargon.  Throughout, he’s saying a lot less or a lot more imprecisely than he thinks he does. It doesn’t read like the work of an educated person, although it might well be competent enough for its purpose.

Consider this sentence:  “Innovation theory would predict that new innovative CBE accreditation pathway [sic?] would come to improve the incumbent accreditation processes and standards.” That, by definition, does sound like something “innovation theory” would predict.

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Also notice that the president brags that his students can’t be satisfied with Cs or Bs but only with mastery.  There’s something to the implication that any grade but A at many of our colleges doesn’t signify much today.  But it’s also true that in his “rubric” competence replaces excellence.  Once you’re competent in something, it’s time to move on.  That’s one reason why he thinks many students are ripped off by having to sit through a whole three credit-hour course in history, when they can prove they reached competence after only a few weeks.

But, to repeat, I’m not dissing the College for America product.  Accrediting associations should be flexible and anti-establishment enough to recognize its value.  And consumers have every right to be impressed by its low price.  I actually agree that it might well be a good idea to have “traditional” and “competency” tracks to accreditation.  This is might be a great way to protect genuine educational diversity in our country, to protect excellence while acknowledging competence.

And I especially agree:  The Department of Education shouldn’t facilitate any monopolistic hold some accreditation agency might have over the fate of colleges in any particular region.


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