Taking Credit (out of the equation)

I note that my last three posts have all been about MOOCs. I think I’m MOOC-d out, although the combination of the M-word and the V-word (Virginia – as in University of) have, for me, totally confirmed that Higher Ed. change is afoot. There can be no turning back. Stuff is happening, things are changing, the only real question that remains as far as I see it, is What’s stopping us all really hitting SEND?

The UVa case brings up the G-word – Governance: more pertinently preceded with the word Shared. Shared Governance; the amazing concept that people with totally different agendas, world views and degrees of ethos, will collaborate collegially and set the course for their institutions according to their bylaws, history and mission. On that front my advice to a newcomer to an institution would be simply: work out how it works – in all its dysfunctional glory. If the real discussions happen around the water cooler or at the football field – be there. If the provost’s admin assistant is the real power broker on campus and donuts get you in her good books, go Dunkin’ on her/him. Whatever it takes…

Governance is impervious to being fixed. Somehow it works and no degree of AAU guidance will make it uniform or rational. A university’s governance works only at that university. Where one university takes 12 minutes to approve a new concept, another may take 12 years. Good concepts that genuinely benefit the institution (academically, fiscally, politically, aesthetically) all will go through. Some will lead, others will follow, a few will kick, scream and moan about how it was way better in a mythical golden age. Deal with that – you signed up to be Associate Vice President  For Innovative New Ventures and Annoying the Faculty – now make it work…

So – I think I’m saying that all change is possible while nothing is simple. Given that, let’s take on a decent challenge. Not technology, not price, not incrementally changing senior administrators, not that life isn’t fair as MIT have deeper pockets. Let’s take on Credits. In my opinion Credits are the enemy.

Credits are artificial packages of pretend competencies. They are charged at way too high a rate, they complicate transfers, they encourage academic silos and they prove nothing or worth to employers or society at large. They are a means of billing, price inflation and encapsulate all that is wrong and inefficient in higher education – Credits are evil.

Employers don’t look at credits – they look at the degree. They don’t want the pretend competencies that 3 or 4 credits supposedly represent, they want real competencies. In a traditional general ed. program the credit boundaries simply dissuade collaboration and the creation of efficiencies between departments and hence for students.

Look at Lumina, LEAP, The Institute of the Future and almost any organization that has analyzed critical skills needed in 2020 society, and you’ll see remarkable alignment around six or seven key elements.

Inquiry/Analysis, Communication, Creativity, Critical Thinking/Problem Solving, Information/ICT literacy and Quantitative Literacy.

Look carefully at academic undergraduate / associates level syllabi in terms of (when you scratch the surface) how many courses and faculty do actually have these elements addressed. If I were a student looking to master these key skills I might query why having demonstrated that I am a brilliant critical thinker in FIVE classes, do I need to keep jumping through that same hoop, again and again, in a sixth, then a seventh, often in new contexts, evaluated in incrementally different ways by first a historian, then by a mathematics instructor, then by a lit. professor?

Unbundling syllabi with their (often) poorly written learning outcomes and aligning concrete materials with focused assessments provides the context and connections for improved learning. Independent graders and/or standardized tests can confirm that students REALLY DO GET these core elements. Separating curriculum from term times would mean that students can practice then demonstrate competencies clearly and repeatedly at their own pace, building on prior learning, working in areas that provide intrinsic motivation for them personally. It is super that in a typical Gen Ed / General Studies course students will be exposed to the literary giants and will learn (some) key dates in the history of Rome? Europe? The US? (as dictated by faculty whim), but isn’t the bigger goal the competencies? What will make the student succeed in the world? If (s)he is able to develop passions for certain aspects of the general curriculum then that’s great but realistically they don’t have to be passionate about every aspect that a Gen Ed committee patches together to placate seven different departments.

Compare and contrast: as a provider of education which is a better “product”? One where you separate out essential skills, provide practice, feedback around those key competencies (the 6 listed above). And when all are done –a degree that really reflects a valuable skill-set. No more having to graduate the student who hung around for six years and wearied enough faculty members to be shuffled off with a number of credits – maybe not even enough to amount to a qualification, tens of thousands of dollars in the hole.

A focus on credits mean high charges, slow pace, and inefficiencies.
A focus on competencies allows for greater efficiency, leverage of prior learning, real support, real achievement and clear motivation (these skills will help me in my career and in my life).

Employers will still see a degree from institute X, the pleasant surprise will be that it will represent a skill-set rather than a worthless measure of endurance. Learning constant, time variable not the other way around.
Time to graduation, costs and inefficiencies all reduced, motivation, retention and actual competencies all up, registrars with less to worry about, faculty less angst-ridden having to pass students who haven’t really “got it”

Death to Credits! – makes true innovation feasible, even palatable, reduces barriers to change and heck, could even make MOOCs worth talking about (again).

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