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Innovation’s Winners and Losers

Monday, September 14, 2015

A shorter version of this article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

With telling clarity about the tiered assumptions that shape U.S. education at all levels—in his day and our own—Woodrow Wilson famously offered the following to a 1909 meeting of educators:

We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” 

Today, as we plunge forward in this new era of innovation and digital possibility, we need to ask who is going to benefit, and who will be left behind by design—in this exuberantly heralded season of “disruptive” change, “do it yourself” competency learning, unbundled credentials, and profit-seeking “alternative providers.” 

The choice before us before us is simply this: Will we shape our digital and other innovations to create a genuinely empowering and liberating education for all those who seek postsecondary learning, whatever their background, income, race, or ethnicity?  Or, will we continue as a society to do what we have always done:  provide high-quality education to the most fortunate, and thin, narrowly construed “credentials” to “another class of persons” who must “fit themselves” for a very limited future?

Making Excellence Inclusive rather than exclusive will require revolutionary change, not just in our practices but in our mindsets.  We will need to resolve to make quality college learning an equity and innovation  priority for groups of students—low-income, minority, older, working—who have been systemically underserved at all levels of our educational system.  And the jury is out on whether U.S. society will rise to that opportunity. 

But the good news is that higher education can now tackle the work of connecting equity, quality and innovation with tools in hand that educators simply did not have, even a decade ago.  AAC&U’s  “Essential Learning Outcomes”(ELOs), vetted and strongly endorsed both by a world-wide host of educators and by thousands of  employers, provide a clear reference point for what all students need to accomplish in college, whether through online or face-to-face studies.  The ELOs describe quality learning goals (or cross-cutting competencies) such as critical inquiry, problem-solving with diverse peers, or ethical reasoning, that are just as important for career and technical students as they are for students in the liberal arts and sciences disciplines.  They underscore the crucial point that we are preparing graduates both for civic participation and for continuous learning in their careers.    

Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP), released in 2014 after a national beta test on hundreds of campuses provides practical design principles for constructing degree programs and assignments—both high tech and high touch—that help students practice and achieve the Essential Learning Outcomes.   Clarifying what it takes to chart an opportunity-creating education, the DQP is a breakthrough blend of the core strengths of the liberal arts and the core strengths of professional and career fields.

Do these new frameworks really map the way toward the career opportunity that most students seek?  Fully 96 percent of employers endorse the DQP recommendation that students should learn to solve problems with people whose views and experiences are different than their own.  Four out of five employers also think that higher education should place more emphasis, not less, on such DQP (and liberal education) fundamentals as critical thinking, communication, and ethical reasoning.  But in addition, and with increasing insistence, employers also want new evidence that students can successfully apply their learning—to complex projects in both the workplace and the community. (Hart Research Associates, 2013, 2015.) The DQP makes collaborative and applied learning a degree requirement, for all fields and all students.

Beyond this important consensus between educators and employers on the top goals of a quality education, we also have a compelling new body of evidence—drawn from over two decades of experimentation with better ways to educate today’s diverse students—about “what works” to help students achieve the expected learning.   This new research shows educators how they can dramatically increase persistence and degree completion.  But it also provides guidelines on how to help underserved students—low-income, racial and ethnic minorities, adult learners—successfully achieve the kinds of learning that educators and employers consider “essential” and that democracy needs as well.

 Evidence drawn from hundreds of thousands of student reports show the educational effectiveness of a set of “high-impact practices” which include both experiential or applied learning—internships, service learning, diversity initiatives—and rigorous course-based practices such as  first year inquiry learning, extensive writing, undergraduate research, peer projects, and capstone work.  There is a new convergence of views among leaders in the completion movement, the research community, and the association I lead that well-designed “guided learning pathways” are the strategy most likely to result in multiple meanings of “student success”—degree completion, demonstrated deep learning, and career opportunity beyond the first job. 

These new tools and the research that influenced their design can provide guideposts as we face the wild new frontiers of exponential innovation.  But they also help us see which “innovations”—notwithstanding the hype that surrounds them—fall far below the standard of what works either for quality or for equitable access to opportunity.  Here are a couple that are ripe for repudiation.

My first choice for rejection is the new collection of so-called “competency-based” courses—offered both by traditional educators and, more noisily, by profit-oriented alternative providers—that simply package up content coverage along with multiple choice tests in a do-it-yourself format.   

To be clear, this is by no means an indictment of all competency-based learning, which I support in principle.   But it is a refusal to pretend that content coverage is the same thing as practicing and developing the competencies or learning outcomes that are essential no matter what the student’s expected career.  Students who struggle through a set of these dreary activities will reliably emerge without any of the competencies employers most value. 

The courses I have in mind include no writing, no analysis, no applied learning, and in fact, no assignments of any kind at all.  Purveyors declare that students have achieved “competency” when they complete the package of multiple choice, find-the right answer tests.  But the only competency being developed here is that of sharpening one’s skills at memorizing the right answer from a text closely linked to the assessment.   

These activities don’t meet the standard of preparing students to think, write, use evidence, solve problems, or deal with complexity of any kind.  Instead they package up an old and totally outdated conception of college learning as “knowledge transmission” exclusively. 

Some entrepreneurs have said on the record that these practices are “no worse” than a lot of what goes on in traditional classrooms, which may be true.   But in fact there is abundant evidence—with more to be released next month—that significant numbers of college learners have fallen way behind on the most fundamental outcomes of a quality education, like writing, critical inquiry, and evidence-based reasoning.  It’s high time, therefore, for educators to insist that the digital revolution should build on our best practices, not on mislabeled content packages that pretend rather than foster the achievement of competencies.

The second “innovation” that falls way short on the quality/equity standard  is the entire idea of “unbundling the curriculum” into a kind of cyber-shopping cart, with the student on her own to determine, from a digital universe of possibilities, which set of courses will best prepare her for a complex and innovation-framed future.  

Those who envision a university of everywhere and anywhere have not spent a lot of time working with new majority students.  Nor are they using the new evidence on what works, and what doesn’t, for all those still underserved learners now flocking to higher education.

What the research tells us is that new majority students need mentors, a supportive community, financial aid, caring and culturally competent faculty, well-sequenced programs, high-impact projects and assignments, contact with peers, smart advising, and proactive and even intrusive guidance to help them stay on course—while they also juggle highly stressed and often impoverished lives beyond college. 

The research also tells us that the more fragmented and incoherent the educational experience, the more likely the new majority learner is to drop out.  “Unbundled” means further fragmented, and fragmentation is a design for failure.  It’s time to call unbundling what it is: reliably destructive, not inventively “disruptive.” 

Today, as never before, all Americans are looking to postsecondary learning as their best hope for the future.  And today, as never before, we have new clarity, as well as a host of promising innovations, about how to make college learning once and for all, inclusive rather than exclusive. 

The core question at hand is whether the higher education community—in new partnership with employers and with equity-minded civic leaders—will mobilize and even fight to ensure that expanded college access means guaranteed participation in an opportunity-expanding education.  The choices between liberating or narrow education in the years ahead will shape new majority learners’ futures—and democracy’s future as well.    

Carol Geary Schneider