Liberal Education

Quality, Inequity, and Disruptive Innovation

With telling clarity about the tiered assumptions that shape American education at all levels—a century ago, as today—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 privileges 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, in this exuberantly heralded season of “disruptive” change, “do it yourself” competency learning, unbundled credentials, and profit-seeking “alternative providers.”

The choice before us is 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, while providing 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 also in our mindsets. And the jury is out on whether American society will rise to that opportunity.

Fortunately, higher education can now tackle the work of connecting equity, quality, and innovation with tools that educators did not have even a decade ago. For example, the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes, developed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and widely endorsed by both educators and employers, provide a clear reference point for what all students need to accomplish in college, whether through online or face-to-face studies. They describe learning goals, such as critical inquiry, problem solving with diverse peers, and ethical reasoning, that are just as important for career and technical students as they are for students in the liberal arts and sciences. They, like the Degree Qualifications Profile developed by Lumina Foundation, underscore the crucial point that we are preparing graduates both for civic participation and for continuous learning across their careers.

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 expected learning. This research shows educators how they can significantly increase persistence and degree completion. It also provides guidelines on how to help underserved students—including those who are low income, minority, working, or adult—achieve the kinds of learning that educators and employers consider essential, and which democracy needs as well.

Evidence drawn from hundreds of thousands of student reports shows the educational effectiveness of a set of “high-impact practices,” which include both experiential and applied learning—internships, service learning, diversity initiatives—and rigorous course-based practices such as extensive writing, undergraduate research, peer projects, and capstone work.

These new tools and the research that influenced their design can provide guideposts as we face the wild new frontiers of exponential innovation. They also can 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 of them that are ripe for repudiation.

First are the so-called “competency-based” courses—offered by some 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 in principle I support. The problem courses I have in mind include no writing, no analysis, no applied learning, and, in fact, no assignments of any kind. Their authors declare that students have achieved competency when they complete a package of multiple-choice tests. But the only competency being developed is that of sharpening one’s skills at memorizing the right answer from a text closely linked to the assessment.

Some entrepreneurs have said that these practices are no worse than a lot of what goes on in traditional classrooms, which may be true. But there is abundant evidence that significant numbers of learners in those same traditional classrooms are falling behind on the most fundamental qualities of a good education, like writing, critical inquiry, and evidence-based reasoning. It’s high time for educators to insist that the digital revolution should build on our best practices, not on mislabeled content packages that only pretend to foster the achievement of competencies.

The second “innovation” that falls way short of the quality/equity standard is the notion of “unbundling the curriculum” into a kind of cybershopping 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 underserved students. Nor are they using the new evidence on what works—and what doesn’t—for all those learners now flocking to higher education.

What the research tells us is that underserved students need mentors, a supportive community, financial aid, caring and culturally competent instructors, well-sequenced programs, high-impact projects and assignments, contact with peers, smart advising, and proactive, 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 stressed 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, 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 promising innovations, about how to make college learning once and for all inclusive rather than exclusive. The choices between a liberating or a narrow education will shape the future of underserved learners—and the future of democracy as well.—CAROL GEARY SCHNEIDER

*An earlier version of this essay appeared in the September 14, 2015, edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education under the title “Winners and Losers of Innovation.”

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