mass spectrometry

honorsmeeting2011

This week I attended back-to-back meetings in New Orleans (Complete College America) and Boston (the College Board), banking more miles and a couple of crash courses in the state of higher ed.

The Complete College America meeting was a pep rally for the states participating in that part of the national effort to produce more degrees.  CCA touted its attention-grabbing report from a year ago called “Time Is the Enemy,” plus a more recent screed on remediation.  However shrilly delivered, their points were well taken, and well received.  My favorite:  we could use more stackable degrees.

The thinking behind this goes:  Don’t put students through remediation, or through GE, ahead of pre-professional training.  Instead put all three side-by-side, at every step.  It contextualizes the broad learning, it makes the basic skills feel purposeful, and it enriches understanding in the major.  And not incidentally, it assures that those who drop out will leave with something they can use right away.

Midway through the rally we were treated to a motivational speaker who did little for me.  He cracked some jokes and made good use of PowerPoint, which is my own shtick, so maybe that dulled the impact.  Or maybe I was just tired; everyone else seemed entertained.  Anyway, he picked up on a Chronicle of Higher Education commentary from last year, comparing the higher ed establishment to the bankrupt Borders book stores.  He said Borders blamed the customers for no longer buying books, when really what happened was that Amazon and its “buy with 1-click” innovation poached their customers, by making the purchase irresistibly more convenient.

I connect the Amazon and stackable credential ideas like this:  Make college easy to use for the time you’re with us, with an added bonus of easy on- and off-ramps.

That’s a starkly different approach from the higher-ed delivery structures we inherited, which amount to (1) attend when and where we tell you, (2) ignore your prior learning cause we don’t trust our own assessments of it, let alone anyone else’s, and (3) settle in for a long story that we need to tell you sequentially and consecutively over many years, cause if you stop before we get to the end then you may need to start over.

Then I get to the College Board meeting, where I serve on a group of about a dozen people called the Advanced Placement Higher Education Advisory Committee.  We’re highly cross-functional:  admission and record people from secondary and postsecondary, and parallel clumpings from faculty, curriculum, admin.  Get one of each of us in one room to talk about college credits earned in high school, and what you learn is fascinating.

One thing we learned:  the AP Program is quietly rolling out a new, integrative course sequence at a handful of pilot high schools.  It culminates in a “capstone,” a clear competitor to the Diploma Programme in the International Baccalaureate.  The upside:  better curriculum than you get with isolated classes.  The downside:  at the receiving colleges and universities, what on earth do we say a capstone counts for?  An interdisciplinary, open-ended, skills-based body of work is gangbusters to prepare teenagers for life, but impossible to equate to any one course we offer.

Yet that one-to-one equation has been College Board’s bread and butter, the Board’s board.

It occurred to me as I was listening to this, with the Complete College America thing still rattling in my brain, that the real value of the capstone probably isn’t in credit portability, but in diagnosis.  I don’t just want to see the word “capstone” on a transcript, followed by a three-digit score.  I want to see the student work that went into it, and how that work was evaluated in high school.

I found myself picturing a mass spectrometer.  In case your memory of this is less vivid than mine (which I recently refreshed by reading The Emperor of Scent):  A mass spectrometer takes some mysterious compound (picture the freshman mind) and blasts it with ions (tempting) to fling the contents against a wall (okay, gruesome analogy, but admittedly also sometimes tempting).

The resulting array separates the constituent elements nicely according to their mass, so you can see exactly what was in there, and how much of each:

1 mass spectrometer

I want the AP Capstone to be the CSU’s mass spectrometer.  I want the College Board to give its customers their first ePortfolio, for free, so students can bring it along with them and keep adding to it after they’re here.

2 student brain

And I want degree audit software in the CSU (and for that matter in our community colleges) to be able to access the high school evaluations for each product of student work, and then use that data to tell the student (and advisors and faculty) exactly what’s still needed, in order to fill in the remaining gaps to the baccalaureate.  At the student’s convenience.

In other words, I want the College Board to use its market dominance in AP to give higher ed a head start on some data-driven customer relationship management, of the kind now on display at ASU, Purdue, and Austin Peay.

Buy me THAT with one click.

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