the news from Wisconsin

The week before last, I had the good fortune to attend an assessment conference in Wisconsin.  On its own the phrase “assessment conference” may not fill you with envy; you might even score your reaction on a rubric, ranging from a possible high of ennui (jury duty), down to agony (tax audit).

Such has been assessment for the past twenty years or so.  It’s higher ed’s version of regulatory compliance.  Usually grudgingly, we check for the sake of program review and accreditation that our students have actually absorbed something we taught them.  But we would never dream of tying the results to the bottom line.

What makes assessment in Wisconsin exciting is that it’s connected to a wholesale rethinking of the process of educating students.  You can think of that process in three steps:

higher ed logic model

Each step is influenced by the others, but not dependent on them.  For example, whether the instruction is good or bad, students may learn on their own.  At the credentialing end, institutions may recognize learning from prior sources, like employment or Advanced Placement.  Unscrupulous ones may credential learning that didn’t happen at all.

Historically, we’ve kept the enterprise afloat by charging students for only the first step.  I lecture, therefore I bill:  blovio ergo dun.

This model has served us fine, but it’s under pressure these days because other people are providing instruction for free, in the form of web sites, YouTube videos, educational games.  We continue to charge, but it’s becoming awkwardly clear that our value actually lies elsewhere, in the personalized attention, social supports, and contextualized experiences that assure and accelerate learning, and in – yes – the credentialing.

So, there is a growing fashion among states other than mine to pay their public universities not on the basis of students enrolled (step 1), but of degrees conferred (step 3).  You may get the instruction on YouTube, the thinking goes, but not the validation.  So let’s charge for that.

Some worry that this will encourage diploma mills.  I don’t; enrollment funding is at least as vulnerable to abuse.

My bigger misgiving is that it skips step 2, which is the one we really care about.  In effect, it replaces one form of fiscal dissonance with another.

But how to do the hard work of measuring that middle step so reliably that we’d bet our livelihoods on it?  For that matter, could we confer a degree based entirely on demonstrated learning instead of on time served?

IMG_20131024_104929_456Enter Wisconsin Flex, and the assessment conference at the center of a revolution.

A recent article at Fast Company’s “co.exist” web site describes the Wisconsin Flex model as an “all you can eat buffet.”  Students pay a flat fee to master a given “competency,” and then stick around until they get it.  Learn fast or learn slow, we don’t care so long as you reach the proficiency you want us vouching for.  Then stop paying the subscription and move on.

This may sound familiar to you, from similar models at Western Governors, Thomas Edison, and StraighterLine.  What’s new is that this is a big state system, like mine, doing this for the first time at scale.  (Lest you think I’m overstating this, see the recent New York Times story on it, from one of my favorite writers.)

There’s a lot still to figure out, and time is short: the first students begin soon.  Just as the assessment conference was starting, one of the program’s faculty confessed to Rebecca Karoff – my friend and counterpart in the UW system office, charged with organizing the Flex effort – that the prospect of too many students was scarier than too few.  Creating this new world is already straining capacity.

Half seriously, Rebecca said she didn’t want to hear it.  She has too many other moving parts in play, functional offices like bursars, registrars, financial aid, evaluators, and payroll whose worlds are doing a queasy forward roll.

IMG_20131024_132214_634Later, over lunch, I mentioned how envious I was that she was creating a model for higher ed delivery and credentialing that might actually make sense.

She gave me a blank look for a second and said, “But we’re not doing that.”  Then, after a few more sentences and a forkful of salad she conceded, “Okay, we are, but we’re nowhere near done.”

I think that’s how it always feels.  Certainly, it’s how I felt when the AAC&U asked me for an essay on bringing high-impact practices to scale in California.  I think my exact words were “I can write it if you want, but we’re not doing that.”

That’s what it’s like inside the locomotive.  You sweat the pieces that aren’t in place yet, the coal running low and the unfinished track ahead.

It’s only on the outside, watching off to one side, that you see the train going forward.

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