the sidewalk

Commencement-14Multiple projects around the country are trying to develop consistent ways to describe and measure college learning. (I know, “now you’re trying?” Cut us some slack. We’re busy.)

We used to do this more regularly. For the first eight of our nine centuries in business, colleges and universities awarded most degrees only after written and oral exit exams, which were culminating and comprehensive. But then in the early 20th century we had to back away from that model, because burgeoning enrollment made it too hard. And really, aren’t commencement ceremonies already long enough?

So now instead we just tally the credit hours on a transcript, and if you have the right number and kind then you graduate, whether or not you can remember anything you took. It served us well enough on the fly, as we absorbed millions of newcomers with land grant universities, the GI Bill, and new programs in agriculture, business, and health.

But as the growth spurt enters post-adolescence, we’re finding a couple of serious drawbacks to the corner-cutting:

  1.  It’s hard to argue for continued resources for higher education when we can explain the benefits only in terms of time served, and not learning demonstrated. Doubts get voiced. And remember, we consume a lot of resources: federal financial aid, state institutional support, the sacrifice of families and other supporters, the lost wages of enrolled students. That’s an awful lot to hang on “trust us.”
  2. Focusing on inputs (courses) rather than outcomes (gains in personal ability) entails this pernicious assumption that our students are all alike.

That second one may not be obvious, unless you’ve recently taught on a college campus. Students in a given class are more diverse than ever — not just demographically, but also in terms of learning styles, cultural expectations, and prior experience with school. Yet the homogeneous curriculum grinds along, three hours a week for fifteen hours, whether it suits everyone or not.

DSCN9607-Denver-International-Airport-concourseThe particularly vivid case of this goes by various names but for this post I’ll call it “remediation.” It’s how we remedy students who come in not ready for college-level math and/or English. Picture those disciplines as moving sidewalks. States spend a lot of money trying to get every student in sync with the beginning of the sidewalk, and we will send the same people back over and over until they’re at just the right spot to join everyone else.

The majority in that group never earn a degree; they just get tired of running in circles and give up. This is doubly distressing when you realize it’s the beginning of the sidewalk screwing them up, but the other end we really care about.

So then why are we prepared to kill off so many potential graduates, just for failing to get in step with the beginning of the moving sidewalk?

Well, because our 20th century delivery of college education works only when everyone moves at the same pace, and from the same starting point. Effectively, we’re hawking one-size-fits all network TV in an age of Netflix.

The disjunction has become clearer to me during California’s involvement in the AAC&U project called “Faculty Collaboratives.” It has been taking stock of nationally developed frameworks designed to define learning in the bachelor’s degree. Its aim is to propagate the best of these frameworks to the broader faculty, most of whom are too busy with teaching and knowledge production to fret about big-picture higher ed organization.

But we need them to. We need broad and expert involvement in the culling of these “proficiency frameworks,” or we won’t get meaningful conceptions of “critical thinking,” “good writing,” “quantitative reasoning,” etc.

And we’ll remain stuck with the administrative structures we inherited, tending mostly to the sidewalk’s speed and starting point, instead of where it leads — and reinforcing tacit assumptions that our students would be a lot easier to teach if only they were all alike.



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