ED and CBE: Example of higher ed “structural barrier to change” that is out of institutions’ control

There has been a great conversation going on in the comments to my recent post “Universities As Innovators That Have Difficulty Adopting Their Own Changes” on too many relevant issues to summarize (really, go read the ongoing comment thread). They mostly center on the institution and faculty reward system, yet those are not the only sources of structural barriers to change that lead institutions to this “difficulty adopting their own changes”. Increasingly there are outside forces that both encourage change and resist change, and it is important to recognize the impact of the entire higher education ecosystem.

Yesterday Amy Laitinen from New America wrote an excellent article titled “Whatever Happened to the Department’s Competency-Based Education Experiments?” highlighting just such an example.

About this time two years ago, President Obama went on his college affordability bus tour and unveiled his plan to take on the rising costs of higher education in front of thousands of students at SUNY Buffalo. Promoting innovation and competition was a key part of his plan and President Obama held up competency-based education (CBE) up as one of the “innovative new ways to prepare our students for a 21st century economy and maintain a high level of quality without breaking the bank.” The President touted Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America CBE approach. The university “gives course credit based on how well students master the material, not just on how many hours they spend in the classroom,” he explained. “So the idea would be if you’re learning the material faster, you can finish faster, which means you pay less and you save money.” This earned applause from students in the audience as well as from CBE practitioners around the country. [snip]

The problem is that day was nearly two years ago and the CBE experimental sites are not yet off the ground. It’s not because institutions aren’t ready and willing. They are. But the Department of Education has been dragging its feet. It took the Department nearly a year after the President’s announcement to issue a notice describing what the experiments would look like. Perhaps this could have been done more quickly, but CBE is complicated and it’s understandable that the Department wanted to be thorough in its review of the relevant laws and regulations (they turned out much more forward-thinking than I would have imagined). But the notice did go out, schools did apply, and schools were accepted to participate. But the experiment hasn’t started, because schools haven’t received guidance on how to do their experiments.

Amy goes on to describe how schools are repeatedly asking for guidance and how foundations like Lumina and Gates are doing the same, yet the Education Department (ED) has not or will not provide such guidance.

Matt Reed, writing at Inside Higher Ed this morning, asks why (or why not) does the ED not step up to move along the program, offers some possible answers and solicits input:

  • They’re overwhelmed. They approved the concept of CBE without first thinking through all of the implications for other policies, and now they’re playing catchup. This strikes me as highly likely.
  • They’re focused more on “gainful employment,” for-profit providers, student loan issues, and, until recently, the effort to produce college ratings. With other things on fire, something like CBE could easily get overshadowed. I consider this possibility entirely compatible with the previous one.
  • They’re stuck in a contradiction. At the very same time that they’re trying to encourage experimentation with moving away from the credit hour in the context of CBE, they’re also clamping down on the credit hour in the context of online teaching. It’s possible to do either, but doing both at the same time requires a level of theoretical hair-splitting far beyond what they’re usually called upon to do. My guess is that an initial rush of enthusiasm quickly gave way to dispirited foot-dragging as they realized that the two emphases can’t coexist.
  • Their alien overlords in Area 51, in conjunction with the Illuminati and the Trilateral Commission… (You can fill in the rest. I’m not a fan of this one, but any explanation of federal government behavior on the Internet has to include at least one reference to it. Let’s check that box and move on.)

Rather than add my own commentary or conjecture on the subject, I would prefer to just highlight this situation and note how we need to look beyond just colleges and universities, and even faculty reward systems, to understand the structural barriers to change for higher education.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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One Response to ED and CBE: Example of higher ed “structural barrier to change” that is out of institutions’ control

  1. tabeles says:

    As noted in the previous thread, Western Governors has been using “competency based education” and back converting to “credit hours” in order to satisfy the lagging system. The interesting way to approach the system is to recognize that “badging” is used to award recognition of skills mastery which is closer to the idea behind credit hour. But skills mastery does not signify to a third party that the individual is competent to apply those skills, the demonstrable part of taking knowledge into application giving comfort to those who want such benefits such as replacing a heart valve or filling out and filing legal documents. Like credit-hours gained in learning a language or mastering certain levels (as in a game) badges tell the individual that they have achieved certain skills that need to be added or shown to be functional at a level.

    As Humpty Dumpty said “when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean” The stumbling block here is the acceptable and agreed upon semantics. We have the same issue of using “seat time” as economists have in replacing “GDP”. The terms are so engrained that it is not believed that one can have equally or more effective alternative measures that are mutually acceptable. And in academia, even faculty are in a quandary should credit hours disappear giving the institution flexibility in determining compensation.

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