Meaningful Credentials Everyone Understands

Higher education is in a major state of change. New ideas, new models, new technologies, a shifting student demographic, new accountability standards—these are just some of the things that are challenging current perceptions. Although the changes are being driven by different groups of stakeholders—students, employers, the government, etc.—what unites many of them is that they are all in service of defining and developing new forms of measurement and credentials, ones that are meaningful and that everyone understands.

For example, competency-based education is currently posing a major challenge to the traditional credit hour. This isn’t just a movement at small institutions on the fringes of education; it’s starting to make its way into the mainstream. One of the biggest education stories of last year was the University of Wisconsin announcing its UW Flexible Option: self-paced, competency-based education programs in five areas including biomedical sciences and business and technical communications. More competency-based programs are being developed and announced all of the time, with these efforts being supported by the U.S. Department of Education. Similarly, digital badges are being tested in classrooms from K-12 to higher education to corporate training. Again, this isn’t just happening at the outskirts: even Purdue University is experimenting with them.

Students are getting into the game, demanding more from their schools. There has been a good deal of debate as to whether students should be considered consumers, but while academic leaders are discussing it, students are already starting to act that way. They are looking at the price of college and at the unemployment rates of recent graduates and saying, “This costs a fortune. What will I be able to do when I graduate?” It’s no longer sufficient for schools just to confer degrees; they need to specify exactly what those degrees mean. If students don’t like the answer, they will go somewhere else to get a better one. These days, that “somewhere else” is likely to be outside the traditional educational system, for example, MOOCs or coding bootcamps.

Employers are also starting to demand more meaningful credentials. The degree, which has served for so long, is losing its meaning, and even traditional transcripts with course titles and grades are viewed as barely worth the paper they are printed on. As Association of American Colleges and Universities President Carol Geary Schneider told Inside Higher Education: “Our employer studies show that employers basically find the transcript useless in evaluating job candidates” [emphasis added].

Meaningful credentials that everyone understands shouldn’t be so hard to come by. Colleges and universities need to be held accountable for student outcomes, students need to know that they money they spend will be worth it for their future, and employers need to know what different credentials mean on applicants’ resumes. It’s astonishing that we’ve gotten to a point where none of these things is actually true.

The 21st century has made many things obsolete. It’s time for traditional degrees, transcripts, and other relics of a 20th century education to make way for ideas, technologies, and credentials that are more meaningful and relevant to today.

Open Course Degrees and Prior Learning Pathways

Students at Thomas Edison State College (TESC) can now get an associate’s degree in Science in Business Administration by taking MOOCs through Saylor.org and then either completing a portfolio assessment or taking a set of exams. Marc Singer, vice provost of TESC’s Center for the Assessment of Learning, recently talked to The Evolllution about this new degree pathway. Here are some highlights from the interview:

• More MOOCs are being accepted for college credit “when they’re really able to show an alignment” with the college curriculum.

• Having a prior learning pathway represents “the seamlessness of a lifelong learning approach.” Where you acquire your knowledge and skills doesn’t matter; what matters is whether you can demonstrate what you know.

• MOOCs and other alternative models of education are driving the focus away from credits and toward competencies. They have also boosted the credibility of online learning by showing that it can be just as effective and meaningful as classroom learning.

• One of the biggest obstacles to granting credit for MOOCs or other forms of prior learning is that it challenges the traditional financial model of higher education. However, at schools like TESC, which caters specifically to adult learners, students who are granted credit for prior learning actually take more credits, not fewer, because “they’re more invested in the process and we’ve validated what they’re bringing to us from the outside.” The other major challenge is developing assessments.

• Higher education needs “to move away from this idea that ‘It’s not valid unless I personally hand it to the students.’”

What’s interesting here is not just that the TESC is experimenting with a new form of degree pathway, but that the main obstacles Singer identifies are mainly university administration hang-ups that have nothing to do with student outcomes or success. In fact, TESC finds that students whose prior learning is recognized, regardless of where it comes from, actually work harder toward getting their degrees.

Colleges and universities no longer have a stranglehold on education. The sooner they realize this and learn to adapt to the new reality, the better chance they have of not becoming irrelevant as students seek more efficient and less expensive ways to get the knowledge and skills they need.

New Poll Shows Divided Opinions About Higher Education

Results from the latest College Board/National Journal Next America Poll show that Americans are divided in their feelings about higher education. On the one hand, a college degree is becoming increasingly necessary to get a decent job; on the other, with college costs rising and unemployment of recent graduates, many are looking for other solutions.

Here are some highlights from the results:

• Respondents were divided on whether or not “young people in the United States today need a four-year college degree in order to be successful” – 49% agreed with the statement, while 48% did not.

• 90% of respondents who had attended college right out of high school said they would make the same choice again, while more than half who choose to enter the workforce instead said that if they could do it again, they would pursue more education.

• Of those who went to college right out of high school, a full 87% said they did so to get a well-paying job. Other reasons included wanting to learn new things and family expectations. The most common reason for choosing a two-year over a four-year college was cost. Overall, 43% of respondents reported having financial pressure while in school.

• Of those who went directly into the workforce, 59% said they did so because they couldn’t afford to pay for higher education. This was the most commonly cited reason for not attending college. Other reasons included needing to support the family, not wanting to take out student loans, not getting enough information about college, and not believing higher education was worth the expense.

• Finally, the results showed that going (or not going) to college was passed down generations. A full 80% of respondents whose parents had both attended college said they were encouraged to attend a four-year school; 60% from one-degree families and only 29% from no-degree families were similarly encouraged. This pattern of encouragement translated into twice the percentage of respondents from two-degree families actually going to school compared with those from no-degree families.

Overall, the results show both the realization that a college degree is necessary for a well-paying job and doubts about the real value of that degree. In addition, financial considerations and parents’ degree status seem to be the top determiners of whether or not people pursue higher education.

Read Ronald Brownstein’s National Journal article ”Are college degrees inherited?” for more poll results and analysis about higher education in America.

Can MOOCs Meet the Top Needs of Adult Learners?

Last fall in The Evolllution, Northern Kentucky University’s Executive Director of Educational Outreach Victoria Berling identified the five most critical needs of adult students based on a series of surveys conducted at the university. Let’s assess how well MOOCs do with meeting these needs.

1. Programming that works with their schedules

For adult learners, course convenience and flexibility ranks at the top of the list. They want their degrees as quickly as possible, but they are also often juggling various other commitments, like work and family. Being online and with options ranging from scheduled to self-paced, MOOCs meet this criterion perfectly.

2. Relevant degree programs

Most adult learners are in school to advance their career, so what they learn must be relevant. If you leave off the word degree, MOOCs meet this need relatively well—in addition to general education courses, there are many continuing and professional development courses available. The new course sequence certificates from Coursera and edX may also serve as degree alternatives for learners in certain areas.

3. Clear expectations

Adult learners need to know what they need to do. Berling addresses this issue mainly in terms of administrative support. For MOOC students earning course sequence certificates, the expectations are clearly laid out in terms of a prescribed course schedule. Those looking to put together an educational program on their own are currently left to their own devices for the most part. Udacity may be the MOOC provider that addresses this need best—it provides various levels of support for learners in its paid subscription courses.

4. Feedback from instructors

Adults value both formal and informal feedback from instructors. This is one area where MOOCs fall short; however, MOOC students do have a variety of opportunities to receive feedback from peers and teaching assistants. Again, Udacity’s paid program offers more personalized feedback.

5. Acknowledgement of prior learning

This criterion is less relevant to MOOCs themselves than to what learners can do afterward. However, with the growing move toward competency-based programs, more institutions are experimenting with ways to assess and recognize prior learning.

Overall, it looks like MOOCs have the potential to meet the most critical needs of adult learners pretty well. What do you think?

From Bricks to Clicks…and Back Again: MOOCs Move Offline

Led by MOOCs and their many permutations, online education is evolving…and fast. One of the newest trends in online education in general, and MOOCs in particular, is actually to move it offline. This isn’t so much a reversal as an attempt to improve online courses by recognizing the fact that often the students who do best in them are the ones who have offline support.

The new trend move toward enhancing online education with offline environments is being driven by Coursera, which has established a network of “learning hubs” in more than 30 cities worldwide. The movement was recently documented by BBC News education correspondent Sean Coughlan.

The learning hubs, which are places where Coursera students can come together to study and get help, are run by the company’s partner organizations. The hubs take a variety of different forms, for example, some offer tutoring, while others provide the opportunity for students to work collaboratively on course projects. The format depends on the needs of the students—like in India, where teachers meet to take professional development MOOCs together. Coursera’s international development head Yin Lu reported that completion rates for students who come to the learning hubs is between 30 and 100%, which is even at bottom is more than three times higher than the average for MOOC students in general.

Over the past weeks on this blog, I’ve explored various ways to improve the online aspect of MOOCs (i.e., through first-week engagement, assessments, and UX design), and some experiments are in the works to make MOOCs more social. Ultimately, the best MOOCs, and online courses in general, will combine all of these ideas in courses that are engaging and educational, through learners’ interactions both with computers and with one another. Offline learning hubs are one way to do that; virtual learning hubs are another; and more options are likely to arise as the model continues to evolve.

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