Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Articles for June 17, 2015

Defining Competency (insidehighered.com)
Some in higher ed who were hesitant at first to accept the concept of competency-based education (CBE) are now starting to warm up to the idea, myself included. My feeling is that a lot of the hesitancy was based on mistrust--particularly, the legislative bodies don't trust individual colleges, nor do colleges trust individual instructors. It's much easier to 'cover up' a trouble spot that might hold a student back inside the context of an 18-week course; CBE potentially exposes weaknesses--but also strengths--in students, instructors, curriculum maps and course content, and assessment methods. The major decision-makers in higher education seem to have been nervous about approving a structure that might make those potential soft spots public, and the effects thereafter. 


Those in technical education and developmental education (I am proudly part of both families) will be able to address a lot of the problems we face in the specific contexts. Students in technical education need to master course competencies, but those competencies are often taken directly from or in addition to industry-set standards. An automotive course competency might mirror a requirement set up by NATEF (National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation) in order to pass the NATEF exam and become ASE certified. In that view, many technical education programs are essentially following one of the two approaches to CBE proposed already. A second approach, termed "direct assessment," would greatly benefit technical students and instructors because it offers students a chance to make what knowledge they bring with them meaningful. The Condition of Education 2015 (NCES) reported that 39 percent of full-time undergraduates at private non-profit 2-year colleges (such as the one I work for) were ages 25 and older. What did those students do between high school graduation and college enrollment? While some may have wandered between an minimum-wage job and the couch in Mom and Dad's basement, many gain valuable skills as an entry level employee or in the military. As it is right now, prior-learning assessments (PLA), and transfer credits for that matter, aren't part of a direct assessment approach; however, the fact that all students aren't treated the same way, starting at zero, can still be beneficial. To be able to allow those students to count those skills toward a formal education would not only benefit the student financially and in terms of time, but it would likely benefit those students at a deeper, personal level as well. Identity, confidence, self-worth, and motivation would likely get a healthy boost because instructors could tap into those assumptions and suggestions from adult learning theorists. 

Furthermore, a CBE structure would provide a great platform to revitalize technical education into the holistic, sophisticated curriculum stream it now needs to be to properly educate those going into these fields. The direct assessment approach proposed is not based on semesters or credits. The technical fields have become much more complex and complicated, as technology advances and workers are required to be able to do more at a faster rate and to a higher standard against growing competition. A CBE structure would allow technical programs to revisit their curricula at a deeper, more cognitive level and integrate the skills students must master as well as the products to make and tasks to perform. 

Developmental education would benefit from a CBE approach as well, especially if developmental educators and technical instructors can work together to make the transition from one to the other seamless. If we can examine what technical programs require at a deeper level, we can better determine how best to prepare (not remediate--this implies that students once learned the skill and needs a reminder; for many students in developmental ed, this is not the case) students for a particular set of outcomes. We can individualize that developmental progression; the Emporium model used in place of math developmental education is perfect for a CBE environment. 

There are still plenty of questions surrounding the idea of awarding credits by demonstrating competencies instead of fulfilling credit hours, but this article reports a step in the right direction. 

Who is teaching your kids in college? You might be surprised. (washingtonpost.com)
Although there is some serious lack of perspective here (the first line is serious need of a reality check; we seem to only be talking about giant, 4-year liberal arts colleges; it teasingly dances around the debate about tenure as a fundamental part of teaching), there are some nuggets that reflect how much higher education needs to adapt to meet the changing role and perception of it in current society. The author's ultimate goal seems to be to advise parents to ask colleges about who on campus is full-time and who teaches first-year classes; this would imply that there's a difference in quality of full-time and adjunct instructors, and I don't think we can safely make that assumption based on that status alone. He also offers a lot of research that suggests full-time instructors can do a lot of things that students love and find valuable that adjuncts usually don't. 

To me, what lies underneath is that question in the title: who is teaching your kids in college? Higher education has a bad habit of assuming certain things so we don't feel the need to investigate them and possibly find out problems we don't want to address. The quality of instruction and curriculum is definitely an area in need of some investigation, especially since college classrooms are often much more diverse and complex than those in primary or secondary schools. The classroom dynamics are complicated by differing ages, background knowledge, motivations, and matured personalities. While elementary and secondary students are still sculpting their identities, building prior knowledge, and preparing for a place in society, college students have some of those elements firmly established. Even more complicated, some college students need to work directly against some of those established elements in order to be successful students. 

This is the same on the instructor side, and perhaps even more so in a technical education setting. The credentials needed to be a worker in a particular industry are most often quite clear, but those needed to be an instructor in a post-secondary classroom teaching programs that feed into that industry are not usually well defined. Even the Bureau of Labor and Statistics speaks generally about the criteria for becoming a technical instructor. Since many instructors come from business and industry--44 percent according to some reports--it's safe to say that instructors are knowledgeable in their fields; however, we might be lumping more into that credential than we mean to. Having the evidence in front of us that an instructor is an expert in industry seems to lead to the assumption that he/she will be able to teach it. We would be wise to start building on the theory and philosophy viewing and treating teaching as a science and applied practice. 

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