Disruptive Innovations and the Quality of College Learning

The attempted ouster of UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan has sparked a firestorm of attention to issues of change in higher education, which has been followed by a rush of commentary on how much higher education needs to change, how resistant to change it is, how models for change in business should be applied, etc. For me, it’s been instructive to talk with reporters who are struggling to understand the clash of visions on display at UVA and to see how little they understand about how much higher education is changing. Many reporters and commentators also seem to lack any understanding of shared governance and the academy’s traditional reliance on faculty judgment to guide change.

As I’ve been fielding call after call about UVA, I’ve also seen one press release after another announcing new initiatives to develop more efficient pathways to college degrees and credentials (e.g., flexible online degree programs for returning students, online general education courses that are fully transferable across systems, and new ways to get degrees by earning credit for prior learning or for just passing tests). All these new “disruptive innovations” are motivated in some way or another by the need to increase the numbers of successful college graduates and increase our “productivity.”  Surely, some of these “disruptive innovations,” many of which make use of the latest information technologies, might indeed prove useful in serving some portion of the college-going population. But I can’t help but wonder: where is the discussion about what quality learning really means in today’s world, and where is the evidence that these newly proposed innovations will actually provide students with the learning they need to be college-educated people?  Where is the evidence that they improve productivity and reduce costs?

Many readers of this blog will know that I am already on record with concerns about the Completion Agenda. But recent developments have made me more convinced than ever that we need a louder and much more visible national dialogue about what quality learning actually looks like in the twenty-first century.

As many of you know, AAC&U has been working for years to define quality in college learning through our LEAP initiative and other projects. Through this ongoing work, and in collaboration with faculty leaders on our member campuses, we’ve developed a vision for college learning that is built on a set of Essential Learning Outcomes, a set of high-impact educational practices, and a set of twenty-first-century Principles of Excellence.  Each of these frameworks—which, taken together, begin to define quality—has emerged from the work of colleges and universities around the country. In response to changing conditions, these institutions are developing curricula that are better calibrated to the shifting demands of the twenty-first-century workplace and the challenges facing our democratic institutions.

Through the LEAP initiative, we’ve done surveys and talked to hundreds of employers about that changing workplace.  What they say is very important to consider as we seek ways to define quality, increase “productivity,” or implement disruptive innovations.  Employers say they desperately need college graduates with both broad knowledge and discipline-specific skills. They seek adaptive employees who have the high-level analytic and communication skills needed to drive innovation and add value to existing companies and organizations at all levels. Employers frequently complain about students who can only solve “scripted” problems and who can’t integrate different ideas to come up with creative solutions to the messy problems in the real world. How exactly will the development of MOOCs or other technology-based educational platforms contribute to the development of the kinds of capacities employers are seeking? I believe there are probably lots of ways to do this, but we will get graduates with these abilities only if curricular pathways are designed with these outcomes in mind. Unfortunately, from what I can tell, many of the proposed curricular innovations lack any reference points for what, exactly, the outcomes of degree programs should be. They also seem to be based on the belief that a college education can be completely modularized and still result in these kinds of capacities.

Moreover, there is a limit to what productivity gains we can achieve in light of these needed outcomes for more students.  As Don Randel,  president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, noted in a recent speech at AAC&U’s 2012 annual meeting, “sooner or later, increases in productivity will begin to decline and reach a limit—if we believe that in an education worthy of the name there must always remain some core of direct human interaction.  There is no disruptive technology that will take the place of a grownup asking a young person to write about something of substance and then sitting with that young person, challenging him or her to observe more acutely and to frame a stronger argument in support of an original idea.  This is an activity that must be undertaken thousands of times every day all across the country if we are to develop the minds that will ensure the nation’s welfare in every sense.”

Randel is right that there is a limit to productivity gains and a continuing need for high-touch forms of learning—whether face-to-face or online. These forms of learning also must happen within a carefully constructed, developmentally sensitive curriculum.  Both the LEAP Vision for Quality and the more recent Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP), which was developed by the Lumina Foundation and is at the center of AAC&U’s Quality Collaboratives project, articulate a definition of quality learning that assumes the existence of an actual curriculum: a collection of courses and educational experiences that was thoughtfully constructed by the faculty members who work together to implement and assess it. Now, I am painfully aware that too many traditional college curricula are not as well constructed as they ought to be. I am also, however, aware of hundreds of colleges (e.g., those who have for decades been sending faculty teams to AAC&U summer institutes) that are working diligently to make their curricula more coherent and more effective. But are these improved curricular designs being used to guide the development of new online programs?

Social science research on intellectual development and brain research on how people learn have shown that bringing people to high levels of intellectual capacity requires a developmentally sensitive set of experiences that build one upon the other. Is anyone asking how students—especially our increasingly large numbers of underprepared students—will actually acquire high levels of skill and knowledge through these new, supposedly more efficient online programs? As they are developed, I sincerely hope that faculty members who are informed about intellectual development and how people learn will be in the mix, ensuring that all students are given opportunities to integrate what they are learning and to build from one experience to the next. The need for clear roadmaps to relevant outcomes and for periodic opportunities to demonstrate “integrative” competence is built into the DQP, and it is absolutely essential if we are truly to prepare students for success in an innovation-driven knowledge economy.

Although clarity about outcomes is important, it is only the first step. Educators must use the outcomes as reference points, but they also must design curricula and assess learning in ways that are responsive to how people actually learn and to the world for which we are preparing our graduates. Only then can we be confident that these new pathways to degrees are really worth the investment of scarce dollars. This is a necessarily careful process, which means that change isn’t going to happen overnight. As Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson recently noted in an excellent blog post about technology and our expectations for the pace of change, “creating new technologies is a much more straightforward task than transforming the educational processes to which those technologies contribute. And the classroom (whether physical or virtual) processes and the individual courses they compose can’t quickly and simply be put together into new educational institutions and experiences.”

Higher education needs to change; everyone agrees on that. And as we look for new pathways to college degrees, we should consider all available options. However, the questions we must ask of every college degree program—whether it is online, face-to-face, credential based, or credit based—is, will students gain the outcomes they need, and will they have regular opportunities to integrate and apply what they are learning?

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