Degree Profile puzzles educators

Lumina Foundation‘s newly announced Degree Qualifications Profile was “a source of fascination (and some skepticism)” at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The profile—which is referred to by its authors as a “beta version”—is based loosely on “quality assurance” frameworks that have been adopted in Britain, Australia, and other nations. It sketches broad skills that should be universally acquired at each degree level. No matter what bachelor’s-degree students major in, the document says, for example, they should be able to construct “sustained, coherent arguments and/or narratives and/or explications of technical issues and processes, in two media, to general and specific audiences.”

Panelists offered a wide range of uses for the framework: encouraging faculty to ensure students learn needed skills; serving as a “learning contract” between students and colleges; simplifying transfers from community colleges to four-year institutions; making it easier for accreditors to assess colleges, and making college degrees more legible to policy makers and employers.

The profile will be tested at several dozen colleges and universities during the next two years.

Members of the audience said they were confused about how much flexibility colleges would have to modify the degree-profile template to suit their individual characters. The panel’s answers did not necessarily add much clarity. “You can color within the outline,” (co-author Peter) Ewell said, “but you can’t color outside the lines.”

. . . Audience members also wondered whether the degree profile might herald an era when students can graduate after they demonstrate a certain set of skills, regardless of whether that takes them one year or seven years to accomplish. One person asked, “Are we witnessing the end of the credit-hour system?” The panelists generally said that they did not intend anything so radical, but Mr. Ewell said, “If taken seriously, this does represent a shift in that direction.”

Don’t underestimate the political challenges of implementing the framework, said George D. Kuh, a principal investigator of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.

The Degree Profile is As Elusive as the Snark, complains Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, in a Chronicle commentary. The degree profilers deny their framework will “standardize degrees” or “define what should be taught or how instructors should teach it.” So, what does it do? Wood asks.

The report lists five reference points: specialized knowledge, broad/integrative knowledge, intellectual skills, applied learning, and civic learning.

“Specialized knowledge and broad/integrative knowledge are only superficially distinct,” Wood writes. Creating separate categories is a way to avoid confronting the disintegration of the core curriculum, he speculates.

The genuine breadth of shared knowledge that comes from a college or university determining that all students must master certain key ideas, texts, words, and intellectual experiences is replaced in the Lumina scheme by the idea that “broad/integrative” knowledge is its own thing—in effect another specialization rather than the common ground of all learning.

The separation of “intellectual skills” from “applied learning,” also concerns Wood. “What graduates know” and “what they can do with what they know” isn’t the same thing, he concedes. But the examples of “doing” are weighted to what’s done outside the classroom in the “community.”

Lumina appears to have quietly endorsed the idea favored by one branch of postsecondary education that students can, at least in some fields, concentrate on the “doing” while not wasting too much time on the “knowing.”

The “civic learning” benchmark will mean “efforts to ‘transform’ students’ beliefs and attitudes to conform to progressive ideals,” Woods writes.

POSTED BY Joanne Jacobs ON February 2, 2011

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Another problem with this schema is that it means very little to the general public, even the educated public. Some examples would help.

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