Measure or perish

Measure or Perish, writes Kevin Carey of Education Sector in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Our higher-education system “refuses to consistently measure how much students learn,” Carey writes.

As a result, students have trouble transferring credits.

Credit devaluation, which wastes enormous amounts of time, money, and credentialed learning every year, is rooted in mistrust. Because colleges don’t know what students in other colleges learned, they’re reluctant to give foreign courses their imprimaturs.

It’s easy to exploit the federal financial-aid system for profit by inflating credits. In an attempt to stop this, the U.S. Education Department proposes to use classroom time to define the number of credits a class is worth.

Nearly a third of all college students took online courses last year. Why would anyone define credits in terms of seat time when, increasingly, there are no seats and no fixed learning time? Because they have no other basis for doing so.

Without a way to tell how much students are learning, higher education quality is defined by U.S. News & World Report, Carey writes.

Faculty cultures and incentive regimes that systematically devalue teaching in favor of research are allowed to persist because there is no basis for fixing them and no irrefutable evidence of how much students are being shortchanged.

Academics resist measuring learning, seeing possible assessments “as either gross violations of institutional autonomy or as so crude and imperfect that they require further refinement and study, lasting approximately forever,” Carey writes.

Meanwhile, accreditation has lost credibility. The U.S. Education Department’s “gainful employment” regulations for career colleges defines learning in “purely economic terms, comparing students’ postgraduate earnings with their debt.” How long before that spreads from vocational programs to the rest of higher education?

New psychometric instruments will puncture “the myth that everyone with a college degree actually learned something,” Carey predicts.

The real debate shouldn’t be about whether we need a measuring stick for higher education. We need a debate about who gets to design the stick, who owns it, and who decides how it will be used. If higher education has the courage to take responsibility for honestly assessing student learning and for publishing the results, the measuring stick will be a tool. If it doesn’t, the stick could easily become a weapon. The time for making that choice is drawing to a close.

I think online learning is going to change higher education dramatically. Brick-and-mortar colleges will serve a purpose for 18- to 22-year-old students who can afford the college experience. Many, many adults will want to take a test to prove what they’ve learned in online classes, in independent study or through life experience.  We’ll need very good tests to make that work.

POSTED BY Joanne Jacobs ON December 24, 2010

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