June 14, 2010

The currency of higher education in America

I winced reading today's Inside Higher Ed column by Arthur Levine and hoped for a second that someone was impersonating him. I checked it against my Higher Education Commentary Bingo Card:

bubble industrial society dinosaur unchanging decrepit
distracted digital native dumbest generation swirling millennial generation
seat-time anytime/anyplace

Free (by Chris Anderson)

mobile or ubiquitous learning individualized
helicopter parents passive/active dichotomy seamless outcomes pampered
reengineering students as consumers incentivized P-20 accountability

Looks like the piece hit every item in the second column.

Levine is consolidating a set of stereotypes about higher education that is only tenuously connected with real colleges and universities. The column is written as if almost every student is an 18- to 22-year-old with an iPad and an iPhone, a BitTorrent user, and a habitual plagiarist. For any who is tempted to describe college students in this way, please look at the real students in most colleges; a substantial fraction may fit this stereotype, but it's still only a fraction. And whatever flaws today's college students have, I suspect our predecessors saw them in spades 50 years ago. I would plead the same with the column's implication that college and university structures and curricula have not evolved over the past century; look at the proportion of courses taught online or by adjuncts and tell me again how universities don't change and don't see students as consumers. Even the one item I'd otherwise be willing to give a pass on--"All education is essentially remedial, teaching students what they do not know"--implies that education is the same as knowledge. Ouch.

The painful part of reading this morning's column is not only the blithe acceptance of stereotypes but the failure to see that higher education cannot avoid having some unit of currency. Like many other pieces I have read recently, this morning's column calls for a move away from the student credit hour. With the millions of transfer students in the country, colleges and universities need some currency system to treat them fairly and process the request to bring some of their work from other institutions into the new institution. That is unavoidable, unless you want students to start from scratch at every institution. But let's imagine a world where colleges and universities no longer count seat time. So the student credit hour would be replaced by what, precisely? Some propose a list of competencies, but that's still a countable currency (if in tests/assessments passed rather than courses), and then you'd have to create competency assessments for every conceivable course in the world that a transfer student might have taken somewhere else. Does anyone really believe that's a more viable structure than credit hours/courses?

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Posted in Higher education on June 14, 2010 8:01 AM |