Experts today are looking at higher ed and thinking about innovation and failure with the hope of really changing the landscape. I had already begun thinking about the good, the bad, and the ugly of innovation, too, after reading an Atlantic article, Are Universities Going the Way of Record Labels? by Martin Smith.
It certainly paints a dismal picture for schools and universities outside the elite class of Harvard or MIT. These institutions, he writes, will scale the content of their prestigious professors, replacing that of professors from “second tier” institutions.
Mr. Smith believes the “unit of content” is no longer the degree but the course. As music lovers have come to buy songs a la carte on iTunes without having to buy the album, students will seek courses instead of degrees.
With the building interest in competency-based education, there are leaders in higher education distance learning who think the unit of content is the competency, not the course.
Programs with competency-based formats are now being developed, where courses are analyzed and broken down into skills, abilities and knowledge mastered instead of a progression through courses to earn a degree.
Western Kentucky University is at the forefront of this innovation, most recently through our newly redesigned degree in Advanced Manufacturing, which is in a modularized competency-based format. We believe this program of study will be especially attractive to adults looking to improve their employability.
As part of this development, I do not agree with Mr. Smith. I disagree that the unit of content is getting smaller. I would argue that the unit of content continues to be the credential — and we must not lose sight of this fact. Competency-based education is a way for both students and instructors to have a greater transparency of the path toward that credential, and that is what makes it so valuable. Credentials are the key . . . and they may not just be for credit.
Workforce and professional development credentials, as we have seen with the growth of badges, are making waves in the employability market. Credentials do matter, and they will continue to matter, and higher education institutions must find ways to make them deliverable and marketable as students try to decipher what programs are important to them.
Universities and colleges can bridge the gap between teaching and learning through whatever means, including flexible time, better student service, more customer support and finding the right mix of modalities for interaction. We must build the bridge of understanding to better meet the needs of the larger population of potential students: adults who require or desire credentials in order to advance in their careers.