Higher Education’s Opportunity in COVID-19 Disruption - Reshaping Curriculum Design and Delivery

August 4, 2020

This unique moment in history is framed by disruption.  Indeed, the disruption of 2020 has been extreme enough to expose giant fissures in some of our major institutions, including higher education.  We typically think of disruption in negative terms.  In higher education this was borne out in the experience of faculty, students, and parents.  Traditional colleges and universities - in which most courses were taught face-to-face - were forced to go online, and this abrupt change resulted in frustration or confusion for students, and anger for parents who had dished out thousands of dollars in tuition.

“As a consumer of the higher ed experience (two children through and the 3rd caught in the pandemic), my own strong sense of the importance of the overall experience has been shaken as 1000s of students have been sent home to basically waste millions of dollars sitting on their couches.” - Education Technology Consultant Matt Seeberg

In prior writing, I have argued that there is also a positive way to view the disruption’s impact on higher education.  The positive view proposes that, because we can see the fissures and gaps in how we deliver education, the COVID19 disruption offers an opportunity to begin fixing them.  It offers an opportunity to rethink the parts of higher education that have become so broken, we now spend too much of our time and energy trying to knit the fissures together.

If we think about how colleges and universities work and how that compares with how banks work, we can begin to see the fissures and the fixes.  Colleges and universities require students to travel from their homes on fixed schedules set by their college in order to access their courses, interact with faculty and students, and progressively accumulate the credentials that open the doors to professions and careers that require those credentials.  We also have to drive to our banks during banking business hours, fill out paper forms, and wait in a queue for a teller to help us conduct our transactions.  This used to be the only way to work with our banks.  Now, however, we have the option of conducting our transactions through personal devices from any location with internet access at any time of the day. We can move money, chat with the “teller”, pay our obligees automatically and otherwise get our business done without ever going to a physical location.  This is an example of an industry that has reorganized to deliver its services, changed policies and practices, and leveraged technology to attract and retain its customers.   While some universities have made this shift, most have not.

Educational technology has evolved to the point where students can access their courses anytime from anywhere.  In addition, the technology can support flexible and personalized  processes that allow self-pacing where students can acquire their credentials on their own time. The giant fissure exposed by the pandemic is how woefully short a large percentage of higher education is positioned to make higher education as easy to do as banking.  At last count, most institutions were working to open Fall 2020 with business as usual dressed up with some changes at the margin that are supposed to protect students and faculty against transmission of a highly infectious disease agent.  These institutions are poised for a repeat performance of the abrupt shift to online that occurred in the Spring of 2020 and a reinforcement of skepticism among students and parents about the value of the education being delivered.  

So we know the gap, but what is causing the gap?  In fact there are many causes both cultural and structural.  I argue that the biggest rock to move is the long-held policy of credentialing based on the “credit hour” which is a time-based standard (often referred to as “seat time”) assigned to academic credit.  Students spend x-hours in a course, over a period of standardized months,  perform at a level set by the institution and accreditors, and accumulate the credits needed to complete a degree program. This is a rigid model similar to how our banking practices were once dependent on “bankers’ hours.”

In contrast, a model now used by a few innovative institutions is competency-based education (CBE).  In this model, credentialing is based on the mastery of knowledge and skills (competencies) rather than seat time.  Because CBE leverages technology, students can proceed through the entire course lifecycle process anytime, anywhere and at their own pace.  In their courses, stated competencies and the criteria used to demonstrate mastery are clear to students at the beginning.  Disciplinary content is aligned to each competency.  Students progress through the learning units competency-by-competency.  Students who can demonstrate mastery on a competency can “test out” and move on to those competencies they have yet to master.  Dashboards allow the student to see where they are in the course or program at all times - like your banking credit score.

“Transitioning away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. Competency-based strategies provide flexibility in a way that credit can be earned or awarded, and provide students with personalized learning opportunities.” - US Dept. of Education

COVID-19 has shown us how many individuals, including essential workers, don’t have the luxury of attending classes at a set time and place and could be missing educational opportunities that a CBE framework would avail.  In addition, enrollments in the past have increased when unemployment is high as we expect to see as the economy recovers over the coming months and years.  If this trend holds for the COVID-19 disruption colleges and universities need to be prepared for increased enrollments - provided they are affordable and flexible.  Because we now have the technology to enable a dramatic shift in how higher education is delivered, it is time for institutions of higher education - including the powerful regional accreditors - to move toward a paradigm shift and rethink the wisdom of a credentialing system based on seat time.  The vitality and in some cases, the viability of colleges and universities is dependent on it.

Written by
Karen Yoshino

Karen Yoshino’s decades of experience in higher education, regional accreditation, and standardized testing combine with her expertise in higher education leadership resulting in a unique resource for her clients. Karen’s consulting practice includes competency-based education program design, outcomes assessment planning and design, online program strategy, and analytics for program improvement. Her work in competency-based education includes public and private higher education, corporate and government clients.

Karen’s work as an educational consultant began in 2006 as a subject matter expert in assessing student learning outcomes. In this capacity, Karen has helped clients in the US and around the world including Hong Kong, Australia, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and Mexico.

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