Competence, Excellence, and Innovation in Higher Education

So I’ve gotten several emails this morning asking me what I think about this article by Paul J. LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University.


It’s a plea for accrediting agencies to take seriously competency-based, as opposed to credit-based, higher education.  Southern New Hampshire and its offshoot—the College for America—claim to be riding on “the new wave of innovation” that allows college degrees to be offered at very low prices.  This “new innovation” will often be delivered by for-profit institutions, which will have the right incentive to get you the product you want most efficiently.

The president claims that historians “will likely point to online learning as the disruptive technology platform that radically changed higher education, which had remained largely unchanged since the cathedral schools of medieval Europe -- football, beer pong and food courts notwithstanding.”  Anyone who could take that claim seriously knows nearly nothing about what historians have said about higher education so far.

It’s not history but fairly clever rhetoric.  Today’s “higher education” for a student majoring in, say, public relations or marketing or exercise science has little to nothing medieval about it.  There have been many radical changes—mostly in a techno- and secularizing direction—since those “cathedral schools.”  I doubt the president has achieved competency on what went on in those cathedral schools or what Thomas Aquinas actually taught.  What he really means is that anything “medieval” is outmoded and otherwise worthless.  There have been so many “new innovations” since those days, and we just haven’t been keeping up.

I can’t help but think:  What’s medieval isn’t the lecture as such.  After all a MOOC is mostly a bunch of lectures for the masses.  What’s medieval are the “real book” (sometimes called “great book”) and all the other leisurely pretensions of “liberal education.”  In medieval times they used to think some about education of the soul—or not just about competency for productivity.

So I’ve recently heard about various pushes to use technology to make courses more “blended.”  You use technology to listen to some lecture outside of class—a MOOC or a TED or whatever.  And then class time is free up for discussion and other modes of “engagement.”  Professors might even have their class presentations recorded one semester.  Next time around, the students can watch them on YOUTUBE, again freeing class time up.

I could object that this is based on a profound misunderstanding of what goes on in at least MY class.  It’s different every time fellas, and all I do to prepare is read (every semester) what I assign the students to read.  But my bigger objection is that “homework” becomes watching instead of reading.  And teaching becomes talking about watching.  I know the competency-based approach adds a dimension of “doing” too, but I can’t help but focus on what remains conspicuous by its absence.

The president suggests that the only real innovations since the cathedral school we find at our colleges are “football, beer pong, and food courts.”  That means that today’s colleges—prior to his kind of radical disruption (I’m sorry, but I have to say that “disruption” has been completely emptied of meaning by its promiscuous overuse)—are a self-indulgent mixture of medievalism and educationally irrelevant amenities.

I’m with him to some extent on the amenities front.  Higher education would be a lot cheaper if it were separated from sports, entertainment, health clubs, housing, and gourmet food.  And if I were starting a liberal arts college tomorrow, I would do it without any of those.  But I wouldn’t put “beer pong” and what the president thinks of as medieval in the same disposable category—the category that has nothing do with the point of education (competence).

Now I’m not saying that accrediting associations should have the power to deprive the Southern New Hampshire On-liners of federal aid if their programs are really teaching students what they say they are.  And I appreciate the intensity by which they intend to prove they are doing just that.

 The trouble, in my opinion, is more that the “competency” and “assessment” understanding of what higher education is being imposed on all colleges and universities by accrediting associations.  They’re actually buying far too much the claim that, without such measuring rigor, we have no reason not to believe that our colleges are some combination of medieval irrelevance and animal-house revelries.

One way to see the limits of the assessment “rubric” of the competency-based guys is just to notice that the president’s article is fully of trendy and needlessly abstract jargon.  Throughout, he’s saying a lot less or a lot more imprecisely than he thinks he does. It doesn’t read like the work of an educated person, although it might well be competent enough for its purpose.

Consider this sentence:  “Innovation theory would predict that new innovative CBE accreditation pathway [sic?] would come to improve the incumbent accreditation processes and standards.” That, by definition, does sound like something “innovation theory” would predict.

Also notice that the president brags that his students can’t be satisfied with Cs or Bs but only with mastery.  There’s something to the implication that any grade but A at many of our colleges doesn’t signify much today.  But it’s also true that in his “rubric” competence replaces excellence.  Once you’re competent in something, it’s time to move on.  That’s one reason why he thinks many students are ripped off by having to sit through a whole three credit-hour course in history, when they can prove they reached competence after only a few weeks.

But, to repeat, I’m not dissing the College for America product.  Accrediting associations should be flexible and anti-establishment enough to recognize its value.  And consumers have every right to be impressed by its low price.  I actually agree that it might well be a good idea to have “traditional” and “competency” tracks to accreditation.  This is might be a great way to protect genuine educational diversity in our country, to protect excellence while acknowledging competence.

And I especially agree:  The Department of Education shouldn’t facilitate any monopolistic hold some accreditation agency might have over the fate of colleges in any particular region.

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
  • Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
Keep reading Show less

Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

Keep reading Show less

The history of using the Insurrection Act against Americans

Numerous U.S. Presidents invoked the Insurrection Act to to quell race and labor riots.

The army during riots in Washington, DC, after the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., April 1968.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • U.S. Presidents have invoked the Insurrection Act on numerous occasions.
  • The controversial law gives the President some power to bring in troops to police the American people.
  • The Act has been used mainly to restore order following race and labor riots.
Keep reading Show less

Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

Scroll down to load more…