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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 man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.