Competence, Excellence, and Innovation in Higher Education

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 landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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