Higher Education

competencies and the learning experience

At this point I have no doubt that there is a whirlwind of conversation about MOOCs. Here are some of the more recent ones I've been reading: Clay Skirky, Chronicle of Higher Ed, Ian Bogost, and Alex Halavais. There's no doubt that MOOCs are making some strange bedfellows, such as linking the efforts of edupunkers with large scale edTech companies. In part this is misleading because there are many different possible MOOCs out there, but it is also partly accurate in a shared rejection of some of the traditional values and practices of higher education. It's also clear to me that MOOCs will be intertwined with badges in this shared venture to rethink learning.

As I see, disagreements over MOOCs begin in an older debate about what constitutes education. Put simply, am I "educated" if I can demonstrate mastery of certain knowledge and/or expertise in particular skills or activities? Or am I educated if I can certify that I have had specific experiences? Typically we might say that education is a mixture of all of this, which only begs the question of what kind of mixture? A college education (really all traditional education) is heavy on experience. One needs 120 credits for a BA. One must meet certain general education and degree requirements. Yes, a certain level of demonstration is necessary, which becomes the grade and the GPA. But I think there are not many students who manage to show up for all the courses, do the readings, and complete assignments in some fashion that do not end up getting a degree. My sense is that when students don't graduate it's usually because of extenuating circumstances (sometimes beyond their power to control) that prevent them from getting the full experience. Maybe you graduate with a 2.0, but you get the certificate. 

In the MOOC/badge world, its not that you don't need to have experiences, but the nature of the experiences are less controlled and more varied. What instead you need to demonstrate are competencies. So, for example, if I wanted a "web design" badge, I could take a college course or demonstrate that I've been working as a web designer or show some portfolio of my work or maybe take a MOOC. As long as I can demonstrate the requisite abilities and knowledge, then I'm fine. As I've written before, this represents a commodification of knowledge that is troubling.. in part because I think it represents a fairly superficial concept of what knowing is. Of course, one could level the same complaint against traditional education: that it represents a very narrow view of how learning might happen. Choosing between narrow and superficial doesn't seem like much of a choice.

In any case, the MOOC/competency model is a real challenge for the humanities, starting with writing instruction. To make it work I think you'd have to completely decouple oneself from the course-credit model. That is, I would be unwilling to establish an expected competency for a composition-student writer, but I think I could establish a writing competency for a professional writing BA or more generically for an English major. We could also imagine some mastery test (like a subject GRE) that students could take. Unfortunately, that's not really what the degree is about. Sure, English majors spend a relatively large amount of time writing and they do learn about literary periods, interpretive methods, and so on, but the whole concept is based around having the experience of developing those competencies in certain ways: having class discussions, meeting with faculty, getting feedback on writing, participating in the culture of the department, and so on. As an English/History undergrad major, I can't say I developed any worthwhile competency that one could measure. However I had many valuable experiences.

I can see a certain kind of education that is defined by competencies and there is good reason to explore such programs. Maybe some portion of the students who now attend college (and others would attend if they could) will find such competency-driven learning to satisfy their needs.. and this might mostly be the case because their needs are being determined externally by the job market. However, I think there is a reason why the experiential based model of education is hard to acquire, because the learning it offers, whether online or face-to-face, takes time and effort. That is, it is not arbitrarily hard. There may be some attendant factors, such as cost, that make access unnecessarily difficult and there may be certain practices that can be improved (I'm sure there are), but fundamentally, a college education represents a kind of learning that takes time to experience and will never be something that can be captured in a model of measurable competencies. 

Now is it the case that what one gets from the experience model vs. the competency model is worth the time, effort, and cost that former requires? That may be an individual decision. Will these diferences create new educational class hierarchies? Maybe. But I find it hard to believe that the challenging competencies of becoming an Electrical Engineer, for example, will be any easier to attain than they are now at a university, just as it would be difficult to replicate the kinds of experiences liberal arts majors receive without having those students closely involved in a scholarly, intellectual community similar to the one that is currently found in colleges of arts and sciences. 

I suppose where this gets me is that to be successful, MOOCs will likely need to tie back into the intellectual communities that make them possibile in the first place. A MOOC in World Music or Poetry or Science Fiction makes little sense without the humanities departments that underlie them. And such courses are probably most valuable for people who are already participants in such communities.


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