Just as the online learning revolution is taking off, hurtling into the infinite cloud, the world of higher education is struggling to better measure learning. That struggle is all the more urgent as college costs soar and ambitious new providers promise digital delivery that may upend traditional college education.
How should college credentialing take place in this new world of online learning? That was the question addressed at a recent forum sponsored by Education's Digital Future (EDF), an initiative of the Graduate School of Education (GSE).
Accreditation is the process by which colleges and universities are judged fit to confer diplomas and receive government subsidies. Many critics of the system assert that the accreditation process has relied on what Mitchell Stevens, co-convener of Education's Digital Future (EDF) and an associate professor of education, called a gentleman's agreement among government, schools and accreditation agencies. That worked just fine until very recently when, as Stevens noted at the forum, the political economy underlying the entire enterprise of U.S. higher education shifted. Tuition is going through the roof at many public institutions and at private universities that don't have large endowments. There is a great, unmet demand as poor, working-class and middle-class students who seek a college degree view it as financially out of reach. All of this is taking place as state financing for higher education is declining. The new kid on the block – online learning – is threatening to complicate things even further.
So, to use one of the accreditors' own favored expressions, what are the measurable outcomes? What is the role of the university, and how can we reliably know if it is fulfilling it?
Many experts have raised the alarm. Among them is Richard Arum, co-author (with Josipa Roksa) of the widely reviewed Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, which argues that most college students are not learning much of anything these days. The authors say there is an urgent need for institutional reform and verifiable accountability. Though many are skeptical of Arum's approach, there is widespread agreement that the American education system is in many ways broken. It is under-performing and is not going to get better without serious pressure from outside the academy.
Arum, a professor of sociology at New York University, was one of the participants at the forum, which also featured Emily Goligoski, of the Mozilla Foundation's Open Badges project; John Katzman, founder of the Noodle Education search engine and Princeton Review; and Therese Cannon, former executive vice president of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). Cannon currently is helping the Minerva Project, one of the more prominent higher education upstarts.