“The law of floatation was not discovered by contemplating the sinking of things,
but by contemplating the floating of things which floated naturally,
and then intelligently asking why they did so.”
~ Thomas Troward
Over the past several years, regular discussions on the need for higher education reform have consumed news stories, journal articles, and campaign platforms. These discussions have led to heated debate, disgruntled students, and a baffled public. Buzz words such as MOOCs, competency-based education, and big data have worked their way into conversations focused on innovation. Pilot programs have been started with increasing hype only to fade into the background and eventually dissolve into obscurity.
One article in particular, The Faculty Role Online Scrutinized published on January 15, 2016, should have stopped readers in their tracks. To summarize the article, Western Governors University is a private, non-profit higher education institution that offers degree programs using a direct assessment instructional model, also known as competency-based education. The University was established as a result of a 1995 bipartisan meeting of the Western Governors Association. Its development was grounded in solving several problems facing the western states including “rapid population growth confronted by limited public funds for educational services” and 21 years later, all of higher education is still trying to solve this same issue. Western Governors University decided to design an online institution (delivery method) using direct assessment (instructional model). The University is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities and is eligible to participate in Federal Financial Assistance Title IV funding programs, following the same rules and regulations applicable to other institutions also eligible to participate in federal funding programs. Since 1999, the University has offered adult learners (average student age is 37) an opportunity to demonstrate competencies, meet program requirements, and earn a degree using a direct assessment instructional model.
In the recent past, Western Governors University has been applauded for its efforts in reaching an increasing population of students across the United States in a new way. The University voluntarily undergoes accreditation’s peer-review process as one way to communicate quality and value. The Obama-administration in an effort to initiate higher education reform and support of non-traditional instructional models, has long cited the University as an example of innovation and the type of forward progress needed to respond to the increasing education challenges of accessibility and affordability.
The University’s focus on a different instructional model (direct assessment) offers adult students an opportunity to demonstrate achievement of competencies in a controlled, student-driven environment that best meets their learning needs. Direct assessment differs from many traditional instructional models since it does not adhere to standard credit hour definitions that measure typical student-faculty engagement (regular and substantive interaction). The problem arises when the funding formula for Federal Financial Assistance Title IV programs is calculated using a singular definition based on student time in a classroom as opposed to student learning. Instead of the University petitioning for regulatory or reporting waivers, it proactively demonstrated how its curriculum meets the federal criteria for participation in Federal Financial Assistance Title IV programs since being granted accreditation in 2003. The University worked to demonstrate compliance with current regulations in an effort to offer educational options to a growing adult-student population.
Despite all of the positive accolades and praise, Western Governors University has spent the last three years responding to an Office of the Inspector General inquiry to determine “whether Western Governors University complied with the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, and selected regulations governing institutional eligibility, program eligibility, disbursements and return of Title IV aid” with respect to “regular and substantive interaction.” So one needs to stop and ask, is all this talk on higher education innovation and reform just talking points to placate an increasingly discontented population or do we really mean what we say?
If higher education and all those interested in “fixing” higher education are serious about facing the realities of its problems and sincerely seeking a solution, then the focus of this quest should be on understanding what works instead of creating barriers and stifling opportunities. In all this talk, one consistent theme emerges and that is the protection of the tax payers’ dollars used for federal financial assistance. However, in protecting these tax paying citizens, are we limiting the educational options that stand between students and their future?
In a land of opportunity, are we really promoting tradition at all costs while expecting students to join a workforce that demands creativity and innovation? Higher education is faced with focusing on student outcomes to meet a changing global economy using the tools of the past. At the same time, higher education is being punished for exploring the innovation needed to address the challenges of tomorrow. It is a system that cannot work both ways. We cannot ask for affordability without adapting to technology and we cannot ask for accessibility without embracing opportunities.
“All human development, no matter what form it takes,
must be outside the rules;
otherwise we would never have anything new.”
~ Charles Kettering
How can tradition support innovation?