It hasn’t generated a huge amount of comment so far (probably because it doesn’t reflect any new structural or financial reality), but the US Department of Education recently issued a Dear Colleague Letter that encourages higher-ed institutions to submit “direct assessment (competency-based) programs” for consideration for federal funding under Title IV.
Consider this, from the closing paragraph of that letter:
Competency-based approaches to education have the potential for assuring the quality and extent of learning, shortening the time to degree/certification completion, developing stackable credentials that ease student transitions between school and work, and reducing the overall cost of education for both career-technical degree programs.
What is a “competency-based program”? To suspicious ears, it may sound like academic credit for life experience, a staple offering of diploma mills. In fact, as the letter explains, the phrase refers to “programs that use direct assessment of student learning . . . in lieu of measuring student learning in credit hours or clock hours“ (emphasis in original). In other words, the question is neither, “Did this student successfully complete three hours of Physics 101” (the traditional measure in higher education) nor, “Does this person’s life experience suggest a mastery of the kinds of knowledge taught in Physics 101?” (the question asked, usually perfunctorily and fraudulently, by diploma mills), but rather, “Has this student demonstrably learned what is taught in Physics 101?”
It’s interesting to note that nowhere in this letter does the agency mention MOOCs by name. But it opens with the following statement:
Over the last several years, some institutions of higher education have developed new and creative program models in which students are provided with the means to acquire the knowledge and skills at an individual pace to demonstrate achievement of specific competencies identified as necessary to complete a program and earn a degree or other credential. . . . An increasing number . . . are not offered in credit or clock hours, and many of the institutions offering such programs want them approved for participation in the title IV, HEA programs.
Not all such programs are MOOCs, of course. But it seems likely to me that MOOCs are what the DOE had in mind when issuing this letter — and even if they aren’t, that fact is pretty much immaterial. What will matter is not whether this message is intended to encourage institutions to apply for Title IV grants to underwrite MOOC development, but whether those institutions respond to it by actually doing so. More explicitly, the letter also encourages colleges and universities to establish specific programs that assess and certify the learning results that are produced by MOOCs and other nontraditional education programs. According to a recent story in Inside Higher Ed, DOE officials have already announced plans to approve such a program (the first of its kind) at Southern New Hampshire University, making it eligible to apply for Title IV funding. Other institutions, including Capella University and Northern Arizona University, are reported to be in talks with the DOE as well.
If these initiatives are successful, and it’s difficult to see what serious roadblocks remain for them, this will mark the beginning of a completely new chapter — maybe a new book — in the history of colleges and universities. Having always been both the providers of higher education and the certifiers of its outcomes, they will now have a growing role as certifiers and (inevitably) a diminishing role as providers. Those who, until now, have had no choice but to take on ruinous debt in order to achieve certified knowledge will subsequently be free to pursue knowledge in whatever way works best for them, and then have it certified (at much lower cost) by a college or university. Given the enormous number of people who need both such knowledge and such certification, and given how few of those people can afford to acquire it through the traditional channels (a point made trenchantly by Joe Esposito’s recent Scholarly Kitchen post), the ramifications of this development are both exciting and challenging. If the rise of the MOOC hasn’t caught our attention yet, it had better do so soon.