Online Blogucation

The End of the Academic Year? – Cite Follow-up

A few months ago, I wrote a post to our blog about the “end of the academic year.” (Click here for that post.) In it, I pondered whether the shift from teaching to learning – and the focus on learning outcomes in courses – would put an end to the traditional academic year. That is, if all that is required to pass a course is that each student provide evidence (through assignments and assessments) that they have mastered the course’s learning outcomes, then it shouldn’t matter whether they complete the course in 8 weeks, 10 weeks, 15 weeks, or whatever.

Obviously, there are significant logistical and pedagogical challenges surrounding such a shift. So, I put this question to a few panelists during session at the Pearson Cite 2011 conference, which wrapped here in Denver on April 13. I invited administrators from two schools, Texas Christian University and Kaplan Higher Education, who have been using learning outcomes to structure some of their courses for a few years now.

It’s important to bear in mind that these are very different schools in their mission and delivery of content. I don’t mean to overgeneralize, but in a nutshell, I think it’s fair to say that Kaplan is oriented toward career education and training with a top-down structure for designing curricula, while TCU is oriented towards “traditional” university and liberal arts educational degrees where faculty create curricula from the bottom up. And yet, both are able to use learning outcomes to structure courses in (at least for now) some of their programs.

One audience member at this Cite session commented that in order for learning outcomes to be effective, they must be based on demonstrable competencies (as our guest from Kaplan discussed). However, this audience member pointed out, that is much different when comparing, say, a medical assistant program to a visual arts program. The medical assistant can demonstrate that he or she knows all the steps necessary to draw blood from a patient or insert an IV. It’s a step-by-step, check-off-the-boxes process. While creating a work of art may also be step-by-step, two students can follow the same steps to vastly different results. Can the differences in the visual quality (subjectively judged) of these two students’ pieces be measured by learning outcomes? Or is my parenthetical the key – that subjective assessment and learning outcomes just don’t mesh?

I think the answer is yes, the students’ art can be measured by learning outcomes, but it depends upon how those learning outcomes are defined. It also depends upon the ultimate goal of the program. If the goal of an arts program is to demonstrate competence – not talent, but just competence – then yes. Those competencies can be defined regarding everything from the medium used for a certain piece of art to the technique for achieving one style or another. Further, what is the goal of getting a degree in the arts? If a student wants to become a graphic designer, that is a different set of competencies than if the student wants to become a professional artiste.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I will open up the conversation to you, dear reader. What do you think?

-- Rob Kadel, Ph.D.
-- Supervisor, Academic Training & Consulting

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