Collectively Putting Learning First!10

By Walter Gardner,2014-06-23 22:54
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Collectively Putting Learning First!10

    Collectively Putting Learning First

    The common lament that higher education has become a business, or that it has emerged from its recent struggles having too much “corporate” character, is not the primary issue. The primary problem is that the current culture of colleges and universities no longer puts learning first -- and in most institutions, that culture perpetuates a fear of doing so. Isolated examples to the contrary exist, but are only the exceptions that prove the rule. The leaders of many, if not most, colleges and universities might agree with this assessment of the problem, but would likely argue, with some justice, that no single institution can risk being the only one to change; that restoring attention to the fundamentals, rather than the frills, would put that one institution at serious risk. Indeed, it is true that this is a collective problem, and that action by many schools, supported by a strong national impetus for change, is a necessary condition for success.

    In calling for the kind of serious, systemic rethinking that directly and unflinchingly accepts the challenge of improving undergraduate higher education, we are asking for four things; taken together, they demand, and would catalyze, a profound, needed, and overdue cultural change in our colleges and universities.

    1. The widespread acceptance and application of a new and better touchstone for decision-

    making in higher education, linked to a strong framework of essential, core principles. A

    touchstone is a standard, or criterion, that serves as the basis for judging something; in higher

    education, that touchstone must be the quality and quantity of learning. A touchstone and a

    clear conceptual framework link our advocacy for change to a powerful set of ideas,

    commitments, and principles against which to test current policies, practices, and proposals

    for reform.

    2. A comprehensive re-evaluation of undergraduate education and experience guided by those

    core principles. This must occur both nationally, as an essential public conversation, and

    within the walls of institutions of all types, missions, and sizes.

    3. The leadership and actual implementation and renewal of undergraduate higher education

    needs to be led by the academy itself, supported by boards of trustees, higher education

    professional organizations, and regional accrediting bodies alike. Such rethinking ought to be

    transparent, informed by public conversation, and enacted through decisions based on the new

    touchstone, improving the quality and quantity of learning.

    4. Learning assessment must become inextricably linked to institutional efficacy. The

    formative assessment of learning should become an integral part of instruction in courses and

    other learning experiences of all types, and the summative assessment of learning, at the

    individual student, course, program, and institution levels should be benchmarked against

    high, clear, public standards.

    Both the process and the results of a serious rethinking of higher education will be more likely to succeed and less likely to cause unwanted harm if that rethinking is generated by an authentic public discussion linked to and supporting cultural change in colleges and universities than if it is imposed by a disappointed, frustrated nation through its legislative and regulatory authority. Levels of dissatisfaction with the priorities and outcomes of higher education among parents, alumni, employers, and elected officials are unlikely to decline absent significant reform.Cultural problems require cultural solutions, starting with a national conversation about what is wrong, and what is needed, in higher education. The country should reasonably expect higher education to lead this conversation. For real change to occur, discussions about the quality and quantity of learning in higher education and the need for reform must occur at multiple levels, in many places, and over a significant period of time -- most importantly on campuses themselves.The national conversation provides context, direction, and motive -- but only many intimate and passionate conversations among colleagues in every institution of higher education can ground the discussion enough to give it sufficient power to bring change. Progress will not be made in improving the quality and quantity of learning -- in restoring higher learning to higher education -- unless both the public discussion and the multilayered, multistep processes of change on our campuses occur.

    If enough change occurs in enough places, and if our public expectations remain high and consistent, learning may become the touchstone for decision-making; the quality and quantity of learning -- documented by rigorous assessment -- may become both each institution’s greatest concern and the basis for comparisons between various colleges and universities; degrees may once again be earned, not delivered as entitlements; faculties may again focus on learning, rather

    than instruction, and on learning assessments, rather than credit hours; and every college and university might have the data and information it needs to determine and communicate the value of what it does to prospective students, parents, accrediting organizations, donors, and the public. With these changes, students will be more prepared for the world of work, armed with the most important skills and knowledge, and having graduated with something of real value.Cultural change from within, across the entire spectrum and expanse of higher education, will be disruptive, and it needs to be. But such change has the unique promise of restoring higher learning in higher education while preserving its extraordinary diversity. Without it, external interventions and demands that will be far more disruptive and far less tolerant of institutional diversity become increasingly likely.

    Read more:

    Inside Higher Ed

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