Friday, September 2, 2011

Measurement Systems and the Decline of Higher Ed

For those of you who are academics or work in higher ed, the title might make you gasp, I know. For those of you who aren't you might see a rather boring title to a blog article. Either way I think the future of higher education is getting to a tipping point and it needs to be addressed. I think that we need to look at how higher education is using measurement systems because how they perceive these metrics could potentially affect the growth or decline of a college or university in the future.

First, let me say I am not against measures being used in higher education. Measurement systems offer the faculty and the institution a way to get a pulse on the classroom, teaching methods, student's learning, teacher's relative effectiveness and a host of other great things to aid the institution in offering quality and consistency in its classes. It also benefits the student teacher relationship. The rubric becomes a more effective way of grading and thus, if a grade is disputed it provides both teacher and student a more clarified perspective on how the grade given came about. Peer review, student evaluations, and outside reviews offer unique perspectives that a rubric cannot always offer. With measurements, you get more of a complete picture of what is happening in the training and how the development of programs will continue to move forward with consistency and quality.

The problem some institutions are facing right now is how they apply these standards of measures and there are varying philosophies on this. Some institutions and even accreditation bodies use metrics and measures as the main way one can determine teaching effectiveness, learning, and consistency. Other institutions hardly use metrics at all, and resort to an apprentice/rabbinical model. In this model, the teacher is considered master and the student's grades and quality of teaching is assessed only by the master teacher without any system of measurement besides life experience. On a personal note, I prefer the apprentice model simply because I work in the arts and at the end of the day, even if a student has shown excellence in all their rubric based criteria, they still might not be an effective artist. The arts are subjective and often take other artists to comment on quality of student work. This is my bias...but there is a bigger concept that the former institutions should take into account when it comes to measures.

Institutions that are wrapped up in systems of measures are often more concerned with how they are measuring the quality of the programs than they are with the quality of the programs. This means that teachers  and instructors are spending less time teaching and instructing and more time measuring the way in which they are teaching. It also means that the institution has a greater control over the way a teacher teaches, because they can look at the measures and make determinations or suggestions for changes in curricula or approach. This can potentially begin to infringe on a professor's academic freedom.

I do not believe there is a single institution out there that would ever purposefully invade a professors academic freedom and I believe that most if not all institutions who are strict when it comes to metrics think that they are creating the highest level of education possible. But it is true that metrics only tell a part of the story. They can not assess, rapport, creativity, connection to material, teaching style, learning style, artistry, thought structure, and the list goes on and on.

Let me also be clear that although I prefer the apprenticeship/rabbinical model, it has been used for literally thousands of years with great success, I don't believe that we should abandon all measurement for that model. I believe there needs to be a balance between methods. Institutions need to higher good teachers and then trust them to teach good students. The teachers should be interested in keeping their teaching and the students  learning accountable to some level of measurement. We need to know how one comes to an A or a B- and at the same time we need to know if somebody is ready to move on from the Fundamental classes to the higher level classes. Only an apprentice style can truly show the latter, especially if the material is subjective. However, now in most institutions it is the grade, anything above a C- in most places that should get a student passed on to the next level. No one ever really asks the professor "Even though Billy got a B- in class, is he really ready for section 2 of this course?". That never happens. I wonder why? what are we really trying to do in Higher ed? Teach or just push bodies through the system?

In our current economy (and with a potential of the economy not returning to what it was but perhaps changing to something altogether different), people start scrutinizing higher education because it costs a lot of money to become a student and, in many professions, the payback for the degree is not that substantial. Incoming students are going to want to be able to get their degree in as little time as it takes...more bang for the buck.

Students are more interested in being employable than in having a well-rounded education. I promise that most students and parents would agree this is true and in fact I will go a step further and say that most students and parents think employable and well-rounded education go hand in hand. Unfortunately, many institutions do not think this. Academics value academia and education for education's sake. I am not saying this is bad. Being well-educated does help with many facets of life. But in our current climate the student wants to be employable and our aim as teachers should be to make them highly employable by teaching them to be excellent in their skill or craft. Measures can bog this down and create an academic process out of something that should be as simple as training someone well. Students will stop putting up with this in time...if time is money and they feel like a professor or an institution is wasting their time then they will go somewhere else.

What does all this mean and how does it relate to the decline of higher ed? I am not proposing higher ed will go away completely, but it might have to have serious reform. Let's take theatre. I could see students demanding an education that is practical and makes them good actors who are capable and proficient at getting hired. There might be non-accredited schools or conglomerates of teaching studios that just train the students and if they do it well, they might get a really great reputation. This reputation could, in the future, be worth more than a standard education from an accredited college or institution. In fact we have a history in theatre of seeing studios and master teachers working at non-accredited bodies pumping out some of our nation's greatest actors. Sometimes we have seen far more success in this style than could ever be contributed to a single University or College. What is to stop this from happening to all studies and majors across all of higher-education.

We who are the keepers of higher ed have to get with the times. We need a wake-up call and we have to realize the needs of the students and meet those needs with excellence...and some panache. Then we will really be doing our jobs! I believe that a teacher or professor's first job should be just that, to teach. Measures should be put in place in order to aid the teaching and that is all. We need to balance our teaching methods so that we put the students first and THAT will make higher education very attractive. Truly it was why us teachers got into teaching in the first we would have most of our time spent doing the thing we love...teaching.

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