On Pursuing “Demonstrable Equity” in Higher Education

Sep 30, 2020 | Featured, Learning Design

Thanks, in part, to the various forms of consternation caused by COVID-19, the theme of the value of college degrees is back.

One particular discussion is around which colleges and universities students should look to for better earnings after graduation. And, while a number of recent of reports and articles point to the college degree as a driver of upward mobility (e.g. this study by Klor de Alva and Christensen), there is a difference of opinion regarding which types of institutions, specifically, offer the greatest value (e.g. Fuller and Hess, Mitchell).

Not surprisingly, these analyses are mostly descriptive in nature, offering insights related to patterns observed within the current models of higher education. This means that they tell us a great deal about what is currently happening but much less about how changes in the current models of higher education might produce greater long-term value for degree-seeking students.

More specifically, what is lost in the current conversation is a clear and consistent baseline definition of value for higher education courses and credentials, along with the required accompanying evidence to support that value.

Until we have such a definition and a specification for required evidence, it is unlikely that we can achieve equity in higher education.

What’s Wrong With the Way Things Are?

“But wait a minute,” you might say. “Isn’t a college degree itself the consistent proof of value you’re talking about? Isn’t this the primary credential for proving knowledge or expertise and securing a career?”

Yes, degrees do currently serve this purpose and have since the late 60s and early 70s when most employers began using the college degree as the credential required for professional positions. The problem is that today’s degrees, beyond representing the required credit hours and courses, each with a set of high-level objectives, do not generally (and certainly not universally) provide any proof of what a student can actually do based on their work. They provide no truly measurable evidence of students’ competencies or skills. Furthermore, other than the common requirements imposed by their accrediting bodies, college degrees and courses offer no consistent set of baseline learning objectives to which we might align demonstrable evidence or proof of mastery.

The biggest challenge with the current model is that, without the demonstrable evidence of value based on what students know or can do aligned with a set of commonly defined outcomes, the current value of a college degree is determined almost entirely by public perception related to institution type and brand. That perception is driven by name and brand recognition, which is often simply historical hearsay and marketing dollars. Hence the popularity and importance of “top universities” publications.

According to common perception, for example, a course at a community college must be inferior to one at the state university, which is generally better than the same course offered by a regional public university. The same course might be different but equal if offered by a reputable private university and even better when delivered at an elite private university.

Is this perception accurate? Possibly, but there is really no way to say objectively, as there is no consistent definition or specification for demonstrable evidence for courses and degrees. Lacking that, colleges and universities have traditionally relied on employment and earnings data of their graduates to show that their education is good, better, or best.

The unfortunate consequence of this current model is that it creates a hierarchical system in higher education that prevents many from having equitable access to high-quality learning, at least by the current definition determined by perception and brand awareness.

What Do You Mean by “Demonstrable Equity”?

In the context of higher education, I use the term “demonstrable equity” to mean that everyone should have a fair chance to receive high-quality learning aligned to the same baseline outcomes and providing opportunities for demonstrating evidence of their learning success. This is especially true for general education courses and associate degrees, which form the foundational layer of higher education and the opportunity for higher learning.

Students taking the same course at a community college, a private elite university, and a regional public institution, should have an equal opportunity to learn the same baseline content defined by granular learning outcomes. Regardless of where they take it, students should leave the course with an equal opportunity to provide common forms of evidence as proof of the information that they have mastered and the skills and competencies they are developing. Moreover, equity means that all students taking foundational courses or pursuing associate degrees should have the opportunity to be evaluated equally by potential employers and other institutions based on demonstrable evidence of knowledge acquisition and the development of specific skills and competencies.

Demonstrable equity means more than affordability or access. It means that students taking the same course at different types of institutions with different brand values will leave with demonstrable evidence of their achievements. Because that evidence will be similar regardless of institution, it places successful students on equal footing.

What Would Demonstrable Equity Look Like for General Education Courses and Associate Degrees?

First and foremost, demonstrable equity requires a commitment by institutions to do six things:

  1. Design courses that identify granular course concepts
  2. Align each of those concepts to specific learning outcomes
  3. Create assessments and assignments that align to all learning outcomes
  4. Create proof-of-learning assignments that provide meaningful evidence of a student’s knowledge acquisition and skill development
  5. Provide learning-visibility to all students in the form of achievement related to knowledge goals and skills and competencies
  6. Give every student a mechanism for selecting examples of learning evidence for knowledge, skills, and competencies and to share that evidence with others

Such a commitment would allow students to take general education courses and earn an associate degree at any institution, regardless of the type or brand, with the understanding that they would have an equal opportunity to learn the same content, develop comparable skills and competencies, and provide comparable evidence of those achievements that could be easily recognized by others.

In other words, students would be assured of having an equitable opportunity to exit their course or degree learning experience with the same recognizable evidence as students at other institutions, regardless of the type or brand.

In a system focused on demonstrable equity, the focus is on the evidence of learning, student-owned and verified by the institution, as opposed to the inscrutable stamp of successful completion that is today’s transcript. The end result is that all students can begin on equal footing with a fair chance to compete in the professional world.

How Could We Get There?

To begin with, I am not suggesting that every institution should necessarily have the same set of evidence aligned to common course concepts and learning outcomes. What I am saying is that they should all have a clear set of criteria for demonstrable knowledge and skills that lead to concrete, sharable evidence that students own and can share with potential employers. I am also suggesting that, at least for general education courses and associate degrees, institutions should align their evidence, at a minimum, to a basic set of 50-60 concepts and specific learning outcomes.

This should be the goal of higher learning in the 21st century.

This work begins with curriculum design, shifting the center of gravity in courses away from the traditional instructor toward a greater emphasis on knowledge proficiency, skills, and competencies.

The curriculum-design process involves creating assessments and mastery assignments that provide measurable and meaningful evidence that students have attained specified levels of mastery. Assessments and assignments must be aligned to specific competencies and proficiency levels, and all human graded assignments must be rubric-based to ensure fairness and consistency in proficiency evaluation.

In this model, curriculum outcomes and the skills and competencies they comprise are associated with performance badges and certificates with supporting evidence from student coursework. Students can still receive traditional grades based on proficiency achievement, but the ultimate focus is on measurable proficiency supported by multiple forms of evidence.

Instruction is not less important in a demonstrable-equity model but its function does shift. The baseline outcomes for general education and associate-degree courses become less elastic and the role of instructors is less about disseminating information than guiding students to information and skill proficiency.

Is this really achievable? The work by non-profit organizations such as Khan Academy and TEL Education shows that this can and is being done. And, with COVID-19, many institutions are realizing the need to reinvent themselves in order to remain relevant in the coming years.

My hope is that the current confluence of events and reflection across higher education will lead to an intentional focus on demonstrable equity. I believe it is the only way we can provide truly equitable education at the college level.


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