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Opinion: Answering the value question in higher education


According to an assessment solution expert, assessment solutions alone are not the silver bullets to determine the value of higher education.

assessment-value-educationIn the years that I have stood at the helm of Chalk & Wire (now nearly 20) I have never experienced such a consistent demand for assessment systems for cross-campus use. Clearly, leaders feel compelled to address the “value” question in Higher Education as never before.

This clearly constitutes a “trend” in 2014-2015 if there ever was one.

Institutional leaders have apparently lost faith in traditional indirect measures that led to a holistic sense of satisfaction among students and alumni. Alternatively, they have experienced a dissatisfied accrediting agency demanding direct measures of learning outcomes; and suddenly found the conventional award of a 10-year reaffirmation reduced to the now common five. Some tell me they are required to post annual reports that address the shortcomings cited and nearly all have to do with assessment.

The question is: Will buying an assessment system successfully address the value agenda? From experience, I can safely say, no.

If campus leaders follow the trend only as far as the invoice for the new software then they will have missed the real trend.

Some of our higher education clients tell us that we are their third assessment system in less than five years. Software is obviously not the silver bullet. Assessment cannot be fixed by spending more money on IT and technology alone.

If the campus staff and assessment leaders just replicate the usual measures in the shiny new system, they will get the same inconclusive evidence that plagues them now, albeit displayed in pretty dashboards and well-designed graphs that are all the rage in the age of big data.

To get at the real value agenda, the trend must be to jettison the “satisfaction” data baggage and to aggressively look for new sources of information.

(Next page: How to get the real value agenda)

For this trend to yield fruit, leadership must find someone who can tell them how to design a customized, systematic approach to the direct measurement of student learning outcomes. Academic leads must get help to make sense out of incomprehensibly expressed standards to get outcomes that measure one thing at a time, such that observers will agree on what they are observing in student demonstrations of learning.

Only this can result in assessment instruments that measure what they say they do; in other words, only this will generate raw data that will be valid. Without validity the entire endeavor is a complete waste of time and money.

Leadership and faculty must then engage in another new behavior: Reframing how outcomes and assessment fit in day-to-day instruction on a campus. Faculty must discuss the ownership of meaningful outcomes. For those outcomes that reside in their discipline, where is the best place for faculty to collectively measure students over time in not just their discipline or program but also across disciplines? This demands mapping a coherent plan and matrix for assessing student skill, knowledge and dispositions as a result of their complete experience on campus over time.

The only cultural adjustment required of faculty is that they lose the course-centric view of teaching and find a new visual that has them as part of a team of experts who will challenge students in different contexts to show their progress on a shared set of well understood outcomes. No one should care how well a single instructor is teaching an outcome in one course. The issue is how well is the outcome addressed across the curriculum, across many courses, across the campus over time.

Put another way, schools of higher education must embrace the axiom that it really does take a whole village to raise a child.

To address value, schools must show how they have collectively and systematically taken responsibility for keeping track of student progress, and also how they have used valid data to drive adjustments. Right now, most students just know what grade they have received, not what they need to do to improve.

Sharing comments about student work in relation to revealed patterns on learning and discussing how to fix common misunderstandings is a collective, cultural act. It is the act that will transform higher education and will make the assessment trend turn into something useful.

Geoff Irvine is founder and CEO of Chalk & Wire.

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