Assessment techniques in higher education are ripe for innovation

Assessment techniques in higher education are ripe for innovation, having not changed much in the past hundred years. As students pay more for their education they are going to want much clearer evidence of what they have achieved.

An article published this week in The Australian’s Higher Education supplement supports this view.


Listen up Mr Abbott and Mr Obama!

This recent article in the Times Higher Education Supplement is very supportive of our mission at Acavista. It mentions how new teaching and learning innovations offer the possibility to help resolve the challenges that are confronting the higher education sector globally, as well as catering to students needs for flexibility. It quite rightly points out that the debate is stymied by how much higher education should cost, who should bear the cost, and how those costs should be managed. Of course, they are important issues, but as the author indicates, we need to think beyond the limits of traditional learning.

What are Rudd and Abbott’s plans for higher education in Australia?

Last week it was announced that Kim Carr has been given the higher education portfolio in the new Rudd government. Carr stated that his first task was to deal with the university sector’s funding cuts which are being used to implement the Gonski reforms to school funding. One way in which this may be achieved is to change the demand-driven system that has seen an extra 190,000 students pursuing undergraduate courses in Australia. Although Carr acknowledges that this has enabled more students from low socio-economic backgrounds to enrol in a degree, he is concerned about ensuring quality and excellence in the Australian higher education system.

Andrew Norton responded with a piece in The Conversation stating that a re-capping of the system will ration places on the basis of prior academic ability, and will disproportionately effect lower socio-economic groups. This outcome seems in contradiction to traditional labour party values of course, and the Gillard government’s goal of 40% of all 25 to 34 year olds having a Bachelor level or above qualification by 2025. But what is also problematic about Carr’s assertion is that the higher education system in Australia cannot expand in order to meet demand without compromising on quality.

The Australian government isn’t alone in facing this problem. In the UK, tuition fees have been increased substantially whilst teaching budgets have been cut, and government funding has been shifted to prioritising research. The US higher education system is also embroiled in debates about the rising cost of tuition fees and student debt levels reaching $1 trillion.

Martin Weller indicates in a recent article in The Conversation, that some of the current enthusiasm for MOOCs is a reaction to the crisis in higher education funding. People both within academia and outside of it (‘edupreneurs’ if you like) are trying to think of different ways of resolving this global problem. Audrey Watters and some other well known advocates of higher education, have recently convened a Bill of Rights and Principles for students to assert their needs and rights in a digital world. As she states, ‘We believe that online learning represents a powerful and potentially awe-inspiring opportunity to make new forms of learning available to all students worldwide, whether young or old, learning for credit, self-improvement, employment, or just pleasure. We believe that online courses can create “meaningful” as well as “massive” learning opportunities’. Online learning is certainly one way of scaling higher education if done properly.

Finally, back to the current state of higher education policy in Australia. What are Tony Abbott’s plans for the higher education system exactly? In all the leadership turmoil in the Labour party it’s been difficult to find out more about this, and the Liberal Party haven’t been very happy to oblige with further policy details. At his address to the Universities Australia conference in March he raised various points, including a focus on online learning as a way of both reducing the cost of provision, adding value and widening access for students. He also announced a new Coalition working group chaired by Alan Tudge. But that’s about all that we know so far.

Higher education, debt and false dreams

It’s been hard not to pick up the Wall Street Journal in recent months, and not see an article about the the spiralling cost of higher education to students in the US and the increase in defaults on student loans. Outstanding federal and private student-loan debt is approaching $1 trillion in the US. Student loans are now the second largest form of household debt, surpassing credit cards and car loans. The White House is now proposing to forgive billions of dollars in student debt over the next decade.

Although this sounds like a promising proposal for those riddled with education loan debts, it’s clear that many students have been encouraged to borrow too much money, with the expectation that such an investment will lead to longer term salary gains. In fact recent research by economics cautions that a university degree is no guarantee of promising employment. Unfortunately many students are being sold a false dream.

Many of those burdened with loan debts are mature students who are led to believe that by paying a great deal of money to attend a university that the benefits of a degree will ensure their economic success. These mature students are often working full-time and have family commitments so it’s not surprising that not all of them complete their degrees. This leaves them with mounting debts and no qualification to show for it. A report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education shows that just 56 percent of college students complete four-year degrees within six years. The US also finished last (46 percent) for the percentage of students who completed college once they commenced, of 18 countries tracked by the OECD.

So it comes as no surprise to learn that people are looking at alternative ways of gaining a higher education without getting saddled with long-term debt. Some of these initiatives are coming from young people such as Dale Stephens, a Thiel Fellow and proud high school drop out who founded UnCollege, which assists students with designing their own educational paths. MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) are also being used for self-directed learning. The challenge of certification for this form of learning still remains however. This is something that the team at Acavista are committed to finding solutions for.

The traditional university student is changing

The higher education system has remained virtually unchanged for the past 1,000 years. At Acavista, we know that is all about to change. We aim to provide a solution to students and employers that meets their needs for more flexible higher education in a sector that has pre-dominantly offered a one-size-fits-all solution. We’re doing this by unbundling the teaching and learning so that students may choose how and when they learn, and how much they spend on learning (outside of Acavista) for their courses.
The higher education system is evolving quite rapidly at the moment. Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs as they are known) are getting a lot of attention. David Staley, Director of the Harvey Goldberg Center at Ohio State University speculates that MOOCs are helping to fulfill some of the needs of a growing segment of learners. He refers to these individuals as ‘autonomous learners’ who are a critical part of the emerging model of autonomous learning, where learners choose the courses that best fit a learning profile that they have devised. Autonomous learners work through courses at their own pace, and at a price they can afford. Acavista was devised with these sorts or learners in mind.
There is still a perception that the typical university student is straight from school and studying full-time whilst living at home. What in actual fact is happening is that the growth in the adult learner market is twice as great (42%) as the “traditional” student market (27%). If we look at the typical adult learner more closely, we find that in the US they are on average 38.8 years of age, have an average annual household income of of approximately $76k and are employed full-time. A majority are married, and one third have dependent children younger than 18 years of age living at home.
It is this group of students, the new “traditional” student that are inspiring many to think about ways of better servicing these students needs. Although it would be wrong to assume that autonomous learners are all adult learners, there is certainly a great deal of overlap. Our interviews with adult learners in the Australian market have validated our hypotheses that the current education system is not providing the flexibility which these students need, either to get started or to complete a degree course.

Acavista and the next stage of competency-based learning

It’s an exciting time to be in the higher education and ed tech space. The rules are literally being rewritten, as we speak. The US is very much at the forefront of these developments, and although Acavista is head-quartered in Australia, we’re certainly not prepared to sit on the sidelines and wait and see what happens.

The start of 2013 saw Barack Obama raising the issue of university accreditation in his State of the Union Address to Congress. In the Domestic Policy Blueprint that accompanied the speech he called for major changes to the nation’s system of accreditation. This development could provide a pathway for federal financial aid for competency-based learning, MOOCs and other innovations. He has called on Congress to either require existing accreditors to take value and quality into account, or to create a new alternative system of accreditation that would bypass the old gatekeepers.

The “credit hour” has been higher education’s gold standard. Not many people realise that the credit hour was devised by Andrew Carnegie in 1906 because he wanted to create a free pension plan for underpaid professors, enabling them to retire at a reasonable age. The “Carnegie Unit” was intended to be used to measure how much time students spent in each subject, as admissions to colleges were growing. It was never intended to be used to measure student learning, and there were concerns about it being misappropriated for this use shortly after it was introduced. All of this however, has remained unchanged, up until now.

In March 2013, the US Department of Education endorsed competency-based education, which some commentators have suggested could be a game changer for adult students, more so than the current hype around MOOCs. This signals a move away from the credit hour to measure student learning, to a focus on the achievement of competencies. It is suggested that competency-based education makes a degree more valuable since potential employers understand what students should be able to do (as spelled out in competencies) and the extent to which they can actually do it (their performance on assessments). In recent years, there has been a big expansion in universities offering competency-based offerings to working adults. For example, Western Governor’s University (WGU) has seen continued growth in it’s competency-based programs. Students at WGU on average complete their degree in 30 months with a total tuition of about US $17,000. This compares with the US $56,000 to state and student for four years at a public regional university in the US.

“Direct assessment” academic programs are regarded as the next step for competency-based assessment. This is because, unlike traditional academic programs, they are untethered from both course material and the credit hour standard (which links the awarding of academic credit to the hours of contact between academic staff and students).

According to Paul Fain, in the US the Lumina Foundation, the U.S Department of Education, State higher education agencies and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are currently in negotiations about how this new model of “direct assessment” for academic programs might evolve further. Several institutions in the US are experimenting with online programs in direct assessment, with Southern New Hampshire University and Capella University being notable examples.

Acavista aims to be at the forefront of offering “direct assessment” programs, starting initially in the Australian market, but ultimately with global reach. For example, enabling students in developing countries who want to obtain a degree qualification to do so. Acavista is aiming to be the institution of choice for students wanting ultimate flexibility in their higher education experience. Like our tagline says, it’ll be the place where they come to “Choose a course. Get assessed. Get recognised!”