volume 43, number 5
Temple UniversityFaculty Herald



Competencies and their Discontents
—By Steve Newman, Editor



  Given the tidal wave of stories, puff-pieces, jeremiads and just plain chatter, we might be inclined to dub Academic Year 2012-13 The Year of the MOOC. (For those unplugged from the media, MOOC stands for Massive Online Open Course, a course delivered by computer in which a star professor lectures to many thousands of students she never meets and whose work he never sees.) I guess it’s propitious that this is also the year on the East Coast when the cicadas of Brood II emerge from the ground after 17 years gnawing on tree roots and assault our ears with their songs as they mate and die. Yet while cicadas are harmless (if noisy and a bit frightening to look at), MOOCs actually do represent a threat that probably outweigh their benefits, as Dan O’Hara and others suggest. While they may be useful supplements to real courses, there is reason to worry that those with visions of Economies of Scale and Education on the Cheap dancing in their heads will pursue them at the expense of real teaching and learning. It is good to see the faculty at Duke, Amherst, San Jose State, and other places raise fair questions about this delivery system—especially San Jose State, since it, like Temple, is among the hoi polloi who are the real market for these courses provided by our better-off relatives. 

   Yet although MOOCs may be a significant force in higher ed in the years to come, I suggest that this year would be better-named The Year of Competencies. Not as catchy, I know, nor gleaming with the be-still-my-heart virtual ‘presence’ of faculty from Stanford, Harvard, and MIT. But I would suggest that the emergence of MOOCs is predicated upon a broader and more consequential movement to evaluate students on the basis of competencies—the knowledges and skills that they can demonstrate. For a competencies-based version of education is in principle indifferent to whether a student meets the standard by way of courses designed, taught, and evaluated by faculty or MOOCs or more typical online courses or self-directed study at the Philadelphia Free Library. That is, this model sees no particular value in what the great majority of us do.

   Of course, a competencies-based approach has been with us for decades. What’s changed during this past year is the acceptance it’s gained from the institutions that regulate higher education. Following President Obama’s State of the Union, which devoted a couple sentences to the need to address the soaring cost of higher education, the Department of Education sent out a letter that opened the door for competency-based programs to be eligible for financial aid. Prior to this, it had been restricted to those who followed the century-old credit-hour model. Accrediting agencies have also started to approve these courses. Meanwhile, heavy-hitters in educational “reform,” the Gates and Lumina Foundations, are funding competency-based programs.1 And so we now have College for America, an offshoot of Southern New Hampshire University, which will offer an associate’s degree in general studies in which students will show mastery of 120 competencies divided up into “20 distinct ‘task families,’ which are then divided into three task levels.”2 Here’s an example of how they are to show mastery:

[S]tudents are asked to study potential works of art for a museum exhibit about the changing portrayal of human bodies throughout history. To guide the students, Southern New Hampshire points them to a series of free online resources, such as “Smarthistory” videos presented by Khan Academy. Students must summarize what they’ve found by creating a PowerPoint presentation that could be delivered to a museum director.

Completed tasks are shipped out for evaluation to a pool of part-time adjunct professors, who quickly assess the work and help students understand what they need to do to improve. Southern New Hampshire also assigns “coaches” to students to help them establish their goals and pace.3


I have visited “Smarthistory,” and it is indeed a very impressive site, overseen by two academics who have held positions at MOMA and The Pratt Institute and who have solicited contributions from experts in a range of fields. But “the body in art” is not a topic to be found among its intelligent essays and videos. And thus I’m not so sure that without an instructor to guide them through a thoughtfully-selected set of materials the great majority of working adults pursuing an associate’s degree would be able to “summarize what they’ve found” about a topic as vast and complex as “changing portrayals of the human body” in a way that would demonstrate much learning. Like me, you also may have blanched at “shipped out for evaluation to a pool of part-time adjunct professors.” Not because, as Paul LaFollette takes pains to remark in his column on undergraduate education, adjuncts are not good, dedicated teachers. But because their conditions of employment make it less likely that they’ll have the time to offer the most productive feedback.

   This is part of what comes with “unbundling the faculty role,” to use an ugly recent coinage. It appears to be a point of pride among competency-based programs that they separate those 1) who design the course from 2) the “coaches” who answer questions from students as they wend their way through it from 3) those who evaluate the students. This, they say, ensures objectivity. This is what allows what its backers to revealingly call it “direct assessment”—no pointless mediation by those people we call faculty. Yet while we may agree that properly-trained outsiders should be able to gauge what our students have learned, is there no role for the more context-rich forms of evaluation that depend on being close to a course as the teacher of a particular course, even if you then grade portfolios from across sections, as our First Year Writing Program does? Then there is the question of how much time will be spent and by whom evaluating students when these competency-based projects ramp up to their wished-for scale. Right now, College for America is a small enterprise—only a few hundred students who must be employees of the college’s corporate and government partners; but the president’s goal is to enroll 350,000 students by 2018.4 The question is as its numbers swell whether it can maintain even its current minimal standards of assessment (including productive feedback). For a sense of this, we could turn to Western Governors University (30000 and counting) or PennFoster, whose less-than-reassuring way of assessing their very inexpensive courses I mentioned in my first column.

   WGU is also useful as a model of the larger vision of public higher ed that attracts at least some of the boosters of competency-based education. This private university is opening branch campuses in Missouri and Tennessee, with the former definitely and the latter possibly receiving significant state funding.5 Meanwhile, in the past five years, Missouri has cut state funding per student by 29.7%, Tennessee by 30.1%.6 We might shrug our shoulders and say that WGU has simply found a better way to reach students who otherwise would not be reached. But while there is no doubting that there are millions of people in the United States who want higher education but for various reasons do not end up earning degrees, I am skeptical that programs tied to the rise of “competencies” will be able to educate these students in ways that will adequately benefit them as workers or citizens or people.

   But skepticism alone will not suffice, and we cannot responsibly write off competencies as a way to measure our students’ learning. This is not only because of the practical matter that competency-based education is almost certain to extend its reach. Northern Arizona University and the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, an urban research university not too unlike Temple, are among those getting into the competencies market. But we must also engage with competencies because it is fair and right to demand that we be explicit and thoughtful about what our students are learning to do in our courses. We have made ourselves vulnerable by teaching in ways insufficiently attentive to these questions. ( I would also note that the students currently targeted most by this approach are the adult learners that Temple once understood—still understands?— as being crucial to its Conwellian mission.)

   Competencies are already a central matter in departments and schools that must gain accreditation from professional bodies, such as engineering, business, and nursing, as Pamela Barnett of the Teaching and Learning Center reminded me in a recent discussion. I assume every other department has lists of competencies left over from the most recent accreditation of Temple as a whole, even if they’re now moldering in forgotten files. Whatever shape they’re in, though, there is much work to be done in making those competencies real for our students and ourselves. It will require that we talk with each other in departments and across departments and ranks and tracks, none of which will be easy. Some of this already happens at Temple, but all too rarely in my experience.

   To help make it happen, we should seek out places at Temple where our colleagues have already given this a fair bit of thought. General Education springs to mind. As my interview with Provost Dai makes clear, we are in the midst of a close look at Gen Ed. Whatever emerges from that discussion—and I hope and trust it will be a transparent one driven significantly by the faculty—Gen Ed has been ahead of the curve in articulating the competencies it aims to foster.7 I believe the faculty as a whole would learn much from thinking about how these competencies speak to the ones we are trying to teach in our majors and upper-level electives, a question I plan to keep in mind as I look toward my own courses and the curricular discussions in my department. Of course, The Teaching and Learning Center is another place for doing this kind of work. Its staff, including its Faculty Fellows, can help us think through what our students know coming in, what we wish them to learn, and how we can bridge that gap. We might also look to work done with specific student populations, such as international students and the thousands of transfers we enroll each year. Finally, we might look to our colleagues in the College of Education, for they have for decades had to tangle with competency-based instruction and its cognates—the latest of them being the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which is almost certain to alter the education of our future students. Recently, Profs. Stephen Gross and Joan Shapiro tried to bring me up to speed on the current state of play in K-12 education; the organization they founded, the New DEEL (Democratic Ethical Educational Leadership), is asking hard questions about a version of education that stakes everything on tests of dubious value. It is also offering alternatives. To paraphrase Prof. Gross, we need to seek “competency” in a holistic way, not just “competencies” morselized into a set of boxes to be ticked off by a series of exams.

   Public-school teachers aren’t averse to “accountability” but rather to the impoverishing ideas smuggled in under its name. Similarly, we should show that we are willing to embrace “competencies” if it includes a serious discussion about the purposes of a university education and entertains the idea that faculty have a central role in it. Consider the Degree Qualifications Profile. It seems nuanced and rightly pluralist and liberal in its categories, including “broad, integrative knowledge, specialized knowledge,” and, an idea so often overlooked in competencies discourse, “civic learning and engagement.” But we are warned by one of the people who drafted these guidelines, the president of the liberal arts-defending American Association of Colleges and Universities, that this standard is nowhere near ready.8 My fear is that while this model moves toward maturity, those who are pushing competencies of a less-substantive but more ‘efficient’ type will triumph.

   It is a dispiriting fact that many of these matters are beyond our control. They are in the hands of state legislators, foundations, and other disruptive agents most of whom don’t care a rip about the views of faculty. And yet, as President Theobald recently averred, “Faculty are in charge of the curriculum.” If it is to remain so, we need to do a better job of articulating what our students learn in our courses individually and as part of a curriculum. We need to fight our reflex to dismiss such talk as the imposition of outsiders who don’t understand education. This isn’t to say that we don’t need to fight for our autonomy as instructors; I don’t want anyone dictating to me what I must teach, either—again, see the sobering experience of our colleagues in K-12 as they have been forced to teach to test after test. But without taking seriously that some of the things that we teach can be specified and even measured, however subtle and dynamic those instruments must be, we will stand little chance of resisting the worst parts of the standard-izing tide. We will stand no chance of persuading the folks we need to persuade that there may actually be things that cannot be measured at the end of a term or even at the end of an undergraduate or graduate program. If we continue to put our fingers in our ears and shout “I can’t hear you” when someone says “competencies,” we abandon the field to Western Governors, Southern New Hampshire, and their ilk. And that would be a tragedy for us, for our students, and, to risk grandiosity, for our society. It would also be incompetent. •


¹ Libby A. Nelson, “A New Accredtation System?” Inside Higher Ed (14 February 2013). Web.

² Paul Fain, “A Disruption Grows Up?” Inside Higher Ed (1 October 2012). Web.

3 Marc Parry, “Competency-Based Education Advances with U. S. Approval of Program,” Chronicle of Higher Education (April 18, 2013). Web.



4 Paul Fain, “Competency-based Education’s Newest Form Creates Promises and Questions,” Inside Higher Ed (22 April 2013). Web.

5 Paul Fain, “The Rise of Customized Learning,” Inside Higher Ed (5 March 2013). Web.

6 Phil Oliff, Vincent Palacios, Ingrid Johnson, and Michael Leachman, “Recent Deep State Higher Education Cuts May Harm Students and the Economy for Years to Come,” http://www.cbpp.org/files/3-19-13sfp.pdf.

7 See http://gened.temple.edu/faculty/assessment/program-of-general-education-self-study/

8 Carol Geary Schneider, “Is It Finally Time To Kill The Credit Hour?” http://www.aacu.org/liberaleducation/le-fa12/president.cfm.