When adults decide to look for a college program to meet their educational needs, do they have access to information essential to making informed decisions? Can they find out exactly what they will be expected to do, what they will learn and be able to do after completing a program? Can their employers?
Until now, the answer has been “not really.” But a move to provide just that kind of information is causing a refreshing disruption in the way colleges behave and interact with adult students and their employers.
Adult students — today’s workforce — know what they want from higher education. They seek important new skills, perspectives and knowledge. They want to become better, more valuable employees with greater earning potential and career opportunities.
Those employers that use tuition reimbursement strategically want higher education programs that develop their employees’ critical skills and competencies. They want employees who can think and communicate effectively, demonstrate proficiency and flexibility, and provide leadership for their areas of responsibility.
You would expect institutions to provide ready access to information about higher education programs and the learning outcomes they produce. But they do not. Institutions often do not articulate intended learning outcomes at a program level, how the learning outcomes are measured, results of those measurements and what graduates and their employers think about a program’s impact.
This is changing, however, thanks to an initiative to provide program-level learning-outcomes information online. And adult students and employers should welcome the new clarity and accountability.
Changing the Way Higher Education Behaves
A cadre of colleges and universities is piloting Transparency by Design, which calls for program-level learning outcomes to be declared, measured and reported in understandable terms.
Defining program-level learning outcomes is a change in itself. It requires an end-to-end view of a program. It requires a conceptual shift from curriculum as a collection of courses to curriculum as a strategic educational map that shows how and when developmental competencies are delivered so students achieve and are assessed on higher-order, summative program-learning outcomes.
Other key changes are necessitated with this approach. Institutions must work with employers to identify and shape the learning outcomes employers need and value. Once program outcomes are identified, the program is built backward to incorporate competencies leading to the outcomes. Courses are analyzed for what they contribute to the program outcomes. The faculty shifts from drawing in courses they prefer to identifying necessary competencies to achieve program outcomes. The result is a program map detailing specific learning activities, competencies mastered at each step of the program and how the program builds to the desired learning outcomes. The impact of the program on graduates’ work and careers is assessed.
Benefits of Outcomes Transparency
This initiative offers compelling benefits. The published outcomes provide prospective adult students with important information about colleges and universities. Students decide if the institution’s declared outcomes match what they and their employers deem necessary for success. Students know up-front what is expected, track milestone achievements and progress toward completion. They build their learning portfolio as they progress and inform their employers of new knowledge and skills they acquire along the way.
Learning-outcomes transparency enables continuous quality improvement for participating colleges and universities. They see where students excel and where the curriculum needs strengthening. This helps them develop stronger programs that in turn better equip adult students with the skills, knowledge and abilities for work and career success.
The intent of Transparency by Design is to provide the consumers of higher education — students and employers — with information essential to making informed decisions. In turn, the push for learning-outcomes transparency is sparking a disruption in the world of academia. This can help assure continuous quality improvement, rational program development and accountability for what colleges and universities deliver.
Once we have a few years experience with this approach, greater change may be possible. This approach may free us to package, deliver and respond to student and employer needs in new ways.
In the meantime, simply being more transparent and accountable is a good start.
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