On this site you'll find an ongoing blog about media arts education and the challenges facing higher education and higer education in the arts. I invite you to share insights, questions, concerns, and information you find compelling.

  • Co-creating Competencies: A Service-centered Model for Higher Education

    August 26, 2014

    Rob Sabal and Robert Lusch, University of Arizona

    Traditional colleges and universities are confronting challenges unlike any other time in their history.  The situation has been widely reported: the cost of a college degree continues to rise faster than inflation or median family income; to pay for college, students are taking on enormous debt; the job prospects for many college graduates is, at best, uncertain; and lower-cost alternative providers are pulling students away from traditional institutions.  A 2012 NACUBO report documents enrollment declines at 45% of the 383 private non-profit institutions that it surveyed.

    Government and industry leaders are calling on colleges and universities to be both more affordable and more accessible to a wider range of the population; to graduate a higher percentage of their incoming students; and to better educate and prepare the students that do graduate.  A college education has always been expected to fuel social mobility, but lately, it is reproducing class divisions and income inequality; there is consensus that this has to change.

    In order for colleges and universities to thrive, not just survive, they need to embrace a service-centered model of higher education.  This service-centered model embraces many new realities that currently bedevil traditional institutions: that there are now more “non-traditional” students attending college than 18 to 23 years olds; that life-long learning is essential for employment in a post-industrial economy; that information, knowledge, and educational material is abundant and easily accessible, unbound by time and place constraints; and that students and their families are more pragmatic than in the past—wanting assurances that a college degree will lead to better employment prospects that will not only offset debt but will also lead to a more comfortable and meaningful life.

    For more than a century, colleges and universities have relied on an industrial model of higher education.  The industrial model conceives of students as raw material to be shaped and honed.  It requires students to be taught: people of a particular age, come to a specific place, are present for a specific amount of time, and check off a certain set of requirements.  The process is analogous to an auto assembly line.  The degree certifies the completion of the program; getting to the end of the line—not the learning or the educational attainment—is what it’s all about.  Traditional higher education is an output-oriented system that conceives of a student as a product of the university.  Just as car companies identify their output by model year, i.e., a 2013 Chevy Volt, higher education brands students by graduating class.  This spring, all across the country, colleges and universities launched the class of 2013.

    The service model conceives of students as co-creators of their education.  As people in the process of self-definition and development, students seek knowledge, skills, and abilities.  They undertake this learning both to satisfy curiosity and to prepare for the workplace and a meaningful life.  Co-creation is made more possible because knowledge and information is no longer confined to books, journal publications, or face-to-face interaction but is widely distributed and easily accessible in text, image, and graphic forms to those with access to computers or mobile devices.

    Students who have access to the Internet live in a world of abundant information, obtainable whenever and wherever they need it.  Beyond Wikkipedia and other educational sites, there is ready access to free or low-cost lessons, tutorials, and courses on Youtube, Lynda.com, Coursera, edX, Khan Academy, and Udemy.  All indications suggest that this explosion of learning and information sites will grow exponentially in the forthcoming decades.

    The incremental shift from teaching to learning underway in higher education is a move toward a co-creation model.  To embrace this change, colleges should adopt project-based and problem-based modes of investigation.  Rote and fragmented “just in case” learning is replaced by “just in time” learning, as students discover what they need to know and immediately apply it to a problem or project.  In this model, the university values real and consequential work as a mode of learning.  Students experience the full value of the their education as they are confronted with the same kinds of tasks and expectations that they might find in a workplace and in other aspects of their lived experience.  “Value-in-use” relies on the co-creation process as contrasted to the old dominant paradigm, “value-in-exchange,” where one party pays and the other party provides.

    Ideally, the co-creation model swaps standard length courses with a variety of labs—faculty initiated scholarship that can involve students at any level.  Teams of students in sciences, social sciences, humanities, art and design, engineering, business, law, and communications collaborate on product development, business formation, community services, creative projects, or policy research.  Framing questions, analyzing problems, conducting research, integrating information, collaborating on tasks, testing solutions, developing technical skills, writing, speaking and incorporating feedback are competencies that can be developed through applied project-based and problem-based education.  As students progress in their skills and abilities they can contribute to teams that focus on intractable problems that increasingly characterize the world they live in.  It is exciting to imagine teams of students researching and developing innovative approaches to some aspect of clean water access, housing, energy conservation and alternatives, public health issues, environmental concerns, hunger, or one of the many other problems that we confront.

    Shifting from degree completion based on outputs (courses) to competencies will be a difficult transition for colleges and universities.  The entire business model rests on the course/credit-hour structure.  Yet a new approach is critically important as employers (and soon students and parents) care less about a college degree and more about the demonstrable skills and abilities gained through the college experience.  Employers increasingly seek “T-shaped” graduates, those who combine a broad range of knowledge with depth in a particular skill-set.  Certifying competencies in critical thinking, critical analysis of texts, creative problem solving, writing, speaking, systems thinking and collaborating, instead of simply time spent in the classroom, will make the case for the value of a college degree.

    Here’s how it might work. The college determines the skills and abilities it wishes student to develop and the level of skill and ability it expects students to demonstrate in order to earn a degree.  There is a base level for every competency and more advanced levels for particular areas of specialization.  Every entering student is assessed and his/her ability level is determined: beginner, apprentice, proficient, expert, or master.

    The college offers a number of labs every year and posts positions that are available for students and the level that is required to participate.  A student chooses a lab and is placed in a role commensurate with his/her qualifications, regardless of age or class rank.  Each student would have learning objectives that s/he would pursue during the project.  At any time a student could test to see if his/her level had improved sufficiently to advance to a new role on the same or another project.  At the end of the project, teams would undergo a thorough review based on the studio review and critique process that has been successfully employed for years at art, design, architecture, and some engineering schools.

    Of course, opportunities would have to exist for individual students to undertake their own in-depth research or to sole author a work of creative writing, art or scholarship.  Depending on the mission and focus of the institution this might be reserved for work at the highest and most specialized levels.

    One of the advantages of competency-based assessment is the opportunity for students to show tangible accomplishment along the road to mastery.  Colleges should adopt Mozilla’s “badge” initiative so that students get real credentials on their path toward a degree.  While it is difficult to generalize because of the way students are tracked, it is fair to say that at least 30% of first time, full time, undergraduate students start but don’t complete the requirements for a college degree.  Many of these students leave college with enormous debt but without the higher earning potential the degree affords.  Colleges would better serve students by offering badges—emblems of certified skills and abilities—something that a student could promote to a prospective employer.

    Badges for skills and competencies could form a higher education currency that would allow a student to co-create his or her education across a range of institutions.  Some badges would be awarded from industry training programs or for public-service work.  Graduate schools might use badges to help shape their entering class.  One could imagine that some of the most sought after graduates may be those with badges from a broad range of institutions: a local community college, summer employment and training programs, a state college, and perhaps from a global research universities such as Stanford and Cambridge.

    Taken together, this vision of a college or university fundamentally changes the population the institution might serve.  Anyone at any age or any stage of learning would be welcome.  A person could enroll in order to develop one set of skills or many.  They could work mostly at their own pace.  They could demonstrate achievement by the badges they earn along the way.  Their relationship to the institution could continue over the whole of a person’s lifetime, addressing changing needs and interests through the course of several careers.

    As institutions re-imagine themselves as “learning service providers,” they could diversify offerings to include both virtual and place-based (but not necessarily on-campus) workshops, seminars, simulations, boot camps, peer-to-peer forums, think tanks, and mentor networks.  They could also see themselves as part of a learning ecosystem as they collaborate with other institutions in offering both project and problem based labs and badges for competencies.   As online educational content proliferates and services disaggregate, colleges could become “education guides,” helping students create unique pathways that bundle educational services from MOOCs, online courses, workshops, traditional courses, and competency based instruction.  Colleges and universities could offer testing and certification—verifying that the student had completed the work and attesting to the skills and abilities that the certificate represents.

    College and Universities would no longer use selectivity as an imprimatur of quality.  An institution’s reputation would be based on how much the college or university experience contributed to the students’ competence.  Everyone should question the value of the education at an institution where a student enters and exits at the same level of competence, even if it is an expert level.  Learning gains would have to become the new measure of institutional quality.

    Traditional college and universities are in the best position to serve the higher education needs of students across the country, but not without dramatic structural and pedagogical changes—and soon.  By embracing a service model, colleges and universities shift their emphasis from faculty research and teaching to faculty/student inquiry and learning.  Institutions that adopt a learning co-creation model as central to their mission will discover new ways to thrive in the world of educational abundance that we now inhabit.


  • A New Value Proposition for Higher Education

    June 12, 2013

    A New Value Proposition for Higher Education

    Part 1.

    There’s been flood of books and articles questioning the “value” of a college or university degree.  After all, costs are high, debt levels are up, and prospects for college graduates are, at best, uncertain.  In this environment alternatives sprout like mushrooms.  Theil fellowships encourage students to drop out and start a business.  Uncollege proposes alternatives for autodidacts who want to hack their way to the equivalent of a college degree.  William Bennett calls for vocational training as a more practical and less elitist route to the middle class. Straighter Line seeks to replace the first two years of college with a transferable online curriculum.

    Some of these alternatives seem to be taking hold. While demand for places at the country’s top schools remains strong, a recent NACUBO report notes that many smaller private colleges can’t fill their incoming classes.

    Clearly there is a social value of an educated and engaged citizenry.  Colleges and universities prepare leaders that will shape the direction of government, industry and culture.  Educated citizens solve problems that improve people’s lives, participate in public decision making that affect our communities, and promote innovation and change.  We all have a stake in having an educated citizenry.

    But the broader social value comes as the result of many individual decisions.  If we want people to continue to seek higher learning, it is critical for college and university leaders to understand how the relationship between students and their institutions are shifting.  They need to put themselves in the students’ shoes–students who understand the importance of college differently than those of us inside the institutions.

     So what does a student “get” from going to college?  College’s market the transformational experience that comes from exposure to passionate scholars asking big questions.  But most students and their families aren’t plunging into decades of debt for the transformational experience, even if that is the real and most noble outcome.  Colleges implicitly or explicitly assert that a student gains skills and abilities, immediate and long term opportunities for employment, and a network of alumni that can provide both social and professional connections.  To the student the value of a college degree is the certification that s/he has obtained these abilities, can perform in socially specified ways, and is entitled to affiliate with others from the same institution.

    For centuries the only way to get this certification was to physically come to a college or university.  Knowledge was a precious commodity, abundant only at colleges and universities and scarce everywhere else.  Despite public libraries, learned societies and public lectures, access to information was limited.  Unlike the ubiquitous public elementary school, college was for the few, not the many.  Not everyone had the mind, discipline, or desire that would allow them to succeed in college.  And prestigious colleges built their reputation on limiting access to this precious resource.  We still measure the quality of an academic institution by the number of applicants it rejects. Most Ivy League schools accept less than 10% of their applicants.  Scarcity of access validates the institution and the students who come there in a perverse self-reinforcing cycle.

    But scarcity isn’t only a function of prestige.  In public higher education it is often a question of capacity–there just aren’t enough classrooms and labs to hold all of the students who want to come to college.  And while we think of college life reserved for a particular age group, 18 to 24 year olds, of the 17 million students currently enrolled at a college or university, 15 million of them are considered, “non-traditional:” older, working, and often single parents.

    Amid the widespread calls for increasing the educational attainment of American citizens there simply isn’t enough room for everyone who wants a college degree.  The actual and perceived value of the degree, combined with the scarcity of access, is one reason why costs are so high.


    Check back for part two —  Challenging the traditional frame – from the industrial model to the service model


  • As The Credit Hour Goes, So Goes Higher Education

    December 27, 2012

    The sense of dynamic change in higher education is an illusion.  Most colleges and universities are engaged in the traditional practice of bringing students and faculty members together in class—a certain number of hours per class, per semester, over eight or so semesters, and the student earns a degree.

    For all the news reports about MOOC’s and online education most EdX or Coursera courses don’t come with college credit.  No credit, no degree.  And the degree is the thing.

    But new competency based degree programs are challenging the credit hour as the key currency of higher education.  If a school can award credit based on what a student learns, not on how long they study, then real alternative credentials will quickly follow.

    If the credit hour crumbles the value and worth of a BA degree might be next.   Students, educators, parents, employers, and the public might demand credentials that validate real learning as opposed to just doing time.

  • Raindance Film Festival Schedule for Passing Through

    September 27, 2012


    If you are anywhere near London why not take in the Raindance Film Festival screening of my short film, Passing Through?  It is screening with the feature film After School Midnighters on Friday, October 5, at 1:15 PM and Sunday, October 7, at 2:30 PM at the Apollo Cinema in Piccadilly Circus, 
19 Lower Regent Street,
SW1Y 4LR,  London.

    Check out: http://www.raindance.co.uk/site/festival or http://www.appollocinemas.com


  • UFVA and ACE

    August 27, 2012

    I’ve spent 15 days this August in Chicago—first at the University Film and Video Association conference and then at the American Council on Education Fellows retreat.

    The conference was truly excellent, with inspiring presentations in all media.  I’m pleased to report that my film Passing Through was recognized with the Award of Merit in the Experimental Film category at the Conference.

    I’ve spent the last five days at the ACE Fellows opening retreat.  The outstanding program allowed all of the Fellows to learn about strategic planning and budgeting and to apply this new knowledge to a simulated problem-solving case.  We visit a local University tomorrow and then it is back to Cambridge.


    July 26, 2012

    PASSING THROUGH has been accepted to two great festivals!  The film will have its London premiere as part of the Raindance Festival and will screen on the west coast as part of the Surplus/Lack exhibition.  Stay tuned for dates and times.  If you haven’t had a chance to catch the film at one of the five festivals it has played at already, and you won’t be in London in late September,  send me a note and I’ll send you the vimeo password.

  • New Online Study — A Few Oversights

    July 12, 2012

    A recent report from Ithaka S+R – Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities: Evidence from Randomized Trials is being hailed for its finding that students seem to learn about as much and about as well in blended online courses as they do in traditional classes.

    What the columns in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside HigherED didn’t report is that students liked the hybrid format less.  The report, “found that students gave the hybrid format a modestly lower overall rating than the one give by students taking the course in traditional format (the rating was about 11 percent lower)”.  The report goes on to say, “By similar margins, hybrid students reported feeling that they learned less and that they found the course material more difficult.”

    With the push toward “student centered” institutions, why adopt an approach that students like less if learning outcomes are the same?  And do we want our students coming out of introductory classes feeling disempowered or confident that they can master challenging new material?

    The answer might be that cost is going to trump student satisfaction – online courses might cost less, and in these times, the mission at many colleges is simply to keep the doors open and the lights on.





  • June 24, 2012

    Is Going to College Worth it?
    A US Treasury Department  press release points to a report that shows that it is, at least in economic terms.   But that really isn’t the question that most students and parents are asking; their question is, why is it so expensive, how can we pay, and does it make sense to take out huge loans to attend?

    A new report released today by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, with the U.S. Department of Education, examines the economic case for higher education.

    • There is substantial evidence that education raises earnings.  The median weekly earnings for a full-time, full-year bachelor’s degree holder in 2011 was 64 percent higher than those for a high school graduate ($1,053 compared to $638).
    • The earnings differential grew steadily through the 1980s and 1990s.  Recent evidence suggests that today’s earnings gap is the highest it has been since 1915, the earliest year for which there are estimates of the college wage gap.

    Higher education is important for intergenerational mobility.  Without a degree, children born to parents in the bottom income quintile have a 45 percent chance of remaining there as adults.  With a degree, they have less than a 20 percent chance of staying in the bottom quintile of the income distribution.

  • June 9, 2012

    By 2025 the Lumina Foundation wants to see 60% of Americans with college degrees—right now that figure is 40%.  Lumina is using its one-billion dollar endowment to fund research and programs that will increase the number of graduates by 23 million!  They suggest a 5% increase—about 150,000 graduates— each year between now and 2025.

    There are about 20 million students enrolled in the country’s colleges and universities.  And, according to the National Center for Education Statistics about 57% of students who start college for the first time in 2002 completed a degree program in six years.  So clearly, keeping students in school is one of the foundation’s main objectives.

    Beyond that, Lumina thinks higher education needs to increase overall access and affordability, target adult learners, appeal to first generation college prospects, and support traditionally underrepresented groups.

    How can the current higher education system meet this challenge?  It can’t.  Private residential colleges and universities aren’t going to throw open their doors and let in more students—their reputation is based on who and how many they exclude!  Funding cuts at public universities limit their capacity to take on additional students.

    If you support Lumina’s goal then the search is on for systems and approaches that will help 23 million more Americans enrich their lives through higher education.

    Read more about the foundation’s plan at:  http://www.luminafoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Lumina_Strategic_Plan.pdf




    April 12, 2012

    As President of the University Film and Video Association I attended the CILECT international Congress hosted by the South African School of Motion Picture Medium and Live Performance (AFDA) in Cape Town.  Aside from the business of the association, Professor Bata Passchier of AFDA and Professor Bruce Sheridan of Columbia College in Chicago lead extraordinary workshops on approaches to teaching collaboration.  In addition I learned about UBUNTU as a guiding principle of South African reconciliation.