Is that enough disruption for you?

Covid-19 is causing huge changes in higher education - that's probably all the disruption we need now, thinks Paul Greatrix.

There aren’t many positives emerging from the Coronavirus pandemic and the impact it has had on every aspect of our society but one tiny good thing must be that we will see a definitive end to those breathless think pieces all about what higher education really needed was a good shake up.

Yes, it was disruption we needed in order to do everything better than we currently do. Better still, disruption would mean that lots of other organisations, with some really neat and cutting edge ideas for how universities could be run better, would be able to step in and just do loads of new stuff which everyone would agree was better than the dull old universities knew how to do it. Oh yes, and make some money out of it too. Disruption is a win-win therefore, at least for the disruptors and the authors of the think pieces. That’s quite enough disruption talk. But no, here’s a last hurrah from the pro-disruption pre-Coronavirus days, and it involves yet another hideous new term.

I’ve written here before quite a few times about various curricular novelties including micro degrees and other micro offerings of one kind or another such as ‘pop-up courses’ at the University of Nebraska where students could take really short additional courses for credit. (Let us not forget either these extremely small awards previously promoted on Wonkhe.)

All of these courses are examples of what was predicted by many just a few years ago to be a massive disruption to higher education which would sweep away the old models of learning and usher in a brave new era led by the big online providers. These edgy and exciting online courses would remove the need for all of that tedious and time-consuming study of full-time degrees at universities. Moreover, ’nanodegrees’, such as those offered by Udacity would offer the prospect of significant career benefits beyond your bog standard BA or BSc.

Irrelevance is beckoning

Part of the problem though for the disrupters is that for all their talk of how new alternative digital credentials will come to dominate and

will seriously challenge the validity of traditional university transcripts making them obsolete and, in the long-term, irrelevant,” … Colleges that do not embrace them will face the same fate, it suggests.
“individual institutions which fail to adopt ADCs will experience a slow decline in relevance and market position.”

they have a problem. They can moan all they like about universities operating restrictively in terms of their awards but there is a good reason why not any old organisation can set itself up as a university and start simply printing degree certificates. Quality and standards do actually matter. Academic currency has, well, currency and knowing that higher ed qualifications meet certain standards and quality thresholds which are understood and carry weight by virtue of the awarding bodies behind them really does matter.

So you can go on about excitingly named micro-credentials, nano-degrees and micro-masters courses all of which may indeed be ‘stackable’ qualifications but these really aren’t going to destroy universities with all of their tedious, fusty old style qualifications anytime soon. And indeed, credit accumulation being what it is, universities have been doing this kind of thing for quite a while actually, albeit with less sexy nomenclature.

Gizza job

Part of the argument here though is also that these stackable micro-credentials are not only as contemporary and edgy as the next iPhone model, they apparently come with major employability benefits for those who acquire them.

The MicroBachelors for example is a stackable (yuk, hate not putting inverted commas round that) university award from edX which it is claimed is

part of a larger trend of universities breaking their degrees down into shorter, less expensive and faster-to-attain qualifications that give people more pathways into the workforce.

The blurb on edX’s MicroBachelor’s home page confirms the employability benefits:

No matter if you have some or no college experience, MicroBachelors programs are built for adult learners looking to progress their career. Created by top universities and influenced by Fortune 1000 companies, edX’s MicroBachelors programs are the only path to a Bachelor’s degree that make you job-ready today and credentialed along the way. Now you don’t have to wait years to change your future.

Do the math

It seems though that this is not the “only path” to an accredited job-ready degree. There is an even newer kid on the block and he comes with an even dumber moniker. (Note, I had to break my rule never to read an article which begins with the dread phrase “Let’s start with some simple math” in order to bring you this insight.)

Anyway, this incredibly novel approach involves “credegrees and co-ops” (yes, what we all needed was another higher ed neologism although I have to say I can’t see this one taking off) as the way to educate graduates who are ready for the work place:

What exactly are credegrees and co-ops? Credegree is a new term I’ve coined to describe a program where a student graduates with both a traditional bachelor degree and some sort of industry-recognized skill or credential – hence the combination of credential and degree in the name. Co-ops have been around for more than a century, but many people still have a limited understanding of what they are. Co-op is short for cooperative education, which is “a structured method of combining classroom-based education with practical work experience.” Co-ops usually involve a partnership between an educational institution and an employer, are typically paid jobs for the students and are done in a way in which students alternate between school and work terms.

It does rather seem as if the author of the piece is unaware of anything apart from a few isolated US examples of this kind of thing:

The specific idea of credegrees is indeed a new one, but there has been long-established workplace demand among the top employers for individuals with both degrees (that have trained them well in critical thinking, skilled communication and collaboration) and industry-relevant skills (such as data science or coding). And several early examples of this concept can be found in higher education today in the form of universities partnering with bootcamps to offer coding skills to traditional college students. What’s new is the clear employer and consumer demand that will quickly establish credegrees and co-ops as the norm in higher education – as opposed to being rare practices.
Traditional four-year universities have often looked down upon the idea of offering non-accredited or industry-aligned/recognized credentials as part of a bachelor degree experience. The prevailing attitude is that this kind of education is best offered by community colleges or other vocational training providers – as if these aspects of education and training are somehow anathema to a traditional four-year institution.

In the UK of course there is a long tradition of both degrees which are accredited by professional, statutory or regulatory bodies (PSRBs) and those involving extensive work placements as part of programmes of study. There are around 200 PSRBs involved in higher education accreditation in the UK and the Quality Assurance Agency works with them in order to ensure a joined up approach to quality and standards assurance and accreditation. There are thousands of examples of courses which fit this new idea for “credegrees” and co-ops covering pretty much every UK university. I’m not sure this really counts as the kind of advantage envisaged here:

The universities who seize the opportunity to be decisive first-movers in the credegree and co-op campaign will be the big winners who thrive amidst the current higher education disruption.

Enough disruption thank you

And of course what this proposal fails to address, as the MOOC providers largely failed to identify some years ago, is both the inherent value of genuine accredited qualifications and the resilience and adaptability of universities and their staff in a rapidly changing external environment. No-one predicted what a pandemic would do to higher education nor how institutions would respond. I look forward to the absence of more think pieces (and set of neologisms) setting out the next best way to disrupt the traditional higher ed model. The current level of disruption is ample thank you.

3 responses to “Is that enough disruption for you?

  1. In answer to the question: Probably not. Andy Westwood’s WONKHE piece on the 19 April strikes me as a more prescient view of the level of disruption the may hit the sector as it tries to imagine the sector post CV-19. At one level we may see a tsunami of of disruption: re-thinking REF, KEF and TEF, the role of OFS, the role of HE in lifelong learning, variable fees, more robust links between FE and HE, an increase in technical education, work-based learning whether through PRSBs-linked courses or alternatives such as apprenticeships etc… The list goes on. If the sector gets the settlement UUK is seeking, there will be a price to pay for this. If even a modicum of the above occur, it will a level of disruption seldom seen before.

  2. Crazy terms. At least with a good old-fashioned Sandwich Degree you had something you could really sink your teeth into.

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