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Multilitteratus Incognitus

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Cut the bull: The demise of the Baccalaureate has been greatly exaggerated


"Cut the crap" decorative image
Courtesy of Redbubble

After one-too-many "news" posts on IHE about plagiarism and "rigor" I decided to stop subscribing to IHE's RSS feed.  Idiocies that used to be a comment left in an actual news article (one which you could ignore) now have been promoted as opinion pieces on IHE.  To put it quite simply the junk-to-treasure ratio is now completely off on that site and there is no longer value to keep checking it as part of my regular news feed.

That said, there was an article back in August (wow, a month went by!) by Ray Schroeder that I wanted to respond to. The article is titled Demise of the Baccalaureate Degree and it provokes the reader with the following lede "Overpriced, outdated and no longer required by an increasing number of employers, is the baccalaureate in a death spiral?"  Let me just say that this is BS, right now. Go ahead and read it, if you'd like, and come back after that.

It's disheartening to see a leader in distance education, one with so much experience and expertise, sprew the same nonsense bullshit as any 25-year old "entrepreneur" that has an idea for a mobile app. I want to tackle some of Ray's points on a point-by-point basis:

Ray asks (and answers): "Are we teaching the competencies and emphases that will be required to thrive in 2025? I fear not"

The future is unknown.  Even the immediate future is unknown.  Hell, if someone told me that my dream of working from home (most of the time) would come true because of a global pandemic I would have said "shut the front door!". The best thing we can do is prepare for an uncertain future the best way we can.  We don't know tomorrow's required competencies. All we can do is hedge a bet that what we think will be tomorrow's competencies are what's going to actually materialize.  The best way, IMO, to be prepared is to always be learning and to instill curiosity in our learners. They need to become flexible, adaptable, lifelong learners who take their past knowledge and apply it to critically analyze all of the future's uncertainties. We need folks who won't try to push a square peg into a round hole, and that is something we can prepare learners for.  Not some amorphous moving target like "20th-century knowledge" or "21st-century knowledge" or "Competencies 2025". That peg will just keep getting pushed and in the end no meaningful and actionable items can come out of it. Self-directed, Lifelong learning, on the other hand, is real, and you do need a historical basis for it to be able to actualize it.

Ray continues, "I have sat through debates as to whether foreign language courses (not foreign culture courses) should be required of every student in a time when computer-driven automatic written and oral speech translation is readily available. I find the argument for such requirements akin to the debate some decades ago, of whether college students should be allowed to use calculators. Let me be clear that I do not suggest that such courses should not be available to students, rather, that they should not be required of all students in this 21st century."

Sadly Ray, no, those two things are not the same. Using a calculator is not the same as learning another language.  As Mr. Saru said, "am I the only one who bothered to learn another language?" [youtube link; Star Trek: Discovery].  You can do math on your own if you know a few basic building blocks. It may take time, but it can be done.  Langauge also has building blocks, but it's much more complex. It's not formulaic (at least not all of it), and once you superimpose the layers of cultural knowledge and aspects of intertextuality, you can't just use a universal translator to do day-to-day work. You can probably get around as a tourist, but that's a far cry from a nativized/acquired competence that you get from studying languages and cultures!  Certain knowledge is fundamental to lifelong learners, and the acquisition of a second language (actual acquisition, not just the "take an intro to [language] and call it a day."

Another point made by Ray: "We currently document our baccalaureate degrees with transcripts that are owned and controlled by the colleges and universities. This documentation of what has been achieved is withheld if parking tickets have not been paid or other infringements have been committed. A growing movement demands that transcripts shift to blockchain delivery controlled by the students."

There is a problem with withholding (or holding hostage) a transcript because someone has unpaid library fines or parking fines.  This is something my campus should do some soul-searching on.  That said, the answer isn't blockchain.  Blockchain has problems, lots of them. For an interesting podcast on the topic listen to Tech won't save us. The issuing authority (the university) has the responsibility of access control and verification of credentials issued by it. along with that responsibility comes the responsibility of maintaining an evergreen source of accessing those records, even when the institution shuts its doors.  When an institution closes, as we've seen in recent years, those alumni records need to be maintained by someone until they are presumably no longer needed.  At my campus, for example, we maintain the Boston State College alumni records because we merged with them back in the day. If blockchain dies, as we've seen with the lackluster adoption of digital badges, the credential itself becomes meaningless because it's not verifiable.  Colleges and Universities that retain control of their records do maintain them and provide verification in perpetuity.

Ray also says: "This [blockchain] holds the potential for students to assemble their own transcripts with selected courses, internships, monitored experiences, projects and more from a variety of sources -- not just one university -- that can be validated by HR departments and others reviewing the transcripts."

There is nothing out there that prevents people from creating their own learner record ("transcript"). In fact, things like LinkedIn, CVs, and other means already exist to document your learning. We don't need blockchain for it. Maybe we need a new way of conceptualizing the CV, for example, but those efforts have met with resistance from the very same people that Ray says need these new things: HR departments and employers.  Degreed, for instance, showed promise, but what's the actual usage? [Wikipedia link, in case degreed is ever down]. This point also seems to have nothing to do with the bachelor's degree, and more to do with skills documentation.

Ray's other point: "Employers and students are seeking shorter credentialing than the baccalaureate; in particular they are looking for alternative credentials in the form of professional and continuing and online programs that are to the point and immediately applicable in the workforce."

While I don't disagree that people are looking for shorter credentialing schemes (at least for certain things), nothing says that the bachelor's degree is in direct competition with these. The idea that a college degree isn't required at high-tech companies (and by extension companies in general) is a myth.  It gets brought out like the corpse in Weekend at Bernie's. Don't get me wrong, it's an appealing myth because it implies that other pathways exist (and in my mind should exist), but actual hiring practices don't bear this out.  Go on.  I'll wait.  Go look at the open job posting at amazon, apple, google, and other major companies.  I'll wait...  Anyway, I'd say that lifelong learning is compatible with short credentials as people grow through various stages of their personal and professional growth.  I don't see this as making the bachelor's degree obsolete.

Finally, Ray says: "It seems that the “clients” of higher education -- both the students and the employers -- recognize that the baccalaureate is too long and all too often teaches dated material rather than preparing students for the future. Shorter, just-in-time sequences of courses could better address the emerging needs in the workforce and society as a whole."

Maybe employers think this but maybe not, based on what they post as hiring requirements for open jobs.  Even if the bachelor's degree takes "too long" to complete it is possible that the BA/BS is not the right tool for the job! Again here, Ray leans into the tired trope of the university being too slow to adapt and teaching dated materials.  It's hard to argue against "dated materials" because it's predictably unspecific.  You'd have to do a deep dive into the discipline in order to determine what is "dated" and under what rubrics and units of measurement.  Different disciplines have different requirements, and different jobs have different requirements.  There isn't always going to be a match between the two, no should a college degree be simply about your ticket to enter a job.  Employers are able to control who they hire, and they choose college grads.  The college degree is just your "starter pack" in work-life and civic life.  If your employer needs you to do something specific, they need to invest in employee training and talent development! The cost of this type of training should not be laid on the student's shoulders.

Just my 2c. Adieu IHE 🤩

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