One of the holy grails in higher education – if you’re on the government or management side of things, anyway – is to find some means of actually measuring institutional effectiveness. It’s all very well to note that alumni at Harvard, Oxford, U of T (pick an elite university, any elite university) tend to go on to great things. But how much of that has to do with them being prestigious and selective enough to only take the cream of the crop? How can we measure the impact of the institution itself?
Rankings, of course, were one early way to try to get at this, but they mostly looked at inputs, not outputs. Next came surveys of student “engagement”, which were OK as far as they went but didn’t really tell you anything about institutional performance (though it did tell you something about curriculum and resources). Then came the Collegiate Learning Assessment and later the OECD’s attempt to build on it, which was called the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes, or AHELO. AHELO was of course unceremoniously murdered two years ago by the more elite higher education institutions and their representatives (hello, @univcan and @aceducation!) who didn’t like its potential to be used as a ranking (and, in fairness, the OECD probably leant too hard in that direction during the development phase, which wasn’t politically wise).
So what’s been going on in quality measurement initiatives since then? Well, two big ones you should know about.
The first is one being driven out of the Netherlands called CALOHEE (which is, sort of, short for “(Measuring and Comparing Achievements of Learning Outcomes in Higher Education in Europe). It is being run by more or less the same crew that developed the Tuning Process about a decade ago, and who also participated in AHELO though they have broken with the OECD since then. CALOHEE builds on Tuning and AHELO in the sense that it is trying to create a common framework for assessing how institutions are doing at developing students’ knowledge, skills and competencies. It differs from AHELO in that if it is successful, you probably won’t be able to make league tables out of it.
One underlying assumption of AHELO was that all programs in a particular area (eg. Economics, Civil Engineering) were trying to impart the same knowledge skills and competencies – this was what made giving them a common test valid. But CALOHEE assumes that there are inter-institutional differences that matter at the subject level. And so while students will still get a common test, the scores will be broken up in ways that are relevant to each institution given the set of desired learning outcomes at each institution. So Institution X’s overall score in History relative to institution Y’s is irrelevant, but their scores in, for instance, “social responsibility and civic awareness” or “abstract and analytical thinking” might be, if they both say that’s a desired learning outcome. Thus, comparing learning outcomes in similar programs across institutions becomes possible, but only where both programs have similar goals.
The other big new initiative is south of the border and it’s called the Multi-State Collaborative to Advance Quality Student Learning (why can’t these things have better names? This one’s so bad they don’t even bother with an initialism). This project still focuses on institutional outcomes rather than program-level ones, which reflects a really basic difference of understanding of the purpose of undergraduate degrees between the US and Europe (the latter caring a whole lot less, it seems, about well-roundedness in institutional programming). But, crucially in terms of generating acceptance in North America, it doesn’t base its assessment on a (likely low-stakes) test. Rather, samples of ordinary student course work are scored according to various rubrics designed over a decade or more (see here for more on the rubrics and here for a very good Chronicle article on the project as a whole). This makes the outcomes measured more authentic, but implicitly the only things that can be measured are transversal skills (critical thinking, communication, etc) rather than subject-level material. This will seem perfectly fine to many people (including governments), but it’s likely to be eyed suspiciously by faculty.
(Also, implicitly, scoring like this on a national scale will create a national cross-subject grade curve, because it will be possible to see how an 80 student in Engineering compares in to an 80 in history, or an 85 student at UMass to an 85 student at UWisconsin. That should be fun.)
All interesting stuff and worth tracking. But notice how none of it is happening in Canada. Again. I know that after 25 years in this business the lack of interest in measurable accountability by Canadian institutions shouldn’t annoy me, but it does. As it should anyone who wants better higher education in this country. We can do better.