There has been a good deal of discussion lately among SFU faculty and administration regarding the Learning Outcomes Assessment initiative – and while there is a vague sense of what it means, what it is intended to accomplish, and its potential implications, there is little substantive information on what exactly is driving the push for learning outcomes and where that push might lead us.
The discussion about Learning Outcomes has taken place most frequently in the context of potential accreditation with the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), but is not explicitly linked to accreditation. While we need to address the interplay of accreditation with LOA we shouldn’t conflate the two since they can and do mean different things and will impact the university in different ways.
Accreditation is, in and of itself, neither complicated nor necessarily problematic. Quite simply, it means that a group of institutions come together, set basic standards for academic and managerial standards, and provide a seal of approval that member institutions meet those standards. It then links those institutions in a new way, and can facilitate relationship-building at the institutional and faculty level.
Canada does not have an academic accrediting body outside of the legislative process that recognizes post-secondary institutions. In the U.S., however, accreditation is common, with six regional bodies incorporating virtually all of that country’s post-secondary institutions. In the U.S. context certain funding opportunities rely upon accreditation in a way that does not occur in Canada. Here, accreditation has largely been limited to professional programs that seek recognition from the professional associations that control or substantially influence work in a given sector. For example, Engineering programs require accreditation if their graduates are to be recognized as professional engineers; likewise medical schools must undergo assessment and review by a national body to ensure that core competencies are met. Outside of professional programs, however, accreditation in Canada is rare – and SFU is one of only a handful of Canadian institutions that has shown any interest in pursuing it.
Accreditation is rare in Canada not because it is antithetical to academic culture, not because it threatens our institutions and not for any reason of principle. It is rare because it is largely irrelevant. Here, there is nothing of substance in the accreditation process that is not already achieved through the legislative framework or established academic traditions. To become accredited within the Canadian context is a costly prospect and subjects an institution to external oversight and review with little concrete benefit – the accrediting bodies typically approve all applications, meaning that this is no august club based on exceptional standards. This seal of approval does nothing for funding or public support in Canada; and it is irrelevant to students, as accreditation is in no way associated with reputation or recognition of the degree here or in any other country, the U.S. included. And while the benefits are hard to identify, the potential costs – both financial and academic – are significant. While accreditation does not necessarily imply interference in University governance or management, it can provide constraints, and certainly introduces new mechanisms for potential external interference. Further, it brings not only new administrative costs in actual dollars but also costs in terms of time lost to teaching and research.
Why pursue accreditation, then? One stated reason is to enhance SFU’s ability to market itself to students in the U.S. Implicitly, it appears to be part of a public relations game, holding out accreditation as some reflection of standards in the hopes that those who know little about the actual workings of universities will be impressed. Mostly, though, it seems to be about sports.
Accreditation is a requirement for membership in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Want to compete in major U.S. collegiate athletic circles? You must be accredited by one of the six accrediting bodies, and it was this realization that drove SFU to begin the accreditation process, and this that keeps the issue front and centre on the University’s agenda. The Vice President Academic has himself acknowledged this1, and SFU’s articulation of other supposed benefits of accreditation began only after it became clear that it was a pre-requisite to NCAA membership. ‘Academic quality, ‘external accountability’, ‘increased global profile’ – these quickly became the arguments for accreditation, but there is no evidence that NWCCU membership offers any of these, and in fact brings more costs than benefits to the core academic mission of the university. What it does bring is eligibility for NCAA membership. What it does bring is access to a world of collegiate sport that does not exist in Canada. What it does bring is a profoundly different university culture that Canadians have typically known. Indeed, we would do well to pay attention to UBC’s consideration of the same questions; when that institution considered NCAA membership just a few years ago, it opted to decline. There were a number of reasons, including the negative impact on academic culture, the potential bleeding of funds from the academic mission to athletics, but one core issue was precisely the requirement to be accredited and the costs this would impose on the University community as a whole for benefits that would accrue to only a small minority.
Today at SFU, the issue at the forefront is the Learning Outcomes and Assessment initiative, which although connected to the accreditation process, is indeed something distinct. What exactly the LOA means for faculty is unclear, and perhaps cannot become clear prior to implementation. As a result, there is a wide range of opinion among faculty – many concerned about academic freedom and workload implications, many others seeing in it a fairly simple call for greater reflection upon program coherence and clarity of goals. And in fact, it can be both, and any number of things in between.
At its most benign, the LOA transition may simply involve more explicit articulation of course and program consistency, providing increased clarity for students and linking together the various sub-fields in a given discipline in order to both draw our own attention to the underlying commonalities of our diverse areas of work and provide students a ‘road-map’ of each discipline. In this framework, the LOA is little more than a more clearly articulated emphasis on the work that departments and faculties already do in curriculum development and review.
At its most disruptive and potentially dangerous, however, the ‘learning outcomes’ imperative can result in much more. It can involve streamlining diverse pedagogies into a homogenous and inflexible model, privilege quantitative over qualitative assessment, and encroach on academic freedom in the classroom – something that requires not only the freedom to teach controversial and/ or unpopular subject-matter, but to determine how material ought to be presented and how learning ought to be assessed. And here is where the accreditation process comes in – though accreditation does not necessarily mandate a specific model for learning outcomes to be implemented, it can exert significant pressure on individual member institutions to mold their own process to a standardized format. Indeed, in 2010 the manager of SFU’s accreditation bid noted this as a potential, albeit with a more positive spin, saying that accreditation would “establish clearer benchmarks for assessing learning outcomes”2.
In practice, of course, the real impact of the LOA is unclear, and theoretically it could either provide a means for further reflection on curriculum, or could prove a slippery slope to worst-case-scenario standardization. In all likelihood, it will fall somewhere in between, not a complete surrendering of academic autonomy but bringing new pressures to bear on faculty members and academic units, neither a simple re-articulation of what is already done, nor a nefarious plot undermine the autonomy of faculty. Indeed, there is only one aspect of the learning outcomes debate that is undeniable – that the concept, vague as it is, is only gaining traction in the wider political context of post-secondary education, and is not something we can afford to ignore.
Accreditation, Learning Outcomes and the University in Society
Political interference with academic affairs is nothing new, and for the last twenty years Canadian universities have faced a public political discourse of accountability and investment that has directly questioned the inherent value of knowledge-creation and demanded instead a post-secondary education system that is more directly and more explicitly tied to the targeted economic objectives of government and the skills-training demands of both industry and the public. This isn’t news to anyone. But what we too-often do fail to grasp is that this is an entirely-understandable development and that defensiveness in the face of such challenges is doing nothing to protect faculty members or our institutions as places of open and free inquiry.
The learning outcomes debate is only the latest aspect of a much-longer process that has its origins in the expansion of public post-secondary education in the post war era and the opening of universities to a much larger population than had previously been the case. Let’s make that a little more clear – public post secondary education is in large part the victim of its own success. With the leaps in economic growth following WWII and the attendant expansion of public funding for health and education, research and development, the university underwent a profound transformation, appending to its traditional scholarly role a jobs-training and skills-development role. The university as ivory tower or cloister of curious clerics was now – not instead of, but as well – a public sphere as it had never been, its doors opened to an ever-wider population demanding an ever-greater range of educational services.
And that transition has been neither entirely negative nor entirely positive; it has, though, put increased pressure on universities to somehow balance two very different roles, and to do so under ever-greater public scrutiny. As we address the question of learning outcomes, then, it is important that we begin by recognizing this – that learning outcomes, like targeted funding and political pressure generally, are reflections of a very real tension in the post-secondary sector, and that tension requires our serious attention as we grapple with questions of academic freedom, collegial governance and autonomy in general.
We have, then, to develop a strategy around working outcomes which is tied to consideration of the accountability issue in general – a strategy that is not defensive and does not discount or dismiss the issue, but acknowledges and directly addresses the demands of government, students and the general public while protecting the fundamental features of scholarly life and academic governance.