But what about learning? Recognizing the signaling function of higher education

I spent just a couple days at the Learning Analytics and Knowledge 2012 conference this past week in Vancouver. Because of personal stuff going on I couldn’t attend the whole conference, but by watching some live streaming, following the conference twitter channel, reading some live blogs, and browsing some of the papers afterward I put together a decent understanding of the topics covered and the issues that came up. Of course, I had far less time than I wanted to connect with people there, but I have hopes that I can address that over the next year online and then go all out for LAK13 in Belgium.

Some attendees felt a disconnect that many vendors and researchers are looking at retention (students re-enrolling across terms) and course completion rather than learning itself. But aren’t we doing learning analytics, they asked?

At Pearson, I am working on exactly the problem of retention and course success. I work mainly with data from Pearson’s LearningStudio hosted learning management system. I sometimes have access to learning outcomes data but only very rarely; I can’t count on having that.

The data scientist is not drunk

Is my work a a case of the drunk looking for her keys under the streetlight? I don’t think so, and it’s not just do to with the profitability of institutions or their need to demonstrate adequate program completion rates and year-over-year retention to accreditation bodies.

Students enroll in higher education programs for many reasons, not all of which have to do with learning. We would all hope that after two or four or more years taking coursework a student will have better skills and cognitive capacity than when she started. But bachelor’s and associate’s degree programs today require students to take many classes that are not relevant to them or to their future work, that merely serve as hurdles to jump over to acquire the degree. The learning is not enough, because education serves a signaling purpose in addition to working to improve a student’s cognitive capacity.

As people working in education, we have to recognize the reality of higher education today, that it is only partially about learning. I’m talking from a purely U.S.-based perspective, as that’s my focus. In the U.S. today, bachelor’s degrees are a basic entry ticket to a decent job in many cases. In fact, credential inflation means that now a master’s degree is required for entry into many professions.

Some economists think higher ed degrees primarily function as signals to employers, that they are not mainly about increased learning or cognitive capacity. On this theory, a student’s degree shows that he has qualities valued by employers: conformity, conscientiousness, a willingness to defer gratification. If signaling is true in some situations or in some ways, that means it’s not enough for a student to take some classes and merely learn what they need to use on the job. They need to get through an entire program, arbitrary requirements and uninteresting or useless classes included.

There’s good evidence that signaling theories of education do not tell the whole story about higher education, that returns to education do indeed reflect the additional skills that graduates in various disciplines bring to the job market. The signaling theory may be true in part but as we might hope, education is also about actual preparation and learning–I don’t mean to say it is not.

I also don’t mean to reduce higher education to job market preparation, though I do question degrees that don’t represent a sound economic investment. The cost of post-secondary education today is such that we can’t divorce it from its role in linking people with economic opportunity.

Are learning and course completion orthogonal?

One presenter called completion and learning orthogonal outcomes. At least one attendee in that session took issue with that. We would all hope this is not the case — we hope that students don’t successfully complete classes without learning anything — but can’t everyone think of a class they were required to take but didn’t take anything away from it? I just completed a Ph.D. and virtually all of the cognate classes were worthless, annoying and time-consuming efforts that I had to complete if I wanted my degree. There was almost no learning taking place in those courses, and I am a highly motivated and engaged learner, taking courses that I thought would be interesting. Sometimes students do just need to complete a course, learning or no.

Certainly we should work toward making every course a worthwhile learning experience for students but in the real world there are always going to be some classes that aren’t that for one reason or another. Assuming that completing a particular program is a good thing for a particular student (a somewhat questionable assumption in this era of heavy student loan debt and low-value degrees), helping them get through all their courses successfully regardless of learning is a good in itself.


3 responses to “But what about learning? Recognizing the signaling function of higher education

  1. Jim Stephens

    Another relevant piece Anne. I think one of the challenges with understanding what is learned in a class, at the post secondary level, is not always immediate. I remember the foreign language requirement in my PhD program was useless at the time, I still can’t speak the language, but I often find myself reflecting on the perspective it provides for my understanding of communications and now even information technology. Thanks for sharing the wisdom. Jim

  2. This post definitely resonates with me, as does Jim’s comment. I thought a few of my graduate engineering courses were mundane, but later became useful as I moved into engineering management. But in my JD program, just how important was it that I learned the innards of “commercial paper” just in time for the bar exam? When is the last time a bank teller (if you can find one!) phoned up a lawyer to discuss liabilities associated with third-party endorsers? I do agree with the idea that exposure to “outlier” classes can help build skills for future TBD use or perspective (ala the foreign language instruction mentioned), but it should be highly limited in volume, as in no more than 10 or 20% of the “core” program.

  3. Jim: I probably overstated the case for learning-free classes, but I have experienced too many where the ratio of learning to effort and time seemed way too small. You’re right though, there are hard-to-measure learning payoffs for many seemingly extraneous courses.

    Rick: the JD/bar exam topic is interesting because that’s yet a third reason for higher education–credentialing and licensure. It seems reasonable that to become an attorney you should be aware of issues around commercial paper but it sounds like the detailed knowledge required goes too far.