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Quality Education in the Global Context: What We Are All Learning about Learning

Jamie P. Merisotis, President & CEO, Lumina Foundation
Opening Keynote Speech, Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development, AHELO Conference, Paris, France

Thank you, and good morning, everyone. I want to start by thanking OECD’s Directorate for Education ― specifically, Director Barbara Ischinger and Head of Service Deborah Roseveare—for inviting me to be part of setting the stage for such an important discussion … a discussion that has the potential to transform higher education.

I see many friends and colleagues here today, from many different countries, who believe that it is essential that higher education focus its efforts tightly around learning. What students know and are able to do as a result of their post-high school or higher education has become one of the most important points of interest and reflection across nations, cultures and languages.

It’s a critically important task, this focus on learning ― one that grows more important each day as our global society becomes increasingly complex and interconnected. For many of us, it’s been a lifelong task, one I’m sure you’ve been very proud to pursue both in your countries and with colleagues throughout the world.

No single aspect of life has more world-changing potential than education.

I think we can all agree that no single aspect of life has more world-changing potential than education. In fact, we might argue that the world has never changed—at least, not for the better ― unless that change was propelled by education … by learning. And we’re all here today to look closely at the very core of education … to explore what learning truly means … to forge better ways to measure learning and ensure its relevance and value.

The shift we are talking about is to have higher education become more learning-centered, to shift toward a more global understanding and recognition of competencies. That shift, and those competencies, must be rooted in our ability to properly to assess the skills and knowledge represented in a credential—be it a degree, a diploma, a certificate, or something else.

The focus on learning has taken on tremendous significance for me and my colleagues at Lumina Foundation. For those of you unfamiliar with Lumina Foundation, let me provide briefly some context about who we are and what we do. Lumina is the largest private foundation in the United States devoted exclusively to increasing Americans’ success in postsecondary education. All of our work drives toward achieving one goal, what we have come to call Goal 2025: by the year 2025, we want 60 percent of Americans to hold high-quality degrees, certificates or other postsecondary credentials.

As a private foundation our role is to be a catalyst for change in American higher education. We take our leadership responsibility very seriously, and in some ways play a unique role in the higher education landscape in the United States. We believe we have a genuine responsibility to lead, one that comes from our large base of assets, our significant and growing number of like-minded partners, and our expertise derived from the work in which we are engaged. I believe we must use our role and resources wisely and effectively to support higher education transformation. That’s why all of our efforts are targeted so tightly and specifically toward Goal 2025.

We see Goal 2025 as a necessary response to both a pressing national priority and an urgent global need. Our nation—indeed, nearly every nation ― needs far more postsecondary or tertiary educated citizens than are now being produced. Beyond our interest in affording individuals the opportunities that education offers, we need educated individuals to build our interdependent economies for this global era, to strengthen our societies, and to foster the mutual understanding essential to positive and productive relations among nations. Experts all over the globe agree that higher education attainment must increase significantly if we are to ensure economic prosperity and social stability—in individual countries and in the worldwide community.

But of course, merely increasing the number of graduates isn’t enough. We must also ensure that these millions of new graduates emerge from the postsecondary system with the skills and knowledge they need to thrive in the 21st century. It is significant that the Goal is not just focused on a 60 percent target. It calls specifically for “high-quality degrees and credentials.” Our goal—really the goal we all share, I believe, no matter what country we represent here today—is to increase educational attainment while ensuring, even increasing, quality. After all, it would be relatively easy for any of us to increase the attainment of degrees in our respective nations. We could do so simply by lowering standards, by ignoring assessment, by focusing on numerical targets without a corresponding focus on student learning outcomes. But the result would be a disservice to students, and to society. We would be accepting the appearance of progress rather than insisting on the reality.

What is a high-quality credential? That, of course, is a complex question, and one that is the subject of debate within and across many nations. For us at Lumina Foundation, we have chosen a definition that is simple and straightforward: high-quality degrees, certificates and credentials have well-defined, transparent learning outcomes that lead to further education and employment. Let me restate that—clear, transparent, learning outcomes that lead to further education and employment.

A firm commitment to quality is therefore the underlying reason for all of Lumina’s substantive work in the area of student learning outcomes. When we began to really examine the concept of quality, it didn’t take long for us to see that traditional “input measures” of quality ― the criteria typically used in some well-known national and international ranking systems that describe the qualities of entering students—are not very helpful. Other things like faculty credentials, class size, physical facilities, institutional prestige or status, while not unimportant, just don’t make sense as proxies for quality either ― not in a world where actual student outcomes are what matter most.

All of the evidence pointing to the need for increased attainment shows that what students actually learn … how they benefit from, and how they can use what they gain in, their programs of study is more important than the credential itself. That being said, the credential of course is essential in conveying externally what students know and are able to do with that credential—the credential must communicate to others the skills and knowledge the student has. As important as reliable credentials may be in a global and interdependent economy, we have understood that what is needed is a widely shared definition of higher education quality that focuses on student outcomes and enables us to account for and to document learning.

We need such an understanding in order to encourage educators to approach their objectives more thoughtfully and deliberately, in order to engage students in a more fully aware pursuit of their objectives, and in order to justify our commitment to higher education to our fellow citizens. In short, our commitment to quality is not only about increasing the attainment of degrees on a national or global level, but also about making certain that the degrees that are awarded are valuable for those who attain them.

Again, this realization came to us fairly early in our learning-focused work at Lumina—in large part because of the good work going on for years here in Europe and in other parts of the world. As we began exploring how we would define quality degrees we quickly discovered it was essential to better understand global higher education efforts. We expended a good deal of effort on trying to better understand the Bologna Process and its aims and objectives. And Bologna’s goals—fostering greater compatibility among European higher education systems, encouraging the mobility of students and professors, promoting economic development, and broadening access to the benefits of higher education ― these goals demand a shared understanding of learning outcomes. For such an understanding to have the impact necessary, it must reflect carefully examined experience, carefully chosen authorities, and carefully conducted research.

The work that has been done here in Europe, both through the Bologna Process and through initiatives that express similar priorities, has had a huge impact not only in this part of the world, but in other nations as well. The influence of this work can be seen in Africa, where I’ve seen first-hand the progress taking place in South Africa, Botswana and other countries. The influence can be seen in the Pacific Rim nations, in Canada, in Australia, in Latin America—the list goes on and on. In each case, that work has taken the best of what has been accomplished domestically, used the lessons of the international experience, and fostered better systems and improved outcomes.

As an American, I believe, as I’m sure my American colleagues here today would agree, that the work going on internationally has done a great deal to inspire, inform and guide what’s been happening in the United States to define student learning outcomes more clearly and more fully and to assure the pursuit of quality in higher education. That work has deep, long-standing origins in our own efforts to assess higher education outcomes, and improve student and institutional success. But now, nearly every high-profile effort undertaken in the States in the past decade, including the Collegiate Learning Assessment, the Voluntary System of Accountability, the Voluntary Framework of Accountability (for community colleges) and the Transparency by Design project (for online institutions), among many others, has been touched by this global understanding and cross-national learning.

The concept of Tuning also has found its way into the American higher-education landscape. A perfect complement to our interest in defining degree-level outcomes, Tuning’s emphasis on outcomes at the level of the disciplines provides a methodology that can improve success in the classrooms themselves. And the fact that the measures of cumulative learning are being developed by faculty members in the disciplines further assures its rigor and its acceptance. Lumina is doing work supporting the development of assessments for Tuning in the U.S., in collaboration with international partners, and we’re anxiously awaiting the results to learn more about how this process has aided student success.

The influence of what is happening in this space globally also is clear in the spread of qualifications frameworks. Though many nations in Europe, Asia, Oceania, Africa and other parts of the globe have been enmeshed in these discussions for many years, we in the U.S. have arrived relatively late to the party. The Degree Qualifications Profile—our effort to define what academic degrees should mean in terms of degree-level competencies regardless of discipline—is just two years old. Since introducing the DQP, we have been gratified by the uses made of it. In fact, there are now more than 230 institutions working with the DQP in more than 30 U.S. states—nearly 100 of them conducting projects on their own, with no direct support from Lumina. And four of the seven regional accreditation associations, our most authoritative official auditors of educational effectiveness, are using the DQP in ways that encourage institutions to define and pursue their specific educational objectives more transparently and effectively. We’re encouraged by this, and we’re looking now for ways to further develop the DQP framework so that it gives more attention to issues of preparedness for degrees as well as postsecondary certificates.

So this brings me to the critically important work that draws us all together this morning here in Paris—the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes, or AHELO. This work is contributing significantly to the growing body of knowledge about student learning and educational quality. The AHELO work is setting the stage to continue to steer the emphasis of higher education toward student learning.

Certainly, even with all of this work behind us, we have much more in front of us. We can’t say we’ve solved the interlocking puzzle of teaching and learning … or even that we’ve fully forged the common language that we’ll use to define educational quality. Still, we’ve made tremendous progress together.

For one thing, we’ve helped to change the conversation about what quality really means in higher education … and that is no small task. In virtually every country, more and more people representing all sectors of society understand that traditional definitions of educational quality are no longer sufficient. Employers, the general public, policymakers and government officials, education leaders themselves ― many agree that genuine learning is a key to success … for individuals, for economies and nations, and for the global society. Because of this, they recognize the need to find efficient, adaptable means of assessing learning … a system that can work on a global scale.

We have learned much since the 1980s, when assessment began to inform accreditation, curricular planning, and the ever more straightforward description of desired outcomes. Now, of course, an emphasis on assessment has evolved into an expanded emphasis on the use of what is learned to make improvements and achieve better results. But for assessment to make its mark in ways that will lead to improved and assured quality in higher education within the near term, the glacial pace of its evolution to date must be considerably accelerated.

Again, a fully effective system has yet to be accomplished; we’re still working to visualize and realize it. But the work done so far has given us a wealth of information. In fact, if nothing else, we’ve learned a great deal about what such a system should NOT be:

  • For one thing, it’s not a simple ranking that reflects institutional status or reputation. This is not to say that ranking, in and of itself, is a bad thing. If institutions are ranked, it must be done so using various and multiple dimensions—a dynamic and interactive assessment, not a simple “top 10 list.” An approach that could very well show promise is the European Commission’s U-Multirank concept, a multi-variant ranking system that is now recruiting institutions and plans to launch the first edition of its web tool early next year. Germany’s CHE Centre for Higher Education and the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS) in the Netherlands are the lead partners in U-Multirank, and they’re excited about its potential for connecting to the AHELO work. Rankings must be nuanced and subtle, acknowledging that institutions attract different kinds of students, with different aspirations. The U-Multirank is a strong, well-meaning step in capturing these concerns.
  • Second, this effective new system for learning-outcomes assessment is not a mechanism for standardization. No one that I know is recommending ― no one seems to want—a rigid, one-size-for-all system that is administered from the top down. In fact, the goal is just the opposite: a system that actually fosters and encourages a variety of approaches, developed and administered with teaching faculty in the lead ― an adaptable system that helps institutions meet the specific and dynamic needs of their students and other stakeholders and that enables them to define their special characteristics more clearly. In other words, flexibility must be part of the system. Of course, along with flexibility, there must also be firmness—a firm commitment to learning outcomes that truly reflect meaningful achievement. Put more plainly, though standardization should never be the goal, adherence to high expectations and external benchmarks must be.
  • Finally, this new system of assessing learning cannot be focused solely on ways to ensure compliance or earn a series of check marks. To give us what we need, learning-outcomes assessment must be a genuine and shared effort to improve student performance and learning. It must work for academics in the classroom equally as well as it does for institutions and ministries, and it must be seen as a means to encourage more effective teaching, more thorough and intentional learning, more substantive credentialing, and a more productive transfer of the competencies that are gained to the needs of society and of the economy. In short, assessment can maximize what students, employers and society actually get from higher education.

So, that’s where we are. I’ve tried ― in just a few minutes and from an admittedly limited, Americanized perspective—to sum up decades of global progress in learning-outcomes work, so I hope you’ll forgive the many shortcomings. The real question, of course, is not where we are or even how we got here. Rather, it’s: “Where do we go from here?” And that, my friends, is the reason for this gathering ― to draw lessons from the AHELO Feasibility Study and use those lessons to forge a path forward.

I won’t go into detail about the findings of the study, as other presenters are well prepared to fill that role later today and throughout the day tomorrow. But I do want to provide my quick thoughts and reactions.

First, I think our exploration of these findings, and the direction they give us, are a vital extension of that continuing thread I mentioned earlier; that is, that we have greater intentionality at every level of our work in developing and assessing learning outcomes. This means everything from the preparation of a course outline to the construction of a curriculum, from planning for a laboratory session to measuring student progress, and from documenting the success of an individual to improving the educational fortunes of a nation.

Second, we continue to run into challenges when trying to assess generalizable skills—and we know figuring this out is key as we continually hear from employers in particular about the critically important generalized skills they seek in employees. Even though it is hard, and time consuming, finding more and better ways to describe and assess those generalizable skills must continue to motivate what we do.

And, third, we are learning that discipline assessments generally are working well. There are exceptions, to be sure, but the main lesson here is that we have made more rapid progress at the discipline level. In particular, we’ve learned that students learn generalized skills within a discipline. This has important implications for curricular development going forward.

Now, we’re here to keep building on very important work … to create a broader, smoother, straighter path to high-quality credentials.

I can’t pretend that I see that path clearly. None of us can do so at this point in the process. What I can say, however, is that there are a number of fundamental truths that are sure to guide us on our way.

Employers in every democracy need higher education to do more to prepare students for the demands of the global economy.

If I may, in the brief time I have left, I’d like to list four such truths.

  • First, the workforce and societal needs that helped give rise to the learning-outcomes movement are not likely to diminish; in fact, they are becoming steadily more intense. Employers in essentially every democracy need higher education to do more—and do better ― to prepare students for the demands and complexities of the global economy. Study after study cites evidence of a growing skills gap. Just last week, in fact, The Chronicle of Higher Education published results of a U.S. survey that showed half of business owners had trouble finding recent four-year graduates who were qualified for positions at their firms. Scholarly research, reflected in recent books such as Academically Adrift, poses serious doubts about the depth and value of graduates’ learning. Employers point to serious deficiencies in the skills of recent graduates they’ve hired, including adaptability, communication skills and the ability to tackle complex problems.
  • The second truth: Global convergence is real and inexorable, but local and regional diversity still must be preserved. There is no single recipe for ensuring rigorous and relevant learning … no specific formula that will work in every setting. Again, what we must build is a system that is both firm and flexible—firm in its insistence on maintaining high standards of learning, yet flexible in its approach and application.
  • Third: Time is of the essence. Figuring out how to truly measure student learning is essential. We need authentic assessments by faculty/academics at the course level—of what students have learned. And we need large scale assessments to help us better benchmark externally. And why do we need this? Because globally we need talent—we need students who are able to apply their learning. And, we need there to be transparency about what credentials mean in terms of skills and knowledge, in terms of learning, to meet the global demand for talent.

Time is also of the essence because of the cost of education. For students and their families, time is money, in a pointedly literal sense. The cost of higher education is a very real impediment to perhaps millions of students all over the globe. We can and must reduce that impediment by changing the focus of higher education from a predominantly time-based system ― in the United States, one that remains wedded to the credit hour—to a system that is rooted in and reflective of learning outcomes.

Again, there is a great deal of movement in this direction, and that movement is encouraging. Every day seems to bring news of new programs and institutions that are shifting to competency-based approaches ― examples in the U.S. include the University of Wisconsin system to Northern Arizona University to the new College for America program at Southern New Hampshire University. Effective learning assessment must be the cornerstone of all of these programs. And, make no mistake, just as we need our traditional institutions to become more effective and more accountable, we need innovative, non-traditional programs—many more of them ― to help us meet the growing demand for high-quality graduates. If we delay or fail in this work—if we don’t speed the transition to a competency-based system ― the price will be high … for individuals and for societies at large.

  • Finally, and in closing, Truth No. 4: Cooperative effort is absolutely key in the quest to ensure quality in higher education. No single approach … no one country … no specific type of institution or system can serve as a perfect template. When it comes to assessing learning and ensuring quality, one size simply cannot fit all. Because flexibility is imperative and responsiveness to local needs and stakeholders so vital, this absolutely must be a group project. And the members of the group must be trusted peers.

As we’ve delved into this area over the last few years, my Lumina colleagues and I have remarked again and again on the intercontinental “ping-pong” effect of this work. What is learned in Melbourne or Leiden or Shanghai informs our efforts in Boston, Miami and San Francisco … and the steps that we take then seem to alter the paths taken in those places as well. In short, we all learn as we do this work, and we adapt and use those lessons in our own particular contexts.

After all, this is not about competition. It is about open acknowledgment that for any individual or nation to prosper, they must be adequately prepared to contribute to the workforce, to foster their own economic and social well-being, and to tend to the well-being and needs of others. Among all of the areas where our governments can spend scarce resources, only education affords us both the ability to generate resources and the wisdom to apply those resources where they are most needed.

Really, I can’t think of a more apt description of what we’re all here to accomplish at this conference—or of a more vivid illustration of the spirit of the learning-outcomes work in which we’re all involved.

At Lumina, we’re proud of our involvement with OECD and our participation in the AHELO project. We’re excited to work with all of you as you explore the lessons in the feasibility study. We’re also thrilled by the opportunities that this project—and this conference ― have given us to forge so many capable and effective global partners. Most of all, however, this work excites us because of its implications for literally millions of students all over the world … and for the bright future that we all want to see them build.

Thank you very much.

Kate Snedeker

A series of reports show investing in employee tuition reimbursement yields significant financial payback.
See Talent Investment series