Bologna Comes to Utah

To the best of my knowledge there are precisely two people in the United States of America interested in the “Bologna Process” of higher education integration currently occurring in the European Union. Luckily for you, I am one of those people. To make a long story short, the higher education systems of the different EU member states have traditionally been structured differently, and the powers that be decided they needed to create some kind of system of comparability so that a Finnish degree could be compared to an Italian or Belgian one. This is dull on its own terms, but it has the pretty radical implication that colleges and universities are going to have to submit to some kind of measurement of actual teaching and learning rather than just saying “yep, so-and-so definitely took a class!”

The other person interested in this is Kevin Carey, who reports that similar metrics-based reforms are coming to Utah, the rare conservative state that also has a good government innovative streak:

With a grant from the nonprofit Lumina Foundation for Education, physics and history professors from a range of Utah two- and four-year institutions are applying the “tuning” methods developed as part of the sweeping Bologna Process reforms in Europe. Led by William Evenson, a former professor of physics at Brigham Young University, faculty members developed a comprehensive account of what physics students need to know and be able to do at the associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degree levels. “The B.S./B.A. student should demonstrate the ability to use statistical mechanics to define the entropy from the density of states and connect this form to the 2nd law when expressed as ds = dQ/dT >= 0,” for example. Other requirements include extensive laboratory, research, and communications skills.


“The process builds in accountability,” Evenson told me. “Once you’ve defined the outcomes, you can ask, ‘Are the programs really doing that?’ If a student finishes and can’t do what’s advertised, they’ll say, ‘I’ve been shortchanged.’ Transparency makes it easier for students, parents, and policy makers to make the right choices.” Tuning works only if it’s faculty-driven, Evenson stressed, rather than imposed from the outside. And tuning doesn’t mean that different colleges and professors will all start teaching exactly the same way—only that they will teach with shared, public goals in mind.

These are process reforms, but they’re essential to substantive reforms in the way higher education is done. Modern information technology clearly makes it possible to attempt any number of new approaches (whether DIY U-ish or otherwise) but it’s difficult to apply innovative teaching/learning experiences to a marketplace dominated by credentials and vaguely defined branding. A new university is almost by definition not a prestigious one, even it’s really good at teaching students. Developing real criteria for what you’re supposed to be learning gives innovators a chance to actually reap rewards from doing a good job.


Kevin Carey responds to a number of comments left here.

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