Every January, I look out at the sea of eager young faces taking sustainable design at Ryerson University School of Interior Design, and I wonder why any of us are there. Don’t get me wrong; I love teaching. It gets me off my computer and in touch with another generation of designers. They seem to like it, given that the class is always oversubscribed and the school keeps asking me back.

But it all seems so archaic and silly. Back in 1088, when the University of Bologna was started, there were no printing presses and books were rare and expensive. So basically, an old white guy would stand at the front at a lectern and read from the one copy of a book they had at the school, and the students would slavishly write out what he said. Almost a millennium later, little has changed. An old white guy (me) stands up at a lectern and the students take notes, or whatever they're doing in that sea of Macs they're hiding behind.

students at rysersonMy students, looking at their Macs instead of me. Sigh. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Meanwhile half of the class isn’t even there. It’s a design school, and the studio courses are far more important than the electives so if there's a deadline, I lose. (Or if it snows too hard to bother making the trip to the school.)

Everyone has been looking for alternatives. Five years ago it was going to be Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. Students would view all their lectures online and take their exams there too. Some were predicting that by 2020, there would be just one university in America, Harvard, with 10 million students taking its MOOCs. But that concept has stalled because you don’t get a real degree, and the dropout rate is insanely high.

Now, Alana Semuels of the Atlantic describes the latest trend: Competency-based education. So, instead of counting bums in seats,

This new model looks at what students should know when they complete a certain degree, and allows them to acquire that knowledge by independently making their way through lessons. It also allows students who come into school with knowledge in a certain area to pass tests to prove it, rather than forcing them to take classes and pay for credits on information they already know.

Apparently it’s a big deal, a “disruptive innovation” in higher education. There’s no need for expensive buildings and lecture halls; it’s all online, a sort of Skype University. “Rather than a professor talking to a roomful of students, a professor talks to students one-on-one while they learn information at their own pace.”

The professors come up with a list of things that every student should know, and the university doesn't care if the students already know it from work and life experience or if they learned it during the course. Students work through the courses with a mentor, then get tested online with a proctor watching them work to make sure they're not cheating, (and hoping all the time that the student never watched "Mission Impossible" and could set up a fake screen.)

matchbookUnfortunately, these free booklets are long gone. (Photo: International Correspondence School)

Which is where the whole thing breaks down. Because there's nothing new about competency-based education. In fact, that's what correspondence schools have been doing for about 100 years. You read the material, you take a test — it’s what every professor does when giving an exam. But it doesn’t teach you how to think. It just tests your ability to load a whole bunch of rote information into your brain and barf it back on paper or your computer on demand.

The colleges and universities using competency-based education are teaching what has become community college fare: business, IT, teacher education and health care. These used to be taught at the university level but over the years have been downgraded. It seems to me like competency-based education is downgrading them again: learn the stuff you need to know to get a certificate, prove it to us and go get a job.

There's no question that the current system is broken. But really, competency isn’t enough. The challenge as a professor is to give the student the information he needs to make decisions, to question, to understand. Lectures, whether live or on YouTube, are really useful for that.

I change up my courses every year and rarely teach the same thing twice. That's because I'm still learning, sustainable design is always changing and my thoughts and opinions are still evolving. This year, I thought we should look at building certification systems, like LEED and One Planet Living and Passive House. We studied 10 of them, and when we finished the term, one of the exam questions was “what system were you most impressed with and want to work with?” Surprisingly, many of my students were impressed with the WELL building standard, one that I have written disparaging and critical posts about on TreeHugger. But they changed my mind, so I wrote about it on MNN. (If you're curious, you can also see most of their work here.)

I don't care about bums in seats and I don’t take attendance. I expect competence as a matter of course. But the point of a university is to go beyond competence and to promote excellence. Unfortunately, since 1088, we haven't figured out a better way to do that.

Related on MNN and TreeHugger:

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.