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Aiding and ABETing: The Bankruptcy of Outcomes-based Education as a Change Strategy

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

Accreditation and Outcomes-based Education

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.141.1 - 25.141.13



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Paper Authors


Donna M. Riley Smith College

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Donna Riley is Associate Professor and a founding faculty member in the Picker Engineering Program at Smith College. Her research interests include liberative pedagogies, engineering ethics, engineering and social justice, and exclusionary structures of power in engineering education.

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Aiding and ABETing: The Bankruptcy of Outcome-Based Education as a Change StrategyABET’s criteria 2000 were widely heralded among engineering education reformers as a harbinger ofchange. And while historians in the Liberal Education Division reminded us that calls for bettercommunication and consideration of social context were not new in engineering education, many of usdared to hope that things would be different this time. New engineering programs founded in this erapromised a clean slate from which to create models of new, balanced curricula. ABET’s bean countingformulas had so obviously constrained creativity and stifled reform efforts; surely this shift would provideboth flexibility and external incentive to engineering programs to make much needed changes.A decade later, with most programs having gone through two accreditation cycles under Criteria 2000, wehave seen at best incremental change. In retrospect, adopting outcome-based education (OBE) shouldhave raised red flags for more of us, as its problems have been well known to education scholars for sometime. Drawing on social theories of education that take a critical view of OBE, this paper will show howABET’s implementation across engineering education reproduces and reinforces a certain social order inthe profession and in society, one that continues to resist real change in educational structures,curriculum, and pedagogy.This more theoretical discussion will be supported by findings from my research developing,implementing, and assessing critical pedagogies in engineering education. Within the power structuresthat exist in my institution and across engineering education, ABET outcomes sometimes can be used tojustify broadening the curriculum when such efforts come under attack by self-appointed technical rigorpolice. However, just as often, it constrains what is possible in engineering classrooms through its drivefor (certain kinds of) evidence of achievement of (specific) outcomes, regardless of process. ABETsupports students’ focus on credentialing to the exclusion of intellectual curiosity, undermining its statedoutcome of lifelong learning. What’s missing from the defined outcomes is also telling; ABET’seducational outcomes reinforce the invisibility of underrepresented groups in engineering communitiesand devalues discussions of diversity altogether.The paper will close with some discussion of alternatives to outcomes-based education that might bettersupport change in engineering education.

Riley, D. M. (2012, June), Aiding and ABETing: The Bankruptcy of Outcomes-based Education as a Change Strategy Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--20901

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