Earlier this month, Kevin Carey wrote an Upshot article that, if anything, understated the value of “badges” or “verified certificates” as opposed to degrees. As noted in several earlier posts and described in Carey’s article, “badges” are earned by the completion of a series of courses or activities embedded in a course, and when these “badges” are recognized as bona fide credentials the MOOC movement will gain irreversible traction:
Free online courses won’t revolutionize education until there is a parallel system of free or low-fee credentials, not controlled by traditional colleges, that leads to jobs. Now technological innovators are working on that, too.
The Mozilla Foundation, which brought the world the Firefox web browser, has spent the last few years creating what it calls the Open Badges project. Badges are electronic credentials that any organization, collegiate or otherwise, can issue. Badges indicate specific skills and knowledge, backed by links to electronic evidence of how and why, exactly, the badge was earned.
Some of the commenters criticized Carey’s naiveté or his desire to turn higher education into a utilitarian enterprise that turns out “cogs in the machine”. From where I sit, “badges” have tremendous promise for students— especially those students who are NOT engaged in formal education past high school or those directionless students who enroll in college because it is what their parents expect. Moreover, from my perspective as a former employer and a current consumer I can think of several places where “badges” are already in place:
- Technology repairs
- Auto repairs
- Medical providers
- Real Estate
The list could be extended endlessly because we are obsessed with credentials, many of which, as Carey notes, are meaningless at worst and obtuse at best:
… H.R. departments know what a bachelor’s degree is. “Verified certificates” are something new. But employers have a powerful incentive to move in this direction: Traditional college degrees are deeply inadequate tools for communicating information.
The standard diploma has roughly the same amount of information that prisoners of war are required to divulge under the Geneva Conventions. College transcripts are a nightmare of departmental abbreviations, course numbers of indeterminate meaning, and grades whose value has been steadily eroded by their inflation.
Instead of the diploma being the coin of the realm for HR staff, a detailed summary of the skills learned at college would take it’s place… in effect a portfolio of the work completed in college would replace the numeric GPA and single sheet of course listings. Once that takes place, HR staff members will likely place a diploma bearing applicant on equal footing with a non-degrees applicant who has superior job-specific skills as evidenced by a certificate. This happens already in technology-related areas where an applicant with a specific product certification is deemed superior to someone with a generic computer technology degree when they are applying. In our school district which used Apple computers, for example, we sought “Apple Certifications” in all applicants and valued experience in a school environment over a generic technology degree. I imagine auto dealers seek the same kind of product-specific training in their applicants and trust that the phlebotomist at my doctor’s office has certification in that area.
As Carey reports, the details on “badges” are being worked out in an organic fashion… and once they are worked out and in place the MOOC revolution will happen rapidly and education at all levels will need to adapt just as quickly.
A few days ago, Kevin Carey wrote an op ed article that I wrote a post on. Today, NYTimes columnist Joe Nocera wrote a piece on “The End of College”, a book Carey has published. Nocera basically recounts the information from Carey’s earlier column, and concludes his essay with Carey’s assertion that “…it was inevitable that we were going to see an increased educational experience at a far lower cost.” I hope Mr. Carey is correct… for if he is it will signal the end of the factory school and the advent of the kind of Network School I described in “Reformatting New England Schools“. As I noted in the comment I left on Nocera’s column, Carey’s thinking echoes that of Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, published in 1971 and fittingly available for free on line:
As I’ve noted in several previous posts, chapter 6, “Learning Webs” which envisions a pre-internet version of experiential learning that is now feasible given the reach of web, is especially prescient. And, as noted in several earlier posts, what is particularly distressing to those of us who valued the thinking of “radicals” like Illich is this: technology COULD be a force for creativity, individualization and innovation in education. Instead we are using technology to administer standardized tests and keep records on children that reinforce the factory model of education.
My hope is that at some juncture we’ll appreciate what schooling COULD look like if we abandoned our current model of batching children by age cohorts and pouring information into them… and whether he knows it or not, Joe Nocera just got on the bandwagon to move beyond factory schools!
Richard Elmore’s Inside Higher Ed blog post titled “The Future is Learning, But What About Schooling” describes his entry into the world of MOOCs after teaching at Harvard Graduate School of Education for two decades. The post describes the kind of schooling– or more accurately DE-schooling or UN-schooling— that I see evolving in the next two decades as more and more parents and students opt out of “school” and opt into “learning”. What’s the difference?
The future of learning in society is virtually unlimited, at least for the foreseeable future. Learning is the conversion of information into knowledge; information, in the digital age has become a vast sea of ones and zeros; information becomes knowledge by passing through some medium that transforms the ones and zeros into a conceptually organized form.
Students are schooled for adult approval and conformity to highly standardized, institutionalized expectations, created by people in positions of public authority who have no knowledge whatsoever of how learning works as an individual and social activity.
Stated differently: learning is an individuating activity; schooling is a norming activity… and in this day and age where children and adults— particularly with technological know-how— can design custom radio and TV stations, receive customized news feeds, and expect high quality service when they shop, norming activities are an anathema. In the coming years, as technological literacy spreads, more and more parents and children will become accustomed to customization and individualization and be less and less open to receiving standardized instruction…. and technology makes it possible for all instruction to be individualized with one notable exception. The transmission of the “…skills required to negotiate this increasingly complex world” which do not hinge on “…adult approval and conformity to highly standardized, institutionalized expectations” but rather the ability to interact with peers and the ability to analyze the information that is learned.
After reading Elmore’s post I left the following comment:
I re-read Deschooling Society a few years ago… and it is amazing how prescient Illich was. Illich, too, was “fascinated with the future of learning as a social activity” and skeptical “about the future of institutionalized schooling as a setting for learning”. Many of the trends in on-line learning point to a time when decentralized seminar groups will replace classrooms on campus, when ad hoc certificates for specific skill sets replace “courses” and “diplomas”, and ad hoc certificate providers replace rigid institutions that offer credentials. The decentralizing trend will only be accelerated if we continue to use our test-centric method of accountability because it IS “…hard to imagine an institutional structure for learning that is less suited for the future than the heavily institutionalized, hierarchical world that education reformers have constructed.”
Readers of this blog know that I have long advocated the need for ALL homes to have broadband access if we ever expect public schools to take full advantage of technology and ever hope to use technology as a means to provide equitable opportunity. Today’s NYTimes reports that Obama will be pushing to pass federal legislation that overrides state laws that prohibit or limit broadband expansion.
A sidebar: I am beginning to sense that Obama has waited until NOW to push legislation that will be disagreeable to the private sector because he no longer needs their campaign $$$. If my conclusion is accurate. it is further evidence that Citizens United needs to be repealed. Here’s hoping THIS Congress, which appears to be beholden to the telecomm business, will not throw a monkey wrench into Obama’s charge to the FCC.
Just before Christmas blogger Audrey Watters posted an essay titled “What is Competency Based Education” that defined that term as follows:
Rather than moving students together through materials for a fixed duration of a class, CBE enables students to move at their own pace through the curriculum. They are assessed along the way, and if they can demonstrate “competency” on a particular skill, they can move forward to the next. This is seen as an alternative to traditional models where students receive a grade — and credit — at the end of the course, but that grade can range from A to D, meaning that students have attained very different levels of understanding of the course materials.
I’ve used a set of questions she posed at the end of that article to write a series on the topic of CBE, which is the instructional backbone for what I call “Network Schools”. This post is part of that series.
What support systems — people and technology — need to be in place for schools to successfully move to CBE? What other frameworks need to be in place to promote a “progressive” CBE?
CBE schools may not require additional staff… but… CBE schools WILL require the re-deployment of existing staff at all levels. As noted in earlier posts, in CBE schools students will not be assigned to “classes” in age-based “grades”. Instead of having a sequence of “grade-level” teachers or content area teachers, CBE students will be assigned to an academic advisor-coach who would follow their progress through the mastery of fundamental competencies (i.e. what is currently expected of students leaving eighth grade). While this kind of extended advisor-coach relationship is uncommon in public education, it is typical in Waldorf Schools where an age cohort of students is instructed by a single teacher through eighth grade. In such an arrangement student progress more anecdotal and not wholly determined by test results and, most importantly, the student and parent have a sustained relationship with an individual who gets to know a student well. This requires a different skill set than the factory school teacher: it values nurturance and developmental psychology over knowledge of a specific skill and test construction and administration.
In order to provide the kind of asynchronous learning described in earlier posts, CBE schools would require broadband access in all student and teacher residences and would require an airtight student information systems that ensure confidentiality between the student and academic advisor-coach and/or between the academic advisor-coach and parent. Many teachers and parents are rightfully concerned about the sharing of data with for-profit enterprises, yet the pushback against the mandated data management systems in the health area has been minimal. The CBE data management system described above, where the information is not shared with for-profit enterprises, is analogous to the way a pediatrician or other health professional stores and shares information with parents, patients (e.g. children) and other health professionals. If we can entrust health information with medical personnel of all educational backgrounds, we should be open to doing the same when it comes to educators and related service providers. An essay I wrote several years ago, A Homeland Security Bill for Education, describes how interagency communication might facilitate learning for students who are part of the social service web. In the intervening years since the publication of that article the capability of data sharing has increased but the interagency firewalls remain in place.
Hack Education, Audrey Watters weekly blog, is always engaging and chock full of articles that are not typically covered in the mainstream press. Like one of my other favorite bloggers, Yves Smith who writes the Naked Capitalism blog, Watters offers an array of links with pithy, funny, and occasionally obscene commentary on each of the articles. Her one word comment to a link to a post from Heartland Institute’s “Somewhat Reasonable” titled “How On-Line Education Can Save Conservatism” was: “Shudder“. After reading it I had the same response.
Heartland Institute is a Chicago based “30-year-old national nonprofit research organization dedicated to finding and promoting ideas that empower people.” A quick inspection of it’s home page indicates the website has a trove of articles on the climate change hoax, the benefits of free enterprise, the importance of liberty, and the idea that liberals are taking over. Here is it’s mission statement, with my emphases added:
The mission of The Heartland Institute is to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems. Such solutions include parental choice in education, choice and personal responsibility in health care, market-based approaches to environmental protection, privatization of public services, and deregulation in areas where property rights and markets do a better job than government bureaucracies.
The Heartland Institute is a national nonprofit research and education organization based in Chicago. Founded in 1984, it is tax exempt under Section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code. It is not affiliated with any political party, business, or foundation.
Heartland has gained the endorsement of some of the top scholars, thinkers and politicians in the world – including Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman, former Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus, Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist, radio talk show host and constitutional scholar Mark R. Levin, and conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC). See all the heavyweights who praise Heartland here.
Here’s what made me shudder: some of the ideas advocated in the article written by Justin Harkin echo ideas advocated in this blog and many other blogs written by those who believe that technology could make it possible to individualize education… and underscores the reality that if public education does not encourage cross communication among different economic classes and among children coming from households with markedly differing views on the world, technology will ultimately lead to a nation that is even more divided and more contentious than we have today.
The article begins with a litany describing how “U.S. education is rife with liberalism” because, as presumably everyone knows, “Teachers colleges and teachers unions have worked tirelessly to ensure that school systems across the country are stocked with educators that reject traditional free-market and liberty-focused curricula.” It goes on to provide survey data from UCLA faculty indicating the majority of them identify themselves as “far left” or “liberal”. At the end of the opening section it poses the question of how conservative parents might deal with this reality, answering that question with this paragraph:
The obvious answer is for parents to send children to private schools that embrace personal responsibility and liberty or to start homeschooling. In both situations, however, time, funding, and the teaching ability of the parent may stand in the way as nearly insurmountable obstacles. This is where the advancement of online education could save the day.
The rationale for using mediated on-line learning is very similar to the rationale often advanced in this blog:
Digital learning stands on its own or adds great blended value because it can adapt to the capacity and speed of individual learners, provide minute-by-minute feedback on learning progress, and provide rewards suitable for individual learners. It is similar to an imaginary inexhaustible, highly skilled tutor.
Justin Harkin then outlines how on-line learning to “…advance the cause of liberty”, describing the “astounding” results achieved by “highly successful private and charter schools (that) have taken advantage of this new technology,” offering Rocketship as an exemplar. His article concludes with this call to arms:
…It’s up to conservatives, Tea Party groups, private schools that espouse liberty, and homeschools to build educational systems that promote the values that built America. Technology has made the once-reasonable excuses of cost, location, and time no longer applicable.
With some hard work and innovative thinking, conservatives now have the opportunity to combat the liberal tide that has swept across the country’s education system over the past 50 years.
The call to arms to abandon public schools on the right is mirrored to a degree by the call to arms to abandon the testing regimen among progressives and the fact that technology DOES make it easier to home school, to offer alternative education programs for children, or to “un-school” could lead to a generation of students who never hear viewpoints that are antithetical to those held by their parents.
I may have a romanticized view of my schooling. I recall being in classes taught by both liberal and conservative teachers, both progressive and traditional teachers, and teachers of different races and ethnicities. I was in classes with “gifted” and “average” students— or more accurately classes with classmates whose parents attended college and classmates whose parents worked in the local factories or on the local farms. I was exposed to a full spectrum of political views and Western religions.
I may also have a romanticized view of the era I grew up in, the late 1950s and early 1960s. I was allowed to explore the woods near our house, play pick-up ball games with kids of all races and backgrounds, and went on family camping vacations across the United States. I was active in our church youth fellowship, played piano and guitar, acted in school plays, and, in retrospect, was generally happy with the opportunities I had in public school. More importantly, I had a sense that the community cared about our generation and wanted us to have a better life. There was a hope that we would not have any more wars, that we would achieve racial harmony, that everyone would have a chance to get ahead, and we had a responsibility to help those who were less fortunate. Did I get that sense from my parents? From the three major networks who broadcast the news and offered TV programs? From the teachers in my school?
The homeschooling and charter schooling advocated in the Heartland blog and the Opt Out and Un-Schooling movements are all driven by disenfranchised parents who believe that public schools are too constraining or inculcating the wrong values. As technology advances, public education needs to make it clear that one of it’s primary functions is to teach children how to live in a democracy under the rule of law. It cannot do that if the school district boundaries segregate students based on economics and— yes– race, or if parents who espouse “liberty” and “Christian values” withhold their children, or if parents who value creativity and despise the regimentation resulting from standardized tests abandon public schools. It cannot do that if children stay at home working in front of computers or attend seminars with other children with like-minded parents. The fragmentation that is envisioned in the Heartland blog… that makes me shudder.