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.
My antipathy for video surveillance is evident to most readers of this blog, and even well crafted arguments in its favor, like those found in a recent K-12 TechDecisions post by Brian Armes and Guy Bleisner cannot dissuade me from that perspective. Armes and Bleisner, in an article describing the limitations of surveillance cameras, note that a camera, unlike live human beings, provides cold, objective reportage of incidents that require adult and/or parental intervention and, in doing so, provide caring adults with “teachable moments”. The case study they cite, involving two young men engaged in a shoving match while a nearby teaching assistant tended to a minor medical problem, resonated with me. There were several instances when I worked of six years as a high school disciplinarian that having a video record could have saved hours of sorting out who-did-what-to-whom. But the thought that students are being conditioned to video surveillance during every moment that are in school is chilling… even more so when I read one of the introductory paragraphs:
Unlike commercial and industrial organizations, few K-12 schools can afford full-time monitoring of their video surveillance systems and lack an immediate response capability. Passive monitoring by a secretary with a long list of other duties is about the best schools can hope for. With this kind of limitation, video surveillance in the K-12 environment is relegated to a reactive approach at best. In most cases, it becomes an investigatory and forensic tool after the fact.
Armes and Bleisner begin with the de facto assumption that the absence of video cameras is a “limitation” and that employees in “commercial and industrial organizations” are conditioned to a work environment with total and complete video monitoring.
Socialization is part of the hidden curriculum in school, and as a classroom teacher and school administrator I felt that the discipline in the school was based on an ethos of honesty. If there was a dispute between students about who-did-what-to-whom my preference was to have students work it out face-to-face even though it would have been much easier to review a videotape. Running a school based on robotic video surveillance has a far different feel than a school based on mutual respect and honesty. A video monitoring system feels like a police state while a mutual trust system feels more like a neighborhood watch… and I prefer the moral force of neighbors over the legalistic force of police. My belief: by relying on video surveillance we are increasing our fear of our neighbors and adding to the disconnection that is emerging in our communities. To paraphrase a tired aphorism, it takes a village to raise a child… not a police state.
High Tech, High Stakes Testing Company “Spies” to Protect Itself Against High Tech Opportunities to Cheat
Years ago when I was in college and contemplating joining a fraternity, one of the benefits touted by some of the Greek organizations was their comprehensive files of final examinations. This trove of old examinations served as a study guide and, in some cases would give you the actual examination itself if a teacher gave the same test year-after-year. Oh… and (wink, wink) in some cases one of your resourceful fraternity brothers might even provide you with questions given earlier in the day.
Seven years ago when I was superintendent of schools in NH a group of juniors and seniors entered the school after hours, broke into a teacher’s office, took final examinations on the eve of the examination, and circulated them among their friends. Because the event happened at the close of the school year, and because the event was not brought to the attention of the principal until after the school year concluded, and because we determined that the pilfering of the examinations required breaking into locked workspaces, we involved the police in our investigation. The arrests and trials that occurred the following school year resulted in national coverage (in part because it coincided with a debate in our community as part of the NH primary election), divided the community and school board over the issue of police involvement in the case, and ultimately led the staff, parents, community, and school board to engage in a dialogue on the ethos of the school.
These two personal experiences came to mind when I read Diane Ravtich’s recent posts on the steps Pearson is taking to prevent cheating on it’s high stakes high tech tests through the use of social media…. and the whole issue raises several questions about the consequences of administering high stakes tests of any kind.
As readers of this blog realize, I am an opponent of high stakes standardized testing. But my opposition to such testing includes opposition to heavily weighted final examinations like those that drove college students in the 60s to compile filing cabinets full of tests and high school students in 2008 to break into teachers’ offices on the eve of examinations. Unfortunately our entire educational system is built on the premise that such tests are a valid measure of learning. Why? Because they are basis for measuring student performance in virtually all colleges. To make matters worse, the AP Tests reinforce this mentality as do longstanding state tests like the NY Regents and now the plethora of new exit examinations that are part of the “reform” movement. Because of this reality, high school teachers administer analogous high-stakes tests to “prepare students for college” or to “get them ready for the State tests”. In short, public education is premised on the need to prepare students for summative examinations that ultimately determine whether they pass or fail a course. When viewed through that lens, is it any wonder that students might do whatever it takes to succeed on a such a high stakes summative examination?
The advent of cell phone technology combined with the desire to do whatever it takes to pass an examination inevitably results in memos from test designers like those issued by Pearson. But those protesting Pearson’s directives should ask this question:
- Does your school district administer teacher developed high-stakes final examinations?
- Does your school district allow these tests to be open-book tests?
- Does your school district allow students to bring cell phones (or handheld devices that access social media) into class when a high-stakes examination is being administered?
If the answer to the first two questions is “yes” then having a cell phone could arguably be acceptable since it would provide access to the trove of information available on the internet… But… what if a student, instead of using the phone to access “Google” uses it to seek an answer from a classmate? What steps can a teacher take to prevent that from happening?
The easiest workaround to this dilemma from Pearson’s perspective might be to declare that all students not be allowed to bring cell phones into testing venue. If Pearson issued such a directive the howls would be equally loud and equally justified because a third party vendor would be dictating a school policy that may or may not match the ethos of a school. So instead of mandating the collection of cell phones before entering a test area, Pearson issued an excruciatingly detailed process schools can follow to determine if cheating has taken place ex post facto… and justifiably howls of protest are being evoked. So… what IS the solution?
The optimal workaround to this problem would be to completely abandon the use of high stakes summative examinations. Some progressive colleges have figured out ways of assessing performance that does not require letter grades and, consequently, does not rely on summative test scores. So here’s an idea: Instead of using 21st century high tech “spying” to make sure that 19th century assessments are not being breached why not adopt the assessment methods used in progressive colleges and universities? If high schools adopted the “grading” structures of Bennington, Hampshire, and Evergreen instead of those used in traditional colleges we wouldn’t rely on high stakes tests: we’d rely on professional insights of teachers and each students emerging self-awareness.
I am slowly but surely shedding boxes of papers from the past and in doing so have reviewed journals I wrote in college, papers I wrote in graduate school, newspaper articles I wrote as superintendent of schools… and lesson plans from my two years of teaching middle school mathematics at Shaw Junior High School from 1970-72. As described in earlier posts, Shaw Junior High was a rough-and-tumble urban school with 3000 students on a split shift the first year I taught there and a 1600+/- school on a single shift the second year. During the first year, I found that the grade-level materials the district provided were inappropriate for my eight grade students, most of whom had not mastered the basic skills. Like most of my first-year colleagues, I encountered many discipline problems— most of which were brought on as a result of the difficulties I faced getting students engaged with the materials.
I was taking a graduate course on “Curriculum” and to complete an assignment for that course AND help me with my classroom management, I decided to write my own material for one of the sections I taught. I used some of the funds allocated to me to mimeograph a 30+ page set of materials that student could go through at their own pace. My wife, who was an artist, illustrated some of the pages with cartoon caricatures of me exhorting the class to “Do Your Math!”. With over 30 kids in the class, implementing this individualized learning was a challenge, especially since the notion of proceeding at their own pace was alien to the students. After a couple of weeks the students got the knack of it and settled into work on the material. The brightest kids in the class completed the packet quickly, but I found I could assign those same students supplementary problems and they worked on them without disrupting the class. Unsurprisingly, the most disruptive students in the class struggled the most with the work, but they were getting my personal attention to help them. I was observed in the class and while the assistant principal noted I was “not following the prescribed curriculum” he acknowledged that the class was orderly and on task… and my classroom management skills had improved.
This experience flashed before me when I read Tina Rosenburg’s Fixes column, “Reaching Students One By One” in yesterday’s NYTimes. The “Fix” Rosenburg describes is “Teach to One” a computer-based individualized program that can deliver exactly what I was attempting to deliver 44 years ago… and with Khan Academy, a wealth of web resources, and all kinds of tracking software teachers in PS 29 in Brooklyn are capable of accomplishing the goal of matching lessons to students far more effectively than I could. Rosenburg concludes her essay with this paragraph:
Critics ask a good question: Why should a school try an expensive, disruptive high-tech platform that’s still unproven? The answer is: in order to prove it. School of One takes comprehensive advantage of technology in ways that let teachers concentrate on teaching. That’s worth getting right. There may be ways to make it cheaper and more effective, but only through further experimentation. As for being disruptive, does anyone defend the current system? “We’re not aspiring to create the least disruptive program,” said Rose. “Our goal is a model that works.”
Taken to its ultimate conclusion programs like “Teach to One” could compel schools to engage in the ultimate disruption: the replacement of age-based grade level cohorts with individualized tracking. Here’s hoping that the standardized testing protocols, with their implicit assumption that all children learn at the same rate, don’t marginalize programs like “Teach to One” that help each and every student experience success.
Today’s NYTimes Sunday Review section features an op ed piece by Shelly Podolny titled “If an Algorithm Wrote This, How Would You Even Know?” Podolny’s essay describes how programmers have developed writing algorithms that enable robots to “write” articles that summarize things like baseball games, changes in the stock market, earthquake reports, and other iterative events that clearly lend themselves to synopses. But Podolny notes that as writing software becomes more sophisticated, the range of articles that are written by robots has expanded dramatically!
Automated Insights states that its software created one billion stories last year, many with no human intervention; its home page, as well as Narrative Science’s, displays logos of customers all of us would recognize: Samsung, Comcast, The A.P., Edmunds.com and Yahoo. What are the chances that you haven’t consumed such content without realizing it?
Books are robo-written, too. Consider the works of Philip M. Parker, a management science professor at the French business school Insead: Hispatented algorithmic system has generated more than a million books,more than 100,000 of which are available on Amazon. Give him a technical or arcane subject and his system will mine data and write a book or report, mimicking the thought process, he says, of a person who might write on the topic. Et voilà, “The Official Patient’s Sourcebook on Acne Rosacea.”
Narrative Science claims it can create “a narrative that is indistinguishable from a human-written one,” and Automated Insights says it specializes in writing “just like a human would,” but that’s precisely what gives me pause. The phrase is becoming a de facto parenthetical — not just for content creation, but where most technology is concerned.
As I noted in the comment section, this is an unsurprising development given that we have robots “grading” writing tests that are used to assess student performance… But this development also emphasizes how important it is for us to abandon the mechanistic standardized testing that we now use to “measure” the “education” we provide to students. It strikes me that if we truly want a “world class” education for our children we might want to use something more sophisticated than assessments that can be graded by robots.
But after reading Ross Douthat’s article, “The Case for Old Ideas” in the same section, maybe we want to turn out mindless robots since, according to Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari most people are going to relegated to meaningless work if they have any at all. Harari writes that today:
Work is disappearing for the erstwhile working class, the rich are increasingly self-segregating and marrying among themselves, and virtual realities are replacing older forms of intimacy.
So if there IS no work to be had for “the working class”, maybe we should use robotic assessments to measure the effectiveness of schooling for if Harari’s view of the future is accurate, after schooling is complete most people will be engrossed in virtual realities instead of work…
Today’s NYTimes features an op ed piece by former USDOE adviser Chad Alderman titled “In Defense of Annual School Testing”. In the essay Alderman argues that if we drop annual testing at each grade level we will no longer focus on the performance of Hispanic and African American students because, he assumes, we will lose the ability to meaningfully disaggregate the data as we are doing now. There are many flaws to Alderman’s thinking, but instead of enumerating them I want to call attention to the biggest flaw of all: our insistence that we use age-based cohorts as the primary means of measuring performance. My comment describes how this insistence on standardization based on these cohorts reinforces the factory model for schooling and precludes the individualization that is possible given the technology available today:
By using standardized tests administered to age-based cohorts we call “grade levels” we are reinforcing a factory model that was instituted in the 1920s. Technology gives educators the opportunity to break away from the age-based grade levels and teacher-centered classroom and thereby individualize instruction in a fashion that was previously impossible. Unfortunately, given our obsession with ranking and comparing groups of students, teachers, and schools we use standardized tests as a metric effectively insisting that all children develop their intellect at the same rate of speed. With the mindless teaching-to-the-test that results from using high-stakes testing to “measure” schools and teachers it is not surprising to see more and more parents opting out of public education altogether…. but sometimes it seems that’s part of the plan.
I remain convinced that there is a way public education could facilitate the migration out of the factory school model and into the kind of individualization that un-schooling parents provide to their children…. but as long as schools, teachers, and students are “measured” based on age-based standards we will be stuck with the 1920 factory model in an age where manufacturers themselves have abandoned that model altogether.