Do you feel like Dorothy? Are you looking around the educational landscape and talking to your dog? “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Education is changing. Of course, it always has an always will. We change as we grow in understanding of how people learn. We change as we forgot how people learn. We change at the demand of regulating bodies. We change as we strive to best prepare people for living in the  contemporary world. We change as new possibilities, technologies and opportunities arise.

So, where are we now in the 21st century? Ask a dozen people and you’ll get two dozen answers. The answer depends upon your beliefs, values and convictions about education. It is a question of educational philosophy as much as that of practice. Nonetheless, here are 12 approaches that I offer as especially valuable for those engaging in education in the 21st century. I call this the twelve-month curriculum for becoming a digital age educator. Devote one month to exploring and experimenting with each one over the next year and you should have a pretty good grasp of some of the newest developments. Along the way, you will find yourself thinking about teaching and learning differently, adding a new measure of experimentation and playfulness to your work as an educator, and I guarantee that your students will notice.

Before we get started, I want to point something out. You will only see reference to a few specific technologies in this list. That is because being a digital age teacher is not about knowing how to use specific technologies. It is a mindset and approach to teaching and learning that embraces the spirit of collaboration, creativity, personalization, connectivity, innovation, exploration and experimentation.

I have one more thing to note before sharing the 12-month plan. If you really want to become skilled and not just informed about these different things, you have to do something. Experiment, reflect, experiment more, and then reflect more. Without that, you will have the appearance of a digital age teacher without the substance of one. This is not just about acquiring new knowledge. This is about cultivating new skill (mental and otherwise). With that out of the way, let the learning begin!

Month 1 – Project-based Learning

There is nothing distinctly 21st century about this approach, except that it is gaining popularity and interest. Advocates point out that PBL, done well, helps student learn to explore something in-depth, doing more than just learning in blocks of 45-60 minutes. Rather, students get the time to devote hours to exploring a single question or problem over a course of days, weeks, or months. Spend a month looking at the examples, articles, videos, templates and guides at the Buck Institute’s web site and you should have a solid introduction to the topic. While BIE focuses upon K-12 PBL, the concepts can apply at almost any level.

Month 2 – Self-directed Learning

This one gained traction in the 1970s, but the emergence of the web and increased access to information and resources amplifies its importance. This is about doing more than giving a man a fish. It is about teaching a man to fish, or helping students gain the competence and confidence to learn on their own, well after they are in a classroom or school. I have a number of articles on this subject. For an initial primer, check out the one about helping students develop personal learning networks. The embedded one-hour video introduces the topic further. For another read on the subject, check out this list of templates for self-directed learning projects with your students  or this article on Why Self-Directed Learning?: Making the World Your Classroom.

Month 3 – Game-based Learning and Gamification

There are fascinating developments in the application of game principles to education environments. There is game-based learning, which is creating or using games in which students learning something. Check out the Edutopia videos and blog articles for a primer (although the purist in me has to tell you that they sometimes confuse gamification and game-based learning). Then there is gamification of learning, where you take principles of games and use them to enhance non-game learning experiences. Or, for a twist, you can hack game-based learning. Check out the sources for a couple of weeks and then try them out. Gamify some of your lessons and see if you can find or create a game-based learning lesson or unit that would work for your teaching and learning purposes.

Month 4 – Blended Learning

This is more than just the flipped classroom. For an excellent introduction to the different approaches to blended learning, check out the resources at the Clayton Christiansen Institute web site. You can get a quick intro here and then head over to the Blended Learning Universe for real world cases and examples (It was under construction at the time of writing this post, but check back because it used to be great, so I’m sure that their updates will make it even better). My article on the flipped classroom is a favorite on my blog, and one that might be a helpful read as well. In addition to explaining the concept, it gives you a three-part planning graphic for flipped classroom lessons.

Month 5 – Moving Beyond Integrating Technology

Integrating technology is not 21st century teaching and learning. Check out this article to understand why I say that. However, part of moving beyond integrating technology is getting informed and skilled at using different models of teaching and learning with technology. I suggest taking time to familiarize yourself with three: SAMR, TPACK, and LOTI. Take time to understand and experiment with applying each of them. Explore the benefits and limitations. Along the way you will develop a much more advanced understanding of teaching and learning with technology. Gone will be the days of thinking that using an iPad, SmartBoard or Twitter makes you a tech-savvy digital age teacher.

Month 6 – Adaptive Learning Software & Learning Analytics

Adaptive learning involves software that adapts to the needs of the learner. Read the Wikipedia entry on it and then spend time trying out some of the adaptive learning software packages catalogued on EdSurge. Get demo copies of the software and try them for yourself. Then consider what role in a real-world learning environment. If you are a math teachers, you are in luck, because that is where much of the adaptive learning software is presently focused. If not, take heart and focus on the other part, learning analytics.

Along with adaptive learning, I included learning analytics in this category. You can also start by reading the simple article on Wikipedia, but to get a balanced view, I also suggest Audrey Waters’s 2012 blog post. Browsing the 2014 Learning Analytics Conference site might also help, but you’ll then want to start searching for some of the current and emerging learning analytics software packages that even allow for more real-time data to inform classroom teaching (online, blended or face-to-face).

Month 7 – Learning Beyond Letter Grades

I led a MOOC on this topic last year. All the content is still freely available here. It will introduce you to formative/summative assessment distinctions, narrative feedback, competency-based education, portfolio assessment, standards-based report cards, digital badges for learning, peer feedback, and more. It is a helpful primer of what is possible beyond some of the traditional practices. While the course is not open, it even includes suggested “assignments” to experiment with each of the ideas. Do this for a month and you will have a great start at understanding assessment and feedback possibilities in the digital age. By the way, the course was designed to be completed in a month!

Month 8 – Peer-to-Peer Learning / Peeragogy

This is a vast topic, but collaboration across networks, peer feedback, and the like is a critical 21st century skill and a promising 21st century teaching approach. To see something specific, check out my article on collective essay writing.  For tips and resources on teaching digital age collaboration, go here. Read this for recognizing some of the differences between traditional cooperative learning and digital age collaboration, or go here for an introduction to digital collaboration fluency. Then you might want to use this month to explore opportunities for collaborative teaching and learning with wikis, learning management systems, synchronous online communication tools (like Skype and Google Hangouts), and Google Drive. Don’t focus on just how to use the tools. The power in thinking about how to promote and understand new forms of collaboration and connectivity that make new approaches to teaching learning possible.

If you really want to have a deep dive into this subject, check out this only text on the subject.

Month 9 – Experiential and the Maker Movement

Learning by experiencing and doing is just as powerful as it has always been, but there are more resources than ever to help us do it well. This site gives you a good introduction to experiential learning. Then you can go a little different direction and check out the fast-growing movement called place-based learning. After exploring and experimenting with those a bit, you might want to wander into learning by doing and the maker space movement. Sylvia Martinez’s podcast/show on the subject is a good start. Once you have a basic understanding, check out the Maker Education Initiative for next steps.

Month 10 – Personalized Learning

Here are 5 books to get you started on the subject. Stop at the first two and you’ll have a wealth of ideas to explore and apply. Simply stated, personalized learning is adjusting pedagogy, learning experiences, learning environments, curricula and the like to the individual needs of learners. If you made it this far, you’ve already learned about forms of personalized learning in past months, but dedicating this month to a couple of great reads on the subject will help you build some valuable connections. Yes, there is cross-over with the adaptive learning software, but this is a certain feature of future education environments, making a dedicated month definitely worth the time and effort.

Month 11- Competency-based Education

Without question, the best resources on the web for this topic is the Competency Works Clearinghouse. You will find explanations, resources, worked examples and a ton of great stuff on their wiki. And for a balanced perspective, you might also want to check out my 6 CBE dangers article.

Month 12 – Choose Your Own Adventure

This is the digital age and there will always be more to learn. So, pick one or two of the following and do some research, experiment, and/or try it out in your class: inquiry-based learning, passion-based learning, problem-based learning, case-based learning, online learning, learning in-depth (LID), connected learning, open learning, digital badges for learning, the slow learning movement, self-organized learning environments…or find and explore something else.

If you take the initiative and do something of substance in this 12th month, then you’ve captured the true spirit of the digital age teacher. Congratulations!

BONUS – The PLN Challenge – As I just stated, there is always something new to learn. So, how will you learn it? That comes from building a robust personal learning network. If you want to have an amazing one, try out the PLN Challenge that I make here. Earning this badge will put you in one of the most exclusive clubs on the web. It is not for the faint of hear, but that isn’t going to stop you. You’re a digital age teacher!

I’m fond of Bloom’s Taxonomy because it helped me overcome one the earliest challenges of my teaching career. In my first year of teaching, I struggled with classroom management. I dreamed of walking into class and students treating me like Socrates, or maybe a mix between Socrates, Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society and that angel from Highway to Heaven. I imagined classes of students naturally leaning in to hear each word that comes out of my mouth, that they would love to learn whatever I set before them. In less than a week, I lived in a very different world, one where students were more interested in what others were doing during the weekend, where some couldn’t stay awake in class, where others found great joy in doing whatever it took to get me off-track and add some interest to their hour, and where the “good” students dreaded class because they hated the chaos. I didn’t know what to do, so I went to the principal and, afraid and embarrassed, I explained my problem, thinking that perhaps I was in the wrong profession. In response, he pulled out a photocopy from a book about Bloom’s Taxonomy and action verbs associated with each part. He suggested that I start using this to create thoughtful questions in advance of each class, building the questions from the lowest level of Blooms (knowledge and understanding) to questions about creation and evaluation. After each question, he advised me to develop a series of follow-up questions, ways to rephrase ideas if they didn’t make sense to students. These follow-ups would also help take students deeper into the subject.

I took his advice, spending the night building a list of thirty questions for a class the next morning. In fact, in less than a couple hours I had over a hundred questions that I then winnowed down. I went to 1st hour the next day, questions in hand. The principal agreed to sit in the back and debrief the lesson with me afterward. I started the class with a short “hook”, shared some content with them, and them started with my questions. The result was life-changing. I had a group of 7th and 8th graders engaged in a wonderful blend of questions where we analyzed, applied, evaluated, and created. I played devil’s advocate. I started to ask “What if…” questions and others that invited them to use their imaginations.  I asked about how this could be used in the real world or if we were better off not learning it. I asked question that challenged them to compare what we were learning with aspects of popular culture and ideas that I gleaned from the top teen magazines of the time. I asked them to be advocates, critics, then advocates again…then critics. Soon they started asking better questions than I could have planned, and we started to have genuinely interesting conversations about United States history or any other subject in the curriculum. I don’t want to mislead, suggesting that everything became perfect. It was not, and I did not become an amazing teacher. The “sleeping” students didn’t instantly turn into Arnold Horshack overnight, but I saw subtle signs of interest. The atmosphere changed from one of pain and drudgery to one of curiosity, creativity and hope. More students were interested, engaged, sharing ideas, and asking questions. Class started to feel less like crowd control and more like…well more like a community of learners.

I fell in love with questions. I created long lists of them, and more than once imagined turning these lists into a coffee table book. I also implemented a weekly question of the day, where we spent the first few minutes of some classes…each responding to some imaginative question, sometimes related to the lesson for the day, but often just a way to explore ourselves and the world.

  • If you could travel anywhere in the universe for 15 seconds without harm and then appear back in this room, where would you go?
  • If you could have any superpower, what would you choose?
  • If you had to give up one sense for a year, which one would it be?
  • If you could snap your fingers and instantly have any one book memorized, which book would you choose?
  • If you could be known as the inventor of any new idea, product, or anything else in the future, what would it be?
  • If you had a million dollars to give away, but you only had five minutes to do so, what would you do with it?
  • If you had to eat the same two foods for the rest of your life, what would they be?
  • If you could interview any person from history, who would it be?

Class became more about questions, occasionally about answers, but almost always about a ha moments, exploration, experimentation, imagination, and the desire to know and understand. Together we started to learn the power and possibility of asking and exploring questions. We learned how a single question could help break through disinterest, irrelevance, confusion, doubt, anger, and a sense of isolation. We discovered the truth in Michael Card’s question, “Could it be that questions tell us more than answers ever do?” We started to discover the wisdom behind Voltaire when he wrote, “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” We experienced firsthand why Einstein said, “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.” We decided to conjure the magic of childhood and not simply pursue the ways of the adult, as explained by Locke when he wrote, “There is frequently more to be learned from the unexpected questions of a child than the discourses of men.” And being a U2 fan, I found new meaning in the words sung by Bono, “We thought that we had the answers, it was the questions we had wrong.”

Over time, I started to realize that my questions were not the essence of an amazing education. I was learning more than ever, but what about the students? How might I invite students to his wonderful world of asking and exploring questions? The following presentation represents where this line of thinking took me.

Then I met Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner through their book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. They affirmed my love for questions and helped me turn it into a philosophy of education that believes in nurturing curiosity, exploration, and self-direction. Postman wrote,

“Good learners have a high degree of respect for facts (which they understand are tentative) and are skillful in making distinctions between statements of fact and other kinds of statements. Good learners, for the most part, are highly skilled in all the language behaviors that comprise what we call ‘inquiry’. For example, they know how to ask meaningful questions; they are persistent in examining their own assumptions; they use definitions and metaphors as instruments for their thinking and are rarely trapped by their own language; they are apt to be cautious and precise in asking generalizations, and they engage continually in verifying what they believe; they an careful observers and seen to recognize that language tends to obscure differences and control perceptions.” p. 30

In this little book of less than 200 pages, Postman and Charles Weingartner referred to questions over 60 times! They explained how simple black and white questions foster a mindset of compliance and conformity that does not represent much of real life. They argued for asking and inviting learners to move from convergent to divergent questions. As a result, they wrote about the “inquiry teacher” in this way,

“His basic mode of discourse with students is questioning. While he uses both convergent and divergent questions, he regards the latter as the more important tool. He emphatically does not view questions as a means of seducing students into parroting the text or syllabus; rather, he sees questions as instruments to open engaged minds to unsuspected possibilities.” p. 32

I remember reading this book and later looking at the front matter, noticing that it was published in 1971, the year I was born. I liked to think of that as more than a coincidence. My professional life is not one that perfectly reflects the philosophy that Postman and Charles Weingartner describe in the text. Mine is more paradoxical. I continue to the be drawn a the philosophy of education that values creativity, curiosity, inquiry, experimentation and exploration. It shows up in my work around self-directed learning and project-based learning. It is evident in my writing about self-blended learning, unschooling, informal learning, human agency and alternative education. It informs my desire to explore alternatives to letter grades, standardized tests, and industrial age attributes of our system. And much of it started with Bloom’s taxonomy, a way of categorizing knowledge that is largely unsupported by solid research and increasingly questioned as a valid and useful tool in education. Yet, for me, it was a means to explore a new way of thinking about teaching and learning.

 

I just read a great article at Education Dive by Keith Burton on 7 Competency-based Programs to Keep an Eye On. Keith does a fine job highlighting the CBE higher education programs that get the most media attention: University of Michigan, The University of Wisconsin System, Purdue University, Western Governor’s University, Southern New Hampshire University, Capella University, and Northern Arizona University. These are well-funded programs from large entities that are already having great success (as in WGU and SNHU) or are likely to do so in the near future.

As noted in Burton’s article, there are hundreds more who are offering CBE programming. Often in the world of education, we look at the largest and most well-funded initiatives for the example, but I find it useful to also pay attention to some of the smaller, lesser known programs around which there might be less media attention. Some of these might provide the ideal solution for a given context. With that in mind, I offer 7 more competency-based education programs to watch, not because they are necessarily going to be massive, but each one offers a new lesson, model, or example.

1. Patten University and New Charter University – These two for-profit schools are managed by UniversityNow , a social venture committed to increasing access to affordable and quality higher education. Patten, the newer acquisition of the two (it was previously a non-profit faith-based school) has the accreditation approval of Western Association of Schools and Colleges and is offering wonderfully inexpensive education through carefully designed competency-based programming that is gaining the praise of important external stakeholders. Tuition for undergraduate studies, for example, is only $350 per month. Part of what earned this praise is their decision to opt out of the federal financial aid program, allowing them more flexibility in how they go about their CBE program. This is an important case study that can help prove the effectiveness of a model that is not constrained by the some of the policies applied to CBE schools that offer federal financial aid.

2. Concordia University Wisconsin – Of course I need to include this one because I work there and am involved in the design of it. With that said, I do see it as providing an important case/example as schools consider different routes toward CBE. What makes it noteworthy, however, is that it is not technically a competency-based program. It uses standard courses with start and end dates, grades, includes a small percentage of assessment that is less competency-based; but it still is largely built around competency-based digital badges. In essence, it is one model of how to leverage the best of CBE within a traditional program. So, it is a more traditional online program, but students earn competency-based digital badges along the way.

3. University of Texas –  As of publishing this post, the University of Texas is one of the newest, offering some distinctions that we do not see in other CBE programming. It leverages personalized learning, adaptive learning, and spans high school through graduate studies. Following is a short quote from their press release:

The University of Texas System will be the first in the nation to launch a personalized, competency-based education program system-wide aimed at learners from high school through post-graduate studies.

What sets the UT System approach apart from other competency-based programs is a focus on offering personalized and adaptive degrees and certificates that are industry-aligned and – via technology developed by the UT System – can systematically improve success, access and completion rates in areas of high employment demand.

4. Bellevue College – Another brand new implementation, Bellevue college starts its pilot in the in past several months, focusing upon offering certificates and full degrees in technical areas. This is a fully online option. You can read more through their FAQ page.

5. Indiana CPA Center for Excellence – This is yet another first in the United States. It is not a degree program, but instead the first competency-based program for maintaining licensure as a CPA in the state of Indiana. This is an important model to consider as a growing number of professional organizations are looking at CBE for the purposes of maintaining competent licensed practitioners in various fields. By the way, they also issue digital badges as evidence of meeting competencies.

6. Valencia College – Valencia offers us a valuable case of how CBE can be applied for faculty development. So, this is not for the students, but it is a program that illustrates how we might use self-paced, competency-based professional development activities. Might this also prepare faculty for future CBE programs with the students?

7. Edmonds Community College – This one is noteworthy because they use the magic word, “free.” Through Edmonds Community College’s Pace-IT program, they are offering a free competency-based certificate in information technology. That is certainly a way to work through issues with financial aid. You can look through their site.

As I stated at the beginning, it is good and important to track the work of the large Universities and massive players in competency-based education, but some of the lesser known or smaller players have a great deal to offer. As we seek to consider the affordances and limitations of CBE, I contend that is important not to make the same mistake we did with MOOCS, evaluating MOOCs only on the basis of what happens at the big two: Coursera and EdX. We want to look at the rich and broad landscape of CBE, and the seven listed above push us in that direction.

Please consider sharing examples of other competency-based programs in a comment.

What does it mean to be pro-education? Given that it is election day here in the States, I thought it a valuable question to explore. Many candidates identify themselves as pro-education. Come to think of it, I’ve yet to hear from a candidate who does not identify with being pro-education. The problem is that such a phrase is too broad to be of practical value. Being pro-education, in the broadest sense, means that you support the notion that education is good for people. To get at what brand of pro-education, we need to ask some more focused questions. By the way, these questions also work well for those who are looking for school options for themselves and their children.

  1. What do you consider to be the primary and secondary purpose of schools? What is the purpose of education (k-12, technical college, University, private, public, faith-based, etc.)? Where do you stand on the role of each in society?
  2. What types of educational environments do you believe are most and least valuable?
  3. What is the proper role of local, state, and federal government in the different types of education?
  4. Why do you support these types of education, and what will you do to support them?
  5. What will you refuse to do?
  6. Are you a strong advocate for public education? If so, what types of public education?
  7. What should be learned in school and/or who should decide?
  8. Do you support charter schools? Why or why not?
  9. What is your stance of vouchers and different types of voucher programs?
  10. What role should students, parents, teachers, school leaders, community members, business owners, government officials and others have in what happens and how it happens in schools?
  11. To what extent do you believe in the importance of giving families and students choice about the schools and types of school that they attend?
  12. What form of accountability do you believe should or should not be in place for public and other schools?
  13. What is your position on homeschooling and alternate models of schooling?
  14. What role do you see for standardized tests and increasingly nationalized standards?
  15. What role do you see for teacher unions?
  16. What level of autonomy, authority and influence should local school leadership have on schools?
  17. What role should public funding play in education?
  18. How should resources be allocated and why?
  19. What are the most pressing issues in education and what do you think should be done about them?
  20. What is being done really well in different forms of education?

There are plenty of other questions that we could ask, but until we get into these types of questions, it means very little to say that you are a pro-education candidate. We need to know what you support and what do you do not. Education is not a single boiler plate entity that you either like or dislike. To say that you are pro-education is like saying that you are pro-food. It is too broad to mean much. I realize that we are in a world of bumper sticker ethics and slogans, but those of us interested in improving the quality of education need to extend those bumper stickers into carefully crafted essays.

 

 

Are we beginning to see evidence of impending battles about digital badges? Some of them are quietly but already underway. Others are on the horizon. All of them seem to be about power and control. These are admittedly speculative and editorial, and I welcome comments, but I see the following five emerging battlegrounds.

1. Badge Authorities

We are starting to see people identified as authorities in the badge world. Notice that I am saying “authorities”, not “experts.” There is indeed plenty with growing expertise, which is valued. That alone is not a sign of a potential battle, but I do see evidence in the use of words (even in my word choice). I am starting to see “should” and “ought” language dominate conversations that start previously focused upon “could” and “possibility.” It is as if there is a desire to prescribe and  control the use of badges according to the standards and desired outcomes of the growing authorities. In some ways, this is a natural part of wanting to standardize things for sake of growth and expansion. Yet, with this comes more prescriptions and warnings, overshadowing the language of tips and suggestions.  This is in line with the professionalization that we’ve experienced in much of the western world over the last century. In Disabling Professions, Illich, Zola and McKnight write the following about the legal system: “…instead of creating a ‘self-service cafeteria; it has been the mistake of every legal system to insist upon ‘waiter service'” (Disabling Professions, p. 102). This quote is about professionalization that leads to new gatekeepers and ruling authorities. I am seeing such language start to appear more often within the badge world as well. There is this caution that if you don’t heed the warnings of the authorities then your badge design is doomed, or worse yet, just plain bad. I support expertise, but I hope for expertise with humility and a value for openness and democratization.

2. Badge Power Plays

The growing conversation about trust networks is an important one, but expect to see more efforts to monopolize through the use of a new credential system. In fact, I wonder if we will see praise from some of the emerging “authorities” when certain companies and/or organizations succeed in establishing trust networks through what is essentially a monopolization of a new credentialing system within a community. I would not be surprised to see badges moved forward through full monopolies and authoritative mandates within a given sector.

As an alternate to the monopoly concept, I wonder about the role of competition. I value the largely collaborative nature of many interested in badges, but I do wonder if some of the most expansive badge “success” stories will come through competitive forces more than collaborative ones. In Kaihan Krippendorff’s Out Think the Competition, he argues that a key in the competitive advantage around innovation is to slow the competitive efforts of others (p. 13). That leads me to #3.

3. Challenges to the Open Badge Infrastructure / Proprietary Supplements

Because of the power plays and monopolies, there is the possibility of these “winners” largely disregarding OBI, establishing their own infrastructure. However, I expect that much of this will be hybrid infrastructures, taking OBI and building beyond it. There are badging system offering features not built into OBI that are in high demand by target audiences. This makes room for more differentiators among badge issuing platforms. I contend that these enhancements and expansion have an important role in the increased adoption of badge systems. This will probably help push badge adoption forward, especially when done by organizations with the financial and human resources necessary to manage badges on a global scale.

4. The Credential Conspiracy

I’ve become increasingly troubled by the often wide gap between the perceived value of a credential and the extent to which that credential consistently represents true skill, expertise, competence, and the like. We’ve all witnessed this: people with high school diplomas who are functionally illiterate, medical practitioners who keep their license even after experiencing literally mind-altering health issues, people with degrees in disciplines where they can no longer demonstrate competence (and this is far beyond the so-called diploma mills), etc. At the same time, I often experience limited interest in scrutinizing our current credentialing systems, even as we use those systems as justification to disregard or devalue emerging and alternate credentialing systems.

The  most consistent credentials are those that make no claim at actual skill or competence. Instead, the credentials are only issued when certain objective criteria are met: hours clocked, age verified, access granted, attendance verified, etc. Yet, even with these credentials, the trust networks and perceived public value around them seem to grow separately from what they represent. As such, the success of building new trust networks can become more about PR, marketing or even propaganda than building trust based upon what the badge more objectively represents.

Allow me to give an example from teacher education. I hold a 6-12 history license from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. I have not taught high school history for 15 years, but all I need to keep up my license is to write a check every 5 years and take 6 relevant credit hours of coursework (This process has changed now in Wisconsin, but the model still exists all over the place, in many different fields.). How does taking 6 credit hours prove that I still meet the criteria established for being a licensed teacher in the state? It does not. I contend that I do meet or exceed those criteria, but renewing the license does not indicate as much. The ongoing teaching license only shows that I have complied with the regulations. Yet, this credential makes me a viable candidate for some jobs that are closed to others who are probably far more competent. Such limitations of the many current credentials gain little attention.

I expect this to change. In fact, many of my predictions about the impact of digital badges in education depend upon such a change. I expect it to change under the pressure and influence of:

  • the standards movement;
  • competency-based education;
  • increased advocacy for personalized and adaptive learning which also pushes forward mastery learning;
  • demands from some employers for pre-requisite skills not guaranteed by existing credentials;
  • the expansion of malpractice lawsuits;
  • the growth in big data, data-driven decision-making in education, and learning analytics;
  • the do-it-yourself movement’s emphasis upon competence over formal credentials; and
  • the influence of the Internet of Things upon lifelong learning.

The technology of open badges is not enough to result in the potential impact touted by myself and others. For our predictions (and sometimes hopes) to become reality, it depends upon growing scrutiny of existing credentials that leads to dissatisfaction and a willingness to invest in advocacy for an alternate. In a way, open badges are the alternate energy of the credentialing world. We don’t see gas-run cars as retaining dominance because they are the best of all options. The same can be said for the dominant credentialing systems.

5. Agility of Alternatives to Formal Education Institutions

Many promising educational experiments are happening outside of academia. While some educational institutions are using badges, they already have a long history of an established credentialing system. These emerging providers of education do not. These groups need to establish some way to communicate the accomplishments and document the evidence of learning among their users. This is fertile soil to grow new trust networks around alternate credentials. Their financial success and social impact partly depends upon the ability to build trust and gain credibility, and they will innovate their way to a working solution. Their investors expect as much, and they do not have the scrutiny of accrediting bodies and government oversight (because they don’t take part in federal funding of education) to slow them down.

As I stated at the beginning, these are speculative musings, and maybe even more rough draft than my typical writings on this blog. At the same time, I am interested in a broader conversation about these topics, and I hope that this post will help spark such dialogue.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/mikelewis/2287255370/?rb=1

https://www.flickr.com/photos/mikelewis/2287255370/?rb=1

Not every student in a project-based or self-directed learning environment will be excited about this new model. It takes more effort. It is counter to many of the school success strategies learned through years of a traditional model. There are often new skills, disciplines and dispositions that one needs to nurture to get the most of out of these experiences. And yet, almost everyone has been engaged by a project-based or self-directed learning experience at some point in life. As a result, teachers in PBL and self-directed environments quickly learn that calling it PBL or self-directed is not adequate motivation for all students. Not every student instantly gets excited about the idea of getting immersed or even lost in a project or inquiry. For this reason, I find it helpful to go back to instructional design basics. In fact, I still go back to Lepper and Malone’s 1987 chapter on Making Learning Fun: A Taxonomy of Intrinsic Motivations for Learning. In this chapter, they outline six types of intrinsic motivators for learning: challenge, curiosity, power, fantasy, cooperation and competition, and recognition. They offer teachers (and students) ways to think about addressing low motivation while still advocating for the growth and development of self-directed learners.

1. Challenge

A student tends to be more intrinsically motivated when there is a right challenge fit. Csikszentmihalyi writes about this in his work on Flow. Challenge is not simply about deciding what is the right level of challenge for a student. There is more subjectivity it. A student may have immense competence in an area but lose motivation when having to work on a challenge that is well within her abilities. That is because challenge is more about the learner’s perception of both the challenge and her own skills related to that challenge.

Understanding a student’s self-esteem becomes important in finding the right challenge fit. We begin to address challenge by helping learners establish goals that are appropriately challenging, but have a stretch element to them. A measure of uncertainty about whether one can accomplish the goal can help with motivation, granted that it is not too much uncertainty. We want a goal that is the right level of challenge, difficult enough to be worthy of pursuit, but not so difficult as to instill a sense of certain failure.

Also, when working with students who are new to PBL or self-directed learning, it is useful to start with shorter term goals. Just like it can be helpful for an aspiring marathoner to start with the goal of a 5K, it is helpful for a student to begin with a shorter term project. Without hope of success, motivation plummets, so figuring out challenge becomes critical.  Feedback also becomes important. If students are uncertain about their ability to face a challenge, more frequent feedback may be necessary at first to help build confidence. Keep in mind, however, that low self-esteem in academic areas may have built up for over a decade, so a few days or weeks will probably not be enough to help build the confidence to embrace and overcome significant academic challenges. Given this fact, small but significant PBL wins will help students build the confidence to face larger challenges.

There is another element to this in some environments, and that is the confidence deflation that comes from seeing other students work on projects that seem more significant. In a traditional class, some students get higher grades than others, but everyone is generally working on the same things. In a PBL or self-directed learning environment, the wide spectrum of student projects becomes clear. This can motivate and inspire some students while demotivating others. There is still benefit in these comparisons (as I will mention later), but beware of the impact on self-esteem as well.

2. Curiosity

Lepper and Malone distinguish between two types of curiosity, sensory and cognitive (p. 235). The first has to do with the physical senses. As such, it is useful to ask if the learning spaces and the available learning resources are stimulating. How are the senses engaged? This is why Maria Montessori’s philosophy of education pays so much attention to the environment and the learning resources in that environment. Take a few minutes and browse the web for images of Motesorri classrooms. It doesn’t take long to get the idea. Cognitive curiosity, however, relates to the drive for us to make sense of things. When we are convinced that we do not have a clear understanding of something that is important to us or that our understanding is incomplete, that can conjure cognitive curiosity. Or, if something in our thinking is inconsistent with reality, that too evokes curiosity (p. 236).

Learning to ask questions that spark curiosity is, therefore, a valuable skill for teacher and student. This is not just an exercise in creating lists of interesting questions about a subject. If it is going to awaken intrinsic motivation through curiosity, it must be about surfacing inconsistencies, incompleteness, and a lack of clarity about something of personal importance.

3. Control

As with challenge, we are not just talking about the objective measure of control given to students in the learning environment. We are referring to the perceived amount of control. The perception of control impacts motivation more than the reality of it (p. 238). So, if you see unmotivated learners in a context, what is their perception of control?

One way to get at this is to make sure student choice is available, choice about what questions to pursue and how to pursue them. This does not mean making everything completely open-ended, as that can overwhelm (think back to challenge) and de-motivate. Lepper a Malone suggest that 5-7 choices is ideal for many environments. Or, if there are unlimited choices, it will help to offer clear guidance on how to narrow things down (p. 239). Regardless, giving choice or increasing the perception of choice elevates intrinsic motivation.

Related to choice is also the concept of power, where a learner’s choices have obvious and significant implications. When a learner can see that her choices made a large difference, this impacts motivation. This is another reason feedback and shorter projects can help build intrinsic motivation, because both are ways to show the impact of a person’s individual choices (p. 239).

4. Fantasy

In the original chapter by Lepper and Malone, their reference to fantasy is in the context of games and learning, so my reflection here may deviate well beyond their intended use of the term. Malone’s work in the early 1980s on the concept of fantasy is also a worthwhile read. Malone worked from the following definition of fantasy, “mental images of things not present to the senses or within the actual experience of the person involved” (p. 56). This can be effective with teacher-directed project-based learning by building a project into an immersive fantasy experience. It can also be used for student-directed PBL…for more self-directed learning contexts.

Helping students learn how to use their imagination with regard to projects can be a powerful motivator. Invite students to imagine the potential impact of their project upon one or more people. Encourage students to use fantasy and imagination as they work on their projects. They might, for example, create fictional characters for whom they are designing the project.

5. Cooperation and Competition

While I am admittedly do not think about leveraging competition, there are ways that people do so in PBL and/or self-directed learning contexts, like having students pitch ideas, and a panel rates their performance, perhaps giving a first, second and third place. Or, there might be a more objective element of competition, with people or groups competing to create an object that has the largest impact in some way. Think of projects where groups are given $10 with the goal of having the greatest social impact with the money. Or, there are the popular projects around protecting an egg with some sort of design, or creating a paper airplane that can fly the greatest distance.

Similarly, charging entire classes or groups to work together in the accomplishment of a significant challenge or socially relevant project can be a powerful motivator. As noted in Bartle’s gamer psychology test, there are killers, achievers, socializers, and explorers. The killers and socializers in the groups may well discover a compelling motivator through such learning experiences.

6. Recognition

This may seem like extrinsic motivation, but Lepper and Malone describe recognition as intrinsic because it comes from a need for approval or recognition. This is an area that is often highlighted by project-based learning advocates, noting the benefit of an authentic audience for the product. However, recognition can also be used throughout the process by making learner progress, discoveries and developments more visible to the community throughout the learning experience. A class blog, practice presentations, frequent show and tell exercises and the like build opportunities for recognition throughout the PBL process. Give it a try and see how it impacts the motivation of different learners.

Motivation Conclusion

Project-based learning and self-directed learning environments have many exciting possibilities and affordances, but they do not usually happen by chance. Teachers still play a valuable role in designing spaces and contexts that lead to motivation. Teachers can construct motivating learning challenges and experiences, and helping students learn to motivate themselves. As such, these six approaches are a good starting place.

Will MOOCs disrupt higher education? What about online learning or competency-based education? Or, what about alternate credentials like the open badge movement? The more I engage in such questions, the more important it is for me to add adequate detail to better frame the conversation. Higher education is a broad term. It includes community colleges, technical colleges, trade schools, research intensive schools, liberal arts schools, faith-based institutions, for-profit institutions, schools that focus on serving non-traditional or post-traditional adults, etc. It also includes seminaries, graduate schools, distance learning schools, alternative colleges, and dozens of other types of institutions. Then there are many higher education institutions that include several of these under the same name.

Programmatic Distinctions

After looking at these distinctions, we also need to look at the different programs, professions and disciplines. The impact of online learning is different for a performing arts program than a history program. The potential benefits of alternate credentials will have different levels of perceived value for English majors and those in information technology. Similarly, the impact of MOOCs is unlikely to have the same influence on those pursuing college for the social experience as much (or more) than the academics.

Student Goals and Motivations

This is described from another perspective in the 2014 Differentiated University Pantheon Group report by Haven Ladd, Seth Reynolds, and Jeffreny Selingo. They surveyed 3200 American prospective or current college students. Instead of focusing upon traditional demographic data, they examined the reasons for a student’s interest in college. They were able to describe six distinct profiles of students: aspiring academics, coming of age, career starter, career accelerator, industry switcher, and academic wanderer. Each of these represent different motivations, goals and aspirations; leading to varied values about what constitutes their ideal higher education experience. Looking at current and prospective students from this perspective offers a clearer understanding why something like a MOOC, competency-based program, digital badge or online course might have higher or lower value to a given student.

Government, Community, and Business

While the desires and profiles of learners have an enormous impact on the future of higher education, there is also the influence of external stakeholders: government, communities, business. If we look more closely at these influences, we recognize that they do not share a single value in higher education either. Government influences might have a bias toward economic development. Business might be primarily interested in the development of a workforce that meets their varied needs. Community might have a heavy interest in the way that a higher education institution impacts the quality of life. These are too general, but they illustrate the fact that a single future model of higher education is no more likely than it was in the past. There is a reason why we have so many different types of higher education institutions today.

New Education Options

As we look to external influences on higher education, we must also look at the rapid growth of a new education industry. We look at CodeAcademy, General Assembly, Khan Academy, Udemy, new corporate training programs, and the overall increased access to free and open learning experiences online. This goes back to the different profiles of prospective learners, but the development of this new education industry gives each of us more options that ever before. They may not be quick to disrupt medical schools, but they have already established alternate routes into some of the top high-demand jobs of the next decade, jobs like software developers and system administrators.

Financial Models

There are also important financial factors. That which disrupts an expensive but non-exclusive college depending heavily upon tuition will be different from what disrupts a partly state-funded public community college, or an élite school with a massive endowment. There are schools with multiple sources of revenue and others that are almost entirely tuition-dependent. Some schools will struggle to keep their doors open without federal financial aid. Others have already opted out so they have the freedom to pursue different models of education. Such factors, combined with the others listed above, will decide the time it takes for an innovation to impact a school, and whether the school finds it necessary to respond with any urgency. And this is largely focused upon the state of funding in American higher education. If we look at if from a global perspective, we also see models where most or all of the entire enterprise is government funded. Such distinctions are too important to miss when we are looking at the consequence of educational innovations.

The Need for Nuance

None of this is to suggest that higher education as a whole will not be influenced by educational innovations. There is a long and clear history of innovation’s impact on education. At the same time, I suspect that our conversations about the future of higher education will benefit from a  more nuanced word choice. I have been as guilty as many other media outlets in making broad and general comments about the future of higher education in light of emerging innovations. While my comments are often coming from an analysis of a specific type of higher education, I have not always been clear about that fact. The same is true for many articles that we read at Inside Higher Education, The Chronicle, and elsewhere. Such articles make for interesting conversation, but without adding depth and nuance, they fail to give us tools for truly thinking about how to prepare for the future.