Reflection on the First Two Days of The Beyond Letter Grades MOOC

Day 2 of The Learning Beyond Letter Grades MOOC is coming to an end and I could not be more pleased! We have a wonderfully diverse (and active) group of participants so far.  By diverse, I am referring to the fact that we have well over a dozen countries represented, people who work in all levels of education, as well as people working in fields like instructional technology or education-related organizations.  We have classroom teachers, administrators, researchers, designers, project leaders… This should make for a vibrant learning community!

This is my first experiment running an open course that is entirely out in the open (not cloistered behind a password-protected LMS).  While our partnership with is extremely valuable (I can’t say enough good things about the people at Canvas), I also wanted to extend the “classroom” into the public spaces of the web.  So for this course, we are connecting on Twitter, in an open Google+ Community called Beyond Letter Grades, and through the web site (where you go through the self-paced modules and earn badges (open to all…spread the word). We have about 70 active people in the Google Community at this point, a number of active people on Twitter, and the conversations are just starting.  I can already tell that the quality of conversation is going to be excellent as people share experience and knowledge, but also as we join in exploring some new possibilities together.  Right now the comments in the community are limited to text, but part of what I appreciate about Google communities is that one can quickly record a quick video comment as well, which sometimes adds an interesting layer to the conversation.

The badge portion of the course is something about which I am particularly excited. I’ve used badges before, but I really like the way that our team has set them up this time, being careful to craft criteria for earning a badge that challenge people to think at the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Earning a badge in this course is not as easy as typing up a few words and submitting them. People need to analyze and apply, which is where some powerful learning takes place. What is even more exciting is the quality of the submissions so far. I’m reading lots of impressive analysis and application!  The first submission was just as good and any assignment that I receive from my graduate students. It was thoughtful, thorough and demonstrated the ability to analyze and apply ideas from the module in a way that was authentic.

Speaking of authentic, all the assignments/tasks/challenges were designed to direct the participants to think about how the different ideas in the modules might inform actual assessment in a course or learning community.  I am already learning new things from the submissions of the participants!

This is our first experiment using the WordPress BadgeOS integration with to review and distribute badges. So far it is working well.  I have a few suggested features, but this is version 1.2 of the product, so it is bound to continue to improve in the upcoming months.  For now though, it seems to be an excellent option for those of us who are comfortable the WordPress platform. It took our team well under a day to get all the technology set up and ready to go, and it has an intuitive interface for reviewing submissions to earn a badge and providing narrative feedback.

Earlier today we hosted our first live session.  It was a launch for the course, but also a chance to share some background.  I explained how and how I view the letter grade system as an educational technology and how that informs my thinking about the topic. Also, true to my background in history, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to set the stage for the course will a little history of report cards and letter grades.  I thought it would be fun and useful, for example, to go on a short visual tour of report cards from the 1800s and 1900s, also thinking a bit about a few different grading practices before the 1800s.  That, of course, led us to the modern state of things and we spend a bit of time reflecting on newer approaches to the report card.

All of this led us back to the present as we considered the metaphor of load bearing walls from the book, Inevitable. In that text, the authors argue that in educational institutions, there are certain metaphorical load bearing walls (policies, procedures, traditional, ingrained practices, mindsets, etc.).  You don’t remove such a wall flippantly because it holds up the building. It is how people understand and make sense of what they are doing.  The same it true when it comes to critiquing something as integrated in the educational system as letter grades are in many communities. When remodeling, one must replace a load bearing wall with something equally strong or stronger in oder to ensure the integrity of the house, and the same it true when we think about adjusting, adapting, enhancing or especially replacing something like the letter grade system.  That take time, care, much research and thought, a willingness to consider both the affordances and limitations, and no small measure of cultivating shared ownership among the many stakeholders.

I also had a chance to get some feedback from the participants, inviting them to share some suggested topics and ideas.  We had several excellent ones.  First, we have an international audience, so I need to find a way to add some new live options for the poor participants joining us in what is the middle of the night for them. One idea about a new topic was to invite the student’s perspective on all of this.  It prompted me to think about whether I might be able to get some students to serve on a panel for an upcoming live event.  That could make for a rich conversation and a helpful (and sometimes overlooked) viewpoint.  A second suggestion related to getting some more specific examples of high schools and Universities that do not use letter grades, either hearing directly from such people or looking at some of the resources that they use. Those two suggestions alone will keep me busy over the next week as I work on integrating them into upcoming live sessions.  This organic and evolving part of a more connectivist MOOC is something that I’ve come to value and enjoy a great deal…often where the line of teacher and learner blurs enough that it is really just a group of co-learners with diverse background and different things to contribute to the overall community.

I continue to be fascinated by the creative ways that people use these open courses. I know at least one international school where teachers are taking it together, turning it into a blended learning experience, likely having chats about it over lunch. I just learned about a high school in the United States where administration is providing incentives for teachers to earn badges in the MOOC as part of their professional development.  Those sorts of uses are wonderfully exciting, because they can cultivate a shared vocabulary among colleagues and make it that much easier to apply what they are learning to their work. These examples are just further reinforcement for what I keep writing about on this blog as self-blended learning.

Looking at the reasons people state for participating in the course is also enlightening.

  • Help their schools consider new possibilities for assessment.
  • Use it to hone their individual work as a teacher.
  • Connect with others around a topic of interest and importance.
  • Gain new perspective for their work on various assessment projects.
  • Extend their personal network.
  • Focus upon a question that they hope to explore with the group, often driven by a goal or challenge in their work.
  • Learn so that they can teach some of these ideas to future teachers.

All of this contributes that much more to a vibrant online learning community.  The digital Wild West of online learning is indeed an exciting place!

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, host of the MoonshotEdu Show, professor of education, AVP of Academics, and Chief Innovation officer. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education, educational innovation, alternative education, and nurturing agency and curiosity.