Fear and Educational Innovation

There is an important connection between fear and educational innovation. Fear can be healthy. It can serve as a useful tool for challenging us to pause and count the costs. It can also be a haunting force, preventing us from venturing into new possibilities with great promise in education. Whether it is fear of personal loss,  financial loss, losing control, personal failure, failure or disappointing others, losing face or harming one’s reputation (individually or organizationally), losing power, or simple fear of the unknown; we can’t ignore the role of feature in our actions, policies, pursuits and resistance to innovation in education.

Someone recently posed a simple question to me. What would you do with your life if you were not afraid? Fill in the blank. “If I were not afraid, I would _____________. We can certainly use this exercise to explore personal decisions in our lives, but how might this impact the way that we approach education?  How much of what we do in education is simply a result of being frozen by our fears, unwilling to take even small and calculated risks in pursuit of noble causes in our classrooms, schools, or the greater educational ecosystem?

Schools can be havens for fear. We can be tempted to use it as the main tool for classroom management. Students work out of fears of getting a failing grade. Students hold back on being themselves out of fear of judgment from peers or even bullying. Then there is just the general fear of failure along with fears of being unwelcome, rejected, our labeled an outsider.

As I’ve written before, teaching students to face fears, to persist through failure, is an important part of life and learning. While we might explicitly teach such lessons to students, if our organization is designed to avoid fear or to be inhibited by it, what are we really teaching students about fear and failure? Our culture teaches as much or more than our planned lessons.

As such, following is a series of quotes with a few thoughts for how we might want to approach fear in our approach to educational innovation.

“One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.” – Henry Ford

Innovation always involves some measure of risk. I’m not suggesting that we blindly jump off educational innovation cliffs in hopes for the best. However, if we take the time to research the educational equivalent of building a hand glider, do the hard work of preparing, and then find ourselves standing on that cliff of educational innovation, it is time to take a leap.

I met a teacher recently who built an airplane with his students…an actual airplane! How many of us would have thought that impossible, never trying, never considering the possibility? Yet, can you imagine the sense of agency and possibility that was planted in these young people as a result of that effort?

“I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.” – Rosa Parks

I continue to write about the importance of having a compelling “why.” It is not just about having a why, a reason. It is about having one that is compelling. When we find something that is deeply important to us, it has immense power to move us. That is why many great innovations in education come from parents and others who are invested in the problem enough to act. We don’t get educational innovation from leaders and educators who are content and checked out. We get them from people who see a problem and make up their mind to do something about it, even if it is frightening.

“Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.” – Helen Keller

In the end, just sitting there and doing nothing is an even more frightening prospect in this current educational landscape. Some may be deluding themselves into thinking that all of what we are experiencing is some massive fad that will soon pass. Good luck with that one. The fact is that we are in a time of unprecedented change. Whether you want to preserve past practices or pursue new ones, that is going to require facing your features and action.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” – Fred Rogers

We can get down about disheartening statistics of inequality and student performance. We can be overwhelmed by the grand educational problems of our day. Yet, there are people who are doing something about these things. Find out about them. Get inspired by them. Join the action. If nothing else, at least be a champion for what they are doing until it eventually moves you to do something about it.

“Never be afraid to try something new. Remember, amateurs built the ark, professionals built the Titanic.” – Unknown

I respect professionals and experts and what they bring to the conversations about education reform. Yet, we can always delay acting because we don’t think that we are expert enough, that we lack some sort of knowledge, skill or ability. If so, get started today by growing and learning. Knowledge and skill is not something with which you are born. You develop it. Besides, some of the great innovations in education of our day are coming from people who were/far from educational experts when they got started.

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” – Mark Twain

We all know this, but we all seem to benefit from reminders, don’t we. Over time, it is easy to let fear mulffle our missions, delay our action, feed our inhibitions, and prompt us to come up with a satisfying justification to refrain from moving forward. It takes courage to pursue educational innovations that matter.

“I failed my way to success.” – Thomas Edison

Of course, we have the face the reality that we might fail. We will most certainly fail along the way to success. If we are not ready for this reality, then we can use a failure as an excuse to give up. Or, sometimes it is a complete failure and it is time to move on with something new, but that takes some careful reflection so that we know we are not just letting fear dictate our actions.

Failure is not an indictment on your worth and character. Even if the entire enterprise flops, you have lessons learned and you can achieve success in the future. I live in the Midwestern United States were we can be quick to judge and label “failures”, even if we do it subtly. I once spoke with a leader of a large school who was very skeptical about hiring a highly successful educational innovator who failed at his last effort. He was convinced that this was evidence of some permanent and condemning character flaw. I don’t buy it. Scan some of the greatest minds, leaders, innovators and inspirations throughout history and they failed at things. Some failed far more than they succeeded.

There is a book called Failure is the Backdoor to Success. I agree with much in the book, but my one challenge is that failure is not the backdoor to success. It is the front door, side door, and window to success as well. At some point and in some way we are going to experience failure. That can be frightening. The important part is to not wast waste the failure. Learn from it. Use it.

Fear is a helpful tool in driving us to reflection, preparation, and even caution. Yet, it has exceeded its value when it holds us back from the pursuit of needed innovations and opportunities in education. As I see it, we are wise to be thankful for the gift of fear but also to keep it in check. Let fear be the backup singer in your band, and let mission take center stage.

How Evaluating Teachers, Students, & Schools Shapes Our Mission

Debates about evaluating are central to modern education reform. How do we evaluate teachers? How do we evaluate learning resources? How do we evaluate students? How do we evaluate schools more broadly? The debates exist on all levels of education, whether we are talking about elementary school or the traditional undergraduate and post-graduate institution. The pattern has to do with how we go about measuring, identifying and even rewarding quality or excellence. The problem is that we too often push for policies that drive new evaluation practices before we have a broad, substantive and thorough exploration of that which drives our evaluation. Consider the following examples.

Educator Pay

Which teachers should be paid the most? If your answer is the teacher with the highest number and type of formal credentials (master’s, doctorate, etc.), what is it that you are trying to reward, recognize and reinforce in your organization? What research are you using to inform this policy that shows teachers with a master’s or doctorate in education teach in a way that improves student learning or enhances student’s lives more than a teacher without those credentials, or that this results in some other tangible and important goal in the learning organization? Credentials can be signs of knowledge and skill, but we also know that credentials and competence are not the same. Even when a credential strongly correlates to mastery of a body of knowledge and development of certain skills, that may not correlate to the knowledge and skill needed to do work well in a specific position at your learning organization.

How about a policy based on increased salary that is connected to the number of years on the job? Is there research to show that the longer you teach, the more effective you are in the classroom, regardless of other factors? How does the growing body of research about mastery and deliberate practice play into that decision? Or, is this just a way to reward loyalty and sticking with the same organization regardless of your impact and effectiveness? These are complicated matters and there are unexpected consequences around every policy and practice corner. Debates about teacher pay are about much more than pay. Some argue that we must let these be shaped by research, but research only serves policy when goals and values are established and agreed upon.

Who is Qualified to Teach?

Look at this on both the K-12 and higher education levels. How does your organization decide who is qualified to hire or stay in their teaching positions? What do your external accreditors demand of you in this regard? Who is instantly restricted from the pool? Does this rule out candidates who could potentially be among your best and most effective educators? What is really driving the criteria schools use to hire people? Whose interests are being protected? Whose are being ignored or minimized? Who are the winners and losers, and how does this support the primary mission and goals of the school?

While some treat such matters as straightforward and logical, not worthy of public debate and exploration, these appear to be appeals to power and authority, or efforts to protect a given group’s agenda more than an accurate description of the issue. Questions about teacher qualification on all levels, if we are willing to approach them with an open mind, lead us into many good and important debates about education.

Learning Resources

Which readings and resources are appropriate for use in our classrooms and learning organizations? Who determines what is or is not appropriate, what is valid for academic purposes, and what is not? Some might argue that this is best placed in the hands of the professionals, but there are plenty of areas where professionals do not agree. Some argue that each professor should have autonomy in deciding this. What about on the K-12 level? When and where should such a standard remain? Education extends far beyond the most certain and objective scientific facts, and as such, there is room ample room for debate about how people make these decisions.

Even the evaluation of which sources are authoritative is increasingly controversial. I’ve spoken with faculty who refuse to even use readings from the web in a college course unless they are from peer-reviewed sources. As such, authority has less to do with the content of the text and more to do with submission to certain standards. Such a position has significant benefits and limitations.

Student Progress

How do we decide if a student is making progress? How do we determine if it is adequate? Do our measures benefit certain students while holding back others? How much should we focus on relative progress, where a student started compared to where they finished? What about more criterion-referenced and norm-referenced measures of progress? Our answers to these questions, if acted upon, will result in completely different types of learning communities.

School Evaluation

There is plenty of conversation about giving school report cards. Look at the measures used for such report cards and they clearly respect one agenda while disregarding many others. What valued and valuable attributes of schools are rarely considered when evaluating schools?

Evaluation will continue to be an important part of modern education, but we must recognize that evaluations are tools, and each tool has a bias. As such, our best bet is to at least be deliberate about the tools (and biases) that we embrace, opting for those that best support our distinct mission for education.

When does an Online Course Stop Being an Online Course?

What is an online course? When does an online course cease to be an online course? Since my days in graduate school, I’ve been drawn to a simple but helpful exercise to get at the “essence” of something. It consists of asking three questions. What is essential? What is important? What is merely present? Asking these three questions helps find out the attributes so significant that removing them causes that item to become something else. Amid the growth of online learning and talk about “online courses”, perhaps it is time to use this exercise to consider the essence of an online course. What are the attributes that are so central to an online course that removing them causes it to no longer be appropriately labeled an online course?

To illustrate how this works, consider asking these three questions about a ball. What are the essential attributes of a ball? Some people start by talking about its shape, that a ball must be round. Yet, we need to adjust that definition to consider something like a football. As such, we might revise our first statement to say that it must be round on one plane. From there we go to the second question. What is important? These are the attributes that impact its use and purpose but it remains a ball. Shape, size and weight fit into this category. Finally, we ask about those attributes which are merely present. These are the traits that do not significantly impact the use or purpose. In many cases, the color might be such an attribute. By going through such an exercise, we don’t just come to better understand the essential attributes. We also develop an overall, deeper, nuanced, and more multi-faceted perspective on whatever we are studying. Let’s apply this to the idea of an online course, a concept that continues to evolve.

If you go the route of studying the history and etymology of the word “course”, you will likely end up with something like a “planned series of study.” In the United States, we tend to use “course” to describe a part of a larger program, but “course” is used to describe the entire program in other parts of the world. What people call a degree program in the United States, people in parts of Europe might call that a course or course of study.

If you are speaking with people in a K-12 or traditional University setting in the United States, it is easy for people to describe what they think of as a course. It is something led and organized by a teacher for a group of students. It has a start and end date. There is a teacher. There are students, planned lessons, assessments, and assignments. There might be lectures, larger and small group activities, projects, quizzes and tests, discussions, homework, papers, readings, and dozens of other elements. Which are essential? Which are important? Which are merely present? What are the attributes of a course that make it a course and not something else?

One of the difficulties with educational innovation and the adoption of new practices is that we get used to and comfortable with certain constructs. Whether they are better or worse than an innovation, their familiarity gives them superiority in our minds. We are quick to defend them even when we are something unhappy with them. I suspect that this is part of the reason why we run into problems with the changing idea of a course, especially an online course.

There have been innovations to challenge or stretch our idea of a course for many years. Self-paced or correspondence courses, for example, conflict with traditional ideas of a course. There may be a teacher, but not one that fulfills the same role that we think of in traditional courses. There may be no scheduled time when people gather together, and the start and end dates for the course vary by learner. There is also likely like to no student-student interaction. Yet, we still call it a course. At the same time, because it is new and suspect, it is common for these new ideas of courses to be given lower status or credibility, at least among the most mainstream people in a given domain.

In the digital world, this becomes even more complex. Scan the web for what people call courses and you will find countless models. A course might be a series of three or four webinars led by one or more different people followed by a short quiz. It might be 3-credit class in a learning management system, part of a larger degree program. It could be non-credit or credit-based, offered by a school, a company, a government agency, even an individual. Students might have scheduled activities, readings, assignments, and graded participation in weekly discussion groups. We use “online course”  to describe a MOOC led by one or a few people, largely consisting of short videos and readings with a few quizzes or peer-reviewed exercises shared among hundreds or thousands of learners. An online course might also be something like what you often see on a site like Udemy, largely made up of a bunch of small video recordings, possibly with some quizzes or checks for understanding and a Q & A area. Sometimes there is an “instructor.” Sometimes there is not. Sometimes there are assessment of learners, but not always.

With such a broad use of the term, is there anything essential to an online course? Yes, but it is still important to recognize that it is a rapidly expanding term. With that caveat in mind, consider the following traits. Despite their differences, each of these examples includes a planned course of study. Whether explicit or implicit, something was established to be learned, explored and/or studied. Resources and/or activities were included in that plan. The other part, of course, is that these resources or activities relied upon online resources and/or environments.

That is all that I can come up with for essential attributes of an online course in today’s world. The rest is important or merely present. This includes whether or not it is for-credit, part of a larger program, includes student-instructor interaction, includes student-student interact, the nature of the learning activities, whether it is teacher-directed, learner-directed, or peer-directed and organized. The same is true for the length, complexity, and host/provider for the course. These all play an important role in how the course is valued, how it is experienced, and the impact of the course. Yet, people can implement diverse experiments with these attributes while still calling it an online course.

I’m sure there are many implications for such a broad and popular use of the phrase “online course”, but one comes to mind for me. Because people use the phrase so widely, it is not adequate to make broad assumptions about the idea of an online course. Blogs and other media sources report and reflect about online courses and online learning, but they sometimes jump from example to example without recognizing the distinctions. Studies come out about online learning, but people do not always take the time to consider the type of online courses represented in the study. This has led to widespread confusion, sometimes unnecessary debates, misrepresentations, and often overly general statements about online learning.

Consider the example of MOOCs. As soon as people started writing about MOOCs, most failed to compare them to more traditional online courses. In fact, some wrote about MOOCs as if they were the beginning of online learning, ignoring decades of practice and research that preceded MOOCs. Instead, people compared MOOCs to traditional college courses leading toward traditional degrees. It created a debate that led to a more guarded and often dismissive tone to the conversation instead of allowing us to just be curious about the affordances and limitations of this new construct. This was likely intensified by using the word “course” and people’s pre-existing notions of what constitutes a course.

MOOCs were not, however, the first alternative use of the word “course.” Long before MOOCs we used, people used the word “course” to describe a vast array of online learning experiences. Many of these mentions didn’t have the widespread media attention of MOOCs, so people skipped over them, missing the chance to compare MOOCs to multiple concepts of courses. If this happened early on, it could have transformed and expanded our thinking about MOOCs, their benefits, limitations, and positive potential use moving forward.

What is an online course? It is a course that relies heavily upon online resources, activities and experiences. What is a course? Now that is the important question. Its’ essential attributes involve planning and learning, but in the evolving use of the term, a course can be almost anything. Until we recognize these developments, we will continue to miss promising possibilities, talk past one another, and fall prey to overly simplistic understandings of learning in a connected world.

It is Time for some MOOC Assessment Makeovers

I’m convinced that is time for some MOOC assessment makeovers. I’m a fan of Coursera, EdX and many others who are investing in creating open and high-quality online content and learning experiences. While the data may show that these providers continue to mainly serve already educated people, we live in an age where lifelong learning is more important than ever, and MOOCs are unquestionably enriching people’s lives and learning. They are not solving all of education’s problems or eradicating problems of access and opportunity, but it is unreasonable to think that they would, especially in the short-term. For MOOCs and open courses and content to increase access and opportunity, we have much work to do to inspire, equip and empower diverse individuals to take advantage of such resources. If you are not informed about the power of possibility of open learning as a tool for personal growth and development, you are not very likely to take advantage of these innovations.

With all this said, it is time to add greater design depth and sophistication to many of the existing MOOCs and open learning experiences. I suggest that we start with some MOOC assessment makeovers. In 2014, I hosted a MOOC on this subject called Learning Beyond Letter Grades, an opportunity to explore what is possible if we climb out of our century-old assessment ruts and re-imagine the role of assessment, especially formative assessment used for increasing student learning, student engagement, and even the ability to transfer what is learned to real world circumstances. Then I taught a short course for Educause members on the same topic in 2015. And, in 2016, I am scheduled to host a series of webinars outlining these possibilities. My mission is simple but substantive. It is to help people discover or rediscover how an assessment makeover of your course or learning experience can produce delightful and positive results for both teacher/facilitator and learner.

This is not prohibitively complex, but it does require us to look beyond many of our lived experiences with assessment and to reconsider assessment plans for our courses and programs. We must let go of the idea that “tough grading” is equal to academic rigor. We will benefit from moving our attention away from high-stakes quizzes and exams, and instead looking at formative and low-stakes feedback and assessment opportunities throughout courses. It means taking the time to learning about distinctions between formative and summative assessment, understanding the limitations of common “grading” practices, weaning ourselves from treating grading and assessment as synonymous, and understanding that frequent and meaningful feedback is one of our greatest friends in the pursuit of quality and engaging learning experiences. As such, this calls for a deeper understanding of things like authentic assessment, portfolio assessment, narrative feedback, checklist and rubric designs (and their benefits and limitations), designing for self-feedback and peer-feedback, the benefits and limitations of standards-based and competency-based assessment models, integrated assessment in educational games and simulations, and how you can blend many (even all) of these into a course or learning experience to create an extreme classroom assessment makeover that pops. This is design work that matters in education.

It means taking the time to learn about distinctions between formative and summative assessment, understanding the limitations of common “grading” practices, weaning ourselves from treating grading and assessment as synonymous, and understanding that frequent and meaningful feedback is one of our greatest friends in the pursuit of quality and engaging learning experiences. As such, this calls for a deeper understanding of things like authentic assessment, portfolio assessment, narrative feedback, checklist and rubric designs (and their benefits and limitations), designing for self-feedback and peer-feedback, the benefits and limitations of standards-based and competency-based assessment models, integrated assessment in educational games and simulations. Then it calls for exploring how you can blend many (even all) of these into a course or learning experience to create an extreme classroom assessment makeover that pops. This is design work that matters in education.

As I review various existing open courses, some of this assessment innovation is happening. There are promising experiments around peer assessment, for example. Yet, the dominant practice is still discussions and quizzes, multiple choice exams and checking off viewing of a video or participation in a given activity. These courses still have value, especially for learners ready and able to add their own feedback systems on top of what the course provides. Yet, it would be huge progress for MOOC providers and participants if we invested more creativity and thought into robust assessment makeovers of these courses. Let’s get to work.