Competency-based Badges for Differentiated Instruction

I’m delighted to start with the third MOOC that I’ve hosted. This one is called Adventures in Blended Learning. The following video explains the main goals of the course.

As I say in the video, one of the goals is to get informed about the possibilities of teaching and learning in the digital age. So, on the first night of the course, Kirsty Plander tweeted the following:

I love these sorts of questions. These are the types of teaching and learning questions that great teachers are constantly asking. A question like this represents awareness of students, the ability to observe and identify challenges to learning, and a desire to explore possibilities that will better meet the needs of each learner. In this case, Kristy poses a classic question about meeting the needs of diverse learners. We all know that students come to our classes with widely different life experiences, levels of confidence about formal learning environments, different levels of background knowledge about the course, different attention spans, different goals and passions, and so much more. Each person is a unique creation, full of potential. If that is true, how to you give some power to the potential in each student?

Some approach this by trying to teach to the middle, thinking this will stretch those who struggle, meet the needs of the majority, and hopefully be enough to not bore the advanced students. Yet, if you’ve taught for a few years, you know that such a strategy doesn’t work especially well. What are our options?

This is where blended learning becomes a promising possibility. As many explain, blended learning allows you to address these sorts of challenges by blending the best of face-to-face teaching and learning with the best of digital learning experiences. Allow me to share one (of many possible ways to design a blended experience to address the situation posted in Kristy’s Tweet above, and I’ll do it with two things that I’ve written quite a bit about over the last year or two: competency-based education and digital badges.

For the sake of time, I’ll just use the Educase explanation of competency-based education for now.

The competency-based education (CBE) approach allows students to advance based on their ability to master a skill or competency at their own pace regardless of environment. This method is tailored to meet different learning abilities and can lead to more efficient student outcomes. – http://www.educause.edu/library/competency-based-education-cbe

Imagine you are teaching an introductory business course. Some students have work experience, they learned quite a bit from their parents, and they are coming to the course with a working knowledge of the basics. Others do not have a clue, but this is the first course, so there are no pre-requisites. So, imagine breaking that introductory course (or just the prerequisites) into a discrete list of competencies. What skills do they need to have upon completion of the course? what skills do they need to thrive in the course in the first place (prerequisites)?

Once you have that list, now imagine creating a simple tutorial or or learning experience associated with that skill. It might include a reading or two, a recorded mini-lecture on the topic, a couple of practices exercises, a couple of case studies or real-life situations that use that skill or concept, an ungraded practice quiz for students to test their knowledge, as well as some advanced applications of the same concept (added as an optional…going deeper element). Finally, you come up with a description of how you would know when a person truly has the understanding and skill that you wanted in the area. You write it out in a specific and measurable list of criteria.

All this goes into an online learning module. There is a different module for each core concept. When students come to the course, they complete some sort of pre-test to see what they do or don’t know, what skills that do or don’t have. That pre-test should include measures for each of the modules built online. This could be done pretty easily using any number of online quiz/test tools. The result will give the student a list of areas to work on for the course. If a student performs well, they might be guided to a set of more advanced tutorials or just more advanced applications of the same basic concepts. If the student did not do as well, the list of suggested modules are included. Students can progress through completion of the modules and demonstration of their growing competency on a personalized, self-paced basis (or, perhaps certain skills must be demonstrated by the end of week 2 or 3 of the course). When a student completes the module, a digital badge is issued (here are some options for creating badges, or some LMSs like Canvas, Moodle, and Blackboard have them built-in). The badge is evidence that students met the criteria. You can even set the badges up in levels. You need to complete all 8 level 1 badges to gain access to the 5 level two badges…you get the idea.

This may sound like a ton of work to prepare. It is, but it doesn’t have to be all done at once. In fact, you could involve a group of students in helping create some of these modules as practice tools for themselves and learning modules for future classes. Refining and improving the modules could even be a challenge/task for students who perform well on the pre-tests.

There are so many ways to get at a challenge like Kristy described, but I see this one as especially promising. In fact,  it would not be hard to co-create it with a team of faculty at several schools, sharing their resources with one another. It would be a great way to divide the labor and make it more doable. Or, if one is not ready for that option, the instructor can just start small. Start with 3-5 of the most important skills or the areas where the most students enter a class with deficiencies.

What do you think? Would this potentially help address the challenge posed by Kristy? What are the benefits and downsides to such a practice? What other strategies might you consider? Can you think of how we might blend learning across face-to-face and online instruction to help address it?

Even as I’m finishing this article, I’m thinking about how to approach it in a completely different way through a self-directed, project-based approach. If you are game, I’d love to hear your suggestions on proposed ways to address this challenge. Why not share your it in the comment area?

5 Reasons for Blended Learning: Clarifying the Why

I’m leading a 4-week mini-MOOC on Adventures in Blended Learning from January 5 – 30 (by the way, all are welcome to participate in part or all of the experiences). While signing up is already already indication that those people have interest in understanding and maybe trying to intentionally design blended learning experiences, I am compelled to start with an exploration of the compelling “why” about blended learning. Without the why, too many things can go awry and a sense of relevance about “what” we are learning is more likely to die. As I explained in a recent article, integrating technology in and of itself is not an admirable or worthwhile goal. It is about designing learning experiences that best meet the needs of students. Toward that end, I offer 5 possible (but somewhat overlapping) reasons for considering the use of blended learning. This is far from an exhaustive list. There are many more, but these represent some of the most commonly referenced reasons.

1. To reap the promised benefits of research findings about blended learning.

There is a growing body of literature that now spans over a decade about blended learning. We are finding multiple benefits from taking the best of both worlds (face-to-face and online) in the classroom. As such, some are choosing blended learning so they can reap the benefits suggested in these research reports.

2. To create opportunities for one-on-on and small group time between the teacher and students.

In a traditional classroom environment, the teacher is often working with everyone at the same time. That leaves little time for high-impact personalized moments with each student or small groups of students? Think of the idea of stations that is common in early childhood education. Now imagine a situation where you do the same thing with older students, even high school and college. Every “station” contributes something new to the student’s learning about a stated learning objective. Some stations might be practice, others a chance to test their knowledge of key ideas through an interactive low-stakes assessment online, and yet other stations might be the teacher working with a small group of students. This is one of many possible blended learning models, but it allows teachers the flexibility to meet the needs of more students while giving everyone rich and valuable learning experiences.

This is also part of the reason that many are opting for a form of blended learning called the flipped classroom, where students learn about basic content outside of class but then come to class to do “homework”, freeing up the teacher to wander the room and work with individuals or small groups as needed.

3. To provide personalized learning.

We all know that students are not the same. They come to our classes with different knowledge, skills, abilities, passions, prior knowledge beliefs about what we will be teaching, levels of confidence, and all sorts of other things that impact how and what they learn in our classes. One strategy in the past was to try to find a level of teaching that reaches somewhere in the middle, allowing the teacher (sometimes with help) to do special work with the struggling students and/or enhancements for the student performing well. Or, in some contexts, the struggling and high performing students just have their needs unmet, sometimes walking away from the experience bored, disconnected, and with little progress. As we think about leveraging the best of face-to-face and online instruction together, it gives us new ways to think about providing multiple pathways to the same learning destination, pathways that work for individuals. Or, for some it is more about the pace. Some self-paced digital learning experiences allow each student to work at different paces, better meeting their individual needs. Personalization by time and pace are challenging in many traditional classroom designs, but new opportunities arise when we explore blended learning designs.

Many talk about this is terms of moving away from a one-size-fits all approach to education.

4. To take advantage of student data and adaptive learning.

As educational products and software develop, there are growing selections of what is called adaptive learning software. It is software that adapts and adjusts according to student performance, allowing a level of personalization and tracking of student progress that is difficult otherwise. By blending a class experience between teacher-guided instruction and computer-based instruction with such software, teachers are able to get rich data about student progress, and students get lessons catered their own level and readiness. Take a look at the image included in this article written for educational publishers and content providers (you might be interested in reading the article too). Notice the feedback loops that I represent in the visual. Designing classes that get at these sorts of models if part of what is leading schools and teachers to opt for a blended learning approach.

Many argue that this data will help us from letting some students “fall between the cracks.”

5. Extending the classroom and resources beyond the school walls.

The digital revolution leaves us with unprecedented access to rich content, communities, and people from around the world. Some are designing blended learning lessons and experiences to capitalize upon this access, building opportunities for individual students or groups to engage with this online content and people or communities to help them make progress in their learning. We see this with foreign language instruction as teachers build programs for students from different countries to interact with each other. We see it for student-centered projects and research. We see it with students collaborating with professionals or students from other schools using digital tools.

One example comes from the idea of helping students build what we call a student personal learning network, but there are hundreds of other ways to leverage this access as well.