7 Modern Mutations of Universal Free Higher Education: It is Coming to the US Sooner Than you Think

Even as costs of higher education continue to rise faster than the rate of inflation, a several-century old educational innovation is taking new forms and threatening or promising to disrupt (or at least shake up) the existing educational ecosystem. I am referring to the concept of universal free education, an idea that transformed the Western world. We see this idea’s the incubation in the 16th century with a Moravian Brethren, Johan Amos Comenius, designer of the predecessor to the Rosetta Stone with his Orbis Pictus (World of Pictures), a text that taught Latin using simple drawings and related text. Comenius was also an early champion for universal access to education for men and women, and across different classes. From there we see the idea emerge with vigor and financial backing as we trace the growth of free public education systems around the world.

Past strands of this innovation focused largely on formal primary and secondary education, but it has also spread to higher education in parts of the world. Looking at the landscape in the United States primarily (but also beyond), I see a number of new mutations of this idea that have a direct impact on the future of higher education. It is difficult to discern which ones will survive and spread, and which our cultural vaccinations will kill off, but it is becoming increasingly clear that one or more of these strands will survive and thrive in the near future. The spirit of universal free education is an innovation that adapts and persists in the contemporary world.

Formal education is never free. Students may not be required to pay tuition, but there are still expenses: teachers, resources, time… Even in the world of open education, access to learning is often free and open, but someone is paying for the infrastructure that supports these efforts. Did you take a free MOOC through Coursera or EdX? It might not cost you money (except for the expense of the computer, Internet connection and whatever value you place on your time), but it costs plenty of money to design, develop and facilitate each of those courses.

Of course, when we talk about free education, we are referring to the direct financial expense incurred by the learner. By free education, we usually mean that it is funded through taxes and/or charitable given instead of tuition. The United States already has a massive free K-12 public education system, as to do many other countries. In addition, over 40 countries around the world offer free University education, some even offering stipends to students or extending the free education through graduate study. Others, like Denmark, are so committed to free education, that even foreign students can pursue their undergraduate and graduate studies at no personal cost (apart from the cost of living).

What are these new mutations of the age-old innovation of free and universal education? More of these are being identified every year, but following are seven, some of which are already well established, and others that have notable and exponential rates of attention and/or expansion.

Education as a Human Right 

While the vision for universal free education has been around for centuries, it was only more recently that people started to refer to it as a human right. Such perspectives place access to education alongside other current debates about the extend to which things like healthcare should also be considered a human right. If we don’t want this to turn into a highly politicized rhetorical battle,

It would be useful to clarify terms a bit, but framing education as a human right, as is done in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, leads to some intriguing questions. For example, the UDHR not only describes foundational education as a human right, but alongside that, it states that parents should have the right to choose the type of education for their children. This suggests not just a single common accessible education system, but a menu of accessible education options. Consider how many countries fund faith-based schools as well as public schools, which some could interpret as supporting the position of education rights in the UDHR. Regardless of this nuance in the broader conversation, the human rights perspective on education seems to drive us to think about how we can make it as accessible as possible…without the burden of massive personal debt.

Low-cost Competency-based Higher Education 

Not all efforts in competency-based education incorporate the plan to reduce the cost of education, but some clearly do, like Western Governor’s University and the University of Wisconsin Flex program. These are not free, but they are leveraging a more bare-bones model of education to cut costs and tuition. Further supplement these efforts with a tax base and we have a potentially workable model for universal free higher education. It does not mean that everyone will opt for this model, but competency-based education has enough of a research base now to show that it is a practical and effective form of educating.

Dual Credit Programs

This one is not on everyone’s radar, but it is already having an impact on the higher education system. For prepared students, there are many state-mandated (and sometimes state-funded) initiatives to give students remarkable head starts on higher education. For example, the State of Michigan pays for the tuition of high school students (in public and private secondary schools) who want to start earning college credit through dual credit classes (classes that count toward high school graduation but are also transcript-ed college credits from a given University). Some programs around the country are so generous that it is possible for hard-working high school student to graduate high school with 60 college credits or even an associate’s degree. While many do not think of it in such terms, this is essentially an existing model for free higher education in the United States. It does not seem like a massive step to simply extend things by another two years to pay for a full bachelor’s degree. And this is not new.

Open Course Experiments

Up until now, I have not been willing to join the conversation about MOOCs in comparison to traditional college. My reason for resisting was (and is) because doing so was too sudden and extreme. The merit of MOOCs does not depend upon this one possibility. They have value for self-directed learners even if they never result in a degree. And this is where I am willing to enter the conversation about MOOCs as a part of expanded higher education. MOOCs are currently primarily about learning and not credentialing. Where the existing higher education system is sometimes overly occupied with the piece of paper handed out at the end, MOOCs are currently drawing people who want and/or need to learn something. As such, they do play an important role in the conversation about universal free education, especially if we see education as being most importantly about learning, what I frequently talk and write about as a culture of learning over a culture of earning. From this perspective, MOOCs are visible reminders that the Internet and ubiquitous access that that Internet makes free learning available to all.

Existing Free Higher Education Models in the United States

There are already schools that offer free higher education to students in the United States. Some of them are among the most selective in the country, but if you can get accepted, they find ways to make sure that cost does not prevent you from studying there (see some of the schools in this list as an example – http://www.thebestschools.org/blog/2012/12/10/20-colleges-providing-free-tuition/ ). Schools are using work study, charitable donations, and other models as well (http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/paying-for-college/slideshows/12-tuition-free-colleges).

The Tennessee Promise 

This 2014 initiative, approved in April, is a promise to provide a free community college education to any high school graduate. This is currently the only state in the US that offers a free community college education to its entire young people. We will be watching to see how this works, financially and academically. How will it impact enrollment and viability of private and other 4-year institutions in the state and region? While this is nothing new to other countries that already have universal free higher education, this is trail blazing in the United States, and I except to see other states propose similar plans in the near future.

Alternative Credentials

Professional certificates, digital badges, nano-degrees, and other emerging forms of credentialing also seem to represent the spirit of universal free education. After all, the “right” to education is not about the right to a particular abstraction known as a traditional diploma. If that were the main goal, then we should welcome diploma mills or just invest in the postage necessary to mail everyone in the country a new and “official” diploma. It is what the diploma represents that matters. As such, alternative credentials have a voice in the conversation. To they extent that they represent and are perceived as representing true knowledge and skill acquisition, they also contribute to more widespread access to education. Open digital badge are no small part of this effort.

7+1 – The Learning Network

I know that I titled this article “7 Modern Mutations”, but there is an eighth that permeates many of the others, one arguable deserves a spot of its own. With the rapid expansion of the Internet (and the knowledge sharing, resources, connections and communities made possible by it), there is another important contributor to free and universal access to higher education. That is represented by the concept of the personal learning network. Through a PLN, each of us are capable of acquiring much of the knowledge and skill that others garner through a college degree. As K-12 schools pay more attention to their role in helping young people develop their PLN, they are also contributing the the cause of free universal lifelong learning.

Each of these seven strands are evidence that the century-old innovation called universal free education continues to spread. It is mutating to do so, but in remarkable ways that still seem to push toward the goal of increased access and opportunity through education. If I were in a leadership position at a higher education institution (Oh. Wait a second…), I would be having serious and extended conversation about these trends, preparing for the revolution of free higher education in the United States.

Notes & Quotes from Joi Ito’s Keynote at #BBWorld14

Joi Ito, Director of MIT Media Lab, took the stage for the opening keynote at Blackboard World 2014 in Las Vegas. The first part of his presentation was a repeat of his 2014 TedTalk, pointing out how the “Internet pushed innovations to the edges…away from the people with the money, power and authority.”

While I’d seen his TedTalk before, these same ideas came across as fresh because now it was challenging me to apply this to the education sector. Is it possible that the Internet will push educational innovation to the edges as well, alway from the people and organizations with money, power and authority? What does that look like? Are things like MOOCs, OER, peer-to-peer learning networks signs of this movement? What is the next phase? Part of that answer, I suppose, comes from the fact that Joi Ito is directing a media lab at one of the leading Universities in the world, and he doesn’t have a college degree. He has clearly demonstrated the knowledge, passion, skill and insight; but he doesn’t have the diplomas…items currently controlled by people with the money, power and authority to issue such credentials. Perhaps this “edge of educational innovation” is a future where learners own their own credentials, where alternative ways of displaying one’s learning are just as accepted (or more so) than traditional credentials like the college diploma.

In the second half of his, talk Ito identified five wonderfully provocative frameworks, concepts or models for thinking about the presenting and future needs of learning: The 4 P’s of Learning, 4 Pairs of Connected Learning, the affordances of anti-disciplinary work, the value of becoming an artist-designer-scientist-engienner (all in one), and Ito’s 9 Principles of Learning. Following is a short introduction to each of these.

The Four P’s of Learning

Ito cast a vision for learning and learning contexts that are largely informed by projects, peers, passion, and play. Instead of having to master the content before you get to do something with it, Ito argued for diving into projects and learning along the way. The same goes for play and the Lifelong Kindergarten at MIT. We learn so much in kindergarten through play but many of us abandon those habits of play. He argues that we need to embrace and encourage them throughout life. Then there is the third P, peers. “You learn when you teach,” Ito reminded us. And peers are not just people of the same age. They are people of all ages, including adult mentors. The last P (although he actually listed it as the third) is passion…what he referred to as, “the energy to want to do something.” Imagine what our learning organizations would look like if these were the four primary ingredients to each school day.

Connected Learning

I learned something fascinating. Until today, I had not clue that Joi was Mimi Ito’s brother! I’ve been a longstanding fan of her work, and it was delightful to discover the connection between these two thought-leaders. It was delightful then, to see Joi spend a few minutes of the good work being done in the connected learning movement. Specifically, he pointed to the work around exploring potential connections between four contexts or groups. He juxtaposed interests and academics, in-school and out-of-school, online and the “real world”, kids and adults. Part of what connected learning does it examine learning in each of these realms, but then also looks for potential connections among them. While he did not mention it, I immediately think of the promising City-wide Summer of Learning Projects, connecting learning outside of school with some of the goals and standards in school. Exploring how we can connect and blend these different elements of life provides us with new possibilities for teaching and learning.

Anti-Disciplinary Work and Thinking

In the MIT Media Lab, Ito requires students and faculty to be anti-discpilinary. If a person’s work and interests fit neatly into a single discipline, then he encourages them to go study in that discipline and not come to the Media Lab. Instead, he is looking for people who are willing to live, think and work in those vast spaces between the disciplines. As Ito explained, “We find that the space between the disciplines is actually bigger than the space in the disciplines.” This resonated with me. After all, the disciplines are the places of tamed, tagged, and sorted thinking. Innovation on the edges is far from any of those things, hence it is arguably anti-disciplinary.

Of course, if we take anti-disciplinarity to its logical conclusion, it could be seen as challenge to much of established educational institutions, colleges and departments nicely labeled and organized with carefully built fences between them, often restricting what can be studied, how it can be studied, and who can or can’t teach. Anti-disciplinary is not just about building connections across disciplines (interdisciplinary) or even mastering and mixing multiple disciplines (multidisciplinary). This is about untamed learning. It is the distinction between visiting a lumber yard and wandering in the forest.

The Artist-Designer-Scientist-Engineer

Ito’s vision is not just to get artists, designers, scientists and engineers working together. He argued for learning that cultivates people who are all four of these, perhaps with one more prominent than the others, but all four are present. As explained by Ito, the artist is interested in art, not usefulness. The designer, however, is interested in problem-solving, solution-thinking. The scientist is driven to discover something new, often just for the sake of advancing scientific knowledge. And the engineer (having some similarities with the designer) is trying to figure out constraints and build something useful. As such, Ito argued for learning that helped people nurture each of these four ways of thinking and being.

Ito’s 9 Principles of Learning

Ito concluded his talk by sharing something that he keeps on the wall of his office, his principles of learning. He didn’t explain every one of them, but simply scanning this list is enough to prompt some wonderfully engaging conversations and thought experiments about education.

  1. Resilience over strength – Being and looking strong is one thing, but resilience is not just about being strong. It is about struggling, facing difficulty, bouncing back, and persevering.
  2. Systems over objects – Objects often mean very little apart from systems. So, why not start with the environment, contexts, and systems. From there we develop the objects.
  3. Disobedience over compliance – As Ito noted, “You don’t get a Nobel prize for doing what you’re told.” So, why don’t we find ways to encourage a bit more disobedience in learning environments. I think it is important to distinguish between disobedience and dishonor. I agree with Ito’s point, but I would frame us as needing to encourage humble disobedience, or maybe a mix of deep honor and daring disobedience.
  4. Pull over push – Ito said, “You can’t get serendipity unless you are looking around you and pulling.” Pushing is organizing/coordinating everything. “Really try to embrace serendipity and pull things together.”
  5. Compasses over maps – A map tells you where to go, but in a world of constant change, what if the continents shifted and you still found yourself using an old map? Instead, a compass helps us figure out where we are going even when the world around us is shifting. What are the implications for what and how we go about education? Is it possible that we are teaching students from maps that are increasingly outdated? How do we give them the tools to navigate life and learning in a constantly changing world?
  6. Emerging over authority – Authority has a place, but on the edges of innovation, it may fail us. That is where we need to hypothesize, imagine, and create…to reach out for or generate the emergent.
  7. Risk over safety – It isn’t just about being safe. If our goal is safety, then maybe we should all just stay in our houses. Instead, it is about nurturing the competence and confidence to take calculated risks.
  8. Practice over theory – Theory has a place, but if it doesn’t work in practice, what is the point? So, practice is where we discover what does and doesn’t work. From there we can revise, refine, change or create helpful theories.
  9. Learning over education – Ito explained how he uses the two terms. “Education is what the system does to us.” “Learning is what we do for ourselves.”

Ito’s keynote was an excellent start to what I hope to be a rich and rewarding gathering at Blackboard World 2014. I commend the company for investing in speakers who challenge things as they are in education, and who invite us to imagine new and promising possibilities for teaching and learning.

How to Read & Stay Informed about Educational Research

There is much that we can learn by staying abreast of current and emerging research in the field of education. I know that some educators who do not enjoy it, but the rewards make up for the challenge, and the more one reads, the easier it gets to make sense of that reading. What would happen if more educators took a few hours a month to review the current and emerging literature, discuss a bit of it with colleagues, and use that learning to benefit their work? I suspect that we could see some notable benefits. Toward that end, here are a few resources to get interested us started in that direction.

How to Read Academic Research (video) – This light-hearted 12-minute video provides useful and practical tips on how to read academic articles. – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvnUojPCftk

How to Read Education Data Without Jumping to Conclusions – This Atlantic article provides a number of practical tips on what to do and not do when reading educational research. – http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/07/how-to-read-education-data-without-jumping-to-conclusions/374045/

What is Scientifically Based Research? A Guide for Teachers – This easy-to-read article explains the importance of reading research as a teacher. It also provides tips on how to do it. – http://www.readingrockets.org/article/31080

Using Research and Reason in Education: How Teachers Can use Scientifically Based Research to Make Curricular and Instructional Designs – This is an extremely valuable article. It provides a strong rationale for reading research as an educator. However, it also gives a through introduction to the types of research out there, the role of different types of research, as well as how this research can help inform decisions as an educational professional. – https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/Pages/using_research_stanovich.aspx

Open Access Eduaction Journals – There are a growing number of excellent education journals that are freely available online in full-text. This long list is a great source for beginning a review of the research. Consider setting the goal of identifying and reading one article a day for a week on a topic of interest. It doesn’t take much time and makes for a rich and rewarding learning experience. - http://www.ergobservatory.info/ejdirectory.html 

Educational Technology Journals – This page from Northern Illinois University provides a long list of different educational technology journals. Consider taking time to visit the sites of a number of these journals. Look for topics and articles of interest. Consider reading a few of them. If some are not available, try using your local library to get copies of them. Some of the most current research is often not immediately available online in full-text. - http://www.niu.edu/facdev/programs/handouts/edtechjournals.shtml

What Works Clearinghouse – This US government site provides an extensive collection of research-based practices for education. Note that there is a dedicated section for educational technology, including access to some research reports.  - http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/default.aspx

How Do Teachers Read Research? – This is an older study about how different teachers read research articles. As you read it, consider how you read research. Do you read educational research? When? Why? How? Use this as a chance to reflect on the role that reading research plays in your own life as a professional educator. – http://education.msu.edu/ncrtl/pdfs/ncrtl/researchreports/rr926.pdf

Creating an APA Format Annotated Bibliography – This 9-minute video walks you through the process of creating an annotated bibliography. This is simply a list of research around a common theme, with short annotations after each item. This is how I got started in my review of research in the field. I picked an education topic of personal interest and gave myself the assignment of developing 10-20 source annotated bibliographies around that topic. These became wonderful tools for making more informed decisions in my work. In only a few months, I was amazed at how much I could learn. – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPhWhRlEWtI

10 Approaches to Making Educational Decisions

There is no shortage of educational trends and innovations. At the same time, professional educators know the importance of making decisions on some sort of basis. How do we decide when to implement a trend and when not do implement it? How do we decide whether to add interactive whiteboard to every classroom or how to do it, whether to adopt a 1:1 program, whether to use a particular curriculum or adaptive learning math software?

As we think about the decisions we make in education, I see ten common approaches to many educational choices: fashion-based decisions, personal preferences, reliance on educational traditions, reliance of authorities or expert advice, decisions based on reason, decisions based on faith and convictions, the use of reason, data-driven decision-making, and decisions based on relevant research. Following is a short reflection on each of these approaches, noting that decision are often not just based on one of these, but two or more of them combine to shape our decision-making style.

Fashion-based Decisions

These are the educational decisions we make because a given strategy, practice, or technology is fashionable. Closely related, we do it because others are doing it. We sometimes even hear educators talk about how a given idea or practice is “so 1990s” or even just “so last year.” It is rooted in the idea that newer is better, The older practice is likely not as good. Sometimes we make fashion-based decisions but there happen to be other good reasons for that same decision…they just didn’t play a role in our choice. One school might put interactive whiteboards in every classroom because it is fashionable or trendy. Another might do it for a completely different reason, like because they attended a workshop and learned about the specific benefits for teaching and learning.

It is not always easy to tell if we are making a fashion-based decision, because we sometimes still use the language of research, reason, or data when defending our choices. As a result, this is a messy process. Nonetheless, it can be helpful to check our motives by challenging ourselves to honestly reflect on what is really influencing the decisions that we make.

Personal Preference and Comfort

Sometimes we make decisions because we want to, because it is the comfortable thing to do. It might be because we are familiar with it, allowing us to avoid the something frightening unknown of some newer educational claim or practice. Again, we may try to justify our decision using the language of reason, data, or research; but when we are fully honest, we recognize that your decisions are based upon what is comfortable for us, even if it may not be the best for the learners or others.

Reliance on Authority Figures, Experts and Other Respected People

Whether it is a college professor, a respected colleague, or a well-known and respected figure in education; we sometimes based our decisions on the viewpoints and advice of these people. As such, we are at the mercy of their skill in suggesting the best options. There are times when we truly don’t know that much, and we don’t have the time or means to do the research ourselves. However, if we are going to be professional educators, that calls for us to take at least some ownership and responsibility for educational choices. This is a tempting option as it requires less time and effort, and because the field of education already tends to value respect for authority figures.


Sometimes we end up making decisions because of indifference. By not caring and not making any strong stand, we find ourselves pushed or pulled toward a given decision. As I recall from a classic Rush song, choosing not to decide is still a choice…and that choice has just as many implications as if one invested more time and effort in making it.

Compliance, Policy, and Regulations

Education is an increasingly regulated sector. As such there are sometimes largely non-negotiable decisions. Is there solid or research to show that 180 days of school is better than 150 or 190? Are credit hours really the most beneficial way to measure student progress toward a credential? What about the reasons behind certain graduation requirements or mandates? While some decision may have solid reasons behind them, others do not. Either way, the reasons behind the regulations are not always clear, and there is no small amount of political influence on school regulations. Nonetheless, some educational decisions are informed more by compliance with given policies or regulations than anything else.


There is a reason why some practices stand the test of time, and that is not to be ignored. I am not arguing that we should flippantly abandon traditions in our educational organizations. Traditions can be helpful and stabilizing. At the same time, tradition alone may not be the best justification for every decision. If the medical field only made decisions based on tradition, then current practice would be void of many helpful, promising, even life-saving practices and strategies. The same is true when it comes to our educational decision-making process. 

Reason and Wisdom

What is the reasonable thing to do? Using common sense and plain reason is an important part of functioning in daily life, not to mention providing a quality educational experience for learners. A good dose of common sense can be a powerful tool as we seek to make wise decisions about how to allocate resources, what will be helpful, and what will not. However, reason apart from some other tools for decision-making can also lead us astray. We can, for example, philosophize our way into some rather troubling educational predicaments.

Faith and Convictions

This is an important means of making decisions. There are underlying beliefs and convictions of everyone in the field of education. Reason alone does not work for most of us. For example, maybe something might appear to be the reasonable or logical thing to do, but is it ethical? Does it align with our core beliefs and convictions? Consider how the Amish make decisions about technologies. It could be argued that they are not anti-technology as much as they are pro-community. If they sift their technological decisions through their community-based values-strainer, some technologies don’t make it through. As such, leveraging our faith and convictions in decision-making requires knowing and articulate those convictions, and then using them in the decision-making process. Neil Postman’s questions to inform technology-related decisions can be a helpful tool in this process (http://etale.org/main/2009/04/17/neil-postman-and-media-ecology/).

Data-driven Decision Making

Without convictions and reason, data is unhelpful. However, data-driven decision-making is about collecting the necessary data to help you make the best decision in a given circumstance. Should we buy interactive whiteboards for every classroom? How about collecting the most useful data to inform your decision? What is the teacher readiness? What training is necessary for teachers to use them well? What will the cost be and how will that impact our ability to spend on other important things? Or, perhaps we buy a few interactive whiteboard and collect data on how they are useful, whether they are improving student engaging and learning. Data-driven decision making is framing the most important questions related to decision, then collecting and analyzing the data that will help us answers those questions and make the best decision.

Decisions Informed by Relevant Research

Education is both an art and science. As a science, there is a massive body of research about the effectiveness of different practices, processes, strategies, and methods. Learning to read and review this research can help with decisions. While research on students in one school does not always directly apply to our specific contexts, reviewing the research can give us a better sense of the possibilities, the potential benefits and drawbacks of given educational innovations. Combine this with a data-driven approach and we have a robust way of making more informed and helpful decisions.

We are humans and not machines. As such, our decision-making processes are complicated. They are not simply a matter of making the reasonable choice, collecting the right research and data, following our gut, going with what is fashionable, or using some perfect recipe of these eight decision-making styles. However, I contend that a heavy emphasis upon the last four is especially important in the 21st and 22nd century. It is important to leverage reason, our convictions, relevant data, and a review of the best research on the subject. We can also benefit from respecting the educational traditions of the past but not blindly following the path of tradition in our educational practices. However, in this era of unprecedented educational change, innovation and experimentation, I am confident that reliance upon fashion-based decisions and personal preferences will quickly lead us down a dangerous path.

8 Readings and Resources on #CognitiveLoad Theory

Cognitive load theory. Have you heard of it? It is one of digital-age learning theories with the strongest foundation in empirical research. It helps explains why math scores dropped when many people first put SmarBoards in their classrooms. it explains why many vivid graphics and images are not as effective as simple ones. It helps us consider how to manage the limited load that our brains can handle at any given time, learning to design learning resources in view of this load. Is that enough of a motivation to check it out? If so, here are eight resources to get you started, ranging from quick and easy reads to a couple of heavier research articles.

Nuts and Bolts: Brain Bandwidth – Cognitive Load Theory and Instructional Design- This is an “easy to read” introduction to the idea of cognitive load theory. You will go deeper into the concept through some of the more scholarly sources included below.

Applying Cognitive Strategies to Instructional Design – This multimedia video presentation on cognitive load theory, introduces you to many of the basic ideas about the theory as presented by Richard Mayer, one of the seminal scholars on this topic.

Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning (PDF) – This scholarly article provides an excellent and practical summary of nine key cognitive load concepts, explaining how they can help to create more effective multimedia resources for learners.

The Cognitive Load Theory – This slide deck walks you through basic vocabulary in cognitive load theory, including examples for each. You will learn the difference between the three main types of cognitive load: extraneous, intrinsic, and germane. It concludes with some practical applications for educators. -

Cognitive Load Theory and the Role of Learner Experience: An Abbreviated Review for Educational Practitioners – This scholarly article provides an important summary of some of the more important research / studies conducted about cognitive load theory and how they apply to teaching and learning. This will help you design lessons that are more informed by current research in the field. -

On the Role and Design of Video for Learning (video) – Interview with Dr. Richard Mayer – Richard Mayer is arguably the leading scholar in the area of cognitive load theory. This video will give you a chance to hear directly from Mayer, while also learning about how the theory can inform the design and use of instructional video.

Cognitive Theories of Multimedia and Instructional Design (video) – This is an important video because it provides a series of practical examples, showing how cognitive load theory can improve the design of learning resources for students.

Cognitive Load Theory Critique – If you read my blog, then you know that I rarely discuss the affordances of something without at least taking a moment to consider the limitations as well. This article offers the limitation side of things. There are critics of cognitive load theory. This article will introduce you to some of those critiques, providing you with a more balanced view of the subject. -

Digital Badges as Curricular Building Blocks

As interest continues to grow around the possibilities for micro-credentialing and digital badges, there is one aspect that has yet to gain significant attention….how badges can help us leverage new curriculum design options. This is an idea that does not require digital badges, but re-imagining learning experiences in terms of competency-based digital badges reveals curriculum design vistas that might be otherwise overlooked. What I am about to explain is not mere speculation. This is a model that is shaping one of the current efforts at the University where I serve, as we ask what it would look like to rebuild a master’s degree around competency-based digital badges. At this stage, we are just piloting the idea with a few online courses. However, this should serve as a proof of concept for other potential applications in formal learning organizations.

Consider a traditional degree program. Imagine a master’s degree program with 30 credits required for graduation. This might consist of 9 3-credit courses plus a thesis. Usually there are also a set of program level goals. Each course is intended to help a learner progress toward meeting one or more of those program level goals. The extent to which this actually happens will vary by programs and schools. Some programs are intentional about aligning courses with program level goals. Others really leave the focus of a course up to the individual professor. In such cases, two learners taking the sake course from different professors may get an altogether different learning experience: different readings, different lectures and discussions, different assignments, different expectations for what it means to earn a certain grade. Such freeform models are increasingly uncommon as accrediting bodies and other program review standards usually call for measuring student progress toward some set of program level goals.

Despite this, most people in United States institutions still tend to think of a course as the fundamental building block for a degree. Adding course upon course builds up to the degree. From a curriculum standpoint, this also means that they tend to think of revising a program-level curriculum in terms of revising, adding, or removing courses. Customizing programming for individuals or specific groups of learners is often not considered or welcomed, except on an individual instructor level, where a professor might agree to an alternate assignment for one student or a specific group of students.

Now consider a different way of thinking about a master’s degree. What if you started by listing out the program goals? From there, you created a longer list of discrete competencies that one would need in order to demonstrate achievement of these goals. For example, perhaps one program goal related to using different models and frameworks to design high-impact learning experiences. To break this down, you might decide that achieving this goal requires knowledge and skill in designing project-based learning, service learning, inquiry-based learning, game-based learning, discussion-based learning, etc. Each of these could be listed as discrete competencies, all leading to the achievement of the overall program goal.

What if these competencies then became the building blocks of the curriculum design instead of the course? You might have a list of 50-80 such competencies, each aligned to one or more of these program goals. This is where we add the concept of digital badges. Each badge is earned by demonstrating a discrete program competency.

Screen Shot 2014-07-05 at 10.01.44 AMThis is where we get into unfamiliar ground, so allow me to explain what curricular elements would go into each competency-based badge design. The foundation of each badge is one of the program-level competencies. Then we must determine what criteria one will need to meet to demonstrate competency and earn the associated digital badge. From there we include a collection of readings, resources, suggested activities, and worked examples that have potential to help one reach the competency.  At this stage, there is not necessarily any human interaction, and that may be acceptable for some competencies. For others, there is a likely significant benefit in interaction with peers and a mentor/instructor. So, the next part of the badge design is to create plans for peers to interact a around the badge/competency: giving each other feedback and encouragement, discussing toics related to the competency in order to clarify one’s understanding and ability to apply it to novel and diverse situations, etc.

Similarly, there is ample room to plan for the role of the mentor/instructor. Instead of being the person who lectures and orchestrates all events, this model emphasizes the role of instructor as a coach and mentor for each learner. This might include monitoring the learner’s progress, providing expert suggestions and tips, giving individualized help and tutoring when a learner runs into difficulty or simple needs the wisdom of an expert, adding new suggested resources and activities based upon data collected from the needs and challenges of past learners, hosting optional real-time workshops and events related to the competency, giving formative feedback on a learner’s work, and ultimately deciding when the learner has met the criteria for earning the badge. This is a shift in how we think about the role of the instructor, as it is student-directed. The instructor/mentor is there to guide, encourage, support, correct, design resources, redirect, coach, and evaluate.

Screen Shot 2014-07-05 at 10.16.02 AMNow consider how this program looks from a curricular standpoint. Instead of thinking of the program in terms of courses. We now think of it in terms of much more granular competencies, each attached to a digital badge learning experience design. Consider the visual below. Each badge in the image represents a different competency, and these competencies support the overall program goal.

This changes the way we go about curriculum revision, redesign, and customizations. What happens if a new skill or area of knowledge emerges for a given field? It does not require a new course, but only the development of new competency-based digital badges. What about the role of electives in a program? Now it is not a matter of choosing elective courses, but about identifying specific competency-based digital badges that align with one’s needs, interests, goals, or aspirations. What if there was a company that wanted to partner with a program to provide custom training or continuing education in a very specific area? It could be as simple as pulling together a collection of competency-based digital badges around that company theme/goals and offering them as a specialized curriculum, maybe even resulting in a certificate named after that theme. Screen Shot 2014-07-05 at 10.16.13 AMTo be more specific, consider a company that wanted a team of people to be trained in assessment strategies. Instead of offering the assessment course to the company, this would allow one to sit down with the company, show the long just of competency-based building blocks, select the ones relevant to assessment and the company’s goals, and pull them together as custom programming. This model leaves room for core competencies expected of all learners in a program, but also makes it easy to customize and personalize.

This also leads to a much more accurate and granular approach to documenting both student learning and the effectiveness of a part of the program learning experience. In the course-based model, a student often gets a final letter grade that supposedly represents the student achievement in the course. The problem is that it does not tell us anything about the strengths and challenges of the learner. Perhaps the learner has a “B” for a grade. Does this mean that the learner had moderate knowledge and skill in all areas of the course, that the learner only did a certain percentage of the work, that the learner doesn’t test well, that the learner got stuck on early skills which led to struggles with more complex parts of the course, or something else? There are so many different ways to a “B” in a course, and that single letter is of limited value in understanding the learner’s knowledge and skill.

With the competency-based badge model, earning a badge means that the learner met specific criteria that gives strong evidence of meeting a very specific competency. We know when the learner is struggling with something and when the learner is flourishing with another. Looking at the data for a group of learners, we get to see common struggles, successes, challenges, and “aha moments” that we can use to improve each competency-based badge design; putting us in a constant state of micro level curricular designs intended to improve the experience for current and future learners. It is not a full course design, but rather tweaks targeting a single competency.

This model also offers unprecedented opportunity for shared resources across programs in a school or even across organizations. It would be possible, for example, to set a specific standard for what goes into a competency-based badge design and how it should look and function. From there, people in different programs and organizations could design to those standards and share their work in some sort of repository. Or, it might be possible to offer degrees and training where parts of the education and training are offered, housed, and/or managed by different organizations. This creates vast opportunities for new partnerships and consortiums. Imagine a national repository of competency-based digital badges that can be used by all high schools. This would potentially reduce the cost of textbooks and other resources, and it would allow schools to benefit from the good work done elsewhere. While there is still the option of “reinventing the wheel” if a school so desires, it would make it unnecessary. As it stands, we can find plenty of lesson plan repositories, but this would take things to an completely different level.

This also seems to be a significant step forward in terms of clearly communicating what a learner knows and is able to do. As noted before, the letter grade system is limited in this sense. Yet, competency-based digital badges, even earned across organizations, allow a learner to demonstrate specific knowledge and skills through badges that might be earned from a single issuer or dozens of them. Using the open badge infrastructure, all of these badges are easily represented in a digital backpack.

Screen Shot 2014-07-05 at 10.01.34 AMScreen Shot 2014-07-05 at 10.01.23 AMSuch a model can even be used within an otherwise traditional course-based system. That is just a matter of reconsidering what goes into a course. In a traditional course, it usually includes elements like learning objectives, assessments, teacher-led learning activities, and units of instruction.  Now imagine replacing all of that in a course with a different model, one like what is represented in the following image. There is a competency, suggested readings and resources, examples, practice exercises and activities, a mentor to coach and provide personalized assistance, clear criteria that one needs to meet to earn the badge, etc. Screen Shot 2014-07-05 at 10.01.44 AMThere is still plenty of room to leverage the power of instructor-student interaction, student-student interaction, along with more personalized and self-paced elements. This switch in thinking helps us make progress toward a truly personalized learning experience rather than the one-size-fits-all model that continues to dominate most American educational institutions.

This also provides a way for leveraging the power of digital badges as a new form of curriculum building blocks, but doing so in a way that works within existing systems. It would be easy enough to revise individual badge elements, move badges from one course to another, share badges between programs and institutions, or even pull some badges out of courses and use them as stand-alone learning modules. These could maintain a credit equivalency so as to work within a credit-based system, but they could also be used to move away from such a system to more competency-based models like we see at Western Governor’s University, SNHU, or the UW Flex program.

There is another promising possibility afforded by such a model. Now consider a student learning digital dashboard that allows a learner (or others) to track learner progress within a curriculum. Building all these badges as OBI-compliant would allow for easier software and educational app development. It would allow schools to pull in curricular building blocks across dozens of sources and platforms. A school could pull digital badges that are self-designed, others from large publishing houses, some shared from other schools, etc. Yet, all the learner progress could be monitored and tracked in a single dashboard. They could even be shared across multiple dashboards. This has the chance to solve one of the more frustrating challenges of many schools as they pull curriculum from multiple providers, but then grapple with a way to present them as a unified and seamless experience.

This model offers us with a new way of thinking about how we design and develop curricula and programs. If offers more granular developments and revisions. It creates more flexibility. It provides an easy way to think about shared curriculum projects. And along the way, it also helps us progress toward truly personalized learning. All of this can be done while initially maintaining the framework of traditional courses, credits and degrees, but it also offers a method for mashing up curriculum from multiple sources while also potentially creating rich learning dashboards. Of course, the more we begin to experiment with such models, the more we are likely to discover ways of thinking about teaching and learning that lead us to let go of traditional frameworks.

20 Great Sources for the Hottest Educational Trends in 2014

Getting ready for a new course, I was putting together a collection of informal resources that get us thinking about educational trends and innovations.  Here are 20 of my favorites. Feel free to share others in the comment section.

  1. 2014 Horizon Report for K-12 Education (consider looking at reports from 2012 and 2013 as well)
  2. Core Education’s Ten Trends 2014
  3. Forbes – 5 Big Trends for Education in 2012-2013
  4. The Collection of “7 Things You Should Know About…” Resources at Educause
  5. 10 Trends that are Transforming Homeschooling in the Digital Age
  6. 8 Things that will be Less Dominant in Learning Organizations of the Future
  7. 10 Educational Buzz Words that Challenged my Work and Thinking in 2013
  8. 10 Educational Buzz Words that Challenged my Work and Thinking in 2012
  9. 5 Trends in Education for 2014
  10. 10 Major Technology Trends in Education
  11. 2014 Results of A Vision for K-20 Education
  12. EdTech Trends for 2014
  13. What Trends are Shaping Ed Tech in 2014?
  14. Technology Trends for Teachers to Try in 2014
  15. Top Ed Tech Trends for 2014
  16. The Six Educational Technology Trends You Should Know About
  17. EdSurge Collection of Educational Technology Companies 
  18. The World’s 10 Most Innovative Companies in Education
  19. The Top Ten EdTech Startups in 2013 
  20. 2014 EdTech Digest Awards