We are the Monster at the End of the Book

I wanted to circle back to a thought I had while reading Maha Bali’s excellent post Reproducing Marginality? The whole post is excellent, but one line made me think more than others. In it, she quotes something that she wrote with Paul Prinsloo and Kate Bowles that says:

…for most of us not in the US (or the UK), this [edtech] vision has often signalled top-down, US-to-world, Anglo-oriented, decontextualized, culturally irrelevant, infrastructure-insensitive, and timezone-ignorant aspirations, even when the invitation for us to join in may be well-intentioned.

Many of us in the Western world of EdTech are trying to figure out how to fix Education and Ed Tech, looking for the evil monsters out there that are causing the problems, and then fixing those monsters with research, technology, design, or methods.

And sometimes we are afraid to see what those monsters are that are damaging education, because they may be too big for us to fix.

This all reminds me of one of my favorite books as a kid: The Monster at the End of the Book.

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In this book, Grover notices the title of the book and spends every page trying to stop you, the reader, from reaching the end of the book. He nails pages together, builds brick walls, and pleads with you NOT to get to the end of the book and face the monster lurking there.

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Grover is terrified of the monster at the end of the book. But when he gets to the end of the book, he finds that he was the monster all along and that he had nothing to fear.

We (in the western world) are pretty much the monster at the end of the book when it comes to education reform. We are doing everything we can to avoid that possibility – looking to everything but ourselves to fix the problems. But is is our (sometimes) extreme ethno-centrism, socio-cultural centrism, whatever you want to call it, that is the problem all along. I would even go so far to say that as long as we are the center of the education world, we are always going to be the problem.

edugeek-journal-avatarEducation is about learning. Learners do the learning. Learning needs to be the center of what we do. Learners can live anywhere in the world, in any context. We need to examine the structures that keeps the wrong things at the center of education. We need to skip to the end of the book, realize we are the monster at the end of the book, and turn the story around. Learner agency is the only true “innovation” was have left to explore deeply in the education world.

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

Big (Scary) Education (Retention) Data (Surveillance)

Big data in education might be the savior of our failing learning system or the cement shoes that drags the system to the bottom of the ocean depending on who you talk to. No matter what your view of big data is, it is here and we need to pay attention to it regardless of our views.

My view? It is a mixture of extreme concern for the glaring problems mixed with hope that we can correct course on those problems and do something useful for the learners with the data.

Yesterday at LINK Lab we had a peak behind the scenes at a data collection tool that UTA is implementing. The people that run the software at UTA are good people with good intentions. I also hope they are aware of the problems already hard coded in the tool (and I suspect they are).

Big Data can definitely look scary for a lot of reasons. What we observed was mostly focused on retention (or “persistence” was the more friendly term the software uses I believe). All of the data collected basically turns students into a collection of numbers on hundreds of continuums, and then averages those numbers out to rank them on how likely they are to drop out. To some, this is scary prospect.

Another scary prospect is that there is the real danger of using that data to see which students to ignore (because they are going to stick around anyways) and which students to focus time and energy on (in order to make the university more money). This would be data as surveillance more than educational tool.

While looking at the factors in this data tool that learners are ranked by led to no surprises – we have known from research for a long time what students that “persist” do and what those that don’t “persist” do (or don’t do). The lists of “at risk” students that these factors produce will probably not be much different from the older “at risk” lists that have been around for decades. The main change will be that we will offload the process of producing those lists to the machines, and wash our hands of any bias that has always existed in producing those lists in the first place.

And I don’t want to skip over the irony of spending millions or dollars on big data to find out that “financial difficulties” are the reason that a large number of learners don’t “persist.”

The biggest concern that I see is the amount of bias being programmed into the algorithms. Even the word “persistence” implies certain sociocultural values that are not the same for all learners. Even in our short time looking around in the data collection program, I saw dozens of examples of positivist white male bias hard coded in the design.

For example, when ranking learners based on grades, one measure ranked learners in relation to the class average. Those that fell too far below the class average were seen as having one risk factor for not “persisting.” This is different than looking at just grades as a whole. If the class average is a low B but a learner has a high B, they would be above the class average and in the “okay” zone for “persistence.”

But that is not how all cultures view grades. My wife is half Indian and half Australian. We have been to India and talked to many people that were under intense stress to get the highest grades possible. It is a huge pressure for many in certain parts of that culture. But even a low A might not register as a troubling signal if the class average is much lower. But to someone that is facing intense pressure to get the best grades or else come home and work in Dad’s business… they need help.

(I am not a fan of grades myself, but this is one area that stuck out to me while poking around in the back end of the data program)

This is an important issue since UTA is designated as a Hispanic Serving Institute. We have to be careful not get into the same traps that education has fallen into for centuries related to inequalities. But as our LINK director Lisa Berry pointed out, this is also why UTA needs to dive into Big Data. If we don’t get in there with our diverse population and start breaking the algorithms to expose where they are biased, who else will?  Hopefully there are others, but the point is that we need to get in there and critically ask the hard questions, or else we run the risk of perpetuating educational inequalities (by offloading them to the machines).

For now, a good place to start is by asking the hard questions about privacy and ownership in our big data plan:

Are the students made aware that this kind of data is being collected?

If not, they need to be made aware. Everywhere that data is collected, there should be a notification.

Beyond that, are they given details on what specific data points are being collected?

If not, they need to know that as well. I would suggest a centralized ADA-compliant web page that explains every data point collected in easy to understand detail (with as many translations to other languages as possible).

Can students opt-out of data collection? What about granular control over the data that they do allow to be collected?

Students should be able to opt out of data collection. Each class or point of collection should have permissions. Beyond that, I would say they should be able to say yes or no to specific data points if they want to. Or even beyond that, what about making data collection opt-in?

Who owns the students’ data (since it is technically their actions that create the data)?

This may seem radical to some, but shouldn’t the student own their own data? If you say “no,” then they should at least have the right to access it and see what is being collected on them specifically.

Think of it this way: How will the very substantial Muslim population at UTA feel about a public school, tied to the government, collecting all of this data on them? How will our students of color feel about UTA collecting data on them while they are voicing support for Black Lives Matter? How would the child of illegal immigrants feel about each class at UTA collecting data about them that could incriminate their parents?

edugeek-journal-avatarThese issues are some of the hard things we have to wrestle with in the world of Big Data in Education. If we point it towards openness, transparency, student ownership, and helping all learners with their unique sociocultural situations, then it has potential. If not, then we run the risk of turning Big Education Data into Scary Retention Surveillance.

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

Humanize Them All, and Let Them Sort Themselves Out: #dLRN15 Reflections

So now that the #dLRN15 conference is over, its time for the post-conference reflections to begin. As one of the organizers, I wanted to say a heartfelt “thank you” to everyone that presented, spoke, moderated, slacked, tweeted, blogged, organized, commented, questioned, thought, and attended. I was legitimately concerned over whether or not this conference would “click” with those that attended. But it seems from the tweets, slacks and blog posts that many things did click at some very deep levels.

One thing (out of many) that really stuck out to me was how the word “disruption” seemed almost completely absent from any conversation. While the concept of disruption has been incredibly popular recently, many have rejected the idea from the beginning. Education can’t really be disrupted because it has always been changing (even if too slowly for many). Even if education could be disrupted, would we really want it to be? Disruption can’t be predicted or really even controlled, while typically producing inferior products. For example, mp3s are compressed audio files that produce lesser quality audio experiences when compared to CDs – and you usually don’t even get liner notes. Had there been any ability to control the mp3 disruption, we could have at least utilized lossless technology (like FLAC) and kept the liner notes. Society has mostly accepted an inferior technology audio because of disruption.

To me, a more effective discussion focuses on the change agents that have affected education in small and large ways. Technology is an educational change agent; online education is a change agent; political agendas are change agents. Change agents – while possibly moving at a slower pace – have a greater potential to be influenced and directed for good or bad (or both) than disruption does.

One change agent that we can and should push and influence is the humanization of education, more specifically the designs and technologies we utilize to educate people. This was one of the major themes at #dlrn15: how do we rediscover the people at the center of everything we do in education? My firm belief is that all of our work, policies, discussions, and technology needs to be re-framed with people at the center.

Take my presentations, for example. On the surface, many call the dual-layer model a “MOOC innovation.” Before the conference, I looked at it more as an “instructional design innovation.” And I still do, but I need to start highlighting more that it was not an innovation for innovation sake. The goal of the dual-layer model is to humanize education by creating a practical design for individualized learning. The dual-layer model is an attempt to teach learners how to learn, so that they will realize the epistemological, ontological, even political ideals inherent in all tools (and therefore choose which one to use at any given time accordingly). This power shift is one of many ways to place people at the center of education rather than technology.

Or take larger issues, for another example. We are beginning to understand that where you are born will determine whether you even get to go to college more than any other factor. We tend to look at this as problem to be solved just because it sounds bad. But we need to reframe this as a human problem, by realizing the de-humanizing affect that these statistics have on the people most affected by them. Our tendency is to focus on solving the problem for the sake of solving the problem: those that are least likely to attend college hear that they probably won’t make it into college just because they were born into a lower socio-economic level and won’t even try. However, our focus should not be on solving a problem, because our tendency will be to come up with a one-size-fits all solution based heavily on our own context. Complex problems often involve multiple solutions from many different contexts. We need to re-frame these issues to focus on the people at the center of them, so that we can find solutions that work in their actual, human, real-world context. As Maha Bali put it in our ontology panel, standing on the shoulders of giants doesn’t work for her because those giants were not in her context.

Humanize all people, all issues, all change agents, all technology. All of it. All of them.

The other #dLRN15 theme that resonated most with me is listening to students. Education tends to de-humanize our students by classifying them based on how we think they should be classified. As the “experts,” we sort them out based on our classifications and then tell them what they need the most from us. There is value in that to some degree. But why not let the learners sort themselves out, and then offer our services as guides, mentors, fellow pilgrims on the path to “education”? Where are we creating spaces for them to ask hard questions, fail, get back up, learn outside the curriculum, pick apart a tangent, speak for themselves… in other words, be academics rather than our projects?

edugeek-journal-avatarOh yeah – we don’t really let many academics be academics any more. Maybe we should look at this from all levels. Admins: humanize all of your faculty and staff, and let them sort themselves out. Admin, instructors, and instructional designers: humanize all of your learners, and let them sort themselves out. And you could also say: students: humanize all of your instructors, and let them sort themselves out.

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

Is It Really Possible to Re-do Ed Tech From Scratch?

Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris asked an interesting question at Hybrid Pedagogy a couple of days ago: “Imagine that no educational technologies had yet been invented — no chalkboards, no clickers, no textbooks, no Learning Management Systems, no Coursera MOOCs. If we could start from scratch, what would we build?”

I’m a bit perplexed as to where to start. Its a great question. But would it even be possible to surgically remove educational technology from the larger world around them? So much of our technology is connected to external contexts that it may be impossible to even consider. Can we really imagine a world without books? The line between textbook and book is so blurred… probably not.

My concern though is that our field focuses too much on “how technology is shaping us” and not enough on how much we shape our technology. All technology tools have underlying (and often times not so underlying) ontologies, epistemologies, and so on. We could start from scratch, but if we don’t get rid of the dominant mindset of “instructivism/behaviorism as the one-size-fits-all solutionism” that is so prevalent in Ed Tech – we will end up with the same tools all over again.

However, I wouldn’t start over from scratch with technology as much as I would with theory. I would put active learning as the dominant narrative over passive learning. I would pull ideas like connectivism and communal constructivism up to the same level as (or higher than) instructivism. I would dump one size-fits-all positivism and replace it with context-morphing metamodernism. I would make heutagogy/life-long learning the ending hand-off point of formal education, as opposed to having formal education with a pedagogical “end goal.” I would get rid of the standardization of solutions and replace this ideology with one of different contexts and different solutions for different learners. I would go back in time and make people see the learner as the learning management system instead of a system or program. I would switch from instructor-centered to student-centered at every juncture. And so on.

edugeek-journal-avatarIf we don’t get the right theories and ideas in place in the first place, we will just continue evangelizing people to the same tech problems we have always had, even if we are able to somehow start over from scratch. In other words, the problem is not in our technologies, but our beliefs and theories. Our Ed Tech follows our theory, not the other way around.

(image credit: Gustavo Fiori Galli, obtained from freeimages.com)

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

Psuedo-Buzzword Soup: Metamodernism and Heutagogy

I learned a hard lesson this week: don’t tweet details about conference proposals before they get accepted. People will get excited about seeing the session, and then you might get rejected. Then you have to go back and break the bad news to everyone.

I have been rejected for conferences many, many, many times, but this one was the first one that was very hard for me. I spent more time and late nights on it than I probably should have, crafting a specific proposal to (in my mind) perfectly match the conference goals. One of my co-workers was visibly shocked that it got rejected. I guess both of us were giving the proposal more credit than it deserved :)

However, since some people on Twitter were interested in it, I decided to share this idea and let my ego take the hit it probably deserves when people see what it was actually about (I’m kidding, but would appreciate any feedback whether you like it or hate it). So, here is the title, the abstract, and some thoughts on where the paper would have possibly gone:

Embracing Heutagogical Metamodernist Paradox in Education: Self-Regulated Courses with Customizable Modalities

Abstract: Most formal or informal educational experiences tend to follow a linear pathway through learning content and activities. Whether these experiences are designed as student-centered or instructor-centered modalities that construct or deconstruct knowledge and skills, learners are still required to stick to a singular pathway through content with the instructor in control of the modality at every point of the course (even if several side paths or options are given). However, new instructional design ideas are challenging these single pathway designs in ways that truly transfers power from instructors to learners. Based on the often overlooked theoretical lenses of heutagogy and metamodernism, these new designs create true learner-centered experiences that utilize customizable pathways through self-regulated courses. This conceptual paper will examine the theories of heutagogy (learning how to learn instead of what to learn) and metamodernism (a cultural narrative that paradoxically embraces modernism and postmodernism), as well as how these ideas relate to education. These theoretically lenses will be used to lay out the basics of dual-layer course design that allows for customizable course modalities. The goal of a customizable modality course design is to encourage learners to self-regulate their own learning through various modalities (layers) by choosing one modality, all of the modalities, or a custom combination of different modalities at different points in the course. The challenges, limitations, desired contexts, and possible benefits of these designs will also be examined. The goal of this paper will be to lay the groundwork for current and future research into dual-layer customizable modality course design.

The bigger picture behind this is that when most people talk about change in higher ed, they are thinking of a specific lens, viewpoint, paradigm, etc. These usually range anywhere from “burn the whole thing down” to “we are on the right path, we just have to be patient because change takes time.” These specific lenses are usually presented to people with the same lens, but rarely do people take into account how their lens doesn’t work for those with other lenses. Their lens is presented as the One Lens that will rule all other lenses. Even beyond that, sometimes the narrative is that those other lenses have to be thrown out to accept the One True Lens.

This, of course, does not sit well with those that accept another lens or set of lenses. And this is probably why we often see slow progress on actual change in education – we are looking for one lens or set of lenses to fix everything – but everyone has different needs, perspectives, etc.

The emerging ideas of metamodernism and heutagogy are not necessarily trying to replace older ideas of modernism and post-modernism or pedagogy and andragogy, but are rather a call to expand those ideas to include the others. They are both pragmatic ideas that basically say “the old ideas had good and bad points… but the parts that were good and bad also tend to change depending on context… so let’s learn when to use these various lenses, when to combine them, and when to reject them on a context by context basis.” In other words, the answer lies in accepting that all solid answers are possible answers at different times.

edugeek-journal-avatarI know I sound like an old hippie strung out on some drug we still don’t have a name for, so I get why these ideas are a hard sell in educational circles. Educators want neat, tidy ideas with clear objectives, no chaos, minimized complexity, and for goodness sake – don’t confuse the learners! We have to teach them to think for themselves by removing every possible obstacle that would cause them to think for themselves to overcome. Wait… what?

(image credit: Patrick Moore, obtained from freeimages.com)

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

What If The Problem Isn’t With MOOCs But Something Else?

Is this another post about how MOOCs are misunderstood ideas that the critics all get wrong? Not quite. There are problems with MOOCs, but I’m still looking at the conversation about MOOCs in general (continuing from my last post kind of). The general conversation about MOOCs (and for that matter other ed tech innovations such as flipped learning, gamification, etc) tends to be all over the place: insightful, missing the forest for the trees, really odd, kind of just there, etc. All of that is great and makes for interesting discussion. One of the concepts that seems to be getting more traction the past few weeks is “motivation.”

The article about “Why Technology Will Never Fix Education” has already been the subject of many insightful observations. I want to zoom in on one part:

The real obstacle in education remains student motivation. Especially in an age of informational abundance, getting access to knowledge isn’t the bottleneck, mustering the will to master it is. And there, for good or ill, the main carrot of a college education is the certified degree and transcript, and the main stick is social pressure.

I don’t think we can just pass over that last statement with just a simple “for good or ill.” There is a lot of “ill” with that carrot that needs to be unpacked. In an article that very correctly examines the problems of inequality in education, a huge systemic problem is skipped over.

Of course, this article is not the only one. Many other articles have pointed at “student motivation” as being a huge problems with MOOCs. MOOCs are like any other education idea: subject to good and bad instructional design. So you shouldn’t blame the overall idea when learners are just getting bored with bad instructional design. But even beyond that, the above quote speaks to how our system in the U.S. relies on motivational techniques that are predominantly extrinsic in nature. We spend decades indoctrinating learners with this context, and then when an idea comes along that relies mostly on intrinsic motivation, we blame the idea itself rather than our system.

What if MOOCs are just a mirror that shows us the sociocultural problems we don’t want to deal with in our system?

What if the problem is not with the learners, but the way they have been programmed through the years? Grades, credits, failure, tuition, fees, gold stars, extra recess for good grades, monetary rewards, etc are all programmed into learners from a young age.

You can say MOOCs are failing because they lack sufficient “student motivation,” but what if it was actually the case that society has been failing for decades and MOOCs are just exposing this?

Of course, we all recognize many ways that society is failing in education. But what if there are other ways? What if relying on too much extrinsic motivation is a failure? What if we are failing to embrace all of the current and historical research in motivation? What if we know a lot about motivation, but fail to real utilize any of that knowledge? On Twitter yesterday, Rolin Moe pointed out that he never reads discussion of Herman Witkin, cognitive styles, field dependence/independence, etc in relation to motivation. In my circles, I have heard Witkin brought up, but to be honest – I can’t recall anyone trying or applying his ideas (kind of in the same way people in education rattle off Skinner or Bandura and then just don’t really use any of their ideas). These are all ways that our educational system was failing just in the area of motivation for decades before MOOCs (or many other Ed Tech ideas) even came along.

Yet what happens is that the ideas like MOOC are blamed for the historical failure of the system, and those that feel more comfortable within that system recommend pulling the wild ideas back in to make them look more like the existing system. Just think about it: what are the recommendations for fixing “student motivation” in MOOCs? Find a way to add back extrinsic motivation!

I would say: no. We need to find a different path. In fictional entertainment, one of the foundational constructs is to reach for is “suspension of disbelief.” You have to help the readers come to a place of either gaining interest in your story or believability in the fiction elements so that they suspend skepticism and engage the story. Traditional education has typically sought for a “suspension of laziness” – looking for ways to get learners to get off their rears and learn (because we always assume that when they don’t want to learn it is their motivation instead of our design). Newer ideas like MOOCs are going past that, to what I guess could be called “suspension of extrinsic motivation” (for lack of better words). What does learning design look like when you remove all of these carrot sticks (or actual paddling sticks) and leave learners to just pure learning? Well… maybe purer learning than what we had.

edugeek-journal-avatarThere are many, many more angles to explore here (not to mention problems with extrinsic/intrinsic motivation constructs), but I am already getting long-winded. The important idea to consider is that instead of pulling emerging technology and design back towards the tradition of what we already know (which is actually a power struggle by those in power), we need to push forward towards the direction that we already know we need to go.

(image credit: Manu Mohan, obtained from freeimages.com)

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

The Mirage of Measurable Success

The last post that I wrote on measuring success in MOOCs created some good, interesting conversation around the idea of measurable success. The most important questions that were asked had to deal with “why even offer dalmooc if you don’t know what measurable success would look like?”

That’s a good question and one that I think can be answered in many ways. Honestly, the best answer to that question is “because four world-renowned experts wanted to teach it and a lot of people signed up to take it.” To me, especially in the informal realm of education where dalmooc existed, that is one of the biggest measurable signs of success. We live in a world that is so full of compulsory education and set degree plans that we forget that choosing to sign up for an informal voluntary learning experience is measurable success in itself. Over 19,000 people initially said “that sounds interesting, sign me up,” with over 10,000 signing in at one point or another to view the materials. Hundreds of participants were active on Twitter, Facebook, EdX forums, ProSolo, Google Hangouts, and other parts of the course. All voluntarily.  To me, that is measurable success.

Another area of measurable success, although definitely more on the qualitative side, is what I covered in the last post:

So maybe when the participants use words like “blended” or “straddled” or “combined,” those statements in themselves are actually signs of success. In the beginning, some claimed that DALMOOC was more cMOOC than xMOOC, but by the end others were claiming it was more xMOOC than cMOOC. Maybe all of these various, different views of the course are proof that the original design intention of truly self-determined learning was realized

To clarify this a bit more, there are those that thought that dalmooc was more instructivist / xMOOC:

And then there were those that thought it was much more connectivist / cMOOC (myself included)

So to me, that is another realm of measurable success – learners came out of the experience with vastly different views on what happened. That was a goal we had.

However, I know that when people talk about “measurable success,” they are usually referring more to standardized test results, student satisfaction, completion rates, and – the holy grail of education – grades! The elephant in the room that many people won’t deal with, but we all know is true, is that these measures of success are often a mirage.

Standardized tests are probably the biggest mirage of all. The problem is that a score of 90% on a test really only means that a learner was able to mark 90% of the questions correctly, but not necessarily that they actually understood 90% of the material. They may have only understood 60% of it and guessed the next 30% correctly. The fact that the right answer is somewhere in a list of multiple choice answers should negate their usefulness as a way to measure success, but our society still chooses to ignore this problem. Then you can add into this mix that most multiple choice questions are poorly written in ways that give away the answers to people that are taught how to game them (like I was).

Then there is the problem of coming up with questions for tests. Some tests contain, say, two questions about the core knowledge that learners should have gained and then a whole lot of related trivia that they could just Google if needed. Yet they could still get the two essential questions wrong and all the rest correct and will be labeled as “mastering” the concept. Rubrics for papers or projects often do the same thing – giving most points to grammar and following instructions and few to actual content mastery. Someone could write a great paper that shows no knowledge of the topic at hand but still pass because they got all other areas perfect.

Add to this that we would compare two children to each other based on this false sense of “success.” One child could have tanked a test based on the trivia but got all of the core content correct and still be labeled as less successful than the one that got the trivia right and core knowledge wrong…. just because its all on the same test. Oh, and let’s not forget the practice of giving similar or equal weights to all questions on a test when not all questions are really equal. Again, two learners could get the same score, but one only answered the easy questions correctly while the other answered all of the challenging ones correctly.

And speaking of different learners, there is always the oft-ignored problems of cultural bias in testing and learning.  Are learners not testing well because they didn’t learn, or were there cultural references on the test they didn’t get? Did a learner really learn the content, or were they just able to quickly memorize some factoids because of some weird thing Aunt Ida said about planets that helped them connect the new information to this weird family quirk? Are they being labeled as smarter because they are or because their weird Aunt Ida gave them a memory that helped them memorize?

Most of what we call “measurable success” in education is really just a mirage of numbers games. For those like me that fell on the privileged side of those games, it was a great system that we probably want to fight to keep. And we are probably most likely the ones now in control, so….

Now, of course, this is not to say that learning isn’t happening. This is more about how most institutions measure learning and success. I believe people are always learning formally and informally, even if its not always what they had intended to learn. It just takes a lot of time, effort, and money (yes – money!) to truly assess learning, and the educational field in general is being tasked with the opposite. “Do better assessment with less money, less time, and less effort (ie people power)!” No real easy answers, but there is a problem with the system and the culture that drives that system that needs to be addressed before “measurable success” becomes a trustworthy idea.

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

The Underlying Barrier to Education Reform

The last few weeks Dave Cormier has been on a roll addressing some of the bigger issues in education (the system of education, as opposed to “learning” that is always happening because of life). When Cormier writes about the need for learners to care about learning, this idea is at the core of why I support heutagogy (learning how to learn) so much. One of the foundations of learning how to learn is to care about learning. But then Cormier asks some questions that I think highlight a glaring problem that is hindering education reform today:

How do we make a minister of education happy about that idea? How do we convince parents that the way a kid feels about learning is more important than what they learned? How would we teach learning? Oh my gosh… how would we assess it? How, inevitably, do we bureaucratize it?

Do you see the big fear-driven problem glaring at us all from behind these questions? Let me take a look at this from another angle then. Often we hear education critics say that “students make it out of a degree without learning anything” or that we have to “prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet.” But when I hear these statements, I feel they show that we are still not fully understanding what is happening with education right now. What we really mean by these statements is that students graduate without being able to score the same passing scores on tests that they scored while in school, or that we did not fill their heads with the factoids that will only exist in the future once new job titles are created. We really have no idea if they learned or were prepared or not – we just know they don’t test as well as we want them to.

In other words, we’re still critiquing education based on the problem of education in 1870 that Cormier explains in his post linked above… but not based on where the world is today. We say that our schools are not modern, but then we say that our educational systems are failing because “students can’t regurgitate factoids on a test or in a paper.”

I still remember when I fired up my first blog and the first blog post rolled out with ease. And then another, and another. No one taught me how to write a blog post, and I certainly don’t remember ever being tested on this kind of writing… so where did it come from? Then I remembered a high school English teacher that had us write hundreds of words daily on each chapter we read in each book we read. Then I got it – that tedious lesson was not about those books, but practicing how to write freely about whatever came to mind. I was never tested on that skill…. so I never counted it as “learning” since it was never on the test or final paper.

Then there was the first time I tried PHP. I cruised through the basic and intermediate lessons with ease, realizing that all that time digging into Algebra problems solving for X was not about finding a number, but digging through problems mathematically to figure out what was missing. They just had to give me the Algebra tests to prove that I had that skill because they needed numbers to prove it.

However, I could also give you pages worth of educational activities that did not work well at all for me – I don’t want to pretend like there are no problems or that our systems are mostly okay. The point I am getting at here is that learning may or may not occurring in formal education… but we would never really know either way because our extreme focus on standardized testing is making us lose focus on what is really happening. What is driving this extreme focus?

I would submit that one major factor is fear of failure. “Failure is not an option!” Well, actually its a part of life, and a great learning experience on top of that. But we are decades into a system that breeds a fear of failure at all levels.

This fear starts with the classroom level, where good lessons on self reflection are just side activities to build writing skills (in order reach a level of passing a standardized test on parts of language, of course) rather than solid activities in and of themselves. Because we so fear failure as a culture, we have to let all learners know how they measure up against the norm. We have to grade everything. And we rarely stop to ask if these grades really mean anything. Of course, why a 70 is passing and a 69 is failing is as much a mystery as anything else. I would like to say standard deviations and all of that, but seeing that we try to get all learners to cross that passing line – so much for that.

Let’s not even go into how one child scoring a 95 on one test might actually not know the content as well as one scoring an 89. They could have just gotten lucky that day.

But here’s where it gets worse: we have to prove that a failing student is really failing to the student, the student’s parents, and the school system in general. We are so afraid of failure that we have to get who passes and who fails right… so more standardization. Not only that, we identify the quality of teachers based on pass/fail scores. Oh, and we also compare school to school, state to state, and country to country with these numbers… all because we are so afraid of failing that we have to have good enough numbers to prove that we aren’t.

So, back to Cormier’s questions: how do we get the system on board with true education reform? We have to end this fear of failure and the ensuing drive that creates a system where everything is compared against a standard of failure. At some point I would love to see a system of personalized learning that embraces failures as just another learning opportunity (and only considers failures based on personal learning goals and not the ability to get a certain score on an assignment). But this fear of failure that creates the need to set up a system that unfairly pushes all learners into the same mold (or one of six variations on this mold that we currently label “personalization”) is going to be a significant barrier. How do we undo decades and centuries worth of ingrained “grades” and “failures” and “top ten percents” and all of that kind of stuff that our systems are built on? There’s an inherent power structure there that favors the quick and early bloomers… who might not want to give up the power that this system affords them.

I have no answers there, but I do foresee some messy fights as the old system erodes and the new one raises. I don’t believe in disruption of systems as much as I believe in evolution, so here is hoping that the new system that evolves is not a regurgitated 1870s system that we got back when the system of the 1980s started evolving in the late 1990s.

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.