Category Archives: Education

Instead of diplomas: Badges

For a long time courses are completed with a diploma. However, the number of different qualifications has grown exponentially. in the US there eight times more different diplomas than 20 years ago. There are thousands of providers and most of these are not accredited. In addition, we are dealing with diplomas from many countries. In short, the value of a degree is difficult to judge beforehand.

But there is another side. Many people – young and old – do not aspire to graduate. They want a specific job, have appropriate training and receive a certificate that proves they possess the required competences [1] .

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For both problems is a solution in the form of badges, micro-credentials or email credentials: These are (digital) documents proving that someone has specific knowledge and / or skills. There are now more than 3,000 organisations who provide badges, including educational institutions and 9corporate)  training institutions [2] .

For a well-functioning system of badges  several conditions must be fulfilled. Here are the main ones:

Level

The knowledge and / or skills a badge is referring at must be unambiguous. Also, there must be an unmistakable reference to the level of mastery that has been acquired. It measurement should be made explicit. The Degree Qualifications Profile , prepared by Lumina is a useful tool to identify the level [3] .

Compatibility

Badges must have a common technical standard and they have to include include information about the owner, the supplier, the content and the way in which this knowledge and skill is measured. The Open Badges Standard of IMS Global Learning is likely to operate as such. In the Netherlands, SURF is working on a technical specification of badges [4] .

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Visibility

Owners must have a platform to show their badges. For this purpose various websites are in use, such as Backpack [5] .

The main enabler of badges is the rapid spread of competency-based education. This type of education requires an accurate description of learning outcomes; The knowledge and skills that a person has acquired after participating in formal, non-formal and informal learning activities.

Concordia University in Wisconsin is – as far as I know – the first university program -Master in educational technology – that is certified by  badges. There are 50; each of which corresponds with some learning outcomes [6]. The time that students have spend to reach this goal is irrelevant.

Another interesting development is that providers of training (formal and non-formal) in a specific region or city work together and offer a broad range of badges. Here too, local employers are concerned [7] . The Open Badge Network [8] (Europe) has drawn up a brief Charter. In the US, the Cities of Learning initiative, for example, Chicago City of learning, can be mentioned [9] .

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I see many advantages in the development outlined here, but at the same time I am also afraid of a fragmented focus on learning.

I have repeatedly accentuated the importance of the acquisition of critical thinking. It is inconceivable that students learn to think critically by taking part in just one educational activity. Therefore critical thinking can not be checked by just one single badge. The ability to think critically develops gradually if students are confronted repeatedly with realistic social and scientific problems, gain knowledge about these problems, do research, weigh solutions and eventually come to a judgement. This means that earning badges alone is not enough, but additional requirements are necessary concerning their consistency.

A more precise use of the term competence can contribute to this. A separate badge means that a student has demonstrated to own a certain amount of knowledge and skills. In that case, badges can be connected to modules, courses or work in practice. In contrast, a competency  refers to the (intellectual) capabilities of a graduate.

The badges system is far from mature. It is a hopeful start to honour  extracurricular experiences, and to enable the debundling of the acquisition of knowledge and skills by deploying various learning opportunities at home and abroad.

[1] For the requirements that can be imposed on badges: http://www.openbadgenetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/O4A3-OBN-Guidelines-for-Open-Badges-in-Territories. pdf

[2] For an overview of what has been achieved in five years https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B7kHRuri9QdPQmRfdXZrblpSX0U/view

[3] The framework is developing rapidly and has eight levels. It is specified for knowledge and skills. these are in turn broken down into specialized skills, personal skills and social skills: https://www.luminafoundation.org/files/resources/connecting-credentials.pdf . This framework is very similar to the European Qualifications Framework for lifelong learning a life https://ec.europa.eu/ploteus/sites/eac-eqf/files/leaflet_nl.pdf

[4] , see: https://www.surf.nl/binaries/content/assets/surf/nl/2017/open-badges_surfnet-pilot-scenario’s_frans-ward_3feb.pdf

[5] are now more than a million badges placed on the Backpack website https://backpack.openbadges.org/backpack/welcome

[6] Educational institutions collaborate with employers. For example, this is done by the Foundation for California Community Colleges and the New World of Work

[7] Examples of this are: Open Badges Scottish Education Group, the UK Badge the project and the Open Badges DACH User Group in Germany. For a discussion; http://www.openbadgenetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/O4A3-OBN-Guidelines-for-Open-Badges-in-Territories.pdf

[8] portal:  www.openbadgenetwork.com

[9] https://chicagocityoflearning.org

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Smart higher education: both face-to-face and online

The number of participants in higher education is growing rapidly worldwide. Apart from the growing number of adult participants, the variety of students in general is increasing. However, the organization of universities is hardly able to deal with this growing variety. Students can chose between campus or distance-teaching universities and between full-time or part-time studies. A thorough redesign must offer relief.

The value of personal contact between students and teachers

Whether students are enrolled in a campus or a distance-teaching university, they spend most of their time on independent study: At home, at work, on the train or in the library. The difference between the two types of universities is the way they support these activities. The majority of campus universities are deploying a combination of lectures and seminars. Distance-teaching universities offer a sequence of assignments, which students have to submit in order to receive feedback. When it comes to getting acquainted with knowledge or theoretical insights, both ways are effective. However supporting independent study online is definitely outperforming lectures and seminars with respect to efficiency and scalability[1].

Unknown-1The value-added of campus universities should rather be sought in teaching methods where the degree of interaction between students and teachers goes beyond incidental questioning and answering in lectures and seminars. Think of tutorials (meetings a few students with a tutor), projects (intensive meetings of students, occasionally attended by a teacher), working groups in problem-based learning (10-15 students, who meet with a tutor regularly) and some types of training. Activities like these outperform the capabilities of education online with respect to the support of aims like critical thinking and problem solving. Unfortunately, the domination of lectures and seminars prevents that campus universities take advantage of this potential value.

The value of self-paced learning

The majority of educational programs – campus-based or distance teaching – are starting once or twice a year and their length is fixed. For the rapidly growing group of students who combine study with a job, music or sport, a family and a social life, this system is untenable. Students differ with respect to the time they can spend on their study each week, to the distribution of the available time during the year, to the speed at which they learn and to the knowledge and skills they already possess.

Fortunately, a growing number of distance teaching institutions is able to deal with differences between students with respect to the time they need to complete their studies. These institutions offer unlimited opportunity to enrol as well[2]. In order to stimulate that students prioritize their study as much as possible, they offer active mentoring and count a fixed monthly fee under the motto learn as much as you can. Unfortunately, the majority of online programs fail to realize the benefits of flexibility.

Distance teaching and campus-based education both have potential advantages, whose benefits are not fully used. However, students will benefit best, if these advantages are made available for all of them.

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The value of blending learning

Education online is perfectly well equipped for enabling educational aims like the acquisition of knowledge and the development of theoretical insights. With respect to this aim, campus-based universities can economize by substituting lectures and seminars by online teaching methods. As mentioned before, some types of face-to-face interaction between teachers and students are superior in the realization of educational aims like critical thinking and problem solving. All students – in campuses or online – will benefit from occasional participation in tutorials, projects, small group meetings or intense trainings like boot camps. For some students it will be feasible to be on campus daily, for others one day every week suits best or they prefer a few residential weeks a year. By offering a variety of blends of face-to-face meetings and activities online, university campuses could become nodes in educational networks and be able to host many more students than at present. The functional combination of independent study with both face-to-face and online support is representing the best of both worlds at lower costs.

The value of freedom what or where to learn

The body of scientific knowledge is doubling every nine years, disciplinary borders get blurred and best research is interdisciplinary. As a consequence, the disciplines that emerged in the 19th century have become obsolete. Nonetheless, they still dominate the educational landscape. It is time to exchange traditional subjects for broad fields of study that offer ample opportunity to chose introductory and advanced course and projects.

At the same time, students will increasingly obtain their degree by visiting several universities within their country or abroad. Thus, students take maximum advantage of the differences between institutions. In order to assess students, universities should describe their examination rules in terms of competencies to achieve instead of courses to follow.

A variety of blends of face-to-face and online activities to support students’ independent learning could become the new normal.

[1] Read my post: The lecture is the iconic symbol of wastage in higher education: http://wp.me/p3lna5-6M

[2] Self-paced learning is a common characteristic of the most innovative educational institutions in the USA. For instance, the College for America, which is a part of the Southern New Hampshire University (60,000 students) and the Western Governors University (70,000 students). See: Alana Dunagan College transformed. Five institutions leading the charge in innovation http://www.christenseninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/College-transformed.pdf

 

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The lecture is the iconic symbol of wastage in higher education

Close your eyes and imagine a large industrial site at the end of the 19th century. 1000’s of laborers are sitting behind sewing machines. Still keep your eyes closed and imagine a lecture hall, again rows and rows of students who hurry to copy the words of the teacher.

The resemblance is clear. The difference too: The industrial site is history. The lecture hall is present-day[1].

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My thesis is: The essence of higher education is under pressure. The reason is that universities failed to adapt their educational methods to the large growth of the number of students. As a consequence, the small classrooms of the past made room for the lecture halls of the present.

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge – who largely stayed unchanged – demonstrate what the essence of higher education might be. Once or twice a week students meet their personal tutor. During each meeting, tutors challenge students with assignments based upon scientific or societal problems. Subsequently, students read a lot and they write down their findings. In a next meeting the tutor is giving feed back, elucidates new viewpoints, suggests additional reading and occasionally initiates research projects, relating theory and practice.

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The description above allows me to define two essential pillars of scientific education:

  1. The active acquisition of scientific knowledge, which goes far beyond the capability to reproduce it.
  2. The growth of students’ competence to analyse, reflect and solve real live-problems, and to think and judge in a critical way

Onderwijs - academically adriftThe majority of contemporary universities are realizing these outcomes only partially. Research in the US has revealed that about 40% of college students did not make any progress with respect to analytical and critical thinking skills in four consecutive years[2].

As far as universities are aware of their own failure, the usual reflex is blaming government because funding largely stayed behind the growth of the number of students. I do not expect any substantial change in this respect. And maybe it is better that universities economize themselves first.

So, universities face the challenge to improve the quality of their education and to deal with a growing and ever more differentiated student population, while funding is remaining largely the same. If they fail, they risk disruption in the next decade. This challenge will be solved only, if universities innovate, in particular by deploying ICT.

Availability onlineUniversities can economize by flipping their classrooms radically and supporting their students in choosing appropriate open educational resources like MOOCs (= massive open online courses). At this time, MOOCs cover any part of scientific knowledge. The best scientists are involved in their development and educational technologists have designed the best visual support. The only expenses relate to delivering feedback at student’s assignments.

MOOCs or other digital sources are able to contribute significantly to the active acquisition of knowledge, the first pillar of higher education. But what about the second pillar; developing the competence to analyse, reflect and solve real live-problems and to arrive at critical thinking and judgment. This pillar definitely goes beyond the capabilities of open educational resources.

Onderwijs - Aalborg 5

The one way to develop this competency is engaging students in independent work, like writing theses and doing projects. Projects might be executed in small groups and students learn to deal with real problems and their owners. This independent work must cover a substantial part of students’ time. Of course students need expert teachers’ supervision. After having reduced their activities with respect to knowledge transfer significantly, teachers will have ample time to act as project supervisors and most will love it.

Finally, government might play a role the transition of higher education. This is supporting the execution of transition plans to be submitted by higher education institutions.

[1] This blogpost is based on my contribution to a round table discussion about innovation in higher education at August 30th in Maribor (Slovenia) in presence of the minister of education.

[2] See my blogpost Why universities underachieve http://wp.me/p3lna5-4n

 

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Decluttering higher education

Some time ago, The Economist published a column entitled Decluttering the company[1]. Over the past 25 years quite a few companies have successfully introduced lean. Still, many organizations ignored the transformation to lean and they are starting to suffer from organizational clutter[2]: Countless meetings, lots of emails, expanding regulations and an increasing number managers are keeping employees from their work and inhibit their creativity. Harvard professor Teresa Amabile: Clutter is taking a toll on both morale and productivity. Creativity felt markedly if working days were punctuated by meetings.

Organisatie - complexiteit 7

The publication of the column in The Economist resulted in a flood of consenting comments[3]. According to Katharina Watson the situation is even worse in education: The most debilitating form of clutter is organizational complexity. The Boston Consulting Group approves her view by asserting that the organization of schools has become six times more complicated over the past 50 years: The number management layers, the number of managers and the number of coordinating bodies have increased, the bureaucracy has been strengthened, the number of objectives to be achieved simultaneously is doubled and the demand for internal communication has exploded.

Organisatie - complexiteit 2Ask any university teacher who is her or his boss. Some – probably those who have been employed the largest number of years – shrug their shoulders as though the answer matters. Others might count ten bosses at least: the chairman of the department, the head of the school, the managing director, the program director of the bachelor, the program director of the master, the director of education, the director of research, the chairman of the faculty council and the dean. Not to forget the chairmen of the education committee and the board of examiners. And we’re only talking about bosses at faculty level.

In the 80’s many educational organizations implemented a matrix structure. At that time, advisors warned to be aware of its complexity. In the meantime, three or four-dimensional matrices have become normal.

Organisatie - complexiteit 3The strong increase in complexity of higher educational institutions is accompanied by the diversity of tasks that academic personnel are performing simultaneously. Ask any university teacher to write down her or his tasks during an average week. The result: six to ten lectures or working groups in bachelor and master programs spread over three to five courses, the development of new courses, supervision of bachelor and master theses, meetings of committees, discussions with PhD students, delivery of information to prospective students, participation in teacher training, attending meetings and consulting colleagues, regional contacts, deliberations with foreign universities, tutorials with students, answering emails, and joining social media forums. They also do research, which involves various activities as well.

Universities can learn from lean. In essence, these six principles might help:

  • Concentration of academic staff members’ work in two programs in the same time at most, for instance the bachelor and a research project. After a couple of years, these programmes might rotate.
  • Collaboration with a limited number of colleagues to built a tight team that is responsible for as many as possible activities associated with the program in order to reduce external dependencies.
  • Granting responsibility to these teams with respect to the majority of program-related activities and budget.
  • Enabling the team to self-organize their work and to chose a leadership style, for instance the election of a team leader or the deployment of distributed leadership.
  • Frequent organizing by the team of deliberations with students to maximize their participation, and engagement and to learn from their opinions.
  • Strengthening of team member’s engagement by spending of a certain amount of time to quality improvement and innovation.

Education yearns for simple structures: less managers and more content-related collaboration between teachers. The quality of education and employee satisfaction will be the winners.

[1] http://www.economist.com/blogs/schumpeter

[2] http://ccweek.com/article-4083-communications-clutter:-the-enemy-of-creativity.html

[3] http://info.chromeriver.com/blog/bid/353773/What-s-Organizational-Clutter-and-Why-Should-You-Care

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Teachers: Be educators!

The number of competency-based education programs within universities in the US has risen to more than 500. Recently, a manifesto was published, featuring the ten most important design rules for competency-based programs[1]. One of these rules will be highlighted here, because of it relevance for all forms of education.

This rule is: Teachers reflect and discuss in depth how graduates are supposed to behave professionally, intellectually and socially. With other words, which competencies students ought to reveal upon graduation. In still other words, what is the role of the school and its teachers in educating young people?

Onderwijs - frontaal onderwijs 2

The rule mentioned above seems obvious; still common practice differs: Many schools cherish their traditional subjects and the autonomy of the individual teachers in their classrooms. Here teachers transmit the same subject matter year after year, mostly with the help of textbooks whose content is traceable to decades-old and often out-dated scientific knowledge, if any. This kind of teaching is accompanied by a reproduction-oriented learning style aimed at attaining the exams. After leaving school most content will be forgotten. Beyond the classroom it appears to be a load for the memory and not a light for the mind.

Fulfilling the above-mentioned rule requires that teachers engage actively with the redesign of the curriculum. This is a collaborate effort and cannot be accomplished by individual teachers alone within the context of their own discipline.

Onderwijs - silos in onderwijs

This does not mean that teachers have to abolish their subject-related expertise. The design of the curriculum has to balance the acquisition of disciplinary insights by students and their integrated use in the analyses of real-life problems. Students cannot be left alone in this process of integration, as it is the most difficult part of the educational process by far. Problem-based and project learning, community-based learning and role-play are in place; activities that can only be accomplished by collaborative work within teaching teams. As a consequence, teachers must collaborate also in the supervision of their students. Their role in the governance of schools will change as well. An inspiring example is the Evangelische Schule Berlin-Zentrum, Teachers developed the curriculum and the governance structure of the school is based on self-management[2].

Onderwijs - ESBZ

In secondary education in Finland subjects have been abolished in order to enable a debate on what education is about. Before the University of Maastricht opened its doors, the same happened and teachers collaboratively designed a new curriculum with future competences in mind.

The worst that could happen to teachers is the assignment of a state-commission to this job. In that case, the profession of a teacher is reduced to a classroom executive playing a statutory role. Unnecessary to say that under these circumstances improvement in student’s learning outcomes will be minimal.

Teachers must instead take responsibility for the whole educational process within the school and as a consequence recover their authority and leadership not only as individuals but also as a team.

 

[1] The report is called: Shared design elements and emerging practices or competency-based education programs. http://www.cbenetwork.org/sites/457/uploaded/files/Shared_Design_Elements_Notebook.pdf

[2] See for an extensive description of the school and its educational principles: Frederic Laloux: Reinventing organizations, p. 93. Visit the website of the school at: http://www.ev-schule-zentrum.de/aktuell/

 

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