Online Education Connecting Learners to Enterprising Teachers Worldwide

Online Education Connecting Learners to Enterprising Teachers Worldwide

Universities began putting their courses online in the form of “Massively Open Online Courses” (MOOCs) about a decade ago, with the idea of making a wide range of high-quality academic instruction accessible and affordable to people around the world. One famous, early success story was that of Battushig Myanganbayar, a teenager in Mongolia who aced an online MIT engineering course and earned himself a scholarship to the university. Today MOOCs are available by the thousands on marketplace platforms with global reach, such as edXUdacity, and Coursera.

But there is also another tier of online courses feeding global education, offered not by universities but by individuals. Learning platforms such as TeachableThinkific, and Ruzuku have flipped the script on MOOCs: now anyone anywhere can not only take an online course but build and teach one, too. And many thousands do, offering instruction on just about anything you can think of, from business management to blacksmithing, cardio training to calligraphy, leadership to lepidoptery. Online learning is a global bazaar, where anyone can offer up their expertise, enthusiasm, or experience for the whole world’s edification—and earn a rupee (or try to) in the process.

Open online learning platforms are not just for hobbyists and dilettantes; experts of all types are well represented, including plenty of moonlighting school teachers plying lessons in grammar, geometry, chemistry, art, computer science, and every other traditional school subject. In a sense, online learning platforms have given rise to a global gig economy for educators—a way for them to independently leverage their expertise and supplement their income. If the success of these courses demonstrates a worldwide demand for learning not satisfied by conventional schooling, perhaps it also demonstrates how difficult it is for teachers around the planet to make ends meet with just their day job.

Global online learning outside the bounds of institutional education takes a variety of forms. Here are some of the other types of platforms connecting otherwise disconnected students and teachers around the world:

Online Course Marketplaces

Most open platforms require that course developers find and recruit their own students, which generally entails building email lists and working social media channels. If you’re a teacher looking to market your DIY algebra course to ninth-graders, this is a hard pull. Another breed of platform, however, functions as a searchable marketplace, where students come looking for what’s on offer. The largest, Udemy, hosts some 80,000 courses. Your algebra course pops up (along with all your competitors) when an interested student searches the site.

Social Media

YouTube makes a vast array of instructional videos accessible for free, including videos on every academic subject under the sun. Plenty of schools maintain a presence on YouTube as part of their recruitment and visibility strategy. Likewise, many online teaching entrepreneurs offer free content as lead magnets for the courses they charge for on other platforms.

It’s not all about business, though; plenty of content developers just like to share. One of the most prolific academic presences is Khan Academy, a non-profit that posts hundreds of videos for K-12 students on subjects from literature and civics to calculus and finance. As an instrument of unregulated global education, YouTube is an unsung powerhouse: 37% of users surveyed say they’re looking to improve school or job skills—and YouTube has 1.9 billion active monthly users.

Learning Management Systems

Many K-12 and most higher ed schools now use learning management systems (LMSs) to deliver online courses to their own students. Increasingly, even traditional classroom-based courses incorporate an LMS site that instructors can use to manage their class and post their syllabus, readings, videos, quizzes, and so forth.

But LMS platforms can also be used by individuals and companies to offer courses to the general public—typically courses that are more text-based and extensive than the video-centric offerings commonly found on other types of platform. For example, my company, BetterRhetor, recently launched College-Ready Writing Essentials via Canvas, an LMS widely used by colleges and universities. In contrast to the one-student-at-a-time model, it is a teacher-facilitated resource for high school and college classroom use. Since it is hosted on a Web-accessed LMS, it’s available to any classroom anywhere.

Dedicated Platforms

Khan Academy is all over YouTube, as noted above, but they also make all of their videos available through their own website. Any student in the world can, for example, survey 20th Century History through a series of more than 50 video lessons for free on the Khan Academy site. Math, science, humanities, economics—it’s all there.

For-profit learning companies likewise offer education globally on their own dedicated platforms. At VIPKID, for example, home-based teachers located anywhere (again, many of them moonlighting) connect with individual students in China, who learn a traditional curriculum, but in English.

Many of the courses found on these teaching platforms are developed by individuals or entities with no formal accountability for their content—so, it’s buyer beware. Even so, independently developed online courses constitute a busy market connecting eager learners to enterprising teachers worldwide. Online learning platforms spread global education beyond the purview and confines of conventional models and institutions.

© 2018 BetterRhetor Resources LLC

(This post was originally written for and published on Getting Smart.)


A Place for the Humanities in the Digital Age

A Place for the Humanities in the Digital Age

In the 1950s, C. P. Snow famously argued that academia had separated into two cultures—the sciences and the humanities—with no commerce between them. As both a novelist and a scientist himself, Snow shuttled between the two worlds, and lamented that they did not combine forces to solve problems neither was equipped to address on its own.

In our time, a separation between the sciences and the humanities is asserted on practical grounds: economic life is dominated by technology, which requires science, engineering, and math, not literature, history, philosophy and the like. College is expensive and the global marketplace competitive. Any individual looking for a serious career—and any country hoping to compete in the world economy—had best forget about the humanities and focus instead on things more practical.

STEM-promoting programs have proliferated throughout education, while the humanities have, in places, become expendable. States across the country offer incentives for students getting degrees in fields such as electrical engineering, while in Kentucky, for example, the governor has gone so far as to propose withholding state funds from schools that produce too many graduates in French literature.

All of this bias in favor of STEM has begun to generate some pushback from people who feel that there is a valuable, even necessary, place for the humanities in today’s world. Some caution against reducing education to career training alone. We should be unwilling, the novelist Marilynne Robinson writes, to “cede… humane freedom to a very uncertain promise of employability.” Rather, she says, we need the humanities for “preparing capable citizens, imaginative and innovative contributors to a full and generous, and largely unmonetizable, national life.”

Others make the case that training in the humanities actually does pay off in the economic lives of both workers and nation. George Anders, in You Can Do Anything, reports that many well-paying jobs in today’s economy are tailor-made for liberal arts majors—for example, jobs in project management, digital marketing, graphic design and genetic counseling. Randall Stross’s A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees makes the case that the humanities provide the most useful training for an unknowable future. Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University, argues in Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence that the humanities will be key to keeping life humane in an increasingly automated future.

In contrast to the 1950s, any rift between technical and humanistic fields today seems to be closing on its own anyway. As new technologies integrate themselves ever more thoroughly into all corners of human life, they increasingly require for their success a deeper attunement to the nature of human beings. In education, the evolution of STEM to STEAM (with the A standing for arts) reflects this integration, as does the current interest in design thinking—a recognition that technical things and systems must be responsive to aesthetics, personal preferences, cultural differences, and human behaviors of all sorts.

The digital humanities likewise blend the two cultures into one, applying methods of quantification and data analysis to the study of literature, geography, history, and other fields. As such, the digital humanities provide an excellent avenue for teaching students technical skills and humanistic modes of inquiry in complementary fashion, perhaps just the way they’ll be asked to use them in their professional and civic lives down the road.

K-12 teachers and students will find online a host of digital humanities resources in three primary areas: human geography, historical archives, and text analysis. Here are some examples:

Human geography

The visualization of digitized geographical information has created a wealth of opportunities for exploring both historical and contemporary relationships between people and place. ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World, for example, provides an interactive map that calculates the time and cost of traveling throughout the Roman Empire by land or sea, even taking into account the seasons.

A Vision of Britain Through Time overlays the geography of Britain with election data, census information, historical maps, and travel writing. Select any district and explore changes through time in its population, social structure, housing, industry, economic conditions, and more.

Google Earth’s Voyager section contains ready-made explorations in travel, culture, and history. Tour famous writers’ homes, explore medieval Europe, or discover tribal government success stories. The Lewis and Clark unit, created with PBS Education, combines videos and text with an interactive Google Earth map of the explorers’ journey to the Pacific and back.

Historical archives

Disciplinary boundaries tend to break down in the digital humanities, so geographically centered resources may also be rich troves of archival information. Civil War Washington, for example, combines historical documents, images, data, and maps, with interpretive essays to provide a thick description of the nation’s capital during the Civil War.

The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media is a repository for a wide mix of projects for studying history, as well as tools for managing citations and organizing and publishing archives. An abundance of teaching resources provide lesson plans organized around rich collections of historical materials. For example, Making the History of 1989 is a project that explores the fall of the communist states in Europe. It includes hundreds of primary sources, along with multi-media interviews with historians.

The Lincoln Telegrams Project is part of “Decoding the Civil War: Engaging the Public with 19th Century Technology and Cryptology through Crowdsourcing,” an effort to transcribe and decode Civil War military telegrams through crowdsourcing. The site includes online access to Lincoln’s wartime telegrams, along with lesson plans for high school students.

American Memory, from the Library of Congress, contains extensive collections of historical materials centered on American life, literature, history, and more. A section for teachers includes classroom materials, professional development resources, and guides for using primary sources.

Text analysis

Sophisticated approaches to text mining are yielding new scholarly insights in fields from literature to linguistics to cultural criticism. For the pre-college classroom, some handy text analysis tools can give students an idea of how digitization opens up modes of inquiry into language and literature.

Google Books Ngram Viewer finds the number of times user-entered words and phrases occur within the vast number of books Google has digitized up to 2008. The Viewer returns a record of the rise or decline of concepts, names, terms, and events appearing in print over years, decades, or centuries.

Wordle and similar programs generate word clouds from user-entered text. Students can analyze famous speeches, for example, by discovering the words used most or least often. Student essays entered into the program can shed light on word usage perhaps not otherwise obvious to writer or instructor. Here’s a list of classroom lessons using word cloud generators.

Voyant moves beyond word clouds to provide context for the words and phrases found in a text. When a  word such as “future“ appears in a transcribed conversation, for example, does it carry a positive or negative connotation? This kind of sentiment analysis is more technically challenging to accomplish than simple word clouds, but for the right teacher or student, it can be a useful tool for examining a wide variety of texts.

In our time, technical and humanistic domains tend to meld in ways that C. P. Snow could not have anticipated, but likely would have welcomed. For tomorrow’s students, the very idea that the sciences and humanities could be separated might seem perplexing, as they’ll see all around them technical tools in the service of humanistic inquiry, and human insights shaping the form and application of new technologies.

© 2017 BetterRhetor Resources LLC

(This post was originally written for and published on Getting Smart.)


At the Intersection of Creativity and Critical Thinking

At the Intersection of Creativity and Critical Thinking

Creativity and critical thinking sit atop most lists of skills crucial for success in the 21st century. They represent two of the “Four Cs” in  P21’s learning framework (the other two being communication and collaboration), and they rank second and third on the World Economic Forum’s top ten list of skills workers will need most in the year 2020 (complex problem solving ranks first).

The various lists of 21st-century skills grant creativity and critical thinking such prominence in part because they are human abilities robots and AI are unlikely to usurp anytime soon. The picture of the near future that emerges from these compilations of skills is one in which people must compete against their own inventions by exploiting the most human of their human qualities: empathy, a willingness to work together, adaptability, innovation. As the 21st century unfolds, creativity and critical thinking appear as uniquely human attributes essential for staving off our own obsolescence.

Like many things human, however, creativity and critical thinking are not easily or consistently defined. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s list of “Deeper Learning Competencies,” for example, identifies creativity not as its own competency but as a tool for thinking critically. Bloom’s Taxonomy treats the two as separate educational goals, ranking creativity above critical thinking in the progression of intellectual abilities. Efforts to pin down these skills are so quickly muddled, one is tempted to fall back on the old Justice Stewart remark regarding obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” Unfortunately, that yardstick isn’t much help to teachers or students.

Definitions of creativity tend toward the broad and vague. One of the leading researchers in the area, Robert Sternberg, characterizes creativity as “a decision to buy low and sell high in the world of ideas.” While this is itself a creative approach to the problem of defining creativity, it is not a solution easily translated into a rubric.

Definitions of critical thinking don’t fare much better. According to one group of researchers, “Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” Again, a curiously self-demonstrating definition, but not one ready-made for the classroom.

Generally speaking, creativity is associated with generating ideas, while critical thinking is associated with judging them. In practice, however, the two are not so easy to separate. As parents and teachers know well, creativity without critical judgment tends toward the fanciful, the impractical, the ridiculous. “Creative thinking” becomes a nice way of saying that someone’s ideas have run amok.

At the same time, critical thinking gets short shrift when reduced to making a judgment, since, at its best, critical thinking is also a way of making a contribution. It is fundamentally creative in the sense that its aim is to produce something new: an insight, an argument, a new synthesis of ideas or information, a new level of understanding.

Our grasp of creativity and critical thinking is improved when we see them in symbiotic relationship with one another. Creativity benefits from our recognizing the role of critical thinking in ensuring the value of novel ideas. In turn, critical thinking comes into clearer focus when we recognize it as a creative act that enriches understanding by giving rise to something that wasn’t there before.

What does this symbiotic relationship look like in the classroom? Here are a few educational contexts in which creativity is disciplined by critical thinking and critical thinking is expanded through recognition of its creative function:

Writing. Creative writing only works when the writer’s critical judgment is brought to bear on the product of their imagination. However richly imagined, a story’s success depends on the skill with which its author corrals and controls their ideas, crafting them into something coherent and cohesive. Storycraft is accomplished by writers who discipline their own creative work by thinking critically about it. Successful academic writing—argumentative, expository—requires not just critical analysis but also creative invention. Academic writers enter into conversation with their readers, their instructors, fellow students, other writers and scholars, anyone affected by or invested in their topic. As in any conversation, a successful participant doesn’t simply repeat back what others have already said, but builds upon it, asking critical questions, fine-tuning points, proposing solutions—in short, creating and contributing something original that extends and enriches the conversation.

History. History classes lend themselves readily to creative exercises like imagining the experiences of people in the past, or envisioning what the present might look like if this or that historical event had played out differently. These exercises succeed only when imagination is disciplined by critical thinking; conjectures must be plausible, connections must be logical, and the use of evidence must be reasonable. At the same time, critical analysis of historical problems often employs invention and is (or should be) rewarded for its creativity. For example, a student analyzing the US mission to the moon in terms of the theme of the frontier in American mythology is engaged in an intellectual activity that is at least as creative as it is evaluative.

Math. Creative projects can generate engagement and enthusiasm in students, prompting them to learn things they might otherwise resist. In this example, a middle school math class learned about circuitry on their way to creating a keyboard made of bananas. Projects like this one demonstrate that creativity and critical thinking are reciprocal. A banana keyboard is unquestionably creative, but of little utility except insofar as it teaches something valuable about electronics. Yet, that lesson was made possible only by virtue of the creative impulse the project inspired in students.

The skills today’s students will need for success are, at a most basic level, the skills that humans have always relied on for success—the very things that make us human, including our creativity and our capacity for thinking critically. The fact that our defining qualities so often defy definition, that our distinctive traits are so frustratingly indistinct, is just another gloriously untidy part of us that robots will never understand.

© 2017 BetterRhetor Resources LLC

(This post was originally written for and published on Getting Smart.)


Integrating Cognitive, Social, and Personal Competencies

Integrating Cognitive, Social, and Personal Competencies

Educators have come increasingly to recognize that student success depends on more than content knowledge and skills alone. After all, learning is unavoidably fraught with setbacks and discouragements, so personal traits, like “grit” and “growth mindset,” are needed if students are to keep at it. Likewise, the pursuit of an education doesn’t take place in isolation but in concert with others — so social skills, such the ability to cooperate in a group setting, are vital for success as well — even moreso when we consider what the future of the job market will look like.

Even as they gain emphasis, however, personal and social skills typically get defined and taught separately from conventional schoolwork. SEL programs, for example, tend to teach and assess non-cognitive skills quite apart from the math or reading lessons they’re intended to support. As actually applied, however, authentic academic skills are a combination of cognitive, social and personal competencies. Indeed, the goal behind inserting non-cognitive skills instruction into the curriculum is to complement and shore up cognitive performance, not to introduce isolated new constructs.

As we move deeper into the 21st century, cognitive, social and personal skills will need to be integrated to ensure students’ success. The decentralized, interconnected, collaborative contexts of 21st-century work and education demand that these skills be taught as complementary, interdependent, even synergistic.

What does an integrated approach look like? My organization, BetterRhetor, has been exploring this idea with a five-week module for high school and college students, organized around the production of a research-supported persuasive essay. In our module, social and personal competencies are part of the overall competencies framework, built into writing, reading, and research instruction and assessment.

Some of the lessons we’ve learned for successfully integrating cognitive, social, and personal competencies, include:

1) Define the classroom as an academic community. Social skills can’t be practiced in the abstract; they need an environment in which students are not merely in physical proximity to one another but in true relationship with one another. In an academic community, students bear responsibility for their peers and for the aims of the group as a whole. In meeting their community responsibilities, students learn and practice social skills necessary for academic success:

  • They understand that academic communities have their own behavioral norms and expectations; success requires learning and conforming to them;
  • They understand that they are in continuous conversation with one another; their work is available for review and response by their classmates, so must be constructive in tone and content;
  • They understand that they are there to learn from one another’s successes and failures; a lack of effort on anyone’s part diminishes everyone’s opportunity to learn.

2) Intentionally designed projects. Design projects (or, better yet, set your students up to design their own projects) that will teach and elicit social and personal competencies alongside cognitive skills and knowledge. That means designing extended projects that require student-to-student interaction and sustained individual effort. Some vital social and personal skills reveal themselves only over time.

As an example of integration, our College-Ready Writing Essentials emphasizes peer review, with students providing feedback on the drafts of 10 to 15 of their fellow students. Peer review is solid writing pedagogy, of course, but it also provides an opportunity to emphasize important social competencies. The ability to give socially and intellectually constructive feedback, and to accept critiques of one’s own work by others, are transferable competencies that can be learned and practiced in the course of learning to write.

3) Assess cognitive, social, and personal competencies together, as integrated dimensions of academic performance. Social and personal competencies can be directly folded into overall performance measures. For example:

  • The quality and extent of comments one student offers another is a measure of their willingness to put forth effort for the benefit of others;
  • The tone of a student’s contributions to the group is a measure of their ability to meet the behavioral expectations of the community;
  • The focus of their exchanges — whether relevant and on-task, or digressive and self-indulgent — is an indication of self-awareness;
  • The number of times a student revises her work or seeks help from his instructor is an indication of personal persistence;
  • Self-evaluation is a measure of students’ ability to see their own strengths and weaknesses.

The behavioral competencies needed for academic success can be improved and reinforced through assessment, but only if they are first baked in as integrated and integral parts of academic performance.

Dispositions and behaviors necessary for academic success are not constructs separate from instructional content, but are integral to it. Extended projects conducted within classrooms that have begun to feel to students like “academic communities” present opportunities to teach, elicit, and assess vital cognitive and non-cognitive competencies together, as integrated components of authentic academic performance.

© 2017 BetterRhetor Resources LLC

(This post was originally written for and published on Getting Smart.)


College As Culture Shock

College As Culture Shock

The standards-based education reform movement, kicked off by A Nation At Risk in 1983, has been around long enough now to start showing results, if it’s going to. Unfortunately, there is not much evidence that this path is leading anywhere good. The latest Nation’s Report Card, based on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing, shows that twelfth graders in 2015 weren’t any more ready for college than were twelfth-graders in 2012.  Likewise, students in 2012 didn’t make progress over the kids tested in 2007, or 2003, or 1998.

Generally, the NAEP assessments show that over an extended period only about a quarter of high school students have graduated ready for college-level academics. For low-income and minority groups, the numbers are even worse, and aren’t budging. (For a more extended discussion of the College Readiness Gap, click here.)

Why, given all the efforts made in recent years toward defining and teaching the skills and knowledge needed for college success, are we still not seeing rising numbers of high school graduates ready for college?

Because standards, important as they may be, are not enough. It is increasingly evident that learning entails much more than the acquisition of cognitive skills by themselves. For example, researchers now emphasize students’ dispositions and behaviors—e.g. their “grit”—as necessary components of academic success. Education reformer Diane Ravitch identifies poverty and race-based inequalities as the unaddressed culprits in our failure to make progress in the standards-based education era.

Where college readiness is concerned, we must consider that most students, when they first enter a college classroom, are encountering what amounts to a new and strange culture, with its own embedded behavioral expectations, its own language, its own values and assumptions. Many entering students, regardless of the standards-based cognitive skills they may have acquired in high school, are essentially strangers in a strange land, largely unacquainted with the world they’ve entered into. They don’t speak the language, they’re unfamiliar with the underlying values that structure rules for meaning-making, they don’t quite know how to successfully make use of the skills and knowledge they do bring with them from high school.

They are not prepared for the culture of college academics.

Moving to a foreign country, most high schoolers might be able to order a meal and buy a bus ticket from the start, but they would not find themselves truly understanding and thriving within their new habitat until they became oriented to how the natives think, what motivates them, their belief structures, why they behave as they do. The same is true of students entering the foreign world of postsecondary academics.

And, of course, where higher education is concerned, the goal ultimately is to integrate these new denizens into the culture to such a degree that they become wholly familiar, conversant, and accepted members. That’s what being educated means.

The norms of college academic culture are unfamiliar to most matriculating students, but especially those who are among the first in their families to go to college. For the most part, how academic culture operates goes unexplained, yet understanding and negotiating it is critical to every student’s college success.

To do well in a college classroom, students must acquire a high-level map of the governing values, shared assumptions, accepted and expected ways of communicating and thinking and behaving—all the elements that comprise the webs of significance constitutive of any culture.

The cultural elements endemic to the intellectual enterprise of college academics are only thoroughly acquired over time, through experience and exposure, through a kind of osmosis, as students absorb the language and concepts employed by their instructors, begin to read and respond to an array of academic texts, participate in collaborative academic work, sink deeper into their major field of study, write papers, do research, and gradually begin to grasp the kinds of performances that are considered successful.

At a fundamental level, acquiring a college education entails enculturation into the practices and discourses that structure meaning-making in higher academics.

Every student brings to school particular linguistic resources, background experiences, assumptions, values, and expectations from their own native culture. The degrees of variance between native and academic culture differ widely, however. Some students are better able to function within academic culture from the start because it is already relatively familiar to them. The vocabulary and values characteristic of college academics are not so far from what they’ve grown up with. They enter college already knowing pretty much how things work, how to interpret what’s being said, how to discern and meet the behavioral and performance expectations.

For other students, the culture they come from bears little resemblance to the one they’re entering, and it takes a lot more than mastery of basic cognitive skills to be successful.

To be clear, we’re not talking here strictly about immigrants from distant lands, who may be struggling with English or American cultural norms more broadly. Nor are we talking about students grappling with the unfamiliarity of college life per se—class schedules, dorms, social activities, and so forth.

Rather, we’re talking about anyone for whom the norms of the intellectual culture of college are unfamiliar—anyone for whom, for example, the primacy and procedures of academic, evidence-centered argumentation are not already woven into the fabric of how meaning gets made in their world. There are many ethnicity- and income-defined subgroups within American culture that fall into this category.

Wide disjunctures between native and academic cultural norms, absent some targeted intervention, are how socio-economic disadvantages transmute into educational disadvantages. All the more reason, then, for all students, regardless of income or background, to begin the process of enculturation as they prepare for college, rather than after they get there.

There is no exhaustive taxonomy of academic cultural norms, but we’ve identified eight key concepts—interdependent and mutually reinforcing—that every student would do well to grasp prior to entering the intellectual culture of academia.

Our FREE .pdf—A High Schooler’s Guide to the Culture of College Academics: 8 Key Concepts—defining and exploring them is available here. For a white paper surveying the literature and laying out a theoretical basis for this guide visit here.

These concepts can be difficult to get across, but they are graspable by high schoolers and, we believe, are in keeping with the level of rigor needed in high school instruction if it is to drive college success.

Part of what’s so hard about the transition to college is precisely the need to learn the operative norms of the intellectual culture when they are not at all self-evident, and not familiar to students from their previous school experience or upbringing. It makes sense, then, to begin providing some enculturation into the norms of college-level academics as part of college prep instruction in high school.

© 2016 BetterRhetor Resources LLC


Authentic Learning Requires Authentic Assessment

Authentic Learning Requires Authentic Assessment

If project-based learning were to form the core of curricula in American schools, our problems with large-scale standardized testing would become even more pronounced than they are now. This is not a reason to forego project-based learning, of course; rather, it’s a reason to find a better way to test.

We do need, and will continue to need, large-scale assessments, despite the many dissatisfactions we may have with them at present. Local assessment by itself doesn’t tell us what we need to know about student performance at the state or national level. Without large-scale assessment, we’re blind to differences among subgroups and regions, and thus cannot make fully informed decisions about who needs more help, where best to put resources, which efforts are working and which aren’t.

Many of the underlying aims of large-scale assessment are laudable: equity, improvement, good stewardship. Rather it is the limitations of their form that make the tests so problematic. They are severely restricted in the kinds of academic work they can elicit and measure. Thus, to the degree that they demand classroom focus or drive instruction, they actively discourage the authentic academic work that is the aim of project-based learning.

This is so because efficiency and scalability, rather than authenticity, govern their form. The tests are composed of artificial tasks—mostly multiple-choice questions—so that student performances can be recorded and evaluated fast and cheap. They are administered under highly contrived conditions because the artificiality of the tasks creates particular kinds of problems with security and reliability, problems that can only be addressed by further compounding the artificiality with rigid time strictures, centralized testing locations, and snapshot performances by students isolated from all real-world aids and resources, including one another.

Because of their format restrictions, conventional standardized tests simply cannot provide opportunities for students to demonstrate the array of skills that comprise authentic intellectual work: e.g. generating ideas, planning, collaborating, experimenting and revising, spit-shining the finished product. The tests can’t elicit these skills because, in their existing incarnation, they can’t accommodate the time it takes to do the work, and because the cost of evaluating this kind of student work at scale would doom the whole enterprise from the start.  

In other words, the real academic work that is the aim of project-based learning is uncapturable by conventional large-scale standardized tests. If PBL, then, formed the core of curricula, the existing testing paradigm would utterly fail at generating the student performance information that justifies testing in the first place.

Of course, one might argue, standardized tests never claim to be more than indirect measures. They’re proxies designed to indicate larger sets of skills, not exhaustively evaluate everything a student knows and can do. The partialness and indirectness of the measurement is precisely the concession we make to time and cost constraints. And anyway, some information is better than none; the assessments just need to be good enough to sample content domains and show whether kids are mastering basic skills.     

If that’s the case, then justification for the tests comes down to whether basic skills are a good enough proxy for the higher order skills PBL would place at the center of education. Would we be OK with making funding and accountability decisions based on such a limited slice of what we’re actually teaching? Or does there come a point at which the disparity between what the tests can measure and what we believe students need to know becomes so great as to render the proxy argument altogether implausible?

The problem with standardized tests is their form, not necessarily their function. Fundamentally, it’s a technological problem. The multiple-choice question is a 20th-century technology that made possible the economies of scale that have driven the format of standardized testing for nearly a century. Today’s tests still rely predominantly on multiple-choice questions, even as they migrate from paper to computer. New “technology-enhanced” item types appearing on computer-based tests are still mostly elaborated forms of the multiple-choice format. They still fall short of eliciting from students the skills and abilities that lie at the heart of authentic academic work.

The tests have remained rooted in the mid-twentieth century technologies, even as immensely powerful networked digital technologies have arisen around them. Today we could use existing technologies to capture all of the skills and abilities students display as they engage in extended academic projects, from planning to finish. We could facilitate and record collaborative interactions within work groups, whether localized in a single classroom, or assembled from across the nation or world. We could even generate assessable information about personal qualities such as persistence and resilience, capturing the effort students put into generating solutions, for example, or revising their work in response to feedback, or contributing ideas and assistance to others.

Existing technologies can elicit and capture the critical skills and abilities, both cognitive and non-cognitive, cultivated by project-based learning. With some creativity in modes of assessment, and a willingness to re-think hidebound approaches to test reliability and validity, we can replace a model of testing that runs counter to our most ambitious education goals.

For project-based learning to someday take a primary place in education, we will need a form of large-scale assessment that can validate its efficacy and equity across groups and regions. That assessment will need to be embedded within instruction and learning activities, an integral dimension of learning itself, rather than an interruption of or intrusion into the authentic, challenging and satisfying experience of practicing and trying, making and doing, building and creating.  It will need to be an authentic assessment capable of capturing the full array of knowledge and skills required for the successful completion of real academic work.

© 2016 BetterRhetor Resources LLC


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