Caution – Shallow waters all around us

Roger Shank’s blog post yesterday struck a note with me when I read it this morning. As I was reading the BBC’s article about Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, I thought about what Roger was saying, and how the thinking questions and real issues seem to have been displaced by the vacuous.

In HE, we teach students how to answer questions with the right answer. John, at Learner WebLog was comparing the c and x versions of MOOCs, and why the xMOOCs attract so many more people. In his analysis, John states one of the factors as being that xMOOCs are easier, and writes

xMOOCs are much easier compared to cMOOCs.  This is grounded on that in xMOOCs, the instructors would have done most, if not all of the ground work necessary for teaching and learning for the learners.  What the learners are normally expected to do would be to consume the knowledge transmitted or broadcasted to them, and to confirm their understanding of the concepts through repeated quizzes or assignments.  This requires certain perseverance from the learners, though it is possible to achieve a high or perfect score in test, assignments and examinations through drills, repeated practice, as is common in a rote learning scenario.   The use of standard answers in the case of multiple choices, true/false, or short case scenarios, could all be checked with automated grading or assessment software.  For peer assessment, these are done in a closed manner, with the merits of “protecting” the learners from being “criticised” in public, but the demerits of being critiqued by only a few participants (5 other peers) in the whole evaluation.  Nevertheless, this seems to be well accepted as a way to assessment in the xMOOCs, as that might be the only feasible and reliable way to assess students in an institutional environment, without overly involving the professors in the assessment.

People want the right answers. We want to be correct, and don’t want the effort of having to figure out something that isn’t black and white. As my students finished up my module, where I use a connectivist and constructivist approach to learning, one of the reoccurring themes in their reflection about the beginning of the module was along the lines of what is Jesse looking for, or is this going to get me a good grade, or how can I learn anything without an expert telling me what I need to learn. Having the freedom to explore a topic, with no right or wrong answers was terrifying. They couldn’t understand that I wanted to see their thinking, their evaluation, their critical approaches. However, by the end of the semester, they loved it.

As I (an many of you) talk about the faults of the educational system, the zombification of learning, the factory foundations, the memorisation/regurgitation model, am I out of touch? Donald Clark tells us that the social contract between HE and society is broken, and uses as evidence the graduate unemployment and underemployment rates, the riots in London a couple of years ago, the occupy movement, the disillusionment that industry leaders have in graduates today. The list could go on, and on, but is anyone listening? There are good people who talk and think about the shallowness of todays educational system, with its fixation on content. There are good people who are doing what they can, within their sphere of influence, to change things. But, is there any measurable impact? MOOCs have become the darling of education today, and yet, the xMOOC model seems to be the only game taken seriously. The most powerful educational institutions in the world have abdicated their responsibility for learning and have opted for MCQs.

This leaves us with more academic articles being published about snowboarding than about real threats to human existence. It leaves us with the endless pursuit of the right answer and the good grade. It leaves us with 70% of graduates in the UK this year about to be awarded a top degree (2i or 1st). It leaves us in the shallows with everyone leaning over the edge of the boat examining their reflection in the water to see how well their complexion is holding up.


Learning and Grades

During this spring semester, Emma, one of my students, has been discussing grading as a part of our educational system, and what effect grading has on learning. Last week, my students pulled their thoughts together and produced synthesis blogs. I thought I’d share some of Emma’s insights.

Grades lead to conformity. Although Susanna (another of my students) argues that conformity in education can be a good thing (she hasn’t convinced me – but my evaluation of her work has remained unbiased — I hope), I agree with Sir Ken Robinson that stifling creativity in education has been a terrible thing. Trudi (yet another student) explored the impact of the factory model on education, and how conformity was one of the principle aims of mass education at its inception. Emma asks the questions that I have posted on a number of occasions “Do students come to university to learn or do they come to get a degree? Does a high class degree constitute a high level of learning?” I think she successfully argues that current HE is about figuring out the hoops that you need to jump through to get high grades. Jumping through hoops allows no creativity, it requires complete conformity.

Her second point is that grades gamify education. The focus becomes the grades rather than the learning. Games have rules, and rules lead to conformity. If you don’t follow the rules (learn what the teacher wants you to learn) you don’t get the points (your grades suffer). Working to the grades means students can memorise and regurgitate what is expected of them.


She then goes on to look at the research into the validity and reliability of grading. Do grades measure learning? I lover her quote from Race (2009) where he argues (I think effectively) that a written “exam does tell you is how well learners write, not how well they have learnt. What is measured is not necessarily learning, but neatness, speed and eloquence of learners’ writing”. An important skill, but is that learning?

The only disappointment I had was her conclusion that grades are here to stay, because that is the system.

On my current CV, there is no reference to grades. What I have listed are my accomplishments – not someone’s evaluation of my accomplishments (a grade). Authentic assessment would allow a student to produce something that they could refer to on their CV. I hope that my students list their blogs on their CVs. These are real accomplishments that have provided me with much to think about over the past 10 weeks.

Complexity and Creativity

Something Herold Jarche wrote yesterday  made me think I needed to continue on from my last blog:

Today’s digitally connected workplace demands a completely new set of skills. Our increasing interconnectedness is illuminating the complexity of our work environments. More connections create more possibilities, as well as more potential problems.

On the negative side, we are seeing that simple work keeps getting automated, like automatic bank machines. Complicated work, for which standardized processes can be developed, usually gets outsourced to the lowest cost of labor.

On the positive side, complex work can provide unique business advantages and creative work can help to identify new business opportunities.

However, complex work is difficult to copy and creative work constantly changes.

Our current enormous educational systems, from K-12 through to HE, are designed to deal with large numbers of learners, and conformity is a core principle. The business of gathering learners together, organising them, teaching them, testing them, and then classifying them is a mammoth task, and the system is designed to do just that. And, hats off to the system, it does a pretty good job of it with minimal resources and maximal output. However, this is where the rub lies: the teaching them part. What do we teach them, and how well is that job done.

The focus in K-12 is a C19 curriculum that is based on a factory/church model. Bring them together, have them memorise, and send them out with all the same skills and all the same knowledge. In HE, the institution has a reversed basis with church coming before factory, but similar otherwise. In HE, we try to provide them with an understanding of an area that provides an illusion of expertise, and a basis for specialism.

In the past, the HE foundation provided enough specialised skills that the workplace was willing to pay a higher dividend for their labour, which put a premium on a degree. As HE scaled up to meet the demand for this premium, the church/factory model of education has become prevalent. As the amount of information available has exploded, the definition of a foundational understanding has expanded, and memorisation has become the fundamental requirement for a degree.

Our current educational system is excellent at preparing people for simple, automated tasks, and complex tasks that can be standardised. there is little room for creativity amongst all the information that needs to be memorised, and reducing complexity so it can be compartmentalised for memorisation is the job of HE lecturers. As a result, graduates of our institutions are not prepared for the real needs of todays workplace, and the degree premium is loosing its shine.

There are those who emerge from the system and figure it out, there always have been. But, what we need is a system that prepares individuals to meet the real challenges of todays world, not feed the commercial/industrial complex of yesterday.