I’ve been a little surprised at the amount of attention–both positive and negative–that my first post in this series has received. I want to address some of the comments on the negative side. There seems to be some concern that systems like D2L’s might promote bureaucratic mandates that increase burdens on teachers, or that they reduce teaching to training. I understand where these concerns are coming from, but I wonder how much of this is really about terminology. There seems to be an allergic reaction to the terms “competency” and “learning objective,” perhaps even to the point where the language is getting in the way of our being able to objectively assess the educational affordances of the software.
So I’m going to change my plan a bit for this series. In this post, I’d like to try to abstract away from the terminology and lay out a framework that will hopefully let us explore those affordances without the linguistic baggage dragging us down. Fundamentally, I’m going to propose that the most productive way to think about a system such as D2L’s is in terms of metadata. When we use tags (for example), nobody really thinks that the total value of the object being tagged can be reduced to the meaning of the tags themselves. It’s just not even a serious question. So what happens to our understanding of competency modeling in the context of higher education when we think about it as a tagging exercise?
Let’s suppose that we are all tagging the learning activities we provide to our students in our online courses, and that we agree to create a relatively well-defined subset of those tags that specify skills that learners can demonstrate when interacting with those learning activities. Of course, there are lots of reasons for participating in learning activities other than demonstrating particular skills, some of which make sense to have tags for and some of which don’t. We’re just using our particular subset to call out the facets of value that are related to demonstrating skills. We could call these tags “learning objectives,” but let’s call them S-tags instead.
I’m deliberately using the phrase “learning activities” rather than the term “learning objects” here because I find that people tend to think of learning objects as content delivery vehicles rather than as learning experience vehicles. If educators want to fight against terms that are harmfully reductive in education, maybe they should be less worried about the use of “learning objectives” and more worried about the bankrupt use of “learning object,” which often means little more than the 21st-Century equivalent of the photocopy. There is nothing more dangerous in language than a euphemism that is not widely recognized as such.
Anyway, back to S-tags. We want to enable people to tag learning activities with skills that they promote. So you could have a confidence-interval-interpreting tag, a specific-gravity-measurement tag, a news-story-analysis tag, a musical-interval-recognition tag, and so on.
If we had S-tags, what could we do with them? Well, for starters, we could help learners to find the learning experiences that they are looking for. While education can’t be reduced to the skills that we learn from it, people often do get an education because they want to learn specific skills. Anything we can do to provide learners with the ability to find and choose their learning paths more finely is a service to the learners. At Oxford (face-to-face), any student may go to any lecture for any course at any time. This is very much the ideal that I often hear articulated for online learning, where students would be freed from the shackles of coarse-grained course curricula. S-tagging could be an enabler of that potential by providing students with some of the landmarks that they need to construct their own learning paths. This could be accomplished within the bounds of a particular course, where the teacher provides the students with multiple choices of learning activities from which they can acquire the same skills and therefore get credit for the course, or it could happen across courses, where learners mix and match in much the same way that Oxford students do today.
I also think that S-tags would have value for university professors who are planning their courses. In contrast to K-12 and corporate training, where there there absolutely is an institutional tendency toward the over-use of simple-minded behavioral objectives, the more pervasive problem with university courses is the tyranny of the content. Graduate students, who generally receive little to no pedagogical training, are often socialized to think about their courses in terms of the content covered as described in the syllabus. Having an affordance like S-tagging that encourages them to think about different facets of their course might increase the level of introspection among college instructors regarding the learning experiences that they are offering to their students, e.g., “Where does the primary-source-research S-tag fit into my History of the Vietnam War course?”
Now, I mentioned earlier that a virtue of S-tagging learning activities would be the granularity in relation to the course-chunks that students get today. That granularity is also a limitation. I don’t really want to just learn how to use subordinate clauses more effectively; I want to become an effective writer. Learning about subordinate clauses is simply a means to that end. So what I want to do is find the collection of S-tags are linked to improving writing skills. We need a container concept that groups together S-tags in a way that connects with the learner’s larger goals. Let’s call it an S-tag cluster. We could have an essay writing cluster, a statistical analysis cluster, an historical research cluster, and so on. Even these might not be coarse grained enough, though. Maybe I don’t just want to be a better writer; maybe I want to be a journalist. So I need a supercluster–a cluster of clusters, of which the essay writing cluster is a member.
Like S-tags themselves, S-tag clusters could be enablers of greater freedom for students to construct flexible learning paths for themselves. Today, universities (in the U.S. for sure, but elsewhere as well) typically measure whether undergraduates has learned enough to merit a diploma by the number of credit hours completed in their subject majors. I’m frankly hard-pressed to come up with a less meaningful measure of a student’s accomplishments within a field of study (which is what a diploma is supposed to signify). What if, instead, a major was defined by an S-tag supercluster? What degree completion was defined by successfully completing activities related to all the tags in the supercluster, regardless of how many courses were taken in which department?
And again, S-tag clusters and superclusters could help faculty be more thoughtful about the learning experiences they are providing for their students. Suppose, for example, that the Modern Language Association (MLA) or College Composition and Communication (CCC) published a recommended S-tag cluster for an English major, or even just for the minimal writing skills that all undegraduates should acquire. These clusters, developed collaboratively by colleagues in the academic field, would provide individual teachers with some guideposts as they think about what they want to teach in their own classes. Equally importantly, the S-tags could help by doing one of the things that tags do best, i.e., helping people find stuff. If, for example, the MERLOT content on writing was tagged with the S-tags in the CCC cluster, then writing teachers could more easily find learning activities that are appropriate for their course goals.
As I wrote the previous paragraph, I was acutely aware that the further we get up the organizational hierarchy with these applications, the more that the skeptics get nervous. This is understandable; once you get to the administrative level of the institution, and certainly once you get to the level of inter-institutional organizations or governmental bodies, you’re likely to get rapidly increasing pressure to apply S-tags (or learning objectives) and S-tag clusters (or competencies) reductively as the basis for mandates. But that doesn’t mean these affordances are inherently bad. The proper response to reductionism is not to insist that that the value of learning experiences is completely ineffable; to do so would be to surrender the value of what we do know and can express about these learning experiences.
Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.