Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Slow Learning & thoughts on competency based education

This week on Change11 our host facilitator is Clark Quinn author of Designing mLearning and of Mobile Academy. It's interesting. My initial exposure to Clark has been through twitter and through these two books.  I read Designing of mLearning as a potential text for a college level mLearning course (I like it for what it's worth) and I currently have the Mobile Academy on to to-read list on GoodReads*.  In any case the topic for this week is Slow Learning, read his seed post for the week here.

Even though Clark writes about corporate training (or so it seems from the blog post) I think that the ideas are good for both K-12 an Higher Education. There seems to be a race to cram as much information as possible in as little time as possible. In higher education there have been calls for a 3 year Bachelors degree, which is achievable, but it could be done poorly (i.e. through a banking model of education) or it might be done in an good way where knowledge and skills stick and don't get forgotten as soon as the exam is taken. Perhaps a cohort model that borrows from the Army's live-on-base basic training where you go to college for 3 years and that's all you do is train (hey, maybe we can include physical education as a requirement in those 3 years so we can fight America's "battle of the bulge").

I like the idea of slow, authentic learning, but it seems like our system is geared toward standardized testing, GPAs and grades. I think the system needs to change in order for it to become feasible to change education. We need to stop thinking like the quarterly profit CEOs that ruined (and continue to wreak havoc on our economy) and to start taking the long term approach to learning (among other things). An "A" today may be great, but not if you can't use the stuff you learned in class three (or more) semesters down the road.

An interesting example, local example, was at my university. We have a college (the college of public and community service or CPCS) that, when I was an undergraduate, had competencies in lieu of grades. Each course had a competency related to it. You could pass the competency, or you fail it and you could try again later on to demonstrate you competency. As far as I know there was no need to take the class again (and pay tuition again) if you failed the competency, you could work on it on your own and demonstrate your competency in a later semester (perhaps through a portfolio item?). In order to graduate students needed to show that they had passed all those competencies.

In any case, back then I was in the College of Art & Sciences and completing my computer science degree. We were "serious" and had grades. If you failed a class you had to take it over - period. No 'soft stuff' for us. My attitude was shaped by my previous education where we had grades, and grades measured your worth, class rank and what people thought of you.  This fuzzy stuff with competencies was for non-achievers that couldn't cut it in "the real world." This wasn't just my own thought (based on an indoctrination of a grade based system), it was something that others in the university also thought and either said outright or under their breath.

Years later, I have come to appreciate a competency system.  The grade is really irrelevant, it is a competency that matters! You either know how to do something, or you don't. The problem is, now that I've come to appreciate this system, and advocate for it, CPCS has given it up and has opted to go with a more traditional grade-based system.  Perhaps they succumbed to external pressures, who knows. They could have been a great model for slow and authentic learning for the rest of the university, if it weren't for the metrics-based pressure of the external world.

* I keep adding books to read there, but it seems that September-May are "journal article reading months"... I wonder if I can get some quality time with books in January lol :-)
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