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Personalized Learning Plans

In June of 2013, the Governor of Vermont signed the Flexible Pathways Initiative calling for the creation of personalized learning plans.  When I was student at Empire State College in the 1990s, that’s exactly what I had to create for myself, and it is still something that the College promotes. What personalized learning plans do, first and foremost, is put an individual’s education directly into their own hands. What greater method can there be for the buy-in and ownership of an individual’s learning, than their own learning plan. It changes the way students perceive their education, especially in the K-12 world where education is not an option and attending school is mandatory. This changes education from a top down model, to a collaborative model: a collaboration between the student and the school. But, can it succeed, and how does a school district deliver instruction to students with individualized learning plans? This is the challenge of the future, and the only solution to moving education in the direction it needs to go. As technology advances personalize learning will become less and less difficult, more and more what is expected.

This week, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled Shaking up the Classroom which discussed to move, by some schools, to a competency based model and The Journal, posted an article on evidence that competency based models are improving learning: http://thejournal.com/articles/2014/03/13/states-show-improvement-on-digital-learning-report-card.aspx

The move to personalized learning environments is gaining ground, and it will be interesting to see how schools implement these.

Converting traditional formats to CBE

Today I’m going to share with you a simplified format for converting a traditional online (and possibly f2f) course to a competency based model. What I’d like you to notice is that the development focus is on assessment, not content. What I’d like you to keep in mind is that feedback, assessments and adaptive learning scenarios do not have to be computer mediated; they can be provided by instructors.

I’d like to begin by sharing with you and image I created that explains the basic premise of a competency based course. That is that progress is not linear, and that students do not progress to the final assessment until they are successful in the formative assessments (which they can repeat as often as needed).

Diagram of CBE shows articulate competencies to content to practice to assessment and then a loop either back to content  practice or out to final assessment


Well thought out feedback is essential, as is the timeliness of the feedback, so that students know where they stand and can take action to remedy weaknesses. These formative assessments should provide a more comprehensive feedback than “correct” or “incorrect”. In fact, they need to be prescriptive. The LMS can be set up to automatically lead students, based on their formative assessment, to remediation or to the final assessment (if they are ready). Or, this can be done through council with an instructor, who goes over the results with the student and provides a recommended path to success. Or, it can be a combination of the two.

Now, let’s look at the steps a designer and subject matter expert should consider when converting an existing course to competency based. Please note: this is not meant to be a development roadmap, but rather a guideline for considerations. It is not meant to be highly detailed.

Step 1: assess current course objectives to insure they are stated in terms of competencies—what students must demonstrate in terms of the application of knowledge and skills to complex tasks.

Step 2: sort course objectives/competencies into progressive milestones or module steps that will lead to the final assessment

Step 3*: assign current assessments and activities to applicable milestones where appropriate.

Step 4*: determine whether any of the current assessments and activities are more suited for practice and self-assessments than for a summative evaluation of competency? For those that are, change the points allocated, if necessary, to reflect the formative nature of the assessment, and insure proper formative feedback is provided

Step 5*: identify and build summative competency-based assessment(s) including rubric(s)

Step 6: identify and build (where necessary) practices and self-assessments insuring students are given the opportunity to practice all outcomes and receive feedback that clearly tells student if he/she is ready to progress to the summative evaluation of competency, and if not what steps the students need to take in order to meet the acceptable level of competency.

Step 7: Build in additional content for remedial purposes.

Step 8: review all instructive course materials, mapping to Milestones, practices and assessments. Identify any gaps or unnecessary redundancies.

Step 9: Review all rubrics for point matching to levels and areas of competency achieved

*Steps 3, 4, and 5 are not is a specific order, should be looped until all the developers of the course are satisfied with the construction and point allocation for each assessment

What is important to notice is that a CBE course will require more content, will require practices, and will require thoughtfully constructed assessments and point systems. What you do not want to do is to provide a path for a student to pass a course without having met the necessary competencies.

Objectives and Innovation

In the consultations I often provide for various online programs, I’ve seen a particular problem over and over again in regards to the integration of technology: educators begin integration from a focus on the technology. At conference after conference I hear educators talking about reaching students through new technologies, with once again the focus on the technology. I’d like to give some real life examples of how this can sometimes be short-sighted and  problematic.There are two questions that should guide the integration of any technology: what problem is it meant to solve and/or what objective does it match to?

Plenty of instructors are adding mobile components to courses because “students want to use their cell phones” or because they read its an upcoming technology.  What the educators do not understand is that this is about accessing their coursework using their mobile device, instead of a computer or laptop.  It does not mean they want you to create an assignment that requires the use of a mobile device! If you are requiring students to have a mobile device for a particular course, then it better well have a measurable objective associated with that requirement. One example, would be the need for majors in Geographical studies to use GIS applications. This is related to program objectives for their career.

Here are two examples of a courses that required the use of mobile devices–one that was a good integration, and one that was a poor integration. School A offered a course on Ethical Uses of Technology for Educators. This course required students to have a mobile device. The objectives associated with this requirement were developed to insure that teachers became familiar with mobile devices and the unethical ways they could be used (advertently or inadvertently) in a classroom.  The students in this course were given activities that required them to test how easy it would be to use a cell phone in unethical ways, and to reflect on how this would impact the classroom. This is a good integration of mobile technologies.  The second example is a poor use: the course was on American Music.  There were four objectives to the course, all of which required an understanding of different aspects of music. A mobile component was added because the developers wanted an innovative course, and that intent was to enable  students to upload and download music on their handheld device. Not a single one of the objectives of the course had any reason to require knowledge of this skill, nor anything related to mobile technologies in general. The purpose in including this activity was so that the professors could research whether students would use a mobile device.  This is an example of a very poor understanding of integration. To make it clear, a better way to do this would be to insure the course was hosted on a site that could be accessed and interacted with via a mobile device.

Support for third party applications can also become a problem relatively quickly, and once again I’m referring to unnecessary third party programs such as various web 2 programs. Instructors get angry that the helpdesk can’t or won’t provide support for whatever application they choose to use, but there are thousands, if not millions of them out there. At smaller colleges, where courses are taught exclusively by the faculty member that developed them, the instructor should insure that they are familiar with the application before requiring students to use it. At large colleges, where courses are developed by a team and taught by adjuncts, the problems are much bigger, and third party applications need to be selected more carefully. Adjuncts assigned to teach the course may not be familiar with the program, or they may have their own favorites, and may not be willing to learn it a third-party  because its a program the developer likes. It is also unfair to expect the helpdesk to learn them all and be prepared to assist students. Again, third party apps should be chosen when they are needed to solve a particular problem, when the helpdesk is willing to support it and/or there is a particular course objective tied to the use of that application.

Access and course objectives should always be the first considerations. Activities and assessments need to be directly related to those objectives. Technologies should be chosen with those in mind.  True student-centered teaching does not require particular technologies because they are cool, but because they will assist the student in achieving the course objectives and provide greater access, otherwise we may be putting undo demands on the students.

Here are some important questions that can help guide the integration of technology:
1. Is the addition of the required technology needed in order for students to achieve course objectives?
2. Will the technology decrease or impede access in anyway?
3. Is support available for students who have difficulty with the technology?
4. Will learning to use the technology detract from students learning the required content of the course?

We all need to make our courses more collaborative and more engaging for our students. We also need to have students exposed to the various technologies they will encounter in the work environment. We just need to insure that the technologies we choose help, not hinder, learning.