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Do you remember SRA Reading?

SRA-2Ask someone, who was an elementary student in the 60s and 70s, if they remember SRA Reading and you may hear fond memories about various colored folders and the desire to reach the next color. My experience is that many of them can even remember particular readings.  SRA was a program for Mastery Level Reading–a form of CBL. SRA Reading Kits were first published in 1957. They were the creation of Don H. Parker, and were created to solve a very real classroom problem–the need for individualized reading instruction. In his book,  A History of the Reading Laboratory, he wrote “I tried to formulate my goal: to let each student start where he is and move ahead as fast and as far as his learning rate and capacity would let him. (Nowadays I’d say ‘him or her’)”

The concept behind SRA Reading was simple: based on pretests, students began their reading program at their current reading and then progressed at their own rate. They could not go to the next color, until they could show mastery in the current level. The color coded charts and folders provided students with tangible evidence of progress.  The most significant downside to the program was that students sometimes measured their progress against others, rather than against their own progress. Achievement became competitive. Some thrived in this environment, and others became discouraged. Studies have shown, regardless, that the programs was (and still is) an effective educational program.

Yes, the SRA program still exists (http://www.srareadinglabs.com/) and now even comes in an electronic version. But can we ever eliminate students comparing themselves to each other? Should we? Or, should we, can we, develop programs where it won’t matter? That is just one of the challenges education has always faced. Personalize Learning Plans may be the best method for achieving CBL, while eliminating the comparisons that often create discouragement, dropouts, and failures.

Curriculum vs Instruction Design

empty slate (chalkboard)The past few posts have focused on Competency-Based Education, which is generally speaking a Curriculum Design Model. Designing curriculum to follow a specific model, does require instructional methods that support that design, so curriculum designs can also be instructional design models. But this is not necessarily true in reverse: instructional design models can exist independently from curriculum designs. For example, Inquiry Based Models are a type of instructional design that do not require a specific type of curriculum model.

When an institution undertakes a curriculum redesign, this is usually done by a team of individuals mostly built of faculty. Curriculum redesigns are both labor and time intensive, require extensive buy-in, and almost always require multiple levels of approval. It many times requires the approval of an accrediting body as well.  Curriculum redesigns can benefit from a curriculum specialist, who can assist with mapping and other strategic exercises. The redesign teams can also benefit from the wealth of knowledge and experience a curriculum specialist can bring to the table with regards to models and what other institutions have found effective, not effective, or worthy of more work.

Instructional design, on the other hand, is concerned with the teaching in a particular course. With faculty involved as subject matter experts, and in choosing the method of instruction (problem-based, inquiry-based, etc), the course development should also include an instructional designer. There is some confusion about the roles of IDs and often resistance from faculty in using an ID. I might even go so far as to say that some faculty even resent the “intrusion” of IDs. There are two common claims faculty make when dismissing the need for an ID: “I’m the subject matter expert” (meaning: “they don’t know how to  teach my course; I do”), and “…academic freedom…” which is a much often misunderstood and overused term, and has nothing to do with effective instruction.  When it comes to how people learn best and how to design effective instruction, Instructional Designers, and other specialists in education and assessment strategies, are the instructional “Subject Matter Experts.” IDs can help with the construction of a project, help with creative ideas, help with constructing effective assessments, help with constructing effective discussion questions and more. Instructional Designers do not tell faculty what to teach, nor even how to teach it, but they can help with constructing these things to be far more effective. It’s what they studied and what they continue to study every single day.


What educators could learn from CBME

cover of Medical TeacherIn 2010 the journal Medical Teacher devoted an entire issue to competency based medical education: http://informahealthcare.com/toc/mte/32/8. This issue is well worth reading by any educator in higher education that is interested in competency based education. While the articles are written about medical education, which many in the liberal arts reject as “practical” rather than “theoretical”, and therefore not applicable to undergraduate education, those with more insight will learn how to develop stronger competency based programs, and the value of a competency based program.

Today’s Inside Higher Ed, featured yet another article on the move to competency based education: http://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2014/01/23/colleges-pitch-possible-experiments-competency-based-programs. It’s a short article stating that a number of colleges and university are preparing to launch competency based programs. But the list of participating institutions is not one that contains any surprises. These are colleges and universities that are known for non-traditional curriculum. What might surprise some is the list of medical schools moving to competency based programs, and that the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in its 100 year anniversary of the much respected Flexnor Report,  advocated for competency based medical education.  In it’s 2010 report  Educating Physicians: A Call for Reform of Medical School and Residency, the authors’ recommended that medical schools “standardize learning outcomes and assess competencies over time.” and added:  “A focus on learning outcomes and milestones could end the time-based structure of medical school and residency.”

Many medical schools have taken the advice of this report quite seriously, and have been working on converting existing curriculum to a competency based format. The rest of us could do well to learn from what they are doing. It may not all be applicable, but there is much to be learned from their thoughtfulness and efforts.

I highly recommend that those who are interested in Competency Based Education in Higher Education read Medical Teacher’s issue 8 of volume 32.

Mastery Based Learning

This week, Inside HigherEd published an interesting article that discusses the drawbacks of measuring learning using the credit hour. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/01/09/wiche-transfer-passport-based-proficiency-rather-credits In this author’s opinion, it’s about time educators took a serious look at this standard. While many might defend the current system, there are few that can rationally defend the current system’s measurement as an accurate assessment of learning. If it does measure learning, it does so in an accidental manner.  What it mostly measures is time and perhaps practice. But what is does not measure is competency. “Averaging of a grade over time does not adequately represent the level of mastery”.(Bramante & Colby, 2012) and may give the false impression that the student is prepared to move to the next level. The fact is that without insuring mastery, “a learner cannot use that knowledge or skill in future learning” (Bramante & Colby, 2012), nor in a job that requires that knowledge or skill. And, the student may never get the opportunity again to master it.

What does an “A’ in higher education actually mean? It could mean nothing at all other than that the professor gives everyone, who shows up to class, an A–which I know from experience does in fact happen–whether that is online or face-2-face.

Far too often I hear the refrain that competency based education will ruin real education, will take away from developing the mind and whole person. Just because a book is assigned, does not mean the students read it. Just because a student sits in class, and maybe even participates, does not mean they learned the material, nor that they can apply it. Rather, a true master has the ability to apply knowledge and skills to complex and diverse situations, not simply answer the problems at the back of a textbook. So, a master of philosophy can not only apply philosophical theories to philosophical discussions, but to literature and math, and even physics. The ability to do so is a measure of competency. CBE does not eliminate general education, and assessments can be developed to measure the level of ability a student has to apply knowledge and skills.

But lets look at this from a very practical perspective. Here is the grade makeup of an actual course (a typical course):
Open Book quizzes–17%,
Final exam–11%.

Here is another:
Final Exam–16%,

Instructors generally pick these percentages in a random manner. It’s not based on some scientific study. It’s personal preference. Additionally, participation, homework, and quizzes do not demonstrate competency. They are really “practice”, yet they figure into the final grade. And, often a great percentage of the final grade. One school I worked with had a problem with students completing the final exam, because it had so little weight that it made almost no difference in the final grade of many students (the students calculated the impact of the grade vs leaving early–that’s scientific).

In a competency base course the assignments, participation, quizzes and other activities would become self-assessments and practices, helping the student gain competency and providing a measurement that the student could use towards their own learning: where were they still weak, were they ready to take the final assessment, etc. The greatest weight by far is on a final assessment. One that measure mastery. One that measures the students ability to take their knowledge and skill and apply it to a complex and unknown task. The assessment would not only measure competency, but the level of competency. This is a far more valuable grade than one that might measure participation and homework.

In the next post we’ll look at the process for converting a traditional course to one that is competency based.

Bramante, F., & Colby, R. (2012). Off the clock. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.

Learning Analytics

A few weeks ago, I attended a symposium on learning analytics, jointly sponsored by NERCOMP and Educause ELI.  It was a day well spent. The morning session consisted of  presentations on Learning Analytics; the afternoon session was hands-on. Each team was asked to design an application that would do some form of learning analytics. What was at stake was a $10,000 check from a venture capitalist (all in good fun, of course).  Each team presented their application, at the end, and the group voted.  My team developed an application that would follow students eyes as they read course materials, as they interacted with the course. The thought was it would reveal the effectiveness and use of various course materials. (It tied for first place).

What I came away with was lots of questions, lots of ideas regarding the use of learning analytics.  The power of learning analytics is that they allow us to truly understand our students. They help us target intervention with greater accuracy. One institution shared that information gathered from their LMS showed a very distinct correlation between failure rates, and dates of first logins to a course.  This knowledge allowed them to develop interventions that could be put into effect the first weeks of the course.

The presentation that most interested me, was on the development of software that could “read” essays and determine the extent of comprehension. I can see this as an extremely useful tool, most especially for MOOCs and other courses with large enrollments.