Digital Arrays for Evidence-Based Learning

Web 2.0 is best defined not as a technology development but as a moment of disrupted equilibrium in our culture. Our culture is redefining itself and we are redefining how we see learning. It is time for educators to get out of the box of seat time, finally, and consider evidence-based learning.

Our current educational habits suddenly seem antiquated. People at conferences in the past few months seem to know we are at a turning point. It's been more than a century since the basic terms of teaching and learning in the U.S. have fundamentally changed. One of these terms, the practice of learners meeting teachers in a room, has persisted longer, over many centuries.

Perhaps we only did what we had to do -- there simply was no other way, centuries ago, for students to learn than to gather by the person who had knowledge in her or his head. But, now that knowledge sources and experts are available and in abundance via the Web, we do have choices about how learning is conducted. Here's one way to reconsider the higher education enterprise: DAEBL, Digital Arrays for Evidence-Based Learning.

Evidence-based learning, as a phrase, seems to be mostly identified with, and used in, the health care industry where it's really important that students have real-life experience. Let's borrow it to describe how higher education in general can re-organize to fit with the knowledge culture we find ourselves in.

Four Pillars for the Enterprise of Higher Education

There are four key adjustments that higher education can make to adapt to the current age: (I) having in place an assessment management system, both the technology and people; (II) using active learning as the primary frame for learning design so students can develop evidence to then submit to the reviewer/gatekeepers for the assessment management system; (III) redefining faculty and student roles to fit into this evidence-based learning framework; and (IV) disconnecting the financial model of seat time from learning designs around evidence-based learning.

Pillar I: the assessment management system. Evidence-Based Learning (EBL) is the student side of learning outcomes assessment that has become so widespread in the country, especially for accreditation and re-accreditation and for other institutional reporting requirements. The idea is that student work is considered evidence of progress toward general learning goals as specified in a rubric structure. The institution can then show it is doing its job because it can demonstrate a delta down to a high level of granularity.

In some cases, student work (the "evidence") may be reviewed by 2 or 3 people before it can be considered valid and therefore credited in the assessment management system (often inaccurately called an "ePortfolio"). The assessment management system -- Livetext, TaskStream, TrueOutcomes, OSP, Blackboard Outcomes, Foliotek, Nuventive, Edumetry, and so forth (see http://wwwedpath.com/epvendors.htm)
 -- is a large database that tracks hundreds or thousands of students over many years and usually can run many different reports based on this data storehouse.

A number of learning units within the institutional curriculum are then tied directly with the learning goals of the institution. Student advisers can use this rationalized curricular path to help students plan their career goals while in college.

This assessment management system is the first essential premise for EBL as the basis for the new higher education enterprise.

Pillar II:  active learning. Second is a premise about student learning: Students learn best by doing rather than just listening. Active learning is generally more productive than passive learning.

But active learning -- groups of students in a classroom or lab or outside of a classroom or lab (co-op learning, experiential learning, field work, service-learning, open learning, internships, semester abroad, the "gap year," to name only a few examples) -- presents many variables in how student evidence of learning is gathered. How do teachers cope with varying kinds of assignments in different formats and at different stages of completion? If teachers are not directly supervising student work, then how do they assess and evaluate that work?

Higher education has already answered this question, using the various active learning methods listed above, although now the bar is rising because of the growing ease of collecting evidence of work as it is happening, no matter where it is happening, through digital technology. We find ourselves, in fact, deluged with evidence from active learning: The World Wide Web was created in 1991 precisely so researchers could collaborate over distance, and now not only researchers but everyone is collaborating over distance both synchronously and asynchronously.

As students generate more evidence because of their active learning experiences, they need a way to gather and organize their evidence. One very good way to gather evidence is using an ePortfolio tool -- Chalk and Wire, Digication, eFolio, Epsilen, OSP (within Sakai), Pebblepad, ePortaro, TK20, and so forth. Within the ePortfolio or other enhanced digital repositories, students can then create their evidence from disparate elements that they can then submit for review. After review, as described above, their evidence can be credited within the assessment management system.

The second pillar of the EBL-defined new higher education enterprise is therefore the entire practice of portfolio learning, which helps define the evidence trail so that more active learning can occur.

Pillar III: re-defining roles. In a DAEBL enterprise, faculty become designers of active learning assignments and experiences, some of which occur in the classroom and some of which occur outside the classroom. They also mentor students about building evidence of their learning over the semester. Finally, they serve as one of the reviewers of student evidence in order to enter a judgment into the assessment management system. They are designers, mentors, and assessors.  

Students, for their part, become problem-solvers, members of a project team, and responsible for the deliverable from their team. The focus is on the work. If an outside reviewer looks at the work, as well as the teacher, and the work is tied to overall learning goals, the quality of work is primary.

Faculty are as much at the center of this new higher education enterprise as always but just doing work that fits far better with our culture now.

Pillar IV: getting out of the box of seat time. The fourth pillar is disconnecting the financial model of "seat time" from learning designs around evidence-based learning.

Our general U.S. higher education business model now, with many exceptions, is to charge students by the credit hour, based on number of hours spent in a seat in a room with a certified teacher. Higher education leaders have admitted for years that seat time is not a relevant metric for learning, yet we've had no alternate system to turn to. As a way to structure tuition and fees, it's worked for over a century.

Not having an alternate business model that would better represent actual learning cycles, the seat time model stays in place, keeping us stuck in beliefs that we need to segment learning in 10 or 15 week chunks and that learning only occurs when teachers and students are in the same room together. The current business model, while a successful financial model, works against higher education evolving toward the new EBL higher education enterprise.

The currency of higher education should be evidence of student learning, not seat time. But, the evidence is not just good scores on tests. Higher education has created a whole system, supported by new technologies, to process and develop evidence and then to assess that evidence. With this more realistic currency, semester boundaries become permeable: Even though a new round of tuition and fees has occurred, the learning goes on. Students carry their evidence forward and might work with the same team from the previous semester on the same project, perhaps even adding new student collaborators. The project should define the parameters of the work, and not an arbitrary end point.

Digital Arrays for Evidence Based Learning (DAEBL) is intended as a path for higher education to adapt to the realities that are already with us. The Web is now our cultural default for communications, for information, for some kinds of research, for knowledge exchange, for collaboration, for discovery. Within higher education, assessment management systems are in place at a large number of American and international colleges and universities. So are student ePortfolio systems. Now, we need "digital arrays," which will define varying clusters of technologies that support evidence-based learning, to help us adapt to our new realities.

Let's disconnect the seat time business model, which undoubtedly will continue to serve us financially, from the learning model. Since the business model is less and less a reflection of how learning now occurs, it should no longer influence so strongly how we design our learning models.

There's Nothing Revolutionary About This

The four pillars are only a compilation of trends already underway. It's a way to adapt to a fait accompli. Educators already have the expertise to accomplish the various parts of an evidence-based learning enterprise but may not understand that if the various trends are put together strategically, we already have an action plan for institutional transformation in the Web 2.0 era.

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