Strategic Directions | Feature

Who Creates Coherence in the College Experience?

A Q&A with AAEEBL President Trent Batson

Higher education leaders are investing in strategies and technologies that can help make the college experience more relevant for a diverse population of students in today's challenging economic and rapidly changing global/societal environment. But it doesn't stop there. CT asked Trent Batson, President of AAEEBL (The Association for Authentic, Experiential and Evidence-Based Learning) what will allow students to make sense of their own education, connect it with their priorities beyond the classroom, and finally put learners in charge of their own learning.

Mary Grush: Will the current and increasing focus by higher education leadership on areas like personalization, learning outcomes, learning analytics, and new degree pathways make the college experience more relevant for students, and put learners more "in charge" of their own learning?

Trent Batson: You mention personalization. That's a broad and longer-term trend — one that may be difficult to define at this point in time, especially given differing priorities in various countries. One of the things personalization refers to (at least in part) is students becoming more active in their own learning. Of course that's a good goal. But again, this is still a developing trend…

An article examining "personalization" I noticed recently showed students using intelligent tutors in problem-based learning. Clearly, the researchers involved understood that when students are given a chance to do problem solving — not just memorizing "answers" — they do improve. However, in the end, the students were evaluated with multiple-choice tests — not really a true measure of the understanding or application of their learning.

Grush: And not really a big step towards putting learners in charge of their own learning?

Batson: No.

Grush: What about the impact of learning analytics and learning outcomes? How are they poised to make learning more relevant for the learner?

Batson: Many institutions are thinking very intelligently about learning analytics, and about tracking learning outcomes, and about seeing that each course is tied in to some overall learning goal, in the program, or in the major, or in the overall college experience.

The move to create learning outcomes arises from a general atmosphere of accountability and, presumably, from a need to make the curriculum coherent across courses and programs. Along with this, higher education is responding also to the general call for it to produce graduates with 21st century skills and habits of mind.

The AAC&U Essential Learning Outcomes — — describe intellectual and personal qualities that would seem to predict success in life. But the ongoing question of relevance for the learner becomes, will the move to create greater and greater coherence in the curriculum, aligned with learning outcomes appropriate to this century, mean that learning will improve and college graduates will experience greater success in finding work? And then succeed in that work?

Grush: If colleges and universities do better in creating coherence — the kind you just talked about — will that make education more relevant for the learner?

Batson: I would look at that question very carefully. First I would ask, even with learning outcomes and the attempt to create greater coherence, is higher education simply doing more of what it has always done — and that is no longer working — namely, creating pre-digested knowledge? Faculty in higher education have generally done most of the learning work. Now, with the move to learning outcomes, are they simply doing more of the learning work? Actually, I think so.

Then who really should be doing the work of creating coherence? This means creating coherence not just within a single course but across a college career. And, it means coherence not just from formal learning but all learning.

Grush: From that last point, it sounds like only the student is in the position to create such coherence.

Batson: Bingo! This is not to say that students should be on their own — it only means that faculty ask questions, not provide answers; faculty present problems, not solutions; and faculty ask students to create coherence in a course or course of study.

There is a lot of right thinking in colleges and universities today, in terms of wanting students to have a clearer picture of structures in place — students can, for instance, look at learning outcomes themselves, and then they can at least possibly make better choices about their own learning pathways, in line with their own priorities.

But giving the job of creating coherence to students goes far beyond that.

Grush: I know you're not suggesting that colleges and universities abandon work on personalization, new learning pathways, learning outcomes, analytics, and other efforts to make education more relevant for the learner. Still, how can higher education hand the job of creating coherence to students?

Batson: One way that, increasingly, we know works, is to provide a mechanism, an instrument to assist students in creating coherence from course to course, from experience to experience, and from year to year. The electronic portfolio is that instrument. Saving, archiving, and curating evidence of work over time and producing Web sites that integrate evidence of disparate learning experiences over time is a true work of creating coherence. This is reflective and integrative thinking, the hallmark of good ePortfolio practice.

The most important quality to learn today — especially for younger college students who will eventually change jobs on average every three years­ — is learning how to learn. This is a time that demands that learners be active in their own learning, that they own their own learning, that they be responsible for their own learning, and that they be at stake for their own learning. ePortfolios are owned by the student, and stay with the student. They are the tools that will help students tell the story of their learning, reflect on relevance over time, and create coherence. Then, learners will truly be in charge of their own learning.

[Editor's note: AAEEBL will hold a regional event co-located with the Campus Technology Forum in Long Beach, CA April 8-9; and AAEEBL's annual conference will again be co-located with the annual Campus Technology conference in Boston, July 28-31.]


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