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AAEEBL and Campus Technology 2015: Discussions of the Move Away from Traditional Thinking about the Curriculum

A Q&A with Trent Batson

"The standard curriculum we've all known for a hundred years is based more on practical limitations than on reality. But not all learning occurs in the classroom." — Trent Batson

CT spoke with Trent Batson about some of the high-level topics to be discussed at the AAEEBL and Campus Technology annual conferences in Boston, coming up next week.

Mary Grush: Campus Technology and AAEEBL are co-located again in Boston July 27-30. It's particularly exciting that you are doing a Q&A-format opening keynote with Paul LeBlanc this year — a joint keynote, for both conferences. How does that keynote set the stage for the conference themes and topics?

Trent Batson: Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University, has been widely touted for the work he's done with SNHU, which was just another small university ten years ago… he's made changes that have transformed it into a world-renowned institution. He's a highly sought-after keynote speaker and education thought leader.

I was just talking with Paul. He recently spent three months consulting with the U.S. Secretary of Education in Washington. The Education Department wanted to know more about what Paul is doing in higher education. SNHU essentially has three different business models, which might be something that other universities would want to consider and certainly all conference attendees will find of great interest. I'm really looking forward to what will be a very important and thought-provoking session.

Grush: What are some of the major themes for the 2015 conference? What do attendees want to discuss this year?

Batson: The theme of the AAEEBL conference — and this is also relevant to just about any technology and learning conference these days — is, as we use the phrase, "one size does not fit all." Of course, that's a reference to the standard curriculum we've all known for a hundred years, which is based more on practical limitations than on reality. It’s time for change. Not all learning occurs in the classroom.

So, there's a move now, away from traditional thinking about the curriculum… Everyone knows that with information technology, information and knowledge are everywhere, and we don't need to make all students have one "treatment" — students can take many paths to learning. And so, you get to the issue of students not all having the same learning path that they are reporting on. Instead, you have many individualistic and personalized learning experiences: Some are in the curriculum, or in the co-curriculum, or they are non-curricular experiences… on campus, off campus, in many places… summer abroad, internships…

You can no longer say that all students follow one curriculum. And it really never was valid to say that, because we know that the knowledge that professors presented was not always taken up by the students in uniform ways. What we had was a learning model that was based on practical considerations: The teacher had the knowledge in his or her head, and the students would sit in a room. And there is no learning theory that supports that model of learning, but, without information technology there was no other way to provide education at scale.

Now, we've broken out of those bonds. We can move forward and record and document learning in many, many venues and in many, many ways. The problem becomes, if every student has their own personal learning record, how can we assess? What can we report? How can we find any standardization in that sort of scattering, or what some call the unbundling of  higher education? How do you credit students when learning is occurring between semesters or when they are not enrolled, and how do you credit prior learning experiences or work experiences?

Grush: Will technology provide the "fix" for that? Or, which technology might be a factor?

Batson: We can handle more complexity with information technology, but people are asking how.

Of course one way is eportfolios. Students can own their own space and collect evidence of their work, so they themselves can make sense of their learning record and their learning experiences. They themselves can look back and make claims about what they’ve learned, based on the evidence in their eportfolio.

I know we've been talking about this for a long time — since the late '90s and the early 2000s. Educause's ECAR, the Educause Center for Analysis and Research has been doing an annual survey of undergraduates and information technology since 2004. They've sent out more than a million questionnaires spread over 59 countries and have analyzed representative samples from more than a hundred thousand students. We now see that ten percent of all students are using portfolios either most or all of the time. We're taking about millions of students around the world using eportfolios all the time.

Grush: Are institutions going to pin all their hopes on eportfolios, though? And how much is left to the students?

Batson: ePortfolio technology was initially hyped, of course. Many people believed that the technology itself would do something, as a new technology, to change everything. But an eportfolio is like a classroom, a space. It's not going to change everything by itself. The technology does nothing unless it's used in certain ways. Students can use this space effectively if they have good assignments, if they are trained in how to use eportfolios, and if faculty are onboard to use eportfolios.

So it's not that students should do everything by themselves. But the nature and the great strength of the eportfolio is that it makes a lot of high-impact practices, such as undergraduate research or learning communities more effective. In models like online learning or problem-based learning, if they use an eportfolio to collect evidence of their learning, students can begin to create coherence themselves. Even if they are doing variable things — making their own learning pathways — they can, themselves, create coherence in their own learning record. And that's a great learning lesson in itself: to reflect on your own learning.

All institutions of higher learning are facing this issue of what we call variability of learning experiences — people following their own paths for learning. We start having what you might think of as a cacophony of learning experiences, and our institutions can no longer create the coherence that we expect in student learning and in the learning record.

Coherence is normally created by the institution regarding learning outcomes; for the purposes of institutional research, the learning outcomes do create one strand of coherence that helps guarantee quality. But students are no longer following one curriculum, adding complexity to any analysis. So it's up to the individual learner to create coherence themselves, in the eportfolio. And this coherence can be documented and reviewed.

Still, even as the students "own their own learning", the question is becoming, how do we certify that learning — we think institutions are now trying to grasp how to deal with this issue. We have a mountain of evidence and claims by the students, but can we grade or certify it?

These are some of the issues that CT and AAEEBL annual events are addressing in their conference programming.

Grush: Related to all that, is there a major direction in the eportfolio market that will be part of conference discussions?

Batson: A technology that was really hot, right before MOOCs, was digital badges. The MacArthur Foundation contributed multi millions of dollars to create a national infrastructure for badges: The Mozilla Foundation is open for anyone — actually anyone in the world — to use. And when badges are stored in the eportfolio, you can click on the badge, and see what it means: What was the skill related to this badge? Who evaluated it? What were the criteria for judging that skill? Who was the issuer? You can get all the metadata relevant to the badge, alongside the evidence of learning provided in the eportfolio, when the two technologies — badges and portfolios — are integrated. An important step forward in the industry is that Digication, an eportfolio provider, recently signed an agreement with Credly, a provider of digital badges, to create this integration in their products. This really opens up the whole area of micro credentialing.

When used within the curriculum, it's important to note that a micro credential isn't intended to report the learning outcome for an entire, large course such as an undergraduate survey course — though it could be used to document some student learning or contribution or element done within or while taking the full course. As such, the micro credential can help clarify the meaning of letter grades and enrich the student's learning record.

AAEEBL 2015 will have another keynote by Alex Ambrose, director of the eportfolio and digital badging programs at Notre Dame University, who will speak to the pairing of digital badges and eportfolios, and address not only the strategic implications, but also provide some practical information about the model at his own institution and how it came about. [Editor's note: Notre Dame University is receiving a Campus Technology 2015 Innovator award for its integration of eportfolios and digital badges, and its use of these technologies to recognize co-curricular learning.]

As institutions adopt all kinds of new practices and more active learning, from self-paced learning, to competency-based learning — there are all kinds of movements — any one of them, if you add eportfolios, it makes them better.

Grush: Today you've been talking about some pretty big changes. How quickly do these kinds of changes happen in higher education? How are higher education institutions going to recognize all the elements of these changes and know what they are going to have to put in place to function effectively in this changing environment?

Batson: All of this takes a long time to work into the culture of higher education. But there are many models we can look to: living models, not just theoretical ones — Notre Dame's eportfolio and digital badging programs as I just mentioned, Texas Christian University's eportfolio program, and the eportfolio programs at many other institutions. And there is of course research and a whole array of professional communications and conferences — the ECAR research to look to… and work being done by AAC&U in collaboration with AAEEBL… and of course the AAEEBL community itself… as well as conferences like Campus Technology and AAEEBL. And so much more is happening, all the time. At AAEEBL, we're happy to be a part of it.

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