What They Say and What it Really Means

 Euphemisms designed to mislead

May 23, 2019

Perhaps you remember a feature in Mad Magazine: “What They Say and What It Really Means.” It’s an approach worth applying to the discourse of innovation.

Too often, a promising concept becomes, in practice, little more than marketing puffery or flimflam.

Weasel words abound in the sales pitches for many transformative innovations.

Let’s take a look at what the disruptors say and what they really mean.

What do they mean when they refer to….

Competency-Based Education
Technically, CBE refers to an approach to education that emphasize demonstrated mastery of essential skills, knowledge, methods, and mindsets rather than seat time or credit hours. But in practice it usually refers to an approach designed to cut costs and the time to a degree by offering an online self-paced, self-directed education, without interaction with classmates or a Ph.D. or feedback from a content area specialist. To accelerate time to degree, this approach typically makes extensive use of prior learning assessment and unbundles the faculty role.

Mastery is a worthy goal; shortcuts are not.

Personalized, Adaptive Learning
In theory, personalized, adaptive courseware adjusts pace, content, activities, learning experiences, and learning trajectory to an individual students’ needs. The idea is to customize learning experiences to better address students’ interests, skills, preferred learning approach, and diagnosed gaps in skills and knowledge makes a great deal of sense.

In practice, however, personalized learning generally involves supplemental off-the-shelf software that entails little more than drills-based instruction. The criticisms of such software are generally well-placed: that hype outstrips evidence; that the courseware does little to enhance students’ curiosity and motivation; that this approach ignores the social aspects of learning and the instructor’s crucial functions as role model, mentor, scaffolder, and explainer; and fractures and fragments learning, making it more difficult for students to see the big picture. 

Gamification involves applying the elements of gaming and gamification to teaching and learning in order to enhance motivation, persistence, and mastery. These include such elements as competition, strategizing, collaboration, increasing challenges, and immediate feedback, as well as game-like terms (journeys or quests or missions), game-based concepts (avatars or characters), game-like rewards (such as badges), and game-like progress indicators (including dashboards).

What could be wrong with this? After all, who wouldn’t want students to exhibit the same degree of engagement that we see when they play video games. Critics quite rightly point out that proponents of gamification in education often mistake superficial aspects of gaming – such as points, levels, and badges – for its essence: interactivity in a complex environment, role playing, problem-solving, social interaction, and a player’s ownership of the terms of their engagement.

Alternative and Stackable Credentials
Digital badges. Verified certificates. 21st century skills badges. Nanodegrees. These are just a few of the new kinds of credentials that have begun to proliferate. Unlike traditional grades or transcripts, these alternate credentials are supposed to document and validate the specific skills and competencies that students have acquired, whether in the classroom, the military, the workplace, or in some other way.

As the number of credentials multiplies, it has become essential to scrutinize their quality and value. Critics point out that many of these credentials are not standardized, nor subject to rigorous independent evaluation. Their worth and utility in the job market remains unclear.

Today’s educational innovation hype should sound familiar to anyone acquainted with “The merchants of cool,” the Madison Avenue advertisers of the early 2000s who used market research surveys and focus groups to create catch phrases and buzz to appeal to particular market segments.

To mix metaphors, whenever an educational panacea is announced, hold onto your wallet and look under the hood. What they say often isn’t what they mean.

This is not to say that these, and other buzzwordy techniques do not have potential uses and benefits---and they could even lead to better teaching and learning outcomes. Perhaps a better way to think of them (yet another metaphor!) is like off-the-shelf software, or these days, the “free up to a point” cloud-based applications. They are never enough on their own, and you always end up paying more in time and money than what’s initially promised.

Steven Mintz, who served as executive director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning from 2012 to 2017, is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top