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A Higher Ed Journey Into K-12 Innovation

A report from the annual meeting of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

 

November 24, 2014
 

We had the good fortune to recently attend the annual meeting of iNACOL, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning. Reflecting the organization’s focus, the panels, attendees, and hallway discussions centered on pre-college education, particularly technology-driven innovations disrupting traditional ways of teaching students and organizing curricula.

As K-12 education evolves in these new directions, high school graduates will increasingly expect similar frameworks and innovations when they enter college.  It therefore seems useful to review prominent innovations from the iNACOL conference and discuss their implications for higher education.

From grades to competency
Innovative schools, systems, and states are increasingly moving from a traditional grade-based system of evaluation, to assessments based on a student’s ability to master a particular skill or topic. Some of the promising competency-based programs we reviewed, such as Building 21 and Matchbook Learning, ask students to master a specific skill multiple times in multiple contexts.

Schools in Washington State have incorporated some elements of competency-based grading for a number of years; the New Hampshire Department of Education is working to develop a broad competency-based system, building upon ideas and innovations from individual schools.

These performance-based systems deemphasize grade levels, because kids of any age can demonstrate a particular competency. The system can also enhance accessibility and retention. Instead of either passing or failing, students continue working to meet a particular standard. The shift provides more encouragement for underperforming students, while still allowing high-performing students to excel.

Competency standards in high school pose significant challenges on the college or university level. Admissions officers may find it difficult to compare high school transcripts listing competencies to those using more traditional course-based credits. It is also unclear how competencies demonstrated in high school can translate into credit on the college or university level.

A specific competency, as defined by an individual state, system, or school, may not easily translate into a specific college-level course, especially across a range of higher ed institutions. Standardized assessments, such as Advanced Placement tests, offer some hope in this regard. Most importantly, high school students who matriculate in competency-based high schools will expect similar types of evaluations on the college level.

While some higher ed institutions are developing these types of curricula (see the University of Wisconsin , Brandman University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Western Governors University), most colleges and universities remain organized around the traditional Carnegie-based system of credit hours and courses. This traditional system is already facing pressure from new online options such as MOOCs; the expansion of competency-based assessments on the high school level will increase this pressure for higher ed institutions.

Personalizing learning
From kindergarten to high school, teachers and schools are experimenting with a wide range of personalized learning models, in which each student receives an individualized learning plan for a class and assignments tailored to the student’s strengths and weaknesses. The various models certainly varied in their degree of personalization, which was often tied to the number of students assigned to a class or teachers. But by creating more peer interaction in a class, the instructor can have more time to work directly with smaller groups. Early evidence is emerging of the promise of personalized learning, and at iNACOL teachers at all levels appeared to embrace this model enthusiastically. 

Some innovative teachers in higher ed have adopted the personalized approach, as a way to teach and engage large lecture-based classes more effectively. Yet, creating personalized learning on this level remains a challenge.  The larger numbers of students per instructor, combined with the common expectation of research for many instructors, make it hard for instructors to find the time and motivation to create personalized plans for students in their classes.

However, incoming college students may increasingly expect such personalized attention. We in higher ed have to respond creatively. One option attracting attention at iNACOL was adaptive learning, which can personalize online learning to fit each student’s personal learning style. The Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon provides a wonderful example of this type of flexible instruction, although the resources required for developing adaptive learning pose a formidable obstacle for many instructors.

Another personalized model is Google Helpouts, where students can get real-time help from an expert over live video. Available for a fee, this assistance is already available on demand for many topics, and the model could be expanded to provide even more complete coverage. As education continues this evolution in new and unexpected directions, instructors can become “teacherpreneurs” and choose from a world of innovative ways to impact more kids than we ever imagined.

Where are the MOOCs?
In contrast to many recent discussions in higher ed circles, our conversations with other iNACOL attendees almost never addressed MOOCs. Major MOOC providers such as Coursera and edX were not sponsors of the conference, and MOOCs were similarly absent from workshop and panel topics. Their absence is surprising: K-12 schools offer far fewer and more general course topics (e.g., Algebra I, U.S. History) than are offered at colleges and universities.  Both factors, when combined with the huge K-12 market, should make it easier to create MOOCs for these topics. 

Part of the K-12 hesitancy may stem from a perceived lack of teacher support and involvement in MOOCs; of particular concern is a desire and need for more blended learning or at least a portion of the MOOC content to be delivered in a face-to-face format. In the current versions of most MOOCs, a single teacher instructs thousands and thousands of students – a student/teacher ratio that would spell failure in any K-12 class. But, MOOCs don’t have to operate this way.

The most innovative MOOC designs empower individual teachers to use a MOOC for any number of students: a single Algebra class, all of the Algebra classes that an instructor teaches, or all of the Algebra classes in a school or system. Individual teachers can follow how their own students use the MOOC materials and perform on MOOC activities and assignments, yet the broader cohort of enrolled students can strengthen discussion boards and connections among students, as well as provide useful comparisons.  In this framework, MOOCs can help teachers bring blended learning into their classes, while providing individualized feedback on student effort and performance.

In hopes of providing these teaching and learning experiences, edX has launched a high school initiative providing a range of content for high school students and teachers. This market appears ripe for expansion, particularly among younger grades.

Continuing the journey
The trends described above (competency-based assessment, personalized learning, and the expansion of MOOCs to K-12) create significant opportunities for higher education. Innovative instructors, leaders, and institutions need to “chase competency” in these arenas, despite their undefined future.

Such broad experimentation helps us better understand the interaction between teaching and technology, and helps our students learn more deeply and effectively.

Patrick Sellers is Vice President for Strategic Partnerships at Davidson College; Bryan Setser is Partner at 2Revolutions; and Julie Goff is Project Manager for Davidson Next.

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