In the near future, technology will play an even more fundamental role in transforming not only how we teach, but also how students learn. The role of teacher will have completely morphed into that of a coach or mentor, and teachers will place much more emphasis on self-directed, competency-based learning. In that setting, students will be assessed not on how much they know, but on what they can do with what they know. In that regard, today, my students are already beginning to benefit.
I’m not the only one who predicts this future. About a year ago, I first spoke with Curtis J. Bonk, Professor of Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University. Bonk is the author of The World is Open: How Technology Is Revolutionizing Education, as well as a leading authority on online and distance learning.
“I think kids in 20 years are going to walk into school and pick their peers for the day,” he says. “And they’ll be coming from all over the world. They’ll just hit a little map and they might even pick their teachers for the day coming from Philippines and Singapore and other places.”
All of this isn’t that farfetched. Still in its infancy, educational technology continues to make learning more personal, meaningful, and intricate. Changes in instruction, and how instruction is delivered, will also coincide with an evolving understanding of what it means to be educated, and what it takes to be successful.
One major change, competency-based learning, is already well underway. In that environment, each student learns at her own pace. Rather than receive grades, learners progress by showing mastery of core concepts, which foster practical use beyond the confines of classroom walls.
I have to give grades, but I take solace in teaching my students highly useful competencies, like writing, critical thinking, reasoning, and technology skills, all useful for succeeding in the wider world. Often, I also allow and encourage students to retake assessments for full credit. After all, the end goal is mastery, and I’m not nearly as concerned about when an individual masters a concept–just that it is in fact mastered.
On that front, I’m by no means the most progressive. Two summers ago, I spoke with Mark Barnes, author of ROLE Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in the Student-Centered Classroom. In Barnes’s middle school language arts classroom, there are no grades or summative assessments. Instead, he provides verbal and written feedback about each student’s progress. “I could go on and on about the deleterious effects of measuring everything,” Barnes tells me. “I don’t evaluate everything the kids do every day. I constantly coach, number one.”
Barnes is on the forefront, but when it comes to online learning, few academic institutions embrace competency-based learning the way College For America (CFA) does at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). CFA has no teachers, no courses and charges only $2,500 a year toward an accredited associate’s degree in general studies with a business concentration.
Launched in 2012, CFA students demonstrate mastery of 120 competencies rather than earn class credit. To learn more, last year, I spoke with SNHU President Paul J. LeBlanc. “What we wanted to envision was something that was even more fully detached from courses and credits, and really address the fundamental issue we think is at work in terms of higher-ed, which is that we’re really good at telling people how long students have sat in a classroom, but we’re not really very good at saying what they’ve actually learned,” LeBlanc says.
Much of the learning happens online, via information CFA curates from across the Internet. Students then show their mastery by completing tasks, such as a detailed spreadsheet, and showing competency in other quantitative skills and business essentials. “These are real-world hypotheticals. They’re not exams; they’re not the kind of isolated assignments you might get in a college class. They’re meant to be hypotheticals, which mimic more closely how that competency is used in the real world,” LeBlanc says.
At CFA, students benefit from learning coaches to help them navigate the program and set their own pace, accountability partners to provide motivation, and mentors, often from a place of business, to foster career development. Once students feel ready to submit a task for review, adjunct faculty provide feedback within 48 hours. “You would have only two responses,” LeBlanc says. “One is, ‘Congratulations, you have achieved mastery,’ and move on, or ‘Not yet.’ If it’s the latter, you would get feedback from the reviewer.”
In 2036, I imagine independent schools looking a lot more like CFA. Students will still attend school, but rather than travel from class to class and subject to subject, they will access virtual and on-campus coaches who will help each student move at his own pace, according to his own needs. Mastery, or one’s ability to show competency, will contribute to making grades and grade levels unnecessary and outmoded. Once students show mastery of required competencies, they graduate.
Today, school teachers are already moving toward competency-based learning by flipping their classrooms. Multiple approaches exist, but teachers use or make vodcasts for students to watch at home—replacing the traditional “sage-on-the-stage” lecture. During class, students benefit from enhanced face-to-face time with teachers, while working on labs, problem sets, reports, and other skills-based activities.
In 2006, high school science teachers Aaron Sams and Jonathan Bergmann began pioneering this approach. Last year, I spoke with Bergmann about “flipped mastery,” an asynchronous model where students work with teachers to move through content at their own pace. This is better suited to math or science, Bergmann says, where it’s essential to master one concept before grasping another.
For instance, it’s not vital to understand the War of 1812 to fully grasp the Civil War—and while one might have some bearing on the other, both events can be studied in isolation. “It wouldn’t be horrible if you didn’t master the war of 1812,” Bergmann says. “But if you’re in Algebra, if you don’t master unit 2, unit 3 is going to get really hard because you’ve got to know how to solve for ‘x’ before you add extra variables.”
Bergmann discusses a situation where a student fails an important math test on Friday, but on Monday his teacher still moves ahead with the next chapter. “You are now lost, and you don’t know what to do because you didn’t really understand the last subject, and now you are on the next subject,” Bergmann says
To practice flipped instruction, all you need is screen-casting software, and Bergmann suggests Camtasia. Bergmann also suggests that you keep videos brief, and that the most effective vodcasts are not just informative, but animated and theatrical as well. “You can be a boring teaching on a video just like you can be in a classroom,” Bergmann says.
Bergmann is right. Making videos that students actually want to watch is difficult work. It will take me another year, but I’m currently working on flipping my United States history course. I’m doing my best to keep videos brief, no longer than 10 minutes each, while expressing the same excitement and passion I deliver in person. To help achieve this effect, I make creative use of a green screen by showing historical backdrops with my presentations. In one video, I’m speaking in front of the Lincoln Memorial. In another, I’m standing in front of artist Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware.
How to Get There
I’m excited to explore advancements currently underway, but I’m equally concerned with how we not only continue, but also accelerate such positive momentum. To do this, first and foremost, many more teachers must embrace change—and significant change at that—as both welcome and inevitable. How does the independent school community go about cultivating this mindset?
- Schools need more frequent professional development training. Once or twice a semester does not suffice. It’s 2014, and many excellent teachers are still afraid of technology, or believe that it offers more problems than solutions. Constant exposure to current and developing pedagogical approaches, many of which include technology, is vital to ensuring a bright, rewarding future. Most of this training must come from current teachers, with practical classroom experience. Too often, well-meaning technology coordinators or outside “experts,” with little to no teaching experience (or who have been out of the classroom for too long) breed animosity and misunderstanding. Instead, schools should identify, reward, and rely on progressive teachers to coordinate one-on-one training and larger workshops.
- Schools should covet experimentation and failure. Too often, teachers are afraid of change simply because they fear change won’t work, and that students and administrators alike will call them on it. I’m always experimenting with new technologies, and I’ve failed on several occasions. Last fall, for example, I accidentally deleted several quizzes when experimenting with QuizEgg, an online learning and assessment tool. I admitted my mistake, the students retook the assessment, and for the remainder of the year, they expressed how helpful they found the program. It’s okay to fail in front of students, so long as you effectively model how to learn from your mistakes.
- Schools should promote how technology improves understanding through asynchronous learning. Once again, I think of Bergmann and Flipped Mastery: “Our classes have become laboratories of learning where the entire focus of the classroom is on what students have or have not learned,” he says. “No longer do we present material, provide a few extra learning opportunities, give a test, and then hope for the best. Instead, students come to class with the express purpose of learning. We provide them with all the tools and materials to learn, and we support them by helping them develop a plan for how and when they will learn. The rest is up to the students.”
- Along those lines, school should embrace the idea of student as learner, teacher as coach. Technology will continue to make self-directed learning easier and more practical, with significantly less time needed for sage-on-the-stage lecturing. Already, Khan Academy and like-minded platforms allow students to fast-forward or rewind lessons with the click of a button. Right now, teachers should be working to guide students to helpful online resources, while offering one-on-one attention to those who need it most.
In thinking about the classroom of 2036, I’m reminded of my favorite quote from Frederick Douglass: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” I know that the road to 2036 will be filled with struggle, and that gives me hope.