Is our college students learning?

A college degree is supposed to signify mastery of a discipline, but testing firms see a window of opportunity for measures of college learning to help graduates in the job market, reports Inside Higher Ed.

. . .  skills assessments are related to potential higher education “disruptions” like competency-based education or even digital badging. They offer portable ways for students to show what they know and what they can do. And in this case, they’re verified by testing giants.

“This is how competencies could become the currency of the land instead of the credit hour,” said Michelle Rhee-Weise, a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a think tank with a focus on education and health care.

(Rhee-Weise is no relation to the ex-D.C. schools chief.)

The Collegiate Learning Assessment is being upgraded this year to include a work readiness component and more student-level data.

The Educational Testing Service (ETS) introduced two new electronic certificates for student learning, reports Inside Higher Ed. ACT Inc. offers WorkKeys skills assessment.

Americans spend over $460 billion on higher education every year, but what are college students learning?  The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is trying to develop the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes  (AHELO) to assess college students’ learning, reports Ed Week. The AHELO would be a “direct evaluation of student performance at the global level…across diverse cultures, languages and different types of institutions.”

College for free in 10 years?

Will college be free in 10 years? Time looks at a future in which a four-year residential college is a luxury item for the few, while most learners pursue higher education online.

As learning goes online, most universities “will be in the accreditation business,” predicts author and entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa.

(Universities) will monitor and sanction coursework; teachers will become mentors and guides, not deliver lectures and administer tests. This model has the potential to dramatically cut the cost of an education and virtually eliminate the need to borrow for one, he says.

Private companies are getting into skills assessment, writes Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed. “The big enchilada of potential disruptions to higher education is if employers go outside of the academy to size up job seekers.”

Smarterer, a Boston-based start-up “offers 800 free online tests for people to prove their chops in areas ranging from C++ programming to speaking English for business or understanding Gothic architecture.”

Jennifer Fremont-Smith, Smarterer’s CEO, describes the company as a “third-party, super powerful assessment and credentialing tool.” Its goal is not to replace the college degree, which Fremont-Smith acknowledges is currently the gold standard of credentials, but to give employers an additional way to sort through job applicants.

More than 400 employers have used the service to help evaluate job candidates’ skills, she says.

Rival companies like Skills.to and Degreed attempt to assess skills and learning. And the ACT’s National Career Readiness Certificate measures employability with tests on applied mathematics, locating information and reading for information. The certificate is geared for entry-level jobs, even for applicants who lack a college credential.

On the other side of the spectrum, Bloomberg in 2010 introduced an assessment aimed at students who want to bulk up their C.V.s to land jobs in finance. The test covers 11 fairly narrow categories, like investment banking and analyzing financial statements.

Mozilla’s Open Badges project lets people “issue, earn or display badges that display their earners’ skills or achievements,” writes Fain. But digital badges aren’t backed by independent testing, so they’re likely to lack credibility.

Digital badge winners include Scout app

Among the winning badge ideas at the Digital Media and Learning Competition is My Girl Scout Sash is an App:

My Girl Scout Sash on MentorMob brings the Girl Scout Leadership Experience and career development badge program to a digital media learning platform for girls, ages 5-17, with a focus on middle school and high school. Through collaboration with Motorola Mobility Foundation and MentorMob, teams of girls will create apps, demonstrating and sharing the knowledge gained and badge proficiencies.

Digital badges”can be used to help people learn; demonstrate their skills and knowledge; unlock job, educational and civic opportunities; and open new pipelines to talent,” says the MacArthur Foundation, which is working with Mozilla and HASTAC on the idea.

Other winners include BuzzMath which will award badges for mastery of Common Core math concepts, BadgesWork for Vets, which will help veterans show the skills they’ve learned in the military,  and Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Science Student Network, “an online learning environment where students, teachers, and hobbyists can earn badges and certifications as they play with, compete in, and learn about computer science and STEM-related topics.”

 

Udacious

Sebastian Thrun, who drew 160,000 students to his free, online artificial intelligence course, is quitting Stanford University to create a free online university called Udacity.

There were more students in his course from Lithuania alone than there are students at Stanford altogether, said Thrun in a talk at the DLD Conference in Munich, reports Felix Salmon of Reuters. Of 248 students who earned a perfect score, all were online students.

Thrun was eloquent on the subject of how he realized that he had been running “weeder” classes, designed to be tough and make students fail and make himself, the professor, look good. Going forwards, he said, he wanted to learn from Khan Academy and build courses designed to make as many students as possible succeed — by revisiting classes and tests as many times as necessary until they really master the material.

And I loved as well his story of the physical class at Stanford, which dwindled from 200 students to 30 students because the online course was more intimate and better at teaching than the real-world course on which it was based.

“I can’t teach at Stanford again,” Thrun said. He hopes to enroll 500,000 students for his first Udacity course on how to build a search engine.

It’s too bad Thrun has to leave Stanford to create Udacity, Salmon writes.

Stanford refused to issue a certificate to the 20,000 online students who finished Thrun’s course and a second open computer course, notes NPR. Instead, online students received a letter from the professor indicating their class rank.

“We are still having conversations about that,” says James Plummer, dean of Stanford’s School of Engineering. “I think it will actually be a long time — maybe never — when actual Stanford degrees would be given for fully online work by anyone who wishes to register for the courses.”

By contrast, MIT will offer a credential, for a small fee, to online students who succeed in courses offered by MITx.  “A world-famous university with an unimpeachable reputation” is putting “its brand and credibility behind open-education resources,” writes Kevin Carey.

It’s the great unbundling of the university, writes Alan Jacobs in The Atlantic. Universities used to offer a bundled package of knowledge and credentialing.

People attended university in order to learn stuff that they couldn’t learn elsewhere — because the experts weren’t elsewhere — and to be certified by those experts as having actually learned said stuff. The bundle has been a culturally powerful one.

But now: unbundling. Clearly, many universities have come, or are coming, to the conclusion that their primary product is the credentialing, and that they can give knowledge away either as a public service or as brand consolidation (choose your interpretation according to your level of cynicism).

Can universities continue to control credentialing?

I wrote about digital badges, an attempt to challenge universities’ credentialing monopoly, on the U.S. News site.

Badges threaten college monopoly on credentials

If digital badges catch on as a way for people to show what they know, colleges and universities will lose their monopoly on credentials and the ability to keep on raising tuition.

Badges? Do we need badges?

“Digital badges” certifying skills and knowledge to prospective employers could loosen colleges and universities’ grip on credentials and force innovation.