Wednesday, August 6, 2014

MIT Report Questions the Fitness of the Course as the Organizational Metaphor for Higher Learning

Today saw the release of a 213 page report (PDF) from a cross-disciplinary MIT task force investigating the future of MIT Education, which makes 16 recommendations, including to further a commitment to innovation in pedagogy. The Chronicle of Higher Education today picked up on a key component of that innovation, a recommendation to explore "modularity" in the delivery of online learning environments, which could extend to experimentation in the classroom as well: Are Courses Outdated? MIT Considers Offering 'Modules' Instead.  

The question underlying the MIT task force's recommendation is whether a "course" as an organizing metaphor for learning continues to be appropriate in a landscape that sees as low as 5% MOOC completion rates.

Many people have speculated that badges can play a role in helping learning pathways to become more "granular", and given edX's deep association with MIT and recent commitment to Open Badges, edX may become an environment where learning is organized by module, whose pathways are documented in the history of each learner as a series of badges. EdX courseware is already divided into modules within each "course", and module completion is one of the first "badgeable events" being investigated by the new BadgeKit and Beyond project, led by this blog's principal author, Dan Hickey.

The discussion over the future of the "course" did not begin with the MIT report. Among others, I liked Matt Crosslin's post from last year: "Heading toward a post-course era". I took note then, in part to explore some thinking around how if we break down the course metaphor we can reassemble its constituent parts into new metaphors. Linearity and pathways and a 'field' of knowledge. Experts as guides, peers as companions. 

If we consider modules as located at points in a field of knowledge: where a course had been a predefined one-directional pathway through those points, we could imagine how many personalized pathways could touch on some of the same points in different arrangements. But just as there is expert-level work put into connecting those points together when professors build a course, there is still a need for that organization if you remove the One pathway through them that was designed for every student to follow.

Professors (still experts in the field of knowledge) are naturally still the ones who will design modules that give students a certain perspective on the field from that point, but now maybe more advanced peers have a role to play in helping organize those modules, recommending sets of prerequisite modules perhaps. But peers aren't paid to organize and curate modules on top of their normal learning. In the long run, we might be able to configure badges to help here, in a passive way. 

Badges allow learners to tell a story about their experience, customized to be appropriate to the audience. If each student going into a module brings a collection of previously earned badges with her when she applies, the module can read that badge collection and collect aggregate information about what prior experiences students thought were relevant in preparing them to take on that particular module. If a system presented this information at the points where students make their decisions about where to focus their efforts, it would feed organization back into a landscape no longer mapped out in courses. When prospective students are entering a field, each module can tell them what other modules are recommended as related or prerequisite.

A system could actively upgrade from that point, as experts and advanced peers had bandwidth for collaboration and organizing. For instance, you could add active recommendations for ordering pathways or organize small cohorts to travel through sets of modules synchronously in a particular order. 

You could use the information about student engagement that may be traditionally mined from their activity in a learning environment like edX. Doing this instead with Open Badges might be harder, but it means that you could bring in outside badged experiences as well and begin to understand how modules across different learning environments might go together.

The course is a powerful metaphor, but there may be very interesting opportunities awaiting programs willing to deeply explore other options.

A brief footnote on the metaphors at play themselves:
Whenever I talk about how educational experiences are structured, I speak almost nonstop in metaphorical language. "Course" was a well-chosen metaphor because it rested on a developed understanding of the notion of exploring land. I think that "modules" could be another strong metaphor, if we extend to it our land-based understanding. What we could build by switching our organizing metaphor from "courses" to "modules" is a landscape that encourages learners to find new and useful perspectives on a field rather than to simply make it to the end of the trip. It's inherently outward-looking and network-aware. If modules exist at a point and offer perspective, learners are successful when they look at the field from a well-chosen set of perspectives, a set that allows them to triangulate to pin down the important concepts on the map and offers a diversity of angles so that they can get a good understanding of the overall lay of the land.

"Modules" as a name for this metaphor itself may lead us base our reasoning on our understanding of something other than land, like assembling a machine, which is a different powerful underlying metaphor that brings to mind more questions of how pieces fit together and choosing the right components. But if that understanding loses the outward-looking aspect of the exploration metaphor we are familiar with, we might also weaken the need to fit our learning to the landscape. 


  1. Proponents of these approaches argue that professors don't want to give up control and tuition. This might be true, but I suspect that what many of them are worried about is the assumption that isolated competency-based learning is a substitute for interactive learning (online or FTF). This is an even bigger problem when going to self-pace modular instruction. What we need are new models of interactive online learning that are also self paced.

  2. It's interesting that Napoleon Hill has been arguing this point since the 1930's, He pointed out over 80-years ago that colleges need to focus on skills-based training instead of general education which, at that time was fulfilled by correspondence schools. Call it 'badges' and 'gamification' instead of a 'correspondence course' and it's a new brand new idea for this century! :)

  3. Crystal--
    I think there is a lot more at play here. Many of us are not thinking about isolated correspondence course in these contexts. They are thinking about interactive networked forms of learning that Mr. Hill could not have imagined. And this larger argument over liberal education and specific vocational skills has been going on for even longer than 80 years. It is certainly part of that but if we insist on resolving this larger question first then we won't make much progress!

  4. Crystal, thanks for the comment. Dan's right that it's a huge question to ask what skills somebody "knows" after they take part in any educational experience.

    We're probably going to see a lot more movement toward organizing learning platforms around "career-ready" skills, but I suspect it'll still be hard to make confident mappings between particular online learning modules and the needs of a particular company. We see some experimentation to help make a stronger connection, like with Udacity having companies create course content themselves. In studying Open Badges, we've also seen how they can help increase confidence that a student really has the claimed skill, if a program can figure out how to collect and attach good evidence to the badges they issue. Very few partners who "consume" credentials for these skills were willing to endorse the badges in advance, showing skepticism about how well any badge or learning program might impart those skills to industry's satisfaction. The tech sector is primed for a change, I think, because it currently is deeply skeptical of almost any educational credential in favor of high-quality work samples.

    See a recent interview with Michelle Weise about how MOOCs currently embody both sustaining innovations and disruptive innovations and a bunch of the market dynamics around why the big players are shifting their positioning:

    Outside of figuring out what credentials and evidence would be most acceptable to audiences, higher ed has the challenge and opportunity to help students build up networks of learners and dedicated subject experts. A crucial component of how networks form around learning is the metaphors that structure that experience. The connections between peers in a traditional in-person university course are weak enough as it is, and even weaker without that brick and mortar to contain it. Probably one of the risks of breaking courses down into a more modular structure would be to further reduce the potential for peer connection, but it doesn't have to be that way.

    One of the touted killer apps of Open Badges is the ability to use them to make visible the pathways between different learning experiences, but as we have learned by looking at the 30 DML winners in the DPD Project in aggregate, it takes careful and difficult system design to start to realize that kind of benefit. While a number of programs manually mapped badges they offered to a pathway (see ), including some that allowed students some choice over their learning trajectory, there are few known initiatives that feed any element of that choice back into users' understanding of the available or best paths. I hope to see more applications of this advanced functionality show up within badge issuer systems and above the level of any one single issuer. It seems like we finally have some technology that could make it feasible to move the organization of learning closer to a meaningful representation of skills or competencies. But as Dan says, small steps make progress.