Online Blogucation

The End of the Academic Year As We Know It

Recently, I was thinking about the growth of the Learning Management System (or Course Management System or Curriculum Management System or whatever you want to call it). Of all the systems available, most have grown up around a central concept of some kind of time period — the semester, the quarter, terms that run every two months, etc. And why shouldn’t they be organized as such? LMSs have grown to serve the needs of traditional academic institutions that follow similar calendars. Courses start in August or September and end in December, right?

Some kind of schedule based on The Calendar is what we’re all used to. But, I believe that time-driven content delivery will slowly be replaced by outcome-driven content delivery. Not every student needs exactly 15 weeks to cover a course’s content, and other students may need a little bit longer for the same level of mastery.

Let's talk “learning outcomes." This is the concept that one can measure how much a student has learned in a course and whether or not the student has mastered certain criteria in the curriculum. For example, I teach a Sociology of Education course on a regular basis for a local university. I need for my students to learn the extent to which demographic concepts — like socio-economic status, gender, and race/ethnicity — affect how far students go in school (high school dropouts, high school graduates, college attendees, college graduates, etc.). That’s one set of learning outcomes in my course.

I need to be able to measure what my students have learned along these lines. And, preferably, I need such measurement to be more than just long, boring multiple-choice-question exams. I want my students to demonstrate their learning through essays, discussions, group projects, and even some exams.

Pearson eCollege’s Learning Outcome Manager (LOM) is one step in this direction. LOM allows the instructor to map out the curriculum covered in a course against particular learning outcomes. Then, those learning outcomes are measured by rating student performance on related assignments using outcome-based rubrics. Here’s an example screen shot of LOM in action:

Learning outcomes are represented in each column, and students are represented in each row. The colors indicate students’ mastery of outcomes and thus whether or not they are ready to move on in the curriculum. It’s not brainless work — the instructor still must determine, for example, whether one student’s essay demonstrates sufficient mastery of the learning outcome, and therefore mastery of the curriculum. Further, LOM can help instructors to determine what aspects of the curriculum they are not covering as well as aspects they are covering too much. That is, if an instructor plans to spend four out of twelve units in a course on Topic A, and if students demonstrate mastery of Topic A after only three units, this clears up one whole unit for the instructor to cover another topic.

But back to the end of the academic year: by focusing on outcomes instead of time, students can learn what they need at their own pace. It wouldn’t be a free-for-all; rather, students would enter and leave a course based upon how quickly they mastered the learning outcomes. At any point in time, there could be 20 students in a course, and the instructor could review their work and participate in discussions according to when such activity occurs, rather than always starting a unit on a Monday and ending at midnight Sunday (or something similar).

Perhaps a graphic will help demonstrate my point. Let’s pretend — just for simplicity — that there are five students who want to take my Sociology of Education course. Interaction in the course on any particular day might look something like this:

Student 1 is a speedy learner. She will have met all the course’s learning objectives in November and December and then move on to another course. On the other hand, Student 5 needs a little more time to master the concepts. He will start the course in November, but not finish until mid-March. The key is that regardless of the calendar, each student will have demonstrated mastery of the learning outcomes before he or she moves on to another course.

You might also be wondering, what about common learning mechanisms like discussion forums? If no student is necessarily in the course at exactly the same time as others, how will they produce any meaningful discussion? First, consider that it’s unlikely that only five students will take the course. Imagine 20, 30, 40 or more. And at any one point in time -- let’s say mid-December -- ten students might be in the course at about the same place in the learning objectives. Those ten students converse via a discussion forum; some move on to the next unit more quickly because they have demonstrated mastery of the learning outcomes earlier. Other students will take more time.

Think of discussion forums like different rooms in a big coffee house. Each student grabs a cup o’joe on their own schedule and heads into a room. They converse with whomever happens to be in the same room at the same time, and then they move on to the next room once they have gotten enough conversation from the present room. Meanwhile, other students are coming and going in rooms as well. Discussion takes place with whomever happens to be in that room at any one point in time, and they stay as long as it takes for them to learn the concept and demonstrate that learning in an assessment of some kind.

The ramifications of such a system are massive, as are the changes required to make it happen: budgets, financial aid, enrollments, graduations, faculty hires, paychecks, etc. are all tied to a traditional academic calendar. Fiscally, that may work fine. But academically, it could be challenging. Suppose I am unable to teach my Sociology of Education course for a few months. Who will take my place and when will they do so, with consideration for students coming and going? It boggles the mind, and I don’t pretend to have answers here.

Nonetheless, by tying course completion to learning outcomes, rather than to a strict calendar schedule, education becomes the fluid, open center for learning that many have dreamed about for decades. Will that dream become a reality?

-- Rob Kadel, Ph.D.
-- Academic Trainer & Consultant

Comments (1) Trackbacks (1)
  1. Great ideas- see Fred Keller’s article:
    Keller, F (1968) Goodbye teacher…
    J Appl Behav Anal. 1968 Spring; 1(1): 79–89.
    doi: 10.1901/jaba.1968.1-79.

    I see no reasons beyond administrative and billing convenience to hold time constant and allow quality to vary… seems much better to allow time to vary and hold quality constant

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