Yesterday’s Washington Post had a column by Steven Pearlstein that caught my attention. Pearlstein makes an argument that won’t be new to many of you: that the internet has the potential to be a disruptive technology in education, that instructional technology has the potential to move us from an industrial model of schooling to a very individualized model of education. The specific example he offers is the video approach of the Khan Academy. Pearlstein observes:
Think about it for a minute. If education moves to a teaching model in which students learn through online tutorials, exercises and evaluations created by a handful of the best educators in the world, then how many teachers will we need preparing lesson plans and delivering lectures and grading quizzes and tests? Surely we’ll need some for one-on-one tutoring, or to run small group discussions, or teach things that can’t or shouldn’t be taught online. Despite assurances to the contrary, however, there’s likely to be fewer than we have now — fewer but better-paid with more interesting jobs — just as has happened in nearly every other industry that has gone through a similar transformation.
This isn’t a completely novel idea. It’s similar to the model used by Western Governor’s University, though WGU is not the only model consistent with this idea.
Pearlstein argues that this would make the way we organize students in cohorts, for example 1st grade or 12th grade, essentially obsolete, since though students would work in parallel, the would progress at their own rate. In a way, that’s what higher education is already doing. While we think of a bachelor’s degree as taking four years, increasingly students are taking more time or less than that. What determines graduation is the accumulation of sufficient and appropriate course credits. So the designation of first year or senior is less meaningful than perhaps it once was.
What particularly struck me from the article, though, was a throw-away line, a quote from Salman Khan:
[G]rading will suddenly become simple: Everyone gets an A in every course, with the only question being how long it takes each student to earn it.
Which brings me to the point of this post: How do you feel about the idea of all of your students earning As in your courses? Does that make you feel uncomfortable, or does it make you feel excited? The answer to that question, I think, identifies what kind of teacher you are.
Khan’s idea is a form of “competency-based learning.” and it has the potential to radically change how we view higher education. The way college works now is that students take 14 week courses (the length of a “semester”), and they are evaluated on how much they’ve learned by the end of that period. Some students get As, more get Bs, more get Cs, and some fail. But if you think about it, isn’t 14 weeks an arbitrary period of time? What if it takes someone 16 weeks to master the material? Why shouldn’t we let them do that? Would an employer care? I suspect not, since right now what they seem to care about is whether or not a potential employee earns a degree, regardless of how many semesters it takes.
Some of you are no doubt thinking this idea is crazy. Every student can’t earn an A. If they did, it would diminish what an A grade means. Only a select few, the best students, should earn an A. Okay, what does an A mean? Is it a statistical notion, e.g. the top 10% of students? Or does it mean mastery of the material? I want to argue for the latter.
I’m not advocating grade inflation. I’m not a particularly easy grader, so I’m not arguing that we simply define A work as what most of our students achieve. Rather, I’m suggesting that teachers should think carefully about what mastery means in the context of a specific course. Then, if students can master the material with additional time spent studying it, why not change higher ed to allow that?
Perhaps, deep down, you think that some students just aren’t bright enough to earn an A. I used to think that way, but Khan has thrown a wrench into that thinking. (I’m not saying that every student is happy or even willing to do the work to earn an A. That’s a different issue.) Why do you think that? What does an A mean to you? Does it mean mastery, or does it mean the grade only the best students get? I had a student some years ago, who graduated earning As in every course but one. That course she took in her first year. When she asked the instructor where she fell short, he replied, “No where, but I reserve As for majors only.”
If you agree that A means mastery, why don’t you think that everyone should be able to master the material? What does it say about you as a teacher if not all of your students can master the material? Could it mean that you’re not willing to put in the effort it would take to help them master it?
Maybe we should reward our best students, not by giving them As (and relegating the rest of our students to lower grades), but by allowing them to demonstrate mastery in less than 14 weeks, and then moving them on to higher level courses. (This could also mean Master’s-level courses for our undergraduates.) Wouldn’t we be doing them a service if they complete the degree in less time? Then we could use the “time” saved (in terms of teaching effort), to help the weaker students. In the end, all students (or at least most) master the material, though admittedly this would make it harder on graduate schools to discriminate between applicants.
By defining college-level work as mastering the material what I am actually proposing is grade deflation, since the passing grade is now an A. We would need to provide support for students to learn at their pace–they couldn’t just cruise (or “ride the escalator” as I tell my students) until the end of 14 weeks, take the credit and move on–they would have to actually master the material.
Is our primary responsibility as professionals to be teachers or graders/sorters/screeners? If we created a system that led to mastery, wouldn’t that be a better outcome for students, the higher education system, employers, nearly everyone?
I don’t claim to have the answers to all these questions. I realize there would be massive problems of implementation. But I think the questions are worth grappling with. Don’t you?