The Challenge of “Invisible” Learning Environments

by | Jan 26, 2021 | Featured, Learning Design

​One of the biggest challenges in today’s education environments is that, for many students, learning has become a black box. The purposes and processes of learning, the “why” and “what for,” are largely invisible and inaccessible to students.

Students complete courses, take high-stakes exams, write research papers, and earn diplomas but often lack a sense of context or connectedness in their learning. They are unable to answer critical, formative questions such as: What’s the big picture? Where am I on my learning journey? Why do I need to know this? How does what I’m learning today align with my interests and goals? How is what I’m learning in this course connected to what I am learning in other courses?

This lack of visibility makes it difficult for students to take ownership of their learning so they can direct their learning path where they want it to go. The invisibility inherent in our current educational environments also leads to potential inequity. The measurement of student performance is currently limited to high-stakes exams that are only aligned to information acquisition instead of subject mastery.

Struggles with Inequity in Higher Education

In higher education, this invisibility in learning environments is particularly problematic in general education courses. These are the courses, mirroring much of a traditional 11th- and 12th-grade high school curriculum, that form the foundational layer of higher education and the opportunity for higher learning. They are also the courses that are most commonly transferred between academic institutions.

Over the past century, colleges and universities have developed similar general education curricula. Unfortunately, they have no common framework of granular learning outcomes or shared standards for assessment for general education. While a similarity between courses and core content facilitates the transfer of credits between institutions, the lack of a common outcomes framework or shared assessment standards make it impossible to compare the learning of students across institutions with any real accuracy.

Absent the ability to measure student learning in the same or similar general education courses across different institutions, the current value of the credit earned by a student is determined almost entirely by public perception related to institution type and brand. That perception is driven by name and brand recognition, which is often simply historical hearsay and marketing dollars. Hence the popularity and importance of “top universities” publications.

A Recommended Strategy for Learning Visibility and Demonstrable Equity in General Education Courses

To address potential inequities in general education courses, we need to develop a common framework for demonstrable equity.

By demonstrable equity I mean a strategy for ensuring that all students, regardless of where they are from, their age, or the institution where they are studying, should be able to access high-quality, general education courses with an expectation of learning the same information and skills as other students in comparable courses at any institution. In addition, students should have an opportunity to provide proof of their learning in formats that are widely recognized and accepted by employers and institutions of higher education.

Demonstrable equity means more than affordability or access. It means that students taking the same course at different types of institutions with different brand values will leave with demonstrable evidence of their achievements.

Demonstrable equity is of particular importance for high schools as increasing numbers of their students pursue college credit before graduation. Introducing a demonstrable equity framework would mean that students could complete courses from any regionally accredited institution with the assurance that they would receive the same learning opportunities as students taking the same course from another institution. The framework would allow them to show demonstrable evidence of their learning both to other institutions and to potential employers, and the college credit world transfer easily and correspond more precisely to general education courses at other institutions. In addition, such a framework would provide a much closer alignment with standards-based high school curricula to support dual-credit opportunities.

TEL Education’s Solution

At TEL, we believe both quality and equity in education can be significantly increased by making learning visible to students. In our work, this means shifting the focus of learning to demonstrable, visible evidence tied to common, granular curricular learning outcomes that are contextualized for and understood by students. This ability to “share their work” in an equitable manner comes through diverse forms of evaluation, is designed to demonstrate student development of 21st-century skills and competencies, and is aligned to students’ personal and professional goals.

This approach, making the learning process visible to and ownable by students, has a number of benefits. For students, it means:

  • Knowing “what” they are learning with regard to domain information and 21st-century skills and competencies
  • Knowing “why” they are learning in terms of real-life application
  • Knowing “how” their learning activities align with their own personal goals

For schools and school districts, this emphasis on making learning visible to students means:

  • Being able to provide a more comprehensive and equitable evaluation of student performance
  • Gaining visibility into student skills and competencies and being able to guide students more effectively toward work-based learning opportunities
  • The ability to develop comprehensive learner records that help students, teachers, and guardians track progress, coordinate services, and make informed decisions

Our journey toward demonstrable equity in education consists of six steps, combining both curriculum design and technology.

  1. Designing courses that identify granular course concepts
  2. Aligning each of those concepts to specific learning outcomes
  3. Creating assessments and assignments that align with all learning outcomes
  4. Creating proof-of-learning assignments that provide meaningful evidence of a student’s knowledge acquisition and skill development
  5. Providing learning-visibility to all students in the form of achievement related to knowledge goals and skills and competencies
  6. Giving every student a mechanism for selecting examples of learning evidence for knowledge, skills, and competencies and sharing that evidence with others

The last two steps reflect our latest efforts: the development of the TEL Student Learning Dashboard. This application will not only allow students to see and manage learning in their current, formal education environments but is also designed to support and promote continued life-learning, both formal and informal.

In my future posts about TEL’s efforts related to demonstrable equity in education, I will write in greater detail about each of the six steps in our curricular and technological journey, as well as about how the impact of our work is expanding through our partnerships.

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