Translational Learning: The Imperative for Global Learning Platforms and Engaged Learner Systems
AAEEBL Executive Summit
July 25, 2011
William M. Plater
Senior Consultant for Higher Education Strategies
Epsilen Global Learning
I was invited to speak to you briefly today because I was told that I have a “unique” perspective. I readily agreed with this characterization, but I’m not sure that those inviting me understood just how unique my perspective actually is.
In fact, I have three perspectives:
* First, I’m a retired--but frustrated, and still determined--Chief Academic Officer, or provost.
* Second, I am a Commissioner for the Western Association of Schools and Collegesundefinedone of seven regional bodies responsible for accrediting the nation’s higher learning institutions. As a Commissioner, I am deeply concerned about the future of American higher education. In this role, I am leading a Commission task force looking at international quality assurance. My concern stems from what I am seeing both here and abroad. During my 20 years as provost, I thought it was my job to fool accreditors like the one I have become. One of my strategies was to get visiting teams asking the wrong questions so I didn’t have to worry about answers to the really tough questions. Questions such as, Why have so few students graduated after six years? Or, How do I really know that graduates meet the general education goals? It was much easier to talk about the size of our library and the ratio of full-time faculty. So now that I embrace the roles of both seeker and hider, accreditor and accredited, I have begun to see things in a different light. I wish I could have done things differently when I had the chance.
*So, my third perspective is one of gratitude to Trent Batson and Kathi Yancey for the opportunity to share my anxieties with you in the certainty that you are about to fix things, help me atone for past sins, and reconcile my roles.
In truth, I am here because of Epsilen. It was one of the things I did right as CAO. I am not going to speak about Epsilen as a company or platform except as it represents a response to my concerns as a provost. (As Trent pointed out, Ali Jafari, Epsilen’s creator, is here and he can talk about it at the reception and throughout the conference). Instead, I am here because Epsilen represents unfinished business for me. When I was provost, the State of Indiana was creating one of the nation’s last systems of community colleges, and IUPUI was expected to play a role in accepting its transfer students. Many of our students were returning adults, already transferring credits and experiences from many different kinds of institutions. But Ivy Tech represented something entirely different in scale and kind because we expected to lose about a third of our typical annual applicant pool to the new community college, and we had real doubts about its quality. Moreover, we had to develop a plan for replacing students we’d lose to the new community college by appealing to well-qualified students coming directly from high school in numbers we’d not had before. In brief, we needed a system of vertical alignment based on a clear articulation of learning objectives and an ability to serve students in the swirl of school and college attendance, regardless of where they began and how they moved, and regardless of what LMS was in place at the schools from which they transferred. Apart from our needs, the students also needed a clear pathway, individualized for them, to navigate the jungle of educational bureaucracy.
Having also served on the board of the Council for Adult and Experiential Education for 14 years, I also appreciated the reality that many learners had experiences in the workplace or the civic space that were as valuable and as certifiable as classroom learning.
When the Indiana Department of Workforce Development expressed an interest in what later became Epsilen, and helped fund its early development, then I knew that we were on to something. They saw in the ePortfolio a direct means of translating academic credits into work-ready credentials using nationally normed templates such as Work Keys. And they also imagined a powerful vehicle for employers to identify specific workers with the competence, experience AND formal education they needed for new positions. Epsilen and other platforms like it have defined a new space of interaction that is no longer bound by the course and the classroom or even the institution. With promising but still hesitant engagement, many technology platforms are managing the linkage among education, experience, and employability with multiple intentional views for users and coherent representations of the fragmented pieces we call life.
When Barr and Tagg in the mid-Nineties convinced us that we had to become learner-centered, they didn’t tell us how. Epsilen marked the beginning of the true paradigm shift and first real steps toward the “how.” In hindsight, I don’t think I knew just how radical the concept was. If I had it to do over again, I can promise you that IUPUI would be a different institution today than it is now undefined wonderful as it still is.
So, let me explain why.
Based on my perspectives as a reflective and unsatisfied provost as well as a person responsible for accreditation, let me offer three major themes that I think we have to confront in the next five years or less.
First, the world is changing so rapidly in so many ways for which learning is an underlying transformative force that we in the United States are having to play catch-up. There really IS a global marketplace of talent. The US may still have a commanding lead in preparing this talent, but our authority is diminishing in real and documented ways. Let me give you one clue not the usual, such as PISA scores. Specialized accrediting bodies that we take for granted such as ABET and AACSB are no longer American associations. They are international, and their fastest growing clientele is abroad. And why is this, we might ask? My first theme, therefore, is: Global Quality Standards Matter.
Second, impressive and thoughtful leaders such as President Obama’s administration, the Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, the National Governors Association and dozens of other foundations and nonprofits have said we must do more and better in reaching completion goals for degrees and credentials. They have set a goal of having 60% of all Americans earning a high quality degree or credential by 2025. No matter how much money we spend or how many people climb into the bully pulpit, we are not likely to meet this objective. Here’s one clue as to how hard it will be in the past 40 years, the level of degree and credential attainment has remained essentially unchanged at 40% despite hundreds of remedies and countless initiatives. Despite the canary in the mine’s death in 1983 as it sang a song called “A Nation at Risk,” not much has changed and there may actually be evidence that quality has declined even as the rest of the world is gaining. My second theme: We need to completely re-conceptualize what credentials are, how they are obtained, and how they are validated.
Third, after serving on the CAEL board for so long, on the WASC Commission for six years, and on a number of national task groups charged with reforming higher education, I think we are witnessing a fundamental shift away from process to results. Congress and a host of national critics are pushing for fundamental changes in the nature of accreditation both to ensure that federal dollars spent on financial aid are worthwhile investments and that the credentials students earn are worth something especially related to gainful employment, which means that graduates can repay their federal loans because they are employable with salaries that produce income over basic need.
It is conceivable that within the next year or two the current system of regional accreditation based on peer review and a decentralized approach to quality based on voluntary action for improvement--could be replaced by a national agency, not unlike those in other nations, or a system based on institutional type instead of region, or yet something else even more highly regulated. But the shift from process to results is more profound than accreditation. The clue I offer here is that employers and others want to know what credential-completers actually know and they want evidence to document competence. This expectation accounts, in part, for the rapid growth in the number of specialized accreditors. At the same time, the government and here I mean both states and the federal government want real validation of retention and graduation rates that have meaningful, institution-set goals benchmarked against peers that will lead to disqualification if they are not met.
Tempting as it is for me to elaborate on these themes, let me be respectful of the time allotted and conclude my remarks by noting that the work of those of you engaged in evidence-based learning, in the use of portfolios, and in the external validation of learning are the keys to the future and a very near future it is. Technology platforms in general and eportfolios in particular are absolutely essential to our making the transition to the future we want.
Here are six bullet points as take-always from what I would have said had I been given unlimited time:
- Wide-spread implementation and use of the Degree Qualifications Profile developed by Lumina is absolutely essential for the US to remain globally competitive and to produce degrees and credentials that both mean something and have a chance of being high quality. The LEAP program of AAC&U with its VALUES rubrics are also essential to this effort. Both individual learners and institutions have to be able to rely on these frameworks to establish meaningful credentials and to give them status in a world rushing to embrace quality standards based on competence instead of attendance.
- The cumulative learning envisioned by the DQP demands collaboration and coordination among the high school, community college, and at least baccalaureate levels so that there is an opportunity for learners to plan their learning strategies and pathways and to know when they have reached measurable benchmarks that will mean something to employers, to the public and to themselves. In brief, learner engagement systems have to break free of courses and to some significant extent institutions. Without portable but highly personal learning plans and records, we have little chance of vertical alignment and cumulative learning. We must rely on technology to help students navigate the complexities of education with clear but flexible pathways, with meaningful detours but no dead-ends.
- There must be recognition that learning occurs at different times and in different ways and in forms outside the classroom so that it can be counted and applied to completion-credentials. The Learning Counts initiative begun this year by CAEL is but the first major step toward a new way of recognizing learning. CAEL is serving as an intermediary that will allow learners to bring experiential learning to a central evaluator, which in turn will asses and then assign credit in content areas that by prior agreement will be accepted by accredited institutions that can award degrees. We cannot forget the growing power of peer to peer learning, and design our systems to accommodate learning patterns that students are creating for themselves through social media and growing forms of collaboration.
- Credentials will have to be co-owned by the learner and her multiple institutional partners in such a way that the student can manage the record to document cumulative learning and competence, drawing on both formal and experiential leaning. The key point here is that lifelong learning is now a condition of continued employment, and we need to appreciate the fact that learners will reflect on past and current experiences, redefine and reuse past experiences or courses and their products, and package them continuously throughout life and careers in ways that reflect their latest aspirations. The learning space must also allow for reflection, assessment, and application. And all the while, institutions and credit-appraisers will have to be able to certify attendance and completion at a minimumundefinedand ideally evidence of actual learning. Results matter more than having a process in place. If accreditation reform continues on its present path, institutions will have to prove that each degree they award means something. This will require a very radical shift in the role and practices of faculty. Without effective technology, they will be lost, especially since almost two-thirds of the American academic workforce is now part-time or contingent.
- We thus need a technology solution that is an “import-export” portal whereby students (and institutions) can translate experiences into applications quickly and efficiently, such as providing assessments of internships, study abroad, service learning, or even work experiences in such a way that it can be both credited and applied to multiple requirements or to different job applications. Why shouldn’t the technology convert conventional academic credentials into a CV formatted for “Monster.com”” at the touch of a button? Moreover, the technology needs to manage the data flow of individual student achievement so as to provide the institution with evidence of effectiveness for accountability as well as analytics for continuous improvement.
- And finally, we will have to practice and develop what can only be called “translational learning,” to borrow a term from science. Not only will learners have to convert what they used to know into what they know now based on both need and additional experience, but they will have to be able to document it in ways that build on a standard coreundefinedsuch as proposed by the DQP in the US or the degree framework in the European Unionundefinedbut enriched and elaborated by a set of certificates and credentials that can come from any source and all be represented in a single learning record. In the future, it will not be enough to have earned a degree. The real question will be, What documented credentials or certificates do you have that show your competence in specific areas of employability, civic engagement, leadership, or authority?? Just as the internet allows anyone to be a self-proclaimed expert, so will it seek out authenticity. Expertise without competence is quickly exposed. Imagine, if you will, the traditional military standard with multiple banners reflecting campaigns and triumphsundefinedall proudly advanced on that solid common standard, the basic degree, festooned with individualized attainments over a lifetime. In the competitive environment ahead, a degree may be necessary, but it is not likely to be sufficient.
So I turn to you as the experts, as the people building and using technology tools to say we have to complete the job of creating systems that will follow the learner wherever she goes but offer pathways for specific goals, that will reflect cumulative learning from at least high school to master’s degree, that will incorporate experiential learning, that will translate academic experience into career qualifications, that will be co-owned and co-managed by the learner and her institutions (formal and informal), and that will belong to the learner for life. At the same time, these same systems must provide institutions with the evidence they need to prove their effectiveness and “accreditability.” This is the threshold, the minimum. Much more is needed, but every learning platform, every course management system, every ePortfolio must offer nothing less.
I wish you every success in the work ahead, and I thank you for this opportunity to offer amends for my past sins of neglect.
William Plater, Ph.D.
Senior Consultant for Higher Education Strategies
Chancellor's Professor and Executive Vice Chancellor Emeritus, IUPUI
Bill Plater is Chancellor's Professor and Executive Vice Chancellor Emeritus at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), where he was chief academic officer for 19 years. He has participated in a wide range of national projects focused on such topics as community engagement, faculty development, student learning outcomes, internationalization, and uses of technology. He currently serves as a Commissioner for WASC, the regional accrediting body for California and Hawaii and as a consultant to Epsilen for higher education strategies.