Friday, July 11, 2008

Strategic thinking for programs

A conversation with Mace Mentch of Case Western Reserve shed some fresh light on my recent blog post on a multi-faceted strategy for supporting improvement of selected teaching/learning activities.

Mace and I talked about how it's becoming somewhat more common to talk about the goals of academic programs in terms of learning outcomes. Because these learning outcomes are often defined as skills (e.g., design skills), a logical next step is to ask how often students are practicing, and receiving coaching, in skills. In effect, attention shifts from the outome-as-noun to the outcome-as-verb.

It's a shift people have talked about for decades:
  • From teaching as explaining, with IT providing an explaining tool for faculty, toward a second, and perhaps greater emphasis on
  • Learning as practicing, with coaching from experts, peers and clients, with IT providing tools for practicing, coaching and other forms of communication.
Big switch, and one that's not possible unless students have, and can use, appropriate technology for that discipline.

I'm not saying anything new when I point out that this sometimes enables faculty to exploit parallels between their own (technology-enabled) research and the learning of students, using comparable tools to learn by working on comparable problems. We studied several examples of that in our study of the iCampus program at MIT.

So here it is in a nutshell:
1. Identify one or more skills of graduates that some faculty want to improve (poor to good; great to world class) (e.g., writing, design, research, composition, academic argument, performance, ...)
2. To develop those skills over 3-4 years, what activities do students need to practice more, have coached better etc.? What tools and resources do they need in order to practice?
3. Develop accessible, modular resources and services that faculty can use to learn additional ways to:
  • develop assignments and teaching skills to help students develop the target skills.
  • assess how well those assignments are doing, in order to improve them;
  • develop wisdom for dealing with the problems they're likely to encounter when their courses spend more time on helping students practice and improve these skills.
That set of bullets was the topic of the last post.

Many institutions, like Case, are making progress on item #2 in the list above: faculty are developing or getting access to digital libraries, easy-to-use software tools and other technologies needed in order for students to practice and develop sophisticated academic skills.

It's time to attend to #3: the many small steps that faculty will need to take in order to successfully build their courses more around the practice, coaching, and assessment of such skills. That's an especially exciting challenge with large courses!

1 comment:

  1. It seems to me that technology can play a very important role in improving efficiency when it comes to assessing learning outcomes at the program level, a task that I agree is becoming increasingly important in academic departments. Assessing critical thinking, for instance, across multiple courses would seem to call for some kind of tool for collecting student work, storing faculty assessments of that work, and aggregating those assessments into useful reports. We don't use such a tool at my campus (to my knowledge), so I'm curious to know what tools exist for these tasks. Any suggestions?


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