APRIL 6, 2018 | ALEX USHER
If you’re just joining us, on Wednesday I briefly reviewed some of the key aspects of the Minerva model as detailed in the book yesterday’s entry, as detailed in the book Building the Intentional University: Minerva and the Future of Higher Education. Then yesterday, I examined what lessons the Minerva had for the rest of academia in terms of building curricula. Today I want to turn to pedagogy and assessment. Assessment, in particular, is ripe for a deep re-think and overhaul.
On the face of it, Minerva maybe doesn’t have much to say about pedagogy at most universities because so much of what they do is based around the Active Learning Forum (see Wednesday’s piece), which is the online interface through which Minerva does all its teaching. And yeah, it does *all* teaching this way, even in cases where both the students and the instructor are located in the same city. This seems goofy and artificial to pretty much everyone, but it’s actually an outgrowth of their lesson plan and assessment systems. Let me explain.
In the Minerva system, lesson plans are tightly scripted and take a ton of work. At one point in the book, there’s a claim that 100 hours of work go into every 1.5 class hours, which seems inflated to me, though maybe not wildly so (partly because lessons are meant to be used by more than one instructor per course section). Each lesson plan is tightly scripted and is typically focussed around two activities, each of which is meant to stimulate progress towards certain learning goals, mainly those “habits of mind and foundational concepts” (HCs) that we’ve encountered a couple of times. The minute focus on the relationship between individual learning activities and learning outcomes is key to the Minerva assessment structure.
Every class is recorded (yes, yes, I know). Which means that in reviewing a class, an instructor can re-watch how each student does in the portion of the class dealing with a particular HC, and type in notes and comments about how they are performing against a set rubric. These notes not only form part of a final assessment in each class on each HC, but the system can also automatically forward these notes to each student, so they can get formative feedback on performance within a few hours of each class ending.
This is pretty cool, both because of the prompt feedback, and because it focusses on those foundational concepts/habits of mind rather than mastery of a particular body of subject matter (though one could use it to rate that as well, if one so chose). Remember: when ever anyone makes a defense of the humanities, or liberal arts, or whatever, it’s always on the grounds that “humanities teach students to think.” Well, if that is what we’re teaching them, why not go the whole hog? Why not assess them on foundational concepts and habits?
One of the neatest things about Minerva assessment is that they do not provide a grade in their four “cornerstone” courses – the ones most focussed on HCs – until the end of fourth year. Basically, their view is they don’t know how successful your learning in those courses was until they see how you apply those HCs in the rest of your courses. And since every course provides rubric-based grading on those HCs, it’s actually a relatively trivial matter to add up the scores over a number of years in order to do that. I’m not sure I would recommend everyone do this, but it’s an interesting and novel approach.
Now, of course not everything needs to be on-line or recorded in order to introduce this kind of system. One could imagine doing the same thing simply by having two instructors (or an instructor and an assistant) in the classroom: one to manage the class activities and one to provide rubric-based feedback. I know it sounds weird to imagine that the person actually running the class is not the person also doing the assessment – that conjunction of roles is pretty fundamental to our notions of teaching. But if you move to a system where a) you’re using a subject-matter expert to teach things, but the expected outcomes more are skill/concept related rather than subject-mastery-related and b) you have a good rubric system, there’s no obvious reason why the roles of instructor and assessor can’t be unbundled. In fact, some universities have already done so.
The other piece that I think needs to be highlighted here is that even without going “full Minerva,” there is a lot of learning potential to be exploited by more closely integrating ed-tech with curriculum beyond sticking a course lecture and notes up on Moodle or something, but by adding dedicated and customized electronic resources to a curriculum and into the classroom experience itself. Obviously, this is an area where progress is being made in higher education – albeit unevenly – but I would argue it could and probably should go a lot further.
The problem is that to do so requires skills that are beyond those of a typical professor. In the same way that the future of curriculum improvement development probably means more dedicated non-academic specialists acting as resources to academic departments, the future of tech-enhanced learning probably means more dedicated IT specialists being twinned with professors and included into the lesson-planning process.
Smart Chief Information Officers already know this: the problem is getting traction for this idea within institutions. My sitting-in-the-cheap-seats observation is that the role of CIOs in education suffer from them having to spend too much time at central administration tables (which makes them focus on corporate problems) rather than at faculty-level or Deans-level tables (which would push them in a more pedagogical direction). If I could pick a job at a university or college over the next few years, it would probably be to be a CIO at an institution that really “got” the need to integrate technology into the classroom, and to link it all to an assessment system that provided more formative feedback to students and that was more deliberate about assessing skills/competencies as well as subject mastery.
So as with curriculum, I don’t think Minerva necessarily provides an easily-copyable template for renewal on pedagogy/assessment, but their approach definitely contains some thinking which merits serious attention from everyone.
Have a good weekend.