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Giving Credibility to the Shadow Education System

John Watson, Founder, Evergreen Education Group

A day before the iNACOL Competency-Based Learning Summit in Denver, Colorado, Douglas interviews John Watson, Founder, Evergreen Education Group on what a summit like this means for offering students and parents better choices for education. We talk about funding student-centric learning programs and digital learning methods. John also discusses the viability of digital and online learning, operational pathways to implementation and the process undertaken to move from a seat-time learning system to one that puts every student on a path to their own success.

This interview and more to come will focus on the March 3-4 Competency-Based Learning Summit hosted by iNACOL. When information about their twitter hashtags comes online, I will post here with updates. Interview after the jump.

Douglas The iNACOL and Chris Sturgis report out this week about competency-based learning mentions student-centric instruction. Can you describe what this means for students and for educators?

John Watson Student-centric instruction refers to learning being personalized to each student. To envision the opposite of student-centric learning, imagine the typical state university intro course lecture hall with one professor lecturing hundreds of students. The instruction is based on what the professor thinks is important, and all students receive the same information regardless of where they are in their understanding of the topic. A version of that same approach exists in some K12 classrooms as well, although clearly with smaller numbers of students. Student-centered learning, in contrast, individualizes instruction so that the student’s path, and his/her place in that path, is based on the student’s understanding of the material.

Douglas What do you believe are the most effective operational pathways to competency-based learning?

John Watson I don’t know. My group has expertise in online and blended learning. We’re exploring competency-based learning but it’s too early for me to have any confidence in discussing effective methods…that’s why I’m going to the Denver meeting, in part.

Douglas What is the best way to fund these initiatives given the kind of recessionary stress we’ve seen on traditional budgets for education?

John Watson My sense is that if online/blended/competency-based learning are going to become major elements of education within traditional schools and districts, the funding question doesn’t really make sense. If these initiatives are going to get to scale it’s not possible to fund them from grants, corporate philanthropy, or other sources different than the usual funding streams. And, I don’t think we’re going to see major government funding going into supporting any of these initiatives at a sustaining large-scale level. Grants may fund some pilots and a few efforts to show initial success, but eventually the funding is going to come out of district budgets as one of the many things that ADA funding pays for.

Another, perhaps more positive, way to answer this question is to say that the blended learning opportunities that may accompany competency-based learning have the potential to provide cost savings that can be reinvested in competency approaches.

Douglas What do you feel are the most effective digital learning strategies in place right now?

John Watson There are many different strategies and I think it’s early to start picking which ones we think are most effective. Also, the key element of student-centered learning is that we’re not trying to impose a one size fits all approach on students. So, for example, there’s been talk about blended learning (combining online and f2f) being better than purely online courses. That is likely true for some, perhaps most, students. But it doesn’t address the way that fully online schools have made AP courses available to a large group of students who didn’t have access to them before, or the way that many more students can get started on their post-secondary education by taking online dual credit courses.

Perhaps a better question than most effective is what approaches are most evolved. We’ve now been seeing supplemental online providers working at scale for 10 years, and fully online schools also in place for close to a decade. Those models have been built out and tested, although they are continuing to evolve. Blended learning and using online technologies in an entirely class-based setting are newer. While some of those schools have been around for years, more of them have gotten started in the last couple of years

Douglas How does a competency-based approach to learning mesh with the national call for core standards and that delivery of curriculum?

John Watson The adoption of core standards will help development of digital materials, which will in turn make competency-based approaches easier for the reasons discussed above. Currently producers of digital content have to worry about addressing all the state standards, which adds a layer of effort to the production process. A common core will alleviate that challenge for some courses. And it just makes sense—does anyone think that algebra somehow changes when you move from Indiana to Illinois? Are the laws of physics different between California and Colorado? Course developers should worry about the best ways to teach these difficult subjects, not how they align with each state’s standards.

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