Market transitions

The Next Digital Revolution in Education? Grading

It seems that you can’t go anywhere these days without seeing a new pretender to a digital revolution in education. Just this week, Harvard and MIT launched an online initiative, edX. It follows Stanford University’s digital education initiatives and the start-ups it has spawned, CourseRA and Udacity. Apple (with iTunes U) and now Microsoft (with its deal with Barnes & Noble) are also moving into course materials. And then there has been a longstanding set of course management tools with a dominant and expensive incumbent, Blackboard.

Each of these digital initiatives is aimed squarely at what universities already do: lecturing, providing textbook materials, and managing courses. And each aims to save universities money. Then there are ventures like Khan Academy, which are trying to change the way many students learn. But, again, they aim at a traditional constituency.

But there’s another big group interested in digital learning: employers.

Think about how employers are currently served. The university system spews out trained graduates — but some are more trained than others. How do employers currently sort out who’s who? Well, universities do help some by providing what is a called a “grade,” one for each course the student has taken, printed out on an official transcript, protected with currency-like copying security. But even after reviewing a transcript, employers have to go through a huge, personnel-intensive process of screening applications on a bunch of dimensions that the grade is not telling them. Sometimes that screening process is designed to learn things professors already know: how well a student can write, argue, debate, interact, and ultimately think and be creative. Such duplication of effort implies waste.

The problem is that the grade is an aggregate statistic. A student who wrote a wonderful assignment, but botched a test under time pressure, could still earn an “A.” So could one who rushed an assignment, but is quite good under pressure in an exam. Even worse, the conditions for earning a grade are, to a large extent, arbitrary, with different professors assessing students with different weightings for different courses. Much of that weighting is constrained by “university rules” that basically require that enough of the grade comes from things (like exams) where it is harder for students to cheat. That’s useful for the university, but it isn’t necessarily of the same value for employers.

Enter CoursePeer, one initiative designed to change that. CoursePeer was founded by two brothers, Marwan and Hadi Aladdin. One has graduated and the other is still going through the University of Toronto’s engineering program. Somehow they have managed to set up this venture in their spare time.

CoursePeer is billed as a social academic talent management network, which is, of course, too many words. But here is what it does: it is a platform for professors to interact with students while they take a course, providing an online environment so that professors, tutors, and students can interact. Now that idea is not new. Indeed, last year, I used a blog to do the same thing with my students.

Here’s the innovation: interaction gives professors (and tutors) the ability and opportunity to rate the interactions and activity along a variety of metrics. The basic mechanism is akin to “liking” or “not liking” a student’s contributions. But this is nuanced along a variety of dimensions including innovation, research, leadership, problem solving, collaboration, and curiosity. Earn enough “likes” and the professor can award badges for these qualities. CoursePeer involves a mix of subjective and objective evaluation, but the point is that it is baked into the learning activity.

Here’s where employers come in: CoursePeer has made those metrics and awards exportable so they can be communicated directly to employers. This system has the potential to remove the need for employers to engage in a separate evaluation. In other words, with multiple dimensions, especially on qualities that go beyond pure mastery of a course, employers can learn more about what type of student they are evaluating.

This is entirely new — from the type of information CoursePeer asks professors to provide to the notion of going beyond the grade in providing information to employers. The information is part of the natural activity of education, eliminating waste, not simply expense.

Yes, it’s the early days — and I could spend another post discussing potential impediments — but the value for this type of innovation is clear. Moreover, if the future of higher education is going to be in massive online classes, then we can expect to see even more standardized testing. In that world, the need to go beyond the grade will only increase.

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