Timothy R. Clark: The key to education reform will be measurement

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 13 2013 12:05 a.m. MST

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The biggest challenges in education are access, quality and cost. But that’s going to change. In the next decade, I predict the key to comprehensive reform will be our ability to measure actual learning.

Education is a process. It has inputs such as teachers, content and curriculum, resources, and, of course, students. The inputs interact and create outputs. Today, we rely heavily on inputs as substitutes for outputs that we don’t measure well. For example, we say a school is good if it has good teachers. Teachers are an input. In reality, we don’t know if a teacher is good unless we have an output measure of learning to confirm it. We make a lot of spurious assumptions.

The infinite scalability of the Internet allows access to the best content and the best teachers in the world. All you need is a smart device and Internet access. Not everyone has that, but barriers to entry are falling. Today, my daughter goes to Kahn Academy for help with calculus; my nephew goes to Kidaptive to learn spatial relationships; and I go to edX to watch Michael Sandel teach a course on justice even though I’m not in the classroom at Harvard. It costs nothing.

We are democratizing education, but we don’t measure outcomes well. We lack accurate and standardized ways to test and certify learning. The need is fast approaching for a global educational unit, or GEU, a credential that is universally acknowledged as official currency and can be used as tender anywhere — on any subject and on any level, from K-Ph.D.

Fortunately, there is movement in this direction. For example, the MOOC provider, Coursera, just announced that five of its courses have received college credit from the American Council on Education. Now you can take “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution” from Dr. Mohamed Noor, chair of the biology department at Duke University, from home and get credit.

But educational credentials are not created equal. Starting salaries for Cal Tech graduates average $75,000 compared to $35,000 for Black Hills State University graduates. There are real qualitative differences. If we can measure outputs more accurately, and access is not an issue, these differences will decrease. The important accreditation bodies around the world could come together and establish the “Global Accreditation Board” to administer the GEU. But it all hangs on measurement. This is where technology comes in.

The science of testing and assessment lags the need. We need more emphasis on the development of artificial intelligence and what is called deep learning. It’s not far distant that computing power will be able to test our knowledge on any subject. Like an internet bot or crawler, measurement software will formulate customized questions in real-time to test our knowledge, locating correct answers as nodes within a body of knowledge. The computer will then ask us further questions in order to define the breadth, depth and structure of our knowledge.

And it won’t just be cognitive knowledge. The technology will be able to test for affective knowledge and psychomotor skills as well. It will have the capacity to quantify based on something like Bloom’s taxonomy, for instance. The outputs will be pinpoint accurate and, with the aid of 3D graphics, visually portray the relationships among facts, features, factors, concepts and skill parameters within a body of knowledge.

When that day comes — when we solve the problem of measurement — the GEU will become the coin of the realm. From whom you learn or where you learn will be less important. You will have the option of learning from the best regardless of where you are, as well as interactive applications. The patina of elite institutions will matter less too.

I’m sure my old professors at Oxford won’t like that very much.

Timothy R. Clark is CEO of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. He newest book is "The Employee Engagement Mindset" from McGraw-Hill. He earned a doctorate from Oxford University. Email: trclark@trclark.net

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