Education Futures Podcast 25: Making Learning Visible with Stacy Zemke

by | Jan 6, 2021 | Education Futures Podcast

“The whole idea of the dashboard is to make all of those invisible things visible. To give them a place where they can see, ‘Oh, okay, I took these classes and these classes are tied to these skills. And hey, I’m making progress on learning that skill. That’s kind of cool. I can see that now.’ There should be no mystery in what they are learning.”

For several years, TEL’s Executive Director Rob Reynolds and Chief Information Officer Stacy Zemke have been talking about how to make learning visible for students. This Spring, with the launch of the Learning Dashboard, they will make it happen. In this podcast, Rob and Stacy talk about the genesis of the Learning Dashboard and how this will help students more clearly understand why what they are learning matters.

Education Futures Podcast 25: Stacy Zemke and Making Learning Visible

Full Transcript

Rob Reynolds:

Hi everybody. This is Rob Reynolds again with TEL Education. And today I’m joined by TEL Education’s chief information officer Stacy Zemke. And Stacy and I are going to be talking a little bit about our forthcoming student learning dashboard at TEL. Kind of what the impetus for that was. Kind of our own teaching and learning experiences and why we think the dashboard is going to be such an important contribution to helping students learn online.

So Stacy, let’s kick it off because a lot of this came out of some of your experiences as a faculty member and as an advisor to students who were graduating from a program. And so why don’t you take us through that a little bit? Because that provides a foundation for some of the things, problems we’re actually trying to solve.

Stacy Zemke:

Sure. Thanks so much for having me. This is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, so I’m happy to speak of it whenever I can. So I spent many years at a state university, not only teaching, but advising students, as well as teaching them through the capstone course. Our capstone course was a project-based course but was also designed to help them sort of take those first steps out into the world. How do you start to find a job? How do you find an internship? How do you interview?

And one of the things we did in that course, again, it was supposed to sort of pull together their degree program. They did a project that would let them use the skills that they had acquired. And at the very beginning of the course, I realized very quickly that they did not know what skills they had acquired or what they had been learning. Or why they had been taking all of these courses or when they took them, who taught them, or really anything about their courses.

And that’s not really their fault, but it just really became very visible to me when I was trying to do this capstone, how little they understood their degree program and what the focus of it was. Now, again, having been a faculty member on the other side, I knew we worked really hard to develop this curriculum and pick out the right courses, and develop these courses in these outcomes. And these learning goals that they had never heard of, the students had never heard of these learning goals. They didn’t know that they were tied to courses. They didn’t understand that there was these layers and layers of learning design that just was over their heads.

And in many ways, that was our fault. We weren’t making it available to them. We weren’t surfacing that for them in any way. And we gave them a checklist. We said, “Hey, here’s how you get a degree. Here’s a checklist.” And they did what everyone does with a checklist, “Check something off, now I’m done with that. Class is over. I don’t have to think about that again.”

So this has been a frustration for a long time. How do you get them to sort of be in the experience? To sort of engage with it, know what they’re learning, be reflective about that, and actually start to build the cloud of learning that they’re aware of what’s in there. They’re just not aware of that at all. And then what the other big frustration for me was, that capstone course, that last experience that they have, it’s not the time to do it. It needs to start early.

Rob Reynolds:

Yeah. No, that’s really interesting because a lot of that is about making learning visible. And it’s so hard to do. We worked so hard as you say on individual courses and as faculty on programs and universities on degrees. And yet that is by and large invisible to the student, they don’t see that work. And so they are unaware of what they’re learning, how it’s important, why it matters.

Now they may have an individual faculty member or an individual course kind of emphasize that, but they lose the big picture very quickly and they don’t have any. So they do get to the end and go, “Now what?” My experience in teaching that really kind of I think formed a lot of my thinking about this was in teaching introductory language courses. Because one of the differences in an introductory language course is that students are very aware. It’s visceral their progress. Their learning is very visible to them because they see it happening. It’s a skill-based course and they’re saying it out loud, they’re writing it, their colleagues or other students are writing it out and speaking it and they can see it.

And it’s as an instructor, it provides this incredible contrast to the rest. When I’m teaching a literature class it’s invisible. When I’m teaching a language class it’s visible. And so I was always aware of that kind of dissonance. And how do we make this learning visible? How do we make students aware of what they’re learning, how they’re progressing, and why it matters so that they can take ownership of it and kind of create a narrative around this?

And as you say, when they go out and talk to someone, they can say, “I’m learning this and that I have evidence of it. I have proof that I’m learning it. I can show you that I can do it.” And I think that’s been a really big struggle that we’ve had.

Stacy Zemke:

And it’s really hard to get them to see the connections between what they’re doing in a classroom and what might happen in the real world. I’m using a lot of air quotes here. Because we would practice interview questions like, “Talk about a time you worked with a team. Talk about when you faced a challenge.” All of these are standard interview questions. And they kept saying, “I have no examples of that. I have no examples of that.” But they had to been working in groups in their courses. They had struggled with bad group members. They had too many deadlines that they had to work through.

They had all of these great examples and stories, but they didn’t know how to translate those into telling that story to somebody else. They also have a really hard time seeing what I call the meta-learning in a course. It’s not that I learned how to write a research paper about Versailles and the use of mirrors to expand space. It’s that I created a question that I wanted to answer, I researched that question, and then I presented that to someone else.

That’s the really important thing. Not so much Versailles. Not that it’s not exciting and beautiful, but what they really learned there is, “Hey, I could see a problem, express the problem, research the problem, and present a solution.” That’s really valuable.

Rob Reynolds:

No, I absolutely agree. And so we started talking about this about 10 years ago or you started talking to me about it when we were in different organizations. And we worked through this and now here we are at TEL Education. And we develop a catalog of online general education courses that are offered for college credit. And so we kind of revisited the idea more intentionally and said, “Okay, if now we’re the curriculum builders and where the course delivers and providing the instruction, how do we kind of solve this problem?”

And so our solution for lack of a better term is the student learning dashboard. So why don’t you talk about the high-level goals for a second of that dashboard?

Stacy Zemke:

Sure. The whole idea behind the dashboard is to make all of those invisible things visible, to give them a place where they can see, “Oh, okay. I took these classes, but those classes are tied to these skills.” And “Hey, I’m making progress on learning that skill. Oh, that’s kind of cool. I can see that now.” There should be no mystery to what they’re learning. So how are they moving on their objectives for their classes, for their program, for their curriculum? How far have they moved towards learning different skills?

What businesses use those skills? What industries, what careers are those skills valuable, and how are they used in the workforce? So that all of those sort of mysteries that we have are surfaced they’re laid out so they can start to work on the other piece that’s starting to work on and be reflective and sort of be like, “How do I turn this list of skills into an answer to an interview question into something that I put on a letter, a cover letter, when I apply for a job? How do I start to express this quickly and succinctly to an employer and move out into a career into, into a job?”

Rob Reynolds:

So at a high level, what we’ve done is we’ve created the student dashboard to give students a real-time visible view of their learning. They can see what they’re learning, why they’re learning, et cetera. Now, this breaks down, and when we talk about very high-level components. So we allow students to earn. So first of all, kind of goes to our curriculum. So we had to go back into the curriculum and we have to map all of our curriculum to these very granular learning outcomes and then to skills and competencies.

And then those skills and competencies and outcomes can be tied to badges and other things. And so within the dashboard itself, what you’re doing is you’re actually showing students where they are real-time and how they’re progressing in their courses. But also what they’re learning in terms of skills and competencies, what badges they may be earning, et cetera. Right?

Stacy Zemke:

Exactly. And as you pointed out, that they can start to tie evidence to those experiences. “Hey, I wrote this paper. I completed this lab. I did this activity.” And in the curriculum, that activity is tied to these skills. It’s tied to these competencies. So now I have an example of how I understand this competency or how I can perform this skill.

And so the idea is there’s a forward and backward movement all the time between the skills, between what they’re doing in the courses. So they have this high level, but also connections down at the lower level to see where did I do this? Where did I learn this or where was this covered? That they can start to draw those connections in very clear ways.

Rob Reynolds:

Now, so as the dashboard develops, not only will students be able to see really clearly what they’re learning, how it applies, et cetera. But I know you’re going to be integrating this with the actual courses students are taking so that they even get prompted while they’re on a particular activity or something in a course.

They could add that to a portfolio. They could journal about it, to kind of really have a deeper reflection on what they’re learning. They’ll have a portfolio, et cetera. So just kind of as you can, I know I’ve mentioned some of the pieces. Kind of how do you see the ultimate expression of this for students?

Stacy Zemke:

Right. Oh no, that’s a great question because I think that deep integration that we’re moving towards is really important because then it’s happening in real-time. I’m in a course, I did something and now I’m being prompted. Hey, here’s what you’re covering. Here’s what you’re learning. Here’s the goals of this course. And then prompted to reflect, prompted to start. Building a language around what I’m learning and building my vocabulary around what I’m learning.

And then yes, the outcome in the end is can you then build a really compelling evidence portfolio of what you know, what you can do, and what you can show to a potential employer as you start to move out into that job hunting world?

Rob Reynolds:

Don’t you think that another benefit we’ve talked about, that professional success and really helping students move I think more with greater confidence into that? But another thing here is it just gives students this sense of that they’re really growing. They’re actually learning something and they’re not just doing a checklist and it builds this kind of personal confidence. And it’s not just about, I’m going to get a better job. It’s about, I really am becoming something.

And I think that’s … In fact, I know that is the original goal of higher education, to begin with. It was a liberal arts curriculum really designed to create that more evolved human being that could be a leader, that could be successful and have a great family, et cetera. And this is kind of one of our ways to help bridge what we do now in learning to get students to that point.

Stacy Zemke:

Absolutely. And that’s a great point, Rob. I mean, I know we talked about getting a job and interviewing and those kinds of things, but that is sort of the ultimate goal. That’s why most people are in college. They want to get a job at some point, but really it’s that awareness that’s so much more important because they do know so much more than they think they do. I mean, that was the hardest part of working with seniors who kept saying, “I don’t know anything. I can’t do anything.”

We would talk about, “What projects can we work on this semester?” And they would go, “Gosh, we don’t know anything. We haven’t learned anything. I don’t.” And then pulling that out of them painfully sometimes was a great experience because in the end they walked away going, “I’m good at something. I have something I can contribute. I have something that I like to do. I have something about this curriculum, this discipline, this area that intrigues me and I want to pursue, and I want to do this. This is what I want to do.”

Getting a job’s great, but feeling like I have a career, I have a path that I want to walk now. And I have some confidence to go down that path is so much more compelling and exciting.

Rob Reynolds:

Yeah, I agree. It’s just so much more valuable. Now, as we move out into the future and we’re going to have additional podcasts about the dashboard as we roll it out and some of the cool features and things we do. And hopefully, we’ll even have some students on to talk about how they’re using this, as well as some of our school partners. One of the goals also is that we can really make learning equitable for everyone. Because if everyone has to show their evidence and has evidence to show, we’re really making objective evaluations of what students learn and what they know.

Not just taking someone’s word for it. Well, they pass this course. They learned it. No, here’s what they really know. That gives students confidence. It gives the people they interact with confidence they really do know that. And it’s just a much fairer system for everyone. And again, we’ll get into that more later. But for now, I think we’ve done a good job of telling people what this is, what it’s about, why we’re excited about it. And I think it’s going to be terrific.

So with that, we’ll sign off. Again. This is Rob Reynolds with TEL Education joined by Stacy Zemke, our CIO. And Stacy, thanks for joining us today.

Stacy Zemke:

Thanks for having me. I will be back and you know what? We’ll talk about this anytime.

Rob Reynolds:

All right.

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