A Business Plan For Life’s Work

Me, facilitating a week-long faculty development workshop about adult learning and Prior Learning Assessment at Tangaza College in Nairobi, Kenya, in October 2012. A major piece of my life’s work …

During a day-long “priorities conference” for fundraising at my university today, the idea came about that we should help our students develop a business plan for enacting their life’s work. The idea is that income, vis-a-vis a job (presumably) is actually pretty important, but equally if not more important is ensuring that students can tap into work that has meaning, that they do well, and that energizes them.* This discussion was in part prompted by the news today that a University of Florida task force is recommending differential tuition for humanities courses, meaning that humanities courses would cost students more. (Side editorial comment: Worst Idea Ever.)

A second theme of the day seemed to be affordability — higher educational institutions are going to have to (correction: HAVE TO) find more affordable ways to deliver high quality learning experiences. And you know why? Because all of us are inadvertently (or in some cases, intentionally, I suppose) limiting access to people who could most use higher education. And why are we doing this?  Because it costs so darn much!

So how can we:

  • lower the costs of higher education while
  • increasing really good learning experiences while
  • offering these really good learning experiences to more people while
  • allowing for meaningful personalization while
  • connecting it all to employability?

(Hint: Though MOOCs are cool and interesting and are indicators of major change, they are probably not the answer to this question.)

I think stating this conundrum in this way has just helped me clarify the need to develop a business plan for my life’s work.

*An aside – this also reminded me of The Good Work Project.


Imagine This: Doing-By-Learning

Thanks to Mark Brannan on Flickr for making this image available.

Traditionally, higher education has been in place to prepare us to do. And it still seems to be in place for that purpose. First you learn; then you can do. First this; then that. And if you do that first, you will either regret not doing this first and come back to it, or you will continue to do that, but not be happy or find meaning in your life.

Higher ed seems to operate from this idea; its entire structure is focused on it:

  • Learn first; then do. This here piece of paper that says you learned makes you qualified to do, so go forth and do! (Oh – and you can stop learning now. That part is over, unless you want to keep learning, in which case you can go to grad school.)

Thankfully, engaging adult learners in higher education seems to have helped us think a little bit differently:

  • Ah – you went and did first. That’s cool! You’ve done all this stuff; now reflect on it and learn what it means (and by the way you can get credit for that through Prior Learning Assessment while you’re at it), and then learn some more. You think differently about it – about you – now? Great! Icing on the diploma cake! But now that you’ve done all that, and learned more, and now that you have our paper in hand that certifies your learning, you can go do, again. Because our piece of paper here says that you’re qualified to do more, or do different, in a better job for higher pay and a better life. (Oh – and if you want to keep learning, go to grad school. Doing is not for learning.)

I want to turn this upside down, make it do cartwheels, get all dizzy and mixed up. I have no doubt about the power of learning-to-do, or in learning-by-doing. But I have a hunch that there could be more power — more energy, more possibility, more long-term outcomes — in doing-by-learning.

Doing-by-learning is a phrase that I apparently blurted out in a recent meeting, according to a colleague, and I asked her, “Did I say that?” and she said I did, and then I thought, “Of course I did. That’s what I believe.” And since she pointed out to me that I said that, I’ve been thinking about what I meant.

Here’s what I think I meant:

  • Doing-by-learning means that deep, meaningful, significant learning is our partner — it’s not an outcome, but it is; it’s not a prerequisite, but it is. In doing-by-learning, learning doesn’t come after we do, and isn’t in place in order to do. We do/learn, learn/do: together, hand-in-hand.
  • Doing-by-learning means we engage in reflective practice all. the. time.
  • Doing-by-learning means we get to approach our work, our lives, with inquiry and curiosity and freedom to f*8k up. It means we can experiment, try, fail, try again differently.

WAIT! FAIL? (Gulp!) (You mean failure might be learning too? No way!)

  • Doing-by-learning means we can innovate! It means we can change our lives, our circumstances, our ideas.
  • It means we can change our minds.

WAIT! Change our minds? Doesn’t that make us a “flip-flopper?” Huh? You mean it makes us learners? How ’bout that?

  • It means that when we have a problem to solve, we can frame questions through which we can approach that problem. How should we work together in this situation? What do we need to know to move forward through the problem? What are the options? How will we know it worked? What if it doesn’t work? What will we try next? What new problems might we create in solving this one? Wait – are these even problems???
  • Doing-by-learning means there isn’t likely one correct answer to find, one set of “best practices,” or one right process.

Yah yah yah – maybe this idea isn’t new or original (it isn’t). But imagine this: What might higher education look like if we claimed it as an institution that facilitated doing-by-learning instead of learning to do, or doing and then learning, or even (in the case of internships and other experiential programs) learning-by-doing? That’s what I am going to imagine. I’ll keep you posted with what I come up with.

So How, Exactly, Will Learning Be Assessed?

It is true that I flunked out of Girl Scouts long before I could get a vest like this.

I am trying to understand badges. Given my background with Prior Learning Assessment programs and other forms of experiential learning, I totally get the idea conceptually. (Hey – I know a few boy and girl scouts too! They’ve earned badges for things they learned and could do too, right?)

Apparently, with a badge:

You can get credit for learning outside of school, on the web, or from work and life experience.

So it sounds like some sort of technologically-mediated PLA, except the credit you earn is is not college credit. There is some other currency here, though what value it will hold remains to be seen.  It seems to me that there’s great potential here, as this article explains. What with the rising costs of higher education and access issues, and the learning opportunities presented with new technologies, combined with learning one can obtain through experience (hopefully with some expert guidance and reflection), this might be something quite worthwhile.  I can see it now: Post a few badges onto your robust ePortfolio and your avatar may actually scream: Hire Me!

But here’s what I don’t get — where is the “quality control?” (Ack – I hate that term applied to learning, but I think it’s a legitimate question).  My burning question with all of this is:

So, how, exactly, will learning be assessed?

Of course I ask this question of my faculty colleagues in higher education too — it’s certainly not a question specific to badges. I am honestly trying to figure it out!

Here is some information about assessment and badges, according to the Badge FAQs (a wiki, so what I’ve copied in blue will likely change soon):

Who can issue badges?
Badges can be created, defined and issued by a number of sources, including:

  • Traditional educational institutions (e.g., x, y or z)
  • Professional bodies (e.g. doctors, engineers, accountants)
  • International credential assessment agencies
  • Non formal, community learning organizations (e.g. Adult Basic Education, Literacy, Employability)
  • Communities of practice (e.g., open education projects, peer learners, or the individual learners themselves)
  • After-school programs and learning networks.
  • Online courses and open courseware initiatives.
  • Companies/organizations that employ people

How will the value of the badges be authenticated? In this system, a digital badge is more than just an image – it is essentially a collection of metadata that fully explains the badge and includes information such as the issuer, issue date, criteria for earning the badge, expiration if needed, the learner work or evidence behind the badge, etc. So the badge acts as a gateway or conversation starter, but the bulk of the information is in that metadata and it can act as an informal validation system itself.

And this is what the Mozilla and P2PU badge pilot project will address regarding assessment specifically (also from the FAQs):


The pilot will explore a range of assessment types, including:

  • peer assessment
  • self-assessment
  • portfolio assessment
  • stealth assessment
  • The Javascript badge assessment, for example, will require learners to submit work that demonstrates competency. Peers will then rate the work against a predefined rubric and set of criteria. Once the rating reaches a particular threshold, the badge will be issued.
  • The Accessibility badge will require experience designing or developing for challenged users or accessibility technologies, plus a blog post with reflection and analysis of the experience. A group of accessibility gurus within the community will then assess the work and issue badges accordingly.
  • Other badges may be aligned directly with courses, with course organizers able to assess work and issue badges.

And more:

How does assessment work?

  • For badges to hold real value and carry the weight of more traditional grades or degrees, assessment and quality is critical.
  • Badges can contain multiple levels of assessment, depending on the use case, community or intended audience
    • some will require distinct pre-defined assessment exercises and success criteria
    • others may be loosely defined and require learner reflection or peer recommendations.
  • Hard skills may require standard or more rigid rubrics to compare learner work against.
  • Softer skills can be more fluid and require more open and social assessments like peer reviews or endorsements.
  • For certification badges, intended for audiences like hiring managers, admission boards, more rigorous assessments can be required
  • For badges intended to simply build community or reward behaviors, simple assessments may be enough

How can badges provide greater flexibility and innovation in assessment?
Badges can help:

  • drive innovation around new types of assessments (e.g., x or y)
  • provide more personalized assessments for learners (e.g., x or y)
  • move beyond out of date or irrelevant testing practices (e.g., x or y)

For example:

  • Asynchronous assessment. Instead of being required to take an exam at a pre-determined time, for example, learners can seek out the assessment on their own time.
  • “Stealth assessment.” Assessment and awarding badges can happen automatically and provide immediate feedback. [Need a half sentence summary of what “stealth assessment is.]
  • Portfolio assessment. Work samples, projects and other artifacts the learner has produced or been involved in can demonstrate skills and competencies.
  • Multiple assessors or group assessment. In traditional classrooms, an individual instructor generally does most of the assessing. An open badge system can support assessment from multiple contexts, including course organizers, peers, or learners themselves. This flexible and networked nature could mean that there are multiple paths or assessment options for earning a badge, making the system more flexible, ensuring that the needs of each learner are met and limiting the learning path constraints.

I  think this is all very exciting. But I’ll need to keep learning about this badge idea and seeing where and how it goes because my jury is still out. But hey – maybe I can earn a badge for learning about badges. Then I can get an outfit for my avatar that looks something like this:

Just like I say about earning a college degree, maybe it’s never to late to earn a badge!

Learning To Dream Again

Catherine Hooper, an Organizational Communications major at Marylhurst University, recently finished her 9-credit PLA Portfolio for the following topics:

  • COL 427 Great Meetings: Planning and Facilitating Difficult Group Discussion
  • CCM 321 Small Group Communication
  • COL 426 Team Building: Managing Work Groups

In her Final Portfolio Reflection essay, Catherine wrote:

The PLA program was especially valuable to me because it provided tools to help me find what I was interested in and did well at, and then matched that to a degree program. Education is valuable and I have always wanted to complete my bachelor’s degree; the PLA program created an environment where experience and education are combined to build a strong resume and a sound career path while working on my degree.

Through the PLA program I learned to dream again and think about my future in a more creative way. It offered me opportunities to remember where I had been and what I had done in life and how that has molded me into the person I am today. PLA then helped me take that awareness to develop an educational degree plan that truly excited me.

Congratulations Catherine — May you continue to dream!

My Third And Final Major Was English

David Brooks has written an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times called History for Dollars in which he advocates for studying the humanities, and it has me nogging.

Thanks to quinn.anya on Flickr for making this image available.

Brooks argues that studying the humanities will make a person more employable because they will be able to read and write well, will deeply understand human emotion, can think analogically, and can “befriend” what he calls “The Big Shaggy,” behaviors and phenomena that are difficult to explain. Of the latter, Brooks writes:

The observant person goes through life asking: Where did that come from? Why did he or she act that way? The answers are hard to come by because the behavior emanates from somewhere deep inside The Big Shaggy.

Technical knowledge stops at the outer edge. If you spend your life riding the links of the Internet, you probably won’t get too far into The Big Shaggy either, because the fast, effortless prose of blogging (and journalism) lacks the heft to get you deep below.

But over the centuries, there have been rare and strange people who possessed the skill of taking the upheavals of thought that emanate from The Big Shaggy and representing them in the form of story, music, myth, painting, liturgy, architecture, sculpture, landscape and speech. These men and women developed languages that help us understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them. They left rich veins of emotional knowledge that are the subjects of the humanities.

I object to his implication that blogs “lack the heft” of critical thought and inquiry, but I have to agree with almost every other proposition of his editorial. Let me tell you why.

My first major in college was journalism. I had spent the previous 3 years in high school tirelessly advocating for Freedom Of The Press and a separation of advertising and editorial (my main objective being to convince the school administrators that placing a Planned Parenthood ad in the student newspaper paper was not an endorsement for having sex). It made perfect sense that I would be a journalism major: I had prior experience on the newspaper and yearbook, passion, and it could be practical. I could get a job.

My second major was speech pathology and audiology. I changed it from journalism about a month into college because I decided I wanted to try to do something different from what I had been doing. It wasn’t an analytical decision at the time; it was more like wanderlust meets “I want to be employable after graduation.”

I liked this new major because I was learning in multiple disciplines: anatomy, language development and linguistics, psychology, neurology, etc. We also got to look at cadavers, which was scary and horrifying and amazing, all at the same time. However, in my first session in the speech clinic, when a distraught but forceful mother of a child with a bilateral lisp was insistent that we “FIX HIM!!!” in time for a speech he had to give at his church, my clinical supervisor turned to me and said, “Welcome to your future.” An off-the-cuff comment, but I listened.

My third and final major was English because I liked to write and I liked to read, and I didn’t want to spend time taking courses that I didn’t like. I temporarily set aside my pragmatic paycheck-oriented concerns and decided to focus on learning. And with that came great freedom and deep engagement and, as Brooks argues and I fully believe, marketability.

I have applied lessons from my English courses — from all of those Australian novels and Middle English Prologues and poems and essays and tree structures and Latin roots —  to every aspect of my work. From supervising and supporting employees, to preparing and monitoring budgets, to writing grants, to giving presentations to friendly and challenging audiences, to teaching and mentoring, to learning new computer programs or programming my voice mail, to communicating with various stakeholders and advocating with fierce grace, I call upon my English major skills and capacities of mind each and every day.

Brooks implies that there is money associated with a humanities education; I suspect that might be true (it has not been, for me). But what I DO have is compassion, creativity, energy, communication, and, in general, happiness with what I can and like to do.

My third and final major was English.  And as for The Big Shaggy? I’ll continue to nog on it, with heft (eh hem!), because, as Brooks asks:

…doesn’t it make sense to spend some time in the company of these languages — learning to feel different emotions, rehearsing different passions, experiencing different sacred rituals and learning to see in different ways?

Yes. Yes it does.

This Gives Me The HeeBeeJeeBee’s


Image borrowed from and probably copyrighted by BusinessWeek.

Wal-Mart has announced that it is going to offer its workers support for a college degree program. Ordinarily, most of us in higher ed would say “Great! More employers should recognize that helping their employees pay for and earn a degree is an investment; it is a Good Thing to do for the employee and for the company! No brainer, baby!”

But so far, there’s not been the most positive buzz about this in the higher education channels.  For one thing, the whole deal seems of questionable business ethics and very questionable educational quality. I like this summary of issues from the blog Confessions of a Community College Dean – with this one note that echoes my own concerns from a PLA perspective:

– The real eyebrow-raiser for me was the offer of academic credits for Wal-Mart work experience. Apparently, the ethics training Wal-Mart provides its employees will form the basis for some academic credits. I’ll repeat that for emphasis. The ethics training conducted by Wal-Mart will be given academic credit. Just let that one sink in for a few minutes.

The New York Times article includes this example:

For instance, a department-level manager, who receives training from Wal-Mart in areas like pricing, inventory management and ethics, would be eligible for 24 on-the-job credits, at no charge, toward a 61-credit associates’ degree. A cashier would be eligible for six credits toward a 61-credit associate’s degree or a 120-credit bachelor’s degree.

What is all this “credit for experience” stuff? It’s PLA (or maybe internships, or at the very least “experiential education”), applied in TERRIBLE ways.

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning’s standards for PLA (see Assessing Learning: Standards, Principles & Procedures, second edition – by Morry Fiddler, Catherine Marienau, and Urban Whitaker) state that credit cannot be earned for experience, but for academic (meaning linked to the academic theory), college-level learning.


Not experience.

There is a difference, people!

There is no college course in “How Laura raised her children,” but there are college courses in, for example, Sociology of the Family or Living and Learning With Your Toddler (I should take this course given my own learning curve).

Likewise, is there going to be a college-level course called “How Wal-Mart manages its inventory?” That would likely not be broadly applicable or generalizable, even if it is based on someone’s (Sam Walton’s) theory of inventory management.  What about Advanced Inventory Theory instead? Oh look – there’s an actual textbook (several, in fact), and check out the course description. Sounds like a college course, to me:

This course will provide an in-depth study of classical models for inventory management and their extensions. We will study both deterministic and stochastic inventory models, with more emphasis on the latter. Although many of the topics we will cover are of great interest to managers, our focus will be not on practice but on theory.

Something makes me doubt that Wal-Mart’s own employee training programs and the experience their employees gain is actually “college-level” learning, grounded in academic theory.

I have no doubt that there are high quality, theoretically grounded employee training programs out there. But to automatically provide 24 credits, at no charge, for “work experience” is oh-so-problematic. Where is the learning? I am having a hard time seeing it.

As I said, this whole thing gives me the heebeejeebees! (Maybe Wal-Mart will sell me a salve for this condition, but of course, only if it’s in stock.)

Are You Untouchable?

Recently, Thomas Friedman wrote an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times called The New Untouchables in which he argued that the economic crisis can be attributed to, in part, our poor educational systems. Here’s an excerpt that I think is key:

A Washington lawyer friend recently told me about layoffs at his firm. I asked him who was getting axed. He said it was interesting: lawyers who were used to just showing up and having work handed to them were the first to go because with the bursting of the credit bubble, that flow of work just isn’t there. But those who have the ability to imagine new services, new opportunities and new ways to recruit work were being retained. They are the new untouchables.

That is the key to understanding our full education challenge today. Those who are waiting for this recession to end so someone can again hand them work could have a long wait. Those with the imagination to make themselves untouchables — to invent smarter ways to do old jobs, energy-saving ways to provide new services, new ways to attract old customers or new ways to combine existing technologies — will thrive. Therefore, we not only need a higher percentage of our kids graduating from high school and college — more education — but we need more of them with the right education.

The “right” education is likely one that doesn’t just deliver content to a student who is an empty head waiting to be filled with facts. Instead, the “right” education is one that develops people to be critical thinkers, good communicators, problem-solvers, and as Friedman alludes to, to be self-directed. The untouchables use their imaginations, see things unseen, question the “way things are done,” and take initiative to do things differently. Untouchables don’t watch the clock, don’t wait to be told what to do, and don’t blame others for their own weaknesses or mistakes. Untouchables do learn! In my mind, these are the qualities of the untouchables, and these are the kind of people I would fight hard to keep if they worked for me (and I have!).

So give it some thought: Are you an untouchable? What are you doing to be or become untouchable? What could you do differently to try to be more untouchable?

It may not only be worth your job or your paycheck;  it may, in fact, be worth your mind!