As I have been working on developing online modules I have found myself struggling with a most basic issue: what do I expect students to know versus what do I expect them to retain?  In a perfect world the two would of course be the same, and all my clever presentations, lectures and other materials would remain in their minds for a long time.  From their standpoint, the central criteria is the course grade—retaining all of the course material into the future is not on their short list of requirements.  Their keys are linked to 1) getting a good job; 2) paying off their student loan.

I could just write this off as a part of the reality of undergraduate education in the U.S. (and I’m pretty sure, globally) except for the fact that the module I’m currently working on is on “how to think”.  So blowing off the gap between the two party’s views of ‘THE CLASS’ is not going to happen.

If we throw in a 3rd interested party—the administration, which is currently consumed with the need for assessment, measurables, marketable skills and whatever other buzz words of the month have been embraced directly or indirectly by WASC and by default our administrators.  Thus the words COMPETENCY and SKILLS get bandied around interminably.  As a result, higher education has become seen by most parties as a commodity or product.  There are a whole set of other perceptions that spin off of this, but the key one here is the largely passive way that we use products.

If I buy an I-Phone, ATT or Verizon does not perform a competency test on my ability to use the phone.  In fact, Apple’s claim to fame is largely based on the ease of use of their phones; to lower the learning curve as much as possible; the make the competency barrier as low as possible.  This is fine, since the phone is a passive communications and recording device.  It is merely an interface between me and others.

By contrast, if someone takes one of my classes, there is a packet of concepts and ideas that are central to what I present as that subject.  Since I give out the course Powerpoint presentations at the beginning of the semester, the concepts and ideas are accessible—IN PART.  But if on an assignment someone frequently quotes me ‘Webster’s Dictionary’ definition for a concept I will be an unhappy camper.  They have cut and pasted a response.  But they’ve also illustrated that they don’t know what the concept actually is (and probably don’t care), and the vast majority of the time they will show their lack of understanding in the rest of their response.

Now, from their standpoint they have the information: the term//a definition.  They then apply the definition to answer the posed question.

From my standpoint and the standpoint of a potential employer, who both expect them to be able to use and apply this concept, they’ve failed the test.  NOTE that they have illustrated that they have 2 SKILLS: 1) they can use search functions and find relevant answers; 2) they can cut and paste into documents.  They have failed IN THEIR COMPETENCY of the concept.

I propose that we call this PROCESSED KNOWLEDGE.  Processed Knowledge will be defined as a concept, term, skill, etc. that you understand the wider implications of and relationships to other concepts or terms.  For example, the term “epoxy”.  If I’m an over-stressed engineering student and the term comes up in a class, I can memorize the definition and relevant material so that I pass the test in class.  Then is falls into the pile of ‘stuff that I remember hearing about in one of my classes’.  In my case, as someone who has been involved in building and repairing boats for way too long, the word ‘epoxy’ has a number of connotations, including what it is, when you use it, failures and successes from my experience, smell, etc.  It also links to a number of other concepts including strength, waterproof (don’t ask), etc.  In my case the term has been processed, and the package is Processed Knowledge.  In the case of the engineering student, it’s just information.

I would argue that the Internet hasn’t dumbed us down.  But it has made it so easy to access information that in many, possibly in most, cases we can get by with cut-and-paste of information and don’t have to engage in processing it into knowledge.  KNOWING SOMETHING IS NOT THE SAME AS REMEMBERING SOMETHING.  Competency must be related to the acquisition and development of Processed Knowledge, otherwise the term only relates to short-term information retrieval and dissemination.

This becomes the huge challenge for a distracted world—how, when and where do you find the temporal and conceptual space to process knowledge, especially given the ease of accessing information.

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