TLT Faculty Fellow John Cheslock

John Cheslock

John Cheslock is the director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education and associate professor of education policy studies in the College of Education. He is also one of this year’s Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) Faculty Fellows, exploring the creation and application of digital badges across a variety of contexts.

Cheslock is relatively new to Penn State, having started here around four years ago. He said he has been thinking seriously about the role in technology in teaching and learning over the last year or two from two different angles. One, he said, has to do with the changing financial model in higher education. “Our business model is facing some future challenges,” he said. “Government funding is not looking robust in future years based on projections. There’s this idea we’ve reached the tuition price ceiling, so it’s going to be hard to increase that in dollars.”

“At the same time, costs and expenditures at colleges and universities are things that sort of grow in larger amounts than in other industries,” Cheslock added. “There’s lots of reasons for why costs go up in higher ed more than other places, but one of the reasons is that the basic production process hasn’t changed. So if you go to a GM plant and you watch how they make cars, it’s been fundamentally transformed through technology over 50 years. But if you look at education, it’s still a faculty member with lots of students.”

How do we grow our online programs in ways that is in synergy with other things we do?”John Cheslock

Technology, Cheslock believes, may have some answers, and actually in part led him to the TLT Fellowship. “To what extent can we use technology to decrease costs some, but leave quality the same or optimally even decrease costs while enhancing quality? Are there opportunities to create or use technology for that?” he said.

The other angle, Cheslock notes, is based around trying to increase online enrollments, and do it in a synergistic way. “One thing that I’ve really been trying to think about is how do we grow our online programs in ways that is in synergy with other things we do?” he said. “So if we have an online program we also have a residential program. We also have blended institutes. We also have an academic leadership academy that is for department heads or associate deans.”

Digital badges and a revolution in higher education

Cheslock began to work on digital badges when he started pondering what would happen if someone created something that recognized reaching a competency in an online course that could also work with a residential course, a blended institute, or for professional development. He imagined taking material out of a course and making it freely available, for example, to Penn State employees or even to the rest of the world. That way others may be able to use Penn State materials to develop different competencies.

“Through conversations with Kyle Peck (one of the other TLT Faculty Fellows) and others about all this, all of a sudden I began to realize, oh, that’s what badges are,” Cheslock said. “So I was just talking about creating a badge.”

Cheslock sees digital badges as a better way to communicate to the world what someone has learned. He believes they would be better than a simple transcript, and that they would work well in an ePortfolio-type approach for Penn State students. “Something that TLT wants to think about is how badges might be embedded in ePortfolios,” he said. “And hopefully this fellowship will provide TLT ideas on how to do so.”

Cheslock said that one interesting aspect of digital badges is the reaction to them in the higher education world. As director of the Center for Study of Higher Education, he has done a fair amount of research into digital badges and has seen basically two different general opinions on how they will affect higher education. “One of the big questions is how is this technology going to play out? Because we’re at a moment in history where there are rather grand proclamations about how digital badges will transform higher education,” he said. “And the honest truth is no one really knows what will happen in the near future.”

“Something that TLT wants to think about is how badges might be embedded in ePortfolios.”John Cheslock

Cheslock sees people who are thinking everything in higher education will change due to badges, and those who are skeptical, pointing to previous bold predictions of complete transformation of higher education when video first appeared in classrooms that did not exactly happen the way it was predicted.

“Both of them have an element of truth. Both have good counter arguments to each other,” Cheslock said. “And I’m not in a camp, I’m the one who really finds it interesting to watch these camps interact. And I don’t claim any ability to predict the future. But certainly there are people making rather strong predictions.”

A big question that Cheslock ponders is if indeed digital badges revolutionize higher education, who will be the providers of these badges? Will the providers be the traditional colleges and universities, or will there be new players? “My hope would be that traditional colleges and universities, which have served society very well, are able to transform, if transformation is needed,” he said.

“Can schools like Penn State change in ways that allow them to take advantage of these new technologies while also retaining much of what’s useful? Or is it just going to be too hard for these big higher education institutions, which are always described as slow-moving and not nimble, to deal with the new providers that will pop up?” Cheslock added.

The role of digital badges in higher education and beyond

Beyond higher education, Cheslock also sees potential for digital badges to have an impact on workforce training. Given the busy work and life schedules most find in their post-college years, many people do not have the ability to do a three-credit course in fifteen straight weeks. Instead of bundling everything up in one three-credit course, badges would be offered for individual, specific concepts from each course. “All those people in the working world potentially would have this option to just go off and get these other portions,” he said. “So that might encourage a lot more education that wouldn’t occur otherwise. Now we can think about providing educational opportunities in lots of different things and formats.”

As far as Cheslock’s actual work during his stint as a TLT Faculty Fellow, he said he is working with TLT to examine how digital badges can be embedded in the DNA of programs, such as academic degrees and ePortfolios. He noted that while people in higher education understand how to teach effectively, the challenge with digital badges will be adoption in large numbers. For example, one challenge is to make it easy for faculty to think about their course as a series of competencies and to have these competencies embedded in an ePortfolio.

One of the keys to widespread adoption, Cheslock believes, is making it simple for faculty to create digital badge material and place it in online courses, residential courses, professional development, etc. He notes that one of the reasons why some technologies are not adopted because it adds more work to a faculty member’s already busy schedule.

“The key is making it easy to create material for a course’s particular competencies that would be good for a digital badge, and make it easy to create this material,” Cheslock said. “And make it really easy, once you create this material, to quickly place it into the online course I’m teaching, the residential course I’m teaching, the blended institute I’m teaching, or some professional development seminar. How do we make that really easy on faculty members? Because the reason a lot of times why proven innovations don’t get adopted is because it’s just more work to adopt them.”

How can we get to the point where digital badge materials are easy to create? Cheslock has some interesting theories. “Let’s not focus on iCourses first,” Cheslock said. “Let me, in tandem with you, work with several other courses that are being taught by other faculty members and let’s think about how do we make this as easy as possible for them to use and adopt this stuff? And so we get more widespread buy in.”

“The goal is to have an ePortfolio of learning materials that makes sense and is consistent across courses,” Cheslock added.

Overcoming skepticism, and digital badges’ bright future

Something that is as revolutionary as digital badges will of course attract some skepticism, Cheslock noted. “You have multiple types of skepticism,” he said. “One type of skepticism comes from faculty, who would actually be creating the digital badges. Another is from the end user.”

There are a few ways to overcome skepticism. One, Cheslock said, is simply connecting with the skeptics, find out what their concerns are, and addressing them. Another way is getting the technology to work well and avoid frustrating glitches, which is where TLT’s expertise will be vital to success.

TLT, Cheslock said, can help not only by providing the expertise, but facilitating partnerships. Cheslock’s Center for the Study of Higher Education has partnerships with the Office of Planning Institutional Assessment and the Division of Student Affairs, and they are working with Outreach and World Campus. He sees one of the goals of his TLT Faculty Fellowship as setting the groundwork for future connections.

Another result of the Fellowship for Cheslock is some actual, direct work on creating a digital badge and ePortfolio for two courses. The two courses in the summer and upcoming fall semester are Hi Ed 545 Higher Education in the United States, and Hi Ed 490, a professional seminar. They are two intro courses to the Masters of Education program.

“What does it mean to communicate your competencies in a more effective way than a transcript?”John Cheslock

“Within those courses we will be thinking through how a badge, just one badge as sort of an example, could be embedded in the ePortfolio,” Cheslock said. “Then work with students in both of those classes to develop what this badge might look like and how the badges will work in the ePortfolio. Then we can scale it up and have more badges for a particular class.”

Creating a badge as part of the class becomes a learning experience for the students, Cheslock said. “It’s hands-on experience rather than them just reading about this in a class,” he said. “What does it mean to communicate your competencies in a more effective way than a transcript? I think that lesson will come home much stronger for them if they have to design how you would communicate what happened within this badge? What would that look like? And so I think it’s going to provide this great learning experience for our students who are helping us figure out how to use technology. Because in many cases, they are going to be the ones who can think most clearly because they’ve grown up in the digital age.”

“Plus, they have the mindset of students, rather than people trying to get in the mindsets of students,” Cheslock added. “No matter how hard we try, sometimes students will just have an easier time perceiving what will be most effective to them.”

Cheslock said that his Fellowship is just the beginning of the work on digital badges that he will be doing with TLT, and added that he believes there is a bright future for digital badges at Penn State.

“There’s a lot of stuff that’s of interest to me that’s not really part of this initial fellowship that I think would be a natural for the sort of connection that I have with TLT,” Cheslock said. “This initial Faculty Fellow project hopefully will start growing relationships and make the right connections so we can continue to build on the promise that digital badges hold for the future in higher education.”

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