Curiosity as a Learning Outcome

Can we update our learning-assessment systems?

  • By W. Gardner Campbell
  • 12/28/11

When we speak of learning outcomes, we typically mean either skill mastery or successful recall of information. Indeed, we often make successful recall--what our students tend to call regurgitation--an easy-to-measure proxy for mastery. Inputs match outputs, and the student passes the class. Problem solved--or is it?

While techniques such as portfolio-based assessment and problem-based learning have attempted to go well beyond measuring mere recall, our education systems continue to use industrial-era strategies to increase access and cut costs. These so-called efficiencies drive a race to the bottom in which login behaviors and click counts in various areas of "learning management systems" track compliance and regurgitation within teacher-centered paradigms of direct instruction.

The French have a poignant term for the kind of learner such schooling tends to produce: the bon élève, which the great mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot once defined as "a student with good grades, no depth, and no vision."

Our world is too complex, our problems too intricate, our opportunities too vast to settle for such narrow aspirations. It is no longer enough merely to create dutiful students who amass credit hours, credentials, and cynicism about learning while governments topple, economies melt down, and many people lack the basic necessities.

What if we took another tack, specifying that students should not only remember information but also demonstrate increased curiosity? Consider, for example, "Curiosity and Exploration Inventory-II," a test devised by a team of psychologists at four US universities (see the Journal of Research in Personality 43 [2009] 987-998) to measure a person's level of curiosity. Researchers asked students to rate the extent to which each of these statements describes them:

1.     I actively seek as much information as I can in new situations.

2.     I am the type of person who really enjoys the uncertainty of everyday life.

3.     I am at my best when doing something that is complex or challenging.

4.     Everywhere I go, I am out looking for new things or experiences.

5.     I view challenging situations as an opportunity to grow and learn.

6.     I like to do things that are a little frightening.

7.     I am always looking for experiences that challenge how I think about myself and the world.

8.     I prefer jobs that are excitingly unpredictable.

9.     I frequently seek out opportunities to challenge myself and grow as a person.

10. I am the kind of person who embraces unfamiliar people, events, and places.

What's striking here is how closely these statements describe the very qualities higher education seeks to strengthen over the course of a degree program. Equally striking is the extent to which these statements describe the capacities that digital citizens of the 21st century will need to adapt to rapid, unpredictable change.

I can only conclude that effective education for the 21st century must trade compliance for curiosity. The assignments we craft, the curricula we plan, the degrees we grant must share a core commitment to help our students go beyond the limits they imagine for themselves, and we must do this by specifying increased curiosity as a learning outcome.

We can start with our increasingly digital environment. MIT's Seymour Papert laments that "before the computer could change school, school changed the computer." It's not too late to reverse that trend. Instead of using computers to automate drill-and-kill problem sets, we should look to the history of computing for horizons of possibility. The internet was invented to empower collaboration and augment human intellect. The web has made these possibilities available to a staggeringly diverse global citizenry. Let's shutter our "learning management systems" and build "understanding augmentation networks" instead, moving away from educational assembly lines toward intellectual ecosystems of interest and curiosity.

Editor's note: Campbell will give the opening keynote at the School and College Building Expo, colocated with FETC, Jan. 24-26 in Orlando, FL.

About the Author

W. Gardner Campbell is Director of Professional Development and Innovative Initiatives in the Division of Learning Technologies at Virginia Tech.

Sustainability | Feature
Green Flash
Our environmental challenges are profound, but the solutions don't have to be. Here are 5 quick green initiatives that your institution can implement this year.
• By Jennifer Grayson
• 12/13/11
An exploding world population. The rising cost of energy. Climate change. Big problems require big solutions, right? Not so, says Rory Sutherland, an ad executive who gave a scintillating TED talk last year in which he posited that our biggest challenges can best be tackled with not-so-flashy--even boring--solutions. Translation: When it comes to sustainability, sometimes it's good to sweat the small stuff.
Adobe EchoSign
California Community Colleges Technology Center
California Virtual Campus
Carl Sandburg College
Champlain College
Good Point Recycling
Intellidemia Concourse
Randolph College
Syllabus Institute
TED, Rory Sutherland speech
Webster University
This is not to say you should cancel plans for your school's large-scale solar installation. After all, institutions of higher learning have become green trendsetters for the entire nation. (Nearly 700 schools, for instance, have signed the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment, which sets schools on the path to climate neutrality.) But in focusing on building institutional support for that biomass cogeneration plant, have you overlooked minimizing paper waste in the computer lab? What are you doing about students tossing old cell phones in the trash?
The real selling point for small-scale solutions is time: Whereas a solar project might take years to plan, a recycling initiative for cell phones might take only days. Here are five sustainability solutions so simple to deploy that there's no excuse not to adopt them in the coming year.
1) Change Your Font
Victor Gosnell, chief technology officer at Randolph College (VA), is no stranger to large-scale green initiatives. After he assumed his post at the university in 2009, his inaugural project was an overhaul of the school's data center, complete with an $85,000 initial investment. But that doesn't mean he and his staff aren't on the lookout for smaller solutions. "We continuously keep our eyes open for new ways to save resources, time, and money," says Gosnell. A recent study from, for example, really caught his attention. Sent to Gosnell by his campus sustainability coordinator, the study claimed that institutions can slash printing costs by a third--simply by choosing the correct font.
With printer ink costing upward of $8,000 a gallon, Gosnell didn't hesitate. The decision to switch the default fonts in the computer labs was made on Sept. 15, and implementation began on Sept. 19. Gosnell selected Century Gothic, which is 31 percent more efficient than Arial, thanks to its thinner print line. (Ecofont, which saves ink by printing tiny holes in the typeface, comes a close second.)
It's too early to predict the savings, but Gosnell doesn't foresee any opposition to the switch on campus. "Our anticipation is that most users will not even notice or care that the change was made," he says.
2) Recycle Small E-Waste
With all that ink saved, it's likely that Randolph will be left with fewer empty printer cartridges. Even so, they need to be disposed of properly, advises Christina Erickson, sustainability coordinator at Champlain College(VT). While many schools have e-waste recycling for larger items like computers, smaller items, such as cell phones and printer cartridges, are often tossed in the trash, where they can leach toxic chemicals and pollute groundwater. Such was the case at Champlain when Erickson first arrived. Having come from another institution where small-electronics recycling was already the norm, she was able to make the case to higher-ups easily.
Their response? "Yes, that makes sense. Let's do that," chuckles Erickson. So she went to Good Point Recycling, a fair trade organization in Middlebury, VT, that already handles the school's computer recycling. They sold her five collection tubes for $65 each, which she placed in strategic locations around campus. Student-designed signage hung by the collection points totaled around $60.
Students can deposit CDs, DVDs, printer cartridges, any handheld electronic device, batteries, chargers, and cables into the collection tubes. Once a semester, Good Point collects the e-waste and sends the college a bill to the tune of about 15 cents per pound. Total time investment: about six weeks. "This was such a no-brainer, and a minimal investment," says Erickson.
3) Green Your Tech Refresh
A comprehensive e-waste recycling program is laudable, but recycling still requires energy and resources. That's why it's worth researching your technology options before you buy to find more sustainable solutions. Take Carl Sandburg College (IL), which had been refreshing its classroom desktop computers every three years. In March 2011, however, the college highlighted long-term sustainability as a priority during a strategic-planning process. As a result, IT set a goal of reducing its carbon footprint by 5 percent per year. The energy-guzzling desktops had to go.
While the prospect of replacing every desktop computer on campus may not seem like a quick green initiative, IT started with just one classroom, replacing the CPUs with NComputing thin clients. "You have to start small and deploy technologies that are inexpensive, easy to deploy, and make an immediate and consistent environmental impact," says Samuel Sudhakar, vice president of administrative services and CIO.
The impact was indeed immediate: The new devices consume one-tenth the energy and can support 100 users on a single OS. They're also inexpensive, each costing about $300 less than a desktop. What's more, they only have to be replaced every seven to eight years.
4) Ditch Paper Contracts
With such an obvious win-win, why didn't Sudhakar transition to thin clients sooner? "The technology just wasn't mature enough yet," he explains. It's been a similar story with electronic contracts, which have suffered from issues of reliability and user-friendliness. Enter Adobe EchoSign, a web-based solution for generating and archiving digital contracts that lets recipients sign from any internet-enabled device. As sustainability solutions go, this may be the quickest to deploy: Since there's no significant software to download, users can start sending e-contracts as soon as they sign up for the service.
It may offer the most time savings on the back end, too. California Community Colleges Technology Centerand California Virtual Campus began using EchoSign in 2010 for internal invoicing, and recently employed it for a project that required signatures for a memorandum of understanding (MOU) from 60-plus colleges statewide. The results were astounding: While a paper-based MOU would typically take three weeks to do the rounds, EchoSign cut that down to less than one day, on average. The fuel and transport savings are equally significant, especially when you consider CVC and CCC Technology Center mailed more than 11,000 documents requiring signatures across California last year.
5) Move Syllabi Online
Of course, you can't talk about e-contracts without mentioning all the paper saved. But for schools looking to really trim paper waste, an oft-overlooked culprit is the school syllabus. According to the Syllabus Institute, a faculty resource for all things syllabus-related, a school with 4,000 students uses about 8 millionsheets of paper to support its academic activities. For a larger school such as Webster University (MO), which has more than 100 campuses worldwide and an enrollment of 20,000-plus, the number was significantly higher.
The solution? Move Webster's syllabi online, via Intellidemia Concourse. Conservation was not the key driver behind this shift, however. Instead, it was spurred by a desire to streamline the syllabus-management process and maintain accreditation standards for the university's Walker School of Business, says Brad Wolaver, faculty development coordinator for the school. And Webster was so pleased with the results from the business school that it expanded the syllabus project university-wide.
Starting small, in this case, proved to have a big impact. "You may not want to jump right into climate-change mitigation," says Wolaver. "Starting small by getting your syllabi online, installing LED lighting, or going trayless in dining facilities will reduce costs, save energy, and build institutional capacity for change."