Which super-cool horseless carriage is your dream ride?

Wait a minute…don’t you mean car?

You’re right. We’re talking about cars. But they used to be “horseless carriages,” a phrase that, today, conjures images of dusty streets and loud, messy machinery. The horse replacement.

And, in the early twentieth century, people weren’t quite ready to let go of the horse. Hence the anachronism. One type of early automobile, the “high-wheel motor buggy,” was remarkably similar to its horse-drawn predecessor. Remove the horse and add an engine, and you had the motor buggy.


Horseless Carriage Alert!

What 20th century chauffeurs called a horseless buggy became the automobile, became the car, became the whip…anyway, the phrase is well-past it’s prime. But you’ll find plenty of examples of this in the 21st century, thanks to rapidly advancing technology.

Take, for example, the mobile phone. No matter how dramatically it was improved, the original cell phone never really lost its connotation of dropped calls and big, bulky phones a la Zach Morris. But then we met the iPhone, and everything changed: they still do essentially the same job (making phone calls), but “mobile phones” they are not.

Here’s another one: Any educator who’s used an LMS (Learning Management System) has encountered another horseless carriage: the gradebook. While it aspires to be cutting edge, it’s stuck in the outdated mindset from which it sprang, and it will be as long as we keep calling it a gradebook.


Do You Want a Faster Horse or a Horseless Carriage?

When we talk about innovation, Henry Ford is a go-to example. He famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

And history shows us how that played out: The “horseless carriage” phase ended around 1920, the first year the Model T exceeded sales of a million models.

That said, as one-liners go, it’s not bad: short, sharp, and packed with implications. But like most handy quotes, it could stand some scrutiny. For example, there’s some debate about who actually said it. Additionally, it may lend itself to the tendency to draw people away from a discussion on how success and innovation actually works.

When the Model T arrived, in 1908, automobiles had been around for a few decades. These were wild times for a still-young industry. Dozens of companies fought for a piece of the pie, advances came fast and furious, standards were slow to be established, no single design philosophy dominated (this might sound familiar if your follow education technology closely, but more on that later).

At the time, it was easy for people to imagine a horse-alternative. What they couldn’t imagine was owning one. Horseless carriages were often impractical and always expensive. Some, such as the Rolls-Royce, were outrageously priced luxury items, as out of reach as a yacht or a Newport mansion.

In addition, as far as engineering goes, the Model T wasn’t all that innovative. Ford’s real breakthrough was in strategy. He made the Model T simple, reliable, and easy to use. It rode wide and high, the better to navigate those primitive, punishing roads. Assembly-line efficiency let Ford sell the Model T for an ever lower price, and he paid his workers high enough wages that they could afford the cars they built.

Within days of introducing it, Ford took 15,000 orders for the Model T. Production would eventually reach more than 14 million—placing the Model T among the best-selling cars of all time.

Ford’s triumph was adoption, his innovation essentially human—the Model T wasn’t about moving from getting rid of the horse-and-buggy. It was about moving from unattainable horseless carriages to a very reachable future: cars.

Here’s Your Carriage, What’s Your Hurry?

If you’re an educator, when you log in to any major LMS, you’ll find a table. Rows for students, columns for the stuff you’ve asked them to do. Put numbers in the boxes. Calculate grades.

If you’re a student, the result is a number- or letter- grade: that prized (though inadequate) measure of achievement—learning experiences reduced to a symbol.

How’d you do? What grade did you get?

The LMS gradebook certainly has plenty of high-tech firepower to aid in the task of evaluating a student. But take away the eye candy, and a student is still left with a scorecard. And, more than any other aspect of the LMS, the gradebook exemplifies our top-down, instructor-centered approach to learning. Like the paperbound ledger upon which it’s based, the LMS gradebook mostly serves the instructor and the institution, not the student.

Instructors deliver grades, students receive them. End of story. And just as the traditional gradebook is locked away in the instructor’s desk, the LMS gradebook is typically isolated from a student’s tasks and activities on the platform.

Gradebook over here. Learning experiences over there.


We Want Our Model T!

Educational approaches and technologies are evolving rapidly. In these wild times, LMS providers race to keep up with the paradigm shifts.

In new releases, their gradebooks sport fresh enhancements: learning analytics, smart flagging and alerts, integration with adaptive assessment engines, attempts at supporting competency-based education (CBE) and other outcomes-based alternatives to traditional curriculum.

These improvements are all well and fine, and they’ve been rightly welcomed. But ultimately they come off as extraneous bolt-ons, token afterthoughts, because…well, they are.

It’s still the same old gradebook. And it’s still not doing the student any favors.


Let’s talk about the UN-Gradebook

Maybe what we need is not to redesign the LMS gradebook but to come up with an entirely new solution.

First, let’s stop calling it a gradebook—it should be far more dynamic and capable than a simple ledger. Next, let’s consider what this learner-centered un-gradebook will do:

  • Put everything in one place

    We need an intersection, not an outpost, with activity and evaluation fully merged. Learning experiences should be here not there . Let’s go a step further and integrate all factors that impact learning, to create a holistic 360-view for anyone supporting a student’s progress.

  • Empower students

    Students can and should be active agents of their own learning. A platform’s evaluation resources should be available to both student and instructor, so they can become collaborative partners who identify challenges, recognize opportunities, and pursue effective strategies for reaching goals.

  • Be flexible and authentic

    Moving beyond grades requires a new architecture—a robust framework for outcome mastery and granular feedback, ready to accommodate personalization and many flavors of curriculum.

  • Make data matter

    Data should only exist to define and clarify learning. For instructors and students alike, tracking progress should help to build and expand learning relationships.

  • Embrace reality

    Ford anticipated his Model T would not glide along smooth pavement. We’ll need to incorporate traditional grading and provide transcript options for non-traditional curriculum. We should also ease the necessary but labor-intensive demands of authentic learning in every way possible.

Looking for tomorrow’s un-gradebook…

By the mid-1920s, the rest of the world had caught up to the Model T. People wanted more from their cars, and other automobile makers—having learned all too well from Henry Ford—were eager to oblige.

We should likewise expect that any successor to the current LMS gradebook will itself become obsolete. But that’s okay. The true measure of its innovation will not be how much better it is than what it replaces, but how people use it to transform education in ways not yet imagined.

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