Q&A: Sheryl Grant on Grand Experiments in Learning and Assessment


9.10.13 | Sheryl Grant is director of social networking for the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition.

This is part of a series of conversations with thought leaders on digital media and learning, then and now. In conversation with journalist Heather Chaplin, leaders reflect on how the field of digital media and learning has changed over time, and where it’s headed.

Spotlight: How did you get involved in this world? What made you interested in HASTAC?

Sheryl Grant: I was finishing my master’s degree in information science and in a job that felt very ed-tech. It wasn’t reflecting the incredible potential of the web. I couldn’t believe that here was the internet, which was so interesting and transformative, and people were reducing its potential to just-in-time tutorials.

So what happened to take you out of that?

I started working for HASTAC in 2008. I saw the job description—director of social networking—and I didn’t know what that was. But I went and talked to Cathy Davidson at HASTAC. I knew exactly what she was talking about, I understood what the competition was about, and I got where MacArthur was coming from.

Can you tell me something specific about what was going on at HASTAC that felt so different to you?

She said, “You can’t fail because it’s never been done before.” I think of that phrase a lot. It helped me feel like I could experiment.

I was inspired by this sense that we were building new things and thinking about them in new ways. Also, HASTAC emphasizes the humanities as well as technology, something I hadn’t really experienced in my own education. And I was intrigued by the idea of getting together lots of different thinkers from different disciplines and saying, “What are we going to do in this sandbox?” I came away from that first interview feeling like I’d found my people.

What do you do as director of social networking?

I remember asking Cathy what the measure of success would be for me in this position. And she said, “You can’t fail because it’s never been done before.” I think of that phrase a lot. It helped me feel like I could experiment. A big part of my job is to convey that same sentiment. I connect people and try to remind them how their project fits into the bigger picture. When people are down in the trenches, it gets frustrating. They encounter challenges, obstacles, failure, and it helps to be reminded that they are part of this bigger initiative, that others are trying to figure this stuff out too.

Can you talk more about this idea that failure might be part of the process?

Yes. One example is that people don’t always want to write about their projects because they don’t want to expose failure to their funders. But this ends up meaning they don’t talk about lessons learned. I think having Connie Yowell say, “Its okay to take risks,”—and having that message come from her—has been really important. That message really changes the dynamic.

Can you give me an example of how your own thinking has changed since you first got involved?

I’ve realized that inserting the humanist perspective is crucial. Even among people who have the same goals as you, you have to advocate constantly so you don’t overlook the humanist thinking and get too carried away with just the technology. 

Are you thinking of something specific?

We have an amazing opportunity to do something really transformative, but if we get too focused on the technology, I worry we’ll miss a chance to genuinely change the status quo.

I sometimes worry that the badges conversation is becoming a technology-heavy conversation. [Badges are a new way to trace learning that happens beyond the classroom. Individuals can display the badges they’ve earned in an online “backpack,” and the “metadata” in the badges offer a more granular insight into the skills learned.]

We have to keep asking not only, “What are we solving?’” but also, “Who are we solving this for?” Not only in what others write and say, but in my own work as well, I see that we’re talking about badges—which is understandable. But we need to remember that this is about learners and learning, and, ultimately, it’s about equity.

So what does the badges project look like to you if we keep the humanist perspective? And what are you afraid it might look like if we don’t?

We have to understand social and cultural contexts for individual badge systems. We have to understand the social equity piece. There are ethical decision points in every system we build. What questions should we be asking? We have to know how the current system of assessment came to be, something that Cathy Davidson talks about a lot. We need to identify the ingredients that go into building powerful badge systems that will actually make badges peripheral to the learning. We have an amazing opportunity to do something really transformative, but if we get too focused on the technology, I worry we’ll miss a chance to genuinely change the status quo.

Is there anything out there you’re watching in this space that you think is getting it right?

UC Davis has an undergrad program with a rich theory of learning driving their badge system. They’ve spent two years thinking about it, and have a really clear vision for the role of badges. They’ve been thinking about the learning deeply, so the badge system has something rigorous to sit on top of. Students do a lot of field studies, and have very experiential, hands-on learning. Also, they want faculty to look at a student’s learning pathway and say, “I can see you’re doing this. Have you thought about adding this other piece?” One of the most interesting things to come out of the badge work is this idea of learning pathways.

What’s the most exciting thing you’ve seen in your time at HASTAC?

I’ve never seen anything quite like the badges movement. I think the face-to-face badge workshops we did at Duke in September and UC Irvine in January were groundbreaking. No one had ever come together from so many different kinds of organizations to discuss learning, assessment, and badge system design in that kind of depth. And again, it was especially meaningful to have Connie say, “You don’t need to come here knowing everything.” I think that gives people permission to talk openly about what’s working, what isn’t, and to go back to their projects and try things they’ve seen others do.

Whose work are you watching right now?

I was really inspired by Bill Penuel’s presentation at the badges meeting at NSF this year. We talk a lot about motivation and badges but we’re not really talking about equity and badges. He brought forth that perspective in a really compelling way. We need to listen to what he’s saying. There’s still so much about badges we just don’t know yet. When you have an experiment like this, you have to listen to the people who have been doing deep research in assessment and learning. It’s a balancing act—to innovate while remaining skeptical. Also, I have to say Cathy Davidson, and not just because she’s my boss. She moves in all these spheres—education, corporate, higher-ed, K12, government. You need someone who can really connect ideas across these spheres and remind us why we’re doing what we do.

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