Questions related to coming changes in higher education

At the session “Public Online Social Learning Environments” led by Patricia Anderson (mind map for session at UMTTC), we discussed a mind-blowingly expansive set of alternative educational (or teaching or learning) models. Also recently, Alex Summers at Edudemic wrote a nice article titled “The 10 Biggest Trends in Online Education Right Now”. Below I briefly recount a few of the issues mentioned; however, I focus my writing on the questions raised for MRFIHL (major research-focused institutes of higher learning — e.g., the University of Michigan, where I work).

Themes related to coming changes

These themes kept popping up during her talk and our discussion (I can tell you right now that none of these have anything to do with visiting beautiful old buildings on beautiful campuses):

  • Personalization: How can teaching be personalized to the needs of each specific learner? How is the educational program, plan, or content be specialized to the needs of that learner? Students are far less interested in taking the standard class (sequence, or program) and much more interested in taking what, specifically, is best for the student at this particular time.
  • Social: How can students link what they’re doing to the rest of the people in their lives, or at least to the other people going through the same learning process?
  • Free: Lots of really great educational resources are available for free online, with many from reputable sources (many universities world-wide, TED conferences, community organizations; more on this in a future post). How can a university justify (and thereby enable it to pay my salary) charging students such high fees?
  • Localization: Why should students have to come to one specific room in one specific campus in order to learn some material? Why can’t they learn from wherever they happen to be?Lots of technologies are available that allow this type of geographic dispersion to work fairly well.
  • Asynchronous: Why should students have to come together at a specific time to learn the material? If it is just to hear a lecture and not to interact with the other people in the classroom or the professor at the front, then what’s the purpose?
  • Qualifiable: Is the “teacher” or “organizer” qualified to lead the class? How do you know? Maybe more importantly, how does your future employer know, and does he/she care?
  • Transferrable: How can you get credit for what you have learned at a place other than where you learned it?
  • Open: Can anyone have access to the materials (assignments, lectures, learning tools) for the class? Or is there an application mechanism?

Online education specifically

Rather than recount Alex’s list here, I’’ll focus on the questions posed by a subset of those for MRFIHL:

  • Online education becoming more valued by employers: The perception of online education is improving. The benefits of online education are real — it isn’t always better than in-person education, but it does have benefits. Why shouldn’t a MRFIHL provide some online education when it is appropriate?
  • Hybrid courses are becoming more available: Hybrid courses, those that are delivered with a mixture of in-person and online, can be seen in a few more traditional universities. Again, there are benefits here, both in efficiency to the professor and student and in increasing the types of material and collaborators that can be brought to class. Why not start exploring this space and sharing our successes and failures?
  • Remote collaboration is a key benefit (teaching): Experts live all around the world, both in academia and in the RL, and it should be considered possible that they may not want to travel to Ann Arbor in the depth of winter (from November-April). If we integrate remote technologies into our classes, we could then get more used to involving these experts in our classes, and not have it be some type of special occasion. In theory this should raise the quality of the classes.
  • Remote collaboration is a key benefit (learning): Students come from all around the world. Technologies enabling remote collaboration have come a long way in the last few years, getting to the point where they are even non-remarkable (Skype, Google Docs, Google Hangout). Use of these tools should enable students to live anywhere where a reasonable telecommunications infrastructure exists and effectively participate in classes back at the MRFIHL. Why shouldn’t we use these technologies to reach out to this far-flung audience?
  • Digital content distribution is easily done: In contrast to paper- or book-based distribution, digital distribution is quite straight-forward. A whole industry and set of technologies exist to simplify this process (ebooks, PDFs, Kindles, LMSs, etc.). All of this allows students to access and interact with that content wherever they might be, as long as they are near a phone, tablet, or computer. And what student doesn’t have his or her phone nearby? So far, the reason that this isn’t done more frequently is that students still have work habits that are better supported with paper. If the benefits of electronic distribution were better taken advantage of, analog distribution would disappear quickly. What student wants to carry around a huge backpack of books?
  • Online education encompasses lots of choices: This isn’t just ebooks or a talking head in a video. As Summers points out, “These days students have a wide variety of tools at their disposal, including text chat, immersive multimedia, virtual classrooms, and digital whiteboards.” Why not experiment with these different delivery mechanisms and see what we learn about them? We may find that we enjoy using them; we may find that students appreciate the options and variety it gives them; we may actually find out that students learn just as well with these tools as with in-person classrooms.
  • Social media can be integral to online education: Students are certainly active with social media. Well, it turns out that social media (at least Twitter, blogging, Google Hangouts, and Pinterest) can be quite supportive of the educational process, too. Why wouldn’t a professor want students to be interacting with the course material at many touch-points throughout their lives instead of just in a textbook or during a lecture? Why not facilitate many types of discussions in many contexts in order to show the variety of ways that the class material can affect the student?


So, what does this mean to me? Well, that will have to wait for a future post. This one is long enough (ummm, maybe it’t too long, Scott). For now, I would love to hear how you and/or your organization is addressing this. Are you using one-off experiments with individual faculty members simply doing it and asking for forgiveness rather than permission? Or is there an organizational push to get faculty to do this? I would love to hear your responses!