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Chief Penguin
Musings from the Academy’s Global Ambassador

July 9, 2013

Pathways to Learning

Part 3 of a three-part essay on technology and higher education…

More Radical Changes?

While distance education may provide new income opportunities for colleges and universities, particularly at the graduate level, the options for significantly reducing the cost of education at the undergraduate level will be more limited unless radical changes are made in the structure of the undergraduate experience.

Fully Web-based undergraduate programs would seem to be less costly than residential education, but whether they really are depends largely on the level of personal faculty/student interaction needed in any particular online program. Online education that is designed to have minimal engagement between student and faculty will certainly be less expensive than highly interactive programs. Which types of student can learn effectively using online courses is another question.

Looking Ahead

A common myth is that if information is available, students will learn. Well, Web or no Web, learning begins with motivation and then takes discipline, and both are needed for success.

Woody Allen supposedly said, “80% of life is just showing up.” Showing up on the Web isn’t enough. Being surrounded by a lot of information doesn’t mean you actually learn anything. If it did, you could skip reading a book and just hug it. What is clear, however, is that there will be many more pathways to learning in the future, probably more routes leading to a college or university degree, and likely a restructuring of the “badging” role diplomas play. Innovation will accelerate, and more intense competition will develop among a wider variety of traditional and new players. Darwin will be delighted, wherever he is logged on.

Higher education is in for unprecedented innovation and competition. The great power of competition is that it tends to lead to higher quality and makes achieving it the price of survival. In most cases, the marketplace, not academic committees, will choose the winners. And that, perhaps, is the biggest change of all.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 11:39 am

July 5, 2013

Enriching the Traditional Residential Curriculum

Part 2 of a three-part essay on technology and higher education…


Many colleges and universities are choosing to use new digital technologies to become better residential undergraduate institutions—to offer more varied and challenging programs, foster livelier intellectual interaction, and develop stronger residential communities.

These institutions recognize that the central power of residential education is the power of the learning community. Their goal will be to use Internet tools to enhance traditional education, not replace it. Some methods of doing so include the following:

Computers for Information, People for Interaction.

One potentially powerful use of technology is in helping students gain information and develop skills so that live faculty can spend their time interacting with students as only humans can—so far at least. Screens for information. The classroom for interaction. If students can learn the fundamentals using computer-based modules, faculty can be liberated to challenge students to think (a remarkable concept in itself). It’s all about using technology for what it can do best, so that people can be freed to do what they do best.

Rich Offerings for Small Institutions.

The Internet makes it possible for small institutions to provide specialized course offerings despite their size. Consider classics. Although the number of colleges with significant classics departments is relatively small, even modest programs can become more comprehensive by using communications technology.

A good example is the multi-institutional classics department developed some years ago among the 15 institutions in the Associated Colleges of the South. Most of these colleges have at least a few classics faculty, but usually too few to offer a large variety of courses in Greek and Latin culture and literature. By banding together through the Internet and telecommunications, the faculties created a virtual classics department linking faculty, course offerings, and students across their institutions. The goal was not so much to reduce the cost of education, but to make it richer intellectually, to make each institution more competitive for the finest new faculty, and ultimately to increase the number of students who study the classics.

This consortium model can be applied in many other areas and in larger institutions as well, particularly in topics in which each institution has too little expertise to offer a full program, or in which critical teaching expertise can best be found outside of academia. Examples include biotechnology, e-commerce, genetic engineering, and many other fast-changing fields in which any one institution may find it very difficult to offer the highest-quality programs.

Traditionally, colleges and universities have made relatively little use of shared teaching. The goal has been to gather, on the same campus, all the faculty members needed to teach each program they choose to offer. In the future, it seems inevitable that colleges and universities will be knit together by webs of teaching and research consortia that magnify the power of smaller groups of faculty on individual campuses, and make it possible to maintain up-to-date curricula in fields that are changing rapidly. The goal will not be to concentrate all the expertise on a single campus, but to have enough high-quality expertise to form the best alliances.

The Internet may also change the definition of faculty. When information was stored only in books, and books in libraries, faculty had to live near the libraries, and students had to come to them to learn. Faculty therefore had to make teaching their professional lives. But with the power of the Internet, experts who do not choose to make teaching their primary career can still participate in educating students. Much has been written about the power of the Internet to allow current faculty to access many more students. Far less attention has been paid to the possibility that many more people will be able to be faculty, part-time, and greatly enrich educational offerings. There’s an old saying, “There are those who teach and those who do.” Well, now “those who do” can also teach. It’s coming.

To be continued…Part 3: More Radical Changes and Looking Ahead.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 4:04 pm

July 2, 2013

Darwin’s Idea: Competition Drives Evolution. Education, It’s Your Turn.

Part 1 of a three-part essay on technology and higher education…

By now, you may know of my fascination with the power of the Internet and digital technologies to change the opportunities students will have to learn, and to unleash competition and innovation into the world of education, particularly higher education. It’s a world long buffered—even isolated—from significant competition. Well, the same forces that have washed like a tidal wave over business, governments, and social interaction over the past couple of decades—the forces of change driven by fast, inexpensive digital communications—are now impacting the world of higher education. The future began some time ago.

All that said, it’s tempting to be so beguiled by the MOOCs (massive open online courses) on the screen that you slip into believing learning is just another form of downloading. It’s not. Being in the presence of information is not the same as learning. If it were, then just sitting in the library would be a great way to prepare for an exam. Listening to Horowitz recordings won’t make you into a great pianist either.

Learning and Carnegie Hall have a lot in common. Success at both takes practice. Having access to a great MOOC about history won’t make you into an historian. To really learn, you must do, and active doing—which generally means investigating, thinking, writing, and “working out the math”—tends to be hard work, particularly at the start. Success takes discipline, motivation, and determination. I’ve yet to see a website where they are on offer.

Though there is much to explore in the new fascinating world of education on screen and online, the fundamentals will remain the same, since people have a stubborn tendency to remain the same. Learning is not downloading. Learning takes doing. Doing takes discipline. So, show up for class with your assignment done—wherever class may be. There’s no shortcut.

New Technology, New Competition
Colleges and universities have long competed on the basis of faculty quality, brand-name recognition, price, and programs. But there has been almost no competitive market based on the methods of teaching and learning. For centuries, higher education has been rooted in secure notions of how faculty should teach and students should learn. Professors have been the holders and transmitters of knowledge. Students have been required to visit professors and attend lectures or seminars or recitations or laboratories at set times. Virtually all colleges and universities, the old and venerable and those established just yesterday, will teach the same way this fall because it’s the way they taught last fall.

Now the climate is ripe for innovation: costs are high enough to drive it, and new tools make it possible. We have the technological ability to provide learning environments anywhere and anytime. Unconstrained by bricks and mortar, new competitors can enter the worldwide educational marketplace, and established institutions can compete with each other in new ways. The driving forces, as in the rest of the economy, are income and competitive edge.

Of course, just because income beckons and innovation is technically possible doesn’t mean that new methods will be accepted enthusiastically, will be adopted quickly, or will be implemented well. What is inevitable is a great deal of experimentation. Innovation is coming to higher education, and it is gaining speed at a pace that most faculty curriculum committees find dizzying.

Stanford has done much to accelerate the pace of innovation. While many colleges and universities have been offering online programs for the past decade or so, Stanford has made it “socially acceptable” among the truly elite. Stanford has raised the bar and sent a message to its peers, in polite academese of course, that simply doing things the same way year after year is not the future Stanford has chosen. Pay attention, peers. Change and innovation are coming.

The Virtual Football Team?
Will residential higher education be replaced by websites? I certainly hope not. The residential undergraduate experience is a marvelous invention, a relatively safe halfway house between home and independence. Living away from home, students grow up, learn to work with others, find out about the world from their faculty and peers, are exposed to intellectual, cultural, and human diversity, are challenged to explore beyond their familiar and comfortable worlds, and yes, even attend classes and earn degrees. They seek out peers, professors, and staff to talk, debate, and work through what at times seem like (and may be) life crises. In most cases, they bloom, both intellectually and socially. Their parents marvel at them, and they come to marvel at their parents. In short, the process works, and it works very well indeed. It’s not the only way to bridge home and career, but it’s a very good way. It’s also expensive.

To be continued…Part 2: Enriching the Traditional Residential Curriculum.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 11:05 am

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