It’s taken decades, but educational technology is finally beginning to change the way we think about education itself -- not just the way we deliver it.
Twenty-four years ago, I taught my first writing course in a classroom kitted out with 25 computers. A few years later, I team taught my first online and hybrid courses via threaded discussion boards and asynchronous email-based class discussions, respectively. Of course by that time, the pioneers in the field had already been at the online learning game for years.
In those days, online learning was about experimentation -- seeing what the new technology could do. Soon, though, online learning became a means to an end, in the form of rapid market expansion and tuition growth, aided by 100 percent year-over-year growth rates in the mid-1990s and driven by the early entrants in the market -- for-profit universities and continuing and professional education divisions at nonprofit universities.
A couple decades on now, we see millions of students pursuing degrees wholly online and millions more taking the odd online course for credit, while still millions more are signing up for non-credit-bearing MOOCs. That goes some way to underscoring the fact that online learning is an established and maturing field. But it’s also flattening out. Today the growth has slowed, almost to a standstill, and thus the high-octane revenue growth phase may be behind us.
This may explain, in part, why the field is starting to be talked about in new ways, particularly as new sorts of institutions get involved, as the motivations for deploying an ever-growing number of learning technologies gradually begin to shift, as learning scientists leverage the growing quantities of data captured by these technologies and as the organizational structures online learning operates under begin to take new shape.
If the era of online learning over the past two decades was in large measure about revenue growth, the present moment is about something else.
Evidence of this change can been seen in a subtle shift in how we talk about this work. Where once we spoke consistently about “online learning,” now, more and more often, I hear higher education leaders talking about “digital strategy” -- a shift in terminology that signals, I believe, a significant change in how we are thinking about the utility of learning technologies.
The phrase “online learning,” for example, might be said to be associated with other terms, like growth, tuition streams, content development and professional master’s degrees. By contrast, the phrase “digital strategy” is associated with a more diverse and inclusive set of terms, like pedagogy, market relevance, undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as online and residential learning experiences. If online learning was, more often than not, about money, then digital strategy is about how we think about, define and structure learning.
As Claudia Urrea, a lecturer at MIT’s recently established Office of Digital Learning, put it to me, “It’s no longer just about putting content online but an opportunity to rethink learning.”
Kevin Bell, who serves as executive director for online curriculum development and deployment at Northeastern University, put it somewhat more forcefully: “There needs to be a digital strategy for face-to-face courses, as well.”
Interestingly, both MIT and Northeastern have been busily realigning their organizational structures in the digital realm to assist them in yielding a broader kind of payoff. The Office of Digital Learning at MIT, headed up by Dean Sanjay Sarma, is a relatively new organization into which established initiatives now report -- such as OpenCourseWare, founded more than 15 years ago, and MITx, launched in 2012 and the precursor to MIT’s collaboration with Harvard, called edX.
Last fall, Northeastern brought on Chris Mallet from Western Governors University to serve in a new role as vice president of online programs, and while the job title underscores the familiar and still persistent use of “online” as a term of art, the new role was conceived as a way of integrating and expanding a diverse set of teaching and technology-related initiatives. Other institutions are similarly reorganizing, adding new layers of management and governance to oversee and harmonize their increasingly diverse digital holdings.
In 2014, James DeVaney joined the University of Michigan as its associate vice provost for digital education and innovation, with the explicit aim, he told me, of making his office’s services “obsolete -- in a good way -- so that academic units are thinking about the innovative use of technology in all their learning environments.” Within a few years, DeVaney added, “I would like to see the word ‘digital’ removed from our unit name.”
One way to account for this shift in thinking is the growing awareness of the potential for educational technologies to enhance teaching and learning broadly and to strengthen the value that colleges and universities are delivering at their very core.
“I see the shift not as one from online to digital,” said Eddie Maloney, the executive director of the center for new designs in learning and scholarship at Georgetown University, “but as a shift from a content-driven or faculty-driven curriculum to an intentional design and assessed curriculum. It’s really about a growing focus on learning design.”
Indeed, where the online era was characterized by efforts to make technology-enabled courses just as good a classroom courses, digital strategy and learning design are about making education better -- regardless of the medium.
Of course, this isn’t to say that there aren’t still institutions out there looking to grow revenue by delivering programs online. And even institutions like Harvard are seeking to generate income from initiatives like HBX, an initiative at Harvard Business School, with its online courses in business fundamentals targeting alumni, corporate and other audiences. Likewise, of course, there are certainly countervailing examples to the structural integration underway at places like MIT, Northeastern and Michigan. Southern New Hampshire University and Champlain College, to name just two examples, have intentionally set out to create organizational separation between their on-campus and online learning activities, and with strong enrollment growth to show for their efforts.
For others, though, the ambitions are different. According to Josh Kim, director of digital learning initiatives at Dartmouth College, and author of Inside Higher Ed’s “Technology and Learning” blog, “Places that really want to protect their brand -- like Brown, Yale, Georgetown, Dartmouth -- are experimenting with low-residency online programs in professional schools and they are having real success, which is driving some rethinking about what we need to be doing to improve our core product. At Dartmouth, it’s a quality play. We want to bring new techniques into residential teaching but also create sustainable programs.”
To the extent that this shift in emphasis from online learning to digital strategy can produce sustainable programs of enhanced quality, we can undoubtedly expect to see more institutions pursuing the path of learning design informed by digital experimentation.
While it may yet be too early to say for sure whether this shift will be long lasting, if it is, we should expect to see evidence of it in some very prominent places. As DeVaney put it, “I think we’ll know if this shift is real when we see more institutions differentiating around this. Hopefully we’ll see mission statements that look different, too.”
Kathleen Ives, chief executive officer of the Online Learning Consortium, agrees, noting, “Digital is becoming mainstream. But for an institution to succeed it has to be part of their vision and mission and has to permeate across their organization.”
Bell at Northeastern argues that truly effective digital strategy will have to go a step farther even than connecting diverse institutional activities. “Digital leadership should not just be about harmonizing initiatives,” he said. “It should also be about harmonizing our messaging and conveying our unique philosophy to the communities we serve -- and at Northeastern, the emphasis is on online experiential learning.”
In other words, the shift to digital strategy will only be significant if it enables institutions to not only think and teach differently, but also to talk more effectively about who they are and what makes them different at the very core.
Peter Stokes is a managing director in the higher education practice at Huron Consulting Group.
Biology educators occupy nearly half (44 percent) of all high school science teaching assignments -- more than double the percentage of chemistry educators, according to a new study published in BioScience.The biology education workforce increased some 50 percent between 1987 and 2007 due to biology’s “gateway” status among the high school sciences, the study says. The female proportion of the biology workforce also grew over the same period, from 39 to 61 percent. That’s more than in all other science, technology and math fields, according to the study.
At the same time, biology educators were more likely than their colleagues in other fields to teach outside the discipline. The number of biology educators with more than 20 years of teaching experience also dropped by some 20 percent between 1990 and 2007. Lead author Gregory T. Rushton, an associate professor of chemistry at Kennesaw State University, and his co-authors note that this is due in part to increasing numbers of teachers entering the workforce after careers outside education, for whom “the biologist identity may be stronger than that of teacher.”
Rushton and his colleagues propose stricter certification requirements for biology teachers and more targeted professional development. They also propose matching curricula to teachers’ expertise, as opposed to offering “a static, predetermined slate of science courses at each school.” The longitudinal study is based on the National Center for Education Statistics’ Schools and Staffing surveys from 1987 through 2007.
The University of Georgia is launching a $4.4 million initiative to reduce class size, it announced Monday. The university will create more than 300 new course sections in 81 majors by fall 2016, mainly through hiring dozens of new faculty members in the coming year. Georgia’s current student-faculty ratio is relatively low for a research university, at 18 to 1, but the initiative ensures that a majority of the new course sections will have fewer than 20 students each. The move builds on other recent attempts by the university to increase student-faculty interaction, including a new graduation requirement that all 27,000 undergraduates engage in experiential learning such as internships, research or study abroad.
Early in my career, there was an incident involving a senior professor in another department. He was a mild-mannered man but deeply embittered about his career. He began savagely berating students in feedback on assignments and writing vitriolic reviews of junior faculty members. To avoid an inevitable lawsuit, the college negotiated his early retirement. At commencement, the college always announced the recipient of its top teaching award. I happened to be standing near this professor before commencement began. I heard him tell one of his colleagues, “This is my last commencement, it would be really nice if I won the teaching award.” I was stunned. How could someone being forced into retirement for abusive practices believe he might be chosen as the outstanding teacher?
The experience raised a basic question in my mind: What do people think professors do to deserve teaching awards? The answer to this question is important. It defines the kind of teachers we strive to become. For institutions, the answer determines the kind of teaching that is rewarded with tenure and promotion (at least at places that don’t focus exclusively on research).
When someone wins an award for outstanding research or artistic expression, we understand that the person has made a critical discovery or created something unique and significant; but when a person wins a teaching award, what do we think he or she did to deserve it? Do we believe the recipient did something extraordinary and important, or do we attribute it to less admirable reasons, such as being popular among students? In my experience, the most positive reasons people give to explain why a colleague won a teaching award is that the person is especially passionate or dedicated to teaching. We applaud colleagues who win teaching awards who have sacrificed in some way for teaching, or who have worked to make their classes particularly fun and engaging, or who inspire students to excel.
What is notable about these reasons is that they have little to do with actual teaching skill. The implication is that award-winning teachers are not any more effective at engendering student learning than the rest of us. Rather, they devote more time and attention to their teaching and students than we do, or they persevere through greater challenges. I propose that these traits, while certainly important, are not the critical reason why some faculty deserve to win teaching awards.
During my career I’ve seen faculty members who are deeply passionate about teaching and care greatly about their students who nonetheless are not particularly successful teachers. Passion, dedication and sacrifice are no guarantee of teaching effectiveness. They do not automatically translate into student achievement or satisfaction. Neither does disciplinary knowledge; faculty with distinguished research records are not necessarily better teachers than graduate students.
What, then, is the critical element for teaching success? I say the best teachers are learning driven; their teaching is wholly focused on developing a deep understanding of the subject matter in the minds of their students. This entails much more than presenting information. Learning-driven teachers don’t simply wish or hope their students learn -- they take actions to see that the desired kind of learning takes place. Consciously or not, learning-driven teachers are concerned with an array of factors that influence student learning. For example, they manage the class’s collective attention, monitor metacognitive awareness, respect the constraints of working memory and promote transfer-appropriate processing, even if these teachers are unaware of the formal names of such concepts.
These teachers create a classroom atmosphere that supports learning. They become trustworthy sources of knowledge for students. These teachers show students the shortcomings of their current thinking and understanding, and convince them of the value of developing a deeper, more accurate understanding. They create learning experiences that promote both long-term learning and appropriate recall and application beyond the classroom. These teachers are able to assess the level of understanding of students and recognize how to move that understanding toward a desired learning goal. The ability to accomplish all these tasks defines teaching skill.
The best teachers develop an accurate understanding of how people learn. They recognize the power they have to either help or hurt student understanding. They see learning as a shared responsibility between themselves and the students. Quality of teaching is judged by what students learn and how they can use the information. If students don’t learn, teaching is not successful, regardless of how brilliant and engaging the teacher might be.
A learning-driven approach can be contrasted with an information-driven approach to teaching. Faculty who adopt this approach see the goal of teaching as presenting information the students are responsible for learning. The teacher’s responsibility is to make sure the information is accurate, up-to-date and presented in as clear, organized and engaging way as possible. Quality of teaching is judged by informational content and quality of delivery. Little knowledge beyond up-to-date disciplinary expertise is needed. Cutting-edge faculty use the latest educational technology and the most current teaching methods, but their use and implementation is not guided by student learning. In this approach, the teacher either cannot or should not influence learning beyond the method of delivering information.
The two approaches lead to different views of teaching awards. From the information-driven perspective, teaching is straightforward. Anyone with sufficient disciplinary knowledge has the ability to teach effectively. The challenging part of teaching is developing good presentations and grading assignments. From this perspective, most anyone is deserving of a teaching award if they make a sincere effort to be clear, current, engaging and organized, because that is about all a teacher can do. Some faculty have a special knack or talent for teaching, but it isn’t something that can be developed through training. For learning-driven faculty, teaching is a complex challenge requiring innovation, creativity and constant adaptation based on evidence of student learning. The challenge of teaching is creating conditions in which learning will occur. Teaching awards are for teachers who have mastered that challenge more successfully than others.
One belief that both perspectives share is that student evaluations alone are not a sufficient measure of teaching effectiveness, but the learning-driven approach points to the kinds of additional information that should be collected. A learning-driven perspective demands evidence that one pedagogical approach or activity is superior to another in a way that contributes to learning. The same evidence that can help improve student learning can be used to evaluate teaching effectiveness.
The consequences of these two different perspectives on teaching are far reaching. For example, consider grade inflation. For information-driven teachers, if a large percentage of students in a class earn high grades, it is a sign the class is too easy and cause for concern. Learning-driven teachers distinguish between making it easier for students to get good grades and making it easier for students to learn. Learning-driven teachers see the former as grade inflation, but the latter as skilled teaching. In addition, the information-driven perspective means that universities need not provide much training to graduate students or faculty on how to teach, while the learning-driven perspective means that universities should provide professional development opportunities to help faculty become award-winning teachers.
Finally, the information-driven approach allows faculty members to believe that they are doing all they can to promote learning when their teaching may actually be suboptimal and even detrimental. As a result, they may end up with a poor classroom experience for both themselves and their students. They may mistakenly blame the indifference of the current generation, the inadequacies of high schools, or mollycoddling by the students’ parents. Faculty members may become frustrated and deeply embittered, like my colleague in the opening story. No, he did not win the teaching award, but the tragedy is that his students didn’t learn and he didn’t have the satisfaction of helping them learn, which should be award enough for any teacher.
Stephen L. Chew is professor and chair of psychology at Samford University.
A colleague at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (where I am dean of the College of Engineering) recently emailed me Bloomberg’s interview with Harry Lewis, interim dean of Harvard University's Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science. Lewis talked about the school’s plans for the $400 million gift it received in early June. My colleague highlighted Lewis’ description of an ascendant engineering program at Harvard and a cultural shift at the school in which “making things, doing useful things is no longer … considered the sort of thing that gentlemen and gentlewomen don’t do.”
My colleague added, “Welcome, Harvard, to the work that public research universities with great engineering schools have been doing for 150 years.” Sarcasm, apparently, isn’t the exclusive province of the Ivies. We heard it all over the place after the announcement of the Paulson gift. But, in my opinion, it’s misguided.
I’ll paraphrase venture capitalist (and University of Illinois alum) Marc Andreessen’s tweet on the topic. This gift and Harvard’s vision for what it wants to accomplish are “moral virtues, full stop.”
Harvard has set the standard for the liberal arts and sciences. Public institutions like the Universities of Illinois, California at Berkeley, and Michigan have done the same for world-class engineering education for the masses. That combination is extremely powerful, and it has made America the most innovative and prosperous country in the world.
Lewis made it clear that Harvard intends to redefine what a well-rounded education means in the 21st century. And John Paulson's investment allows the university to develop an engineering and applied science program to match Harvard’s reputation.
Harvard and similar private research universities lack one major virtue, however: excellence at scale.
Private institutions simply cannot satisfy the demands of 21st-century engineering alone. And turning away top talent is in no one’s interest.
It limits our nation’s economic growth, our ability to make the engineering profession more diverse, and our ability to help students find their true calling regardless of their socioeconomic background. However, growth in student numbers and innovations in how we educate them require more resources.
Given this fact, and the fact that state funding for public universities has declined precipitously in the last two decades, philanthropic support has become just as important to Illinois as it is to the Harvards of the world. Without new levels of philanthropy and new investment models, the American public research university, the world's golden goose, will not be able to deliver on its goal to ensure there are enough top-flight problem solvers available to advance our civilization and to look after our future.
That isn’t to say that elite and exclusionary is still a universal condition at Harvard and other small, private institutions. As Lewis points out, Harvard’s demographics are changing with more rural and first-generation students. Students from these backgrounds tend to gravitate to engineering because it leads to a secure career. An engineering degree is rarely an opportunity to go into the family business. Instead, it’s a way for those from low-income backgrounds -- bright, marginalized and ambitious -- to invent the family business.
Thus, the art of engineering appeals to an ever-broader swath of students, from those interested in entrepreneurship to those creating solutions for the engineering challenges that underpin the modern world. For example, more than 3,100 students applied for about 200 slots in the Illinois computer science program this year. Carnegie Mellon receives twice that many applications for about 30 percent fewer seats.
With demand like that, we are all in an unparalleled position to serve a broad spectrum of students in ways we haven’t before. That’s not only a moral virtue for Harvard. It’s a moral virtue for all of us.
Students are driven by a desire to solve problems with real and lasting societal impact. Today, “making and doing” extend far beyond the disciplinary confines of engineering and the fine arts. With the Paulson gift, Harvard is in a unique position to bring down disciplinary boundaries, to inspire new curricula and experiential learning, and to transform the very concept of a university education.
I have no doubt that Harvard’s engineering and applied sciences program will catalyze such a transformational change. But will all that effort and all those resources transform Harvard’s educational model or the world’s?
Harvard has to take full advantage of this incredible opportunity, and so do the engineering powerhouses. Globally, more and more students recognize the sheer impact they can have by studying engineering. How do we support and serve them?
Even more students seek an education founded on disciplinary depth and enriched through cross-disciplinary experiences. How do we embrace their interests and turn them into the idea creators, the problem solvers and the makers of the new and the better?
How do we inspire them and empower them as they put ever more pervasive digital technology and ever more important engineering principles to work? What does that well-rounded and well-educated student of the 21st century look like?
These are questions for us to answer together, taking full advantage of our variety and our diverse strengths.
So welcome, Harvard, to the conversation.
Andreas Cangellaris is dean of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s College of Engineering and the M. E. Van Valkenburg Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Senators seek guidance on how to encourage innovation without opening aid floodgates to "bad actors," and a group of 17 institutions with competency-based programs calls for a careful approach by policy makers.