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The U.S. Department of Education places ed tech front and center in the effort to meet the nation’s postsecondary attainment goals.

It will be a shame if the National Higher Education Technology Plan, released by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology just eight days before the presidential inauguration, fails to receive the attention it deserves.  For it offers a vision of the role of technology in higher education that seeks to radically reshape the discourse by focusing attention less on the use of ed tech in individual classrooms and much more on the ways it can contribute to the development of “a student-centered higher education ecosystem.”

What higher education needs, the report contends, is to implement at scale a new technical, service, and data infrastructure.  The challenges facing postsecondary education are great, but so too are the opportunities if institutions are willing to collaborate, share resources, adopt best practices, institute data-driven advising systems, embrace more seamless transfer pathways, and participate in more inclusive educational marketplaces.

The report’s basic premise is that today’s system of higher education inadequately meets the needs of the non-traditional students who constitute today’s “new normal.”  Institutional, financial, and policy barriers to completion abound.  The current system generally fails to credit learning experiences that occur outside traditional academic settings; raises hurdles to credit transfer; imposes schedules and delivery approaches that fail to meet the needs of too many students; forces many learners to incur unnecessary costs; and doesn’t connect students well with the job market.

If post-secondary education is to serve as an engine of social mobility, equality, and economic growth, the report contends, the country needs to expand access to affordable learning opportunities not constrained by traditional barriers of time and place. 

To meet the nation’s postsecondary credentials attainment goals, it must:

  • Create meaningful pathways that allow students to move seamlessly from one educational provider to another.
  • Expand the number of affordable educational programs with flexible schedules and delivery modalities.
  • Develop seamless crosswalks between military, corporate, and other innovative training experiences and traditional degree-granting institutions and facilitate more fluid transitions between education and the job market.
  • Collect and use real time learning data to target student support services
  • Devise new forms of credentialing that don’t require four years (or more) to vest.

The overarching goal is to create a more expansive and flexible educational marketplace, offering a wider range of opportunities and credentials to meet the diverse needs of today’s students.

What, then, is technology’s role in this new ecosystem?

To guide students along their educational journey
Institutions need to embrace innovative digital tools to enable students to identify educational pathways that reflect their interests and aspirations and make wise financial and course decisions. Examples that the report cites include: 

  • Virginia Community College’s Education Wizard, an online coaching system that helps students select a program of study, construct a course schedule, obtain information about paying for their education, and transfer to a four-year institution.
  • Austin Peay’s Degree Compass, which uses predictive analytics based on grade and enrollment data to rank courses according to factors that measure how well each course might help the student progress through their program, nudging students toward the choices that will lead to graduation.

To diagnose student learning needs, target remediation, tailor feedback, adjust learning trajectories, and provide timely academic and non-academic support.
Personalized adaptive technologies hold out the prospect of cost effective methods to address the challenge of uneven pre-collegiate preparation.  One example cited by the Department of Education is:

  • Southern New Hampshire’s JUICE, which provides automated, just in time, contextualized academic assistance through self-guided, skills-building modules.

To facilitate flexibility in program offerings and delivery modes
High quality online learning and novel program designs offer innovative ways that better meet the needs of non-traditional students and working adults.  Examples include: 

  • Bay Path University’s accelerated degree format that offers six-week sessions throughout the year.
  • Northeastern’s bootcamps in data analytics, cloud computing, internet of things, and entrepreneurship.

To support active, adaptive, and connected learning and authentic assessments

These approaches offers ways to increase student engagement and improve and validate learning outcomes.  Examples include:

  • Troy University’s online version of Reacting to the Past, a history curriculum that involves role playing activities informed by classic texts and historical events, which uses Slack to facilitate communication and collaboration. 
  • Bay Path University’s use of Realizeit™ adaptive learning platform, which presents learning activities as part of a map that students navigate as they demonstrate mastery of specific skills and content. 
  • Arizona State’s Habitable Worlds, an introductory course for non-scientists that uses simulations, virtual field trips, and personalized, adaptive quests to cover basic biology, chemistry and physics through the search for extraterrestrial life

To allow students to document their knowledge, skills, and capabilities by providing portable credentials.
A new kind of transcript – such as a comprehensive student record, which includes all of a student’s learning experiences, irrespective of institution; an extended transcript, which includes co-curricular learning experiences; a competency-based transcript, which records a student’s demonstrated proficiencies – is needed to better inform employers of students’ skills, knowledge, and capabilities.

The report also advocates expanded use of Open Educational Resources to reduce the cost of higher education and the embrace of universal design principles to ensure that students with disabilities benefit fully from all educational programs.

What, then, is to be done?  If the report’s goals are to be realized, our short-term educational agenda needs to embrace several initial steps:

1. We need greater transparency in the outcomes of educational programs.
The report quite rightly seeks to shift the focus from educational inputs to outputs—whether defined in terms of student learning or employment, earnings, and career advancement. Greater transparency in program outcomes data will allow students to make more informed enrollment decisions and help educators improve program quality and close achievement gaps.

2. We need more cross-institutional collaborations.
Many of higher education’s most pressing problems can only be solved through multi-institutional partnerships.  Credit transfer and military and industry training program crosswalks are two obvious examples.  But it might also make sense to share competency and outcomes maps in order to develop common credential standards, and to share simulations, virtual laboratories, and other technology tools that are very expensive to develop.  I personally can’t imagine a better way for MOOCs to advance higher education than to disaggregate their instructional resources and make content and learning tools widely available in a free or low-cost repository.

3. We need to devise policies to promote data-driven education.
Given the importance that the report places on data-driven advising, interventions, and instructional improvement, institutions need greater clarity on how student learning data can be used and shared. Barriers to data-based learning research need to be removed; and mechanisms to connect student learning, profile, and academic and job market outcomes data strengthened.

4. We need to develop multi-provider credentials marketplaces.
One way to illuminate career pathways and expand student options would be to create educational marketplaces where academic and non-academic providers could easily post their program offerings. Sites that aggregate online programs already exist, but too often lack the advising structures that students need to make informed choices.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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