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Yaroslav Kuzminov, rector of the host university for eStars 2018

MOSCOW -- The conference was a lot like any other about the role of technology in learning today.

Hot topics included questions about which students are well suited for online learning and whether they're the ones policy makers are nudging into online programs, plentiful rhetoric about "big data" and alternative credentials, and much hand-wringing about the potential impact of artificial intelligence and machine learning on the work force, and about the state of the humanities.

The head of the host university described its efforts to use online education to expand his institution's reach and his belief -- shared by local politicians -- that online education can be a "big source of growth of efficiency and quality in higher education."

And a local business leader said his company had created its own "corporate university" because the regional institutions were "extremely slow to redesign their curriculums" and were "not focused on developing the skills our workers need."

Those and other themes would seem like familiar conference material to any reader of "Inside Digital Learning."

As those who noticed the dateline above have already deduced, however, this one, the eLearning Stakeholders and Researchers Summit 2018 (eStars), took place minutes from Red Square and the Kremlin, and most of its 500 attendees were administrators and professors at Russian universities, with a few dozen Europeans, Americans and Chinese rounding out the mix.

Those facts alone ensured that this was not just any other conference, and some of its other elements -- including a persistent and palpable male chauvinism that marked encounters -- were jarring. At one session featuring four female panelists, one audience member criticized them for not referring to each other using their patronymic names. Every time a speaker (including female speakers) referred to a hypothetical student, the reference was to "he" or "him."

But the overriding impression, for this journalist, at least, was a sense of commonality between the issues with which the educators and institutions here were grappling and those explored in these pages each week.

Scenes From Moscow

The co-hosts of eStars 2018 were the National Research University Higher School of Economics, a social sciences university that is Russia's youngest, born after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Coursera, the U.S.-based provider of massive open online courses that is increasingly moving into both corporate education and university-based degrees. (Note: Inside Higher Ed was a media partner for the event.)

While HSE was the meeting's physical host, Coursera -- a company with a valuation approaching $1 billion and vast international ambitions -- put its stamp on the event.

Company officials made numerous presentations throughout the course of the event. And many of the universities that were represented on the agenda -- Emory, the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the U.S., the University of Leeds in Britain, and HSE among others in Russia -- offer online courses through Coursera's platform, though they spoke freely about their challenges as well as their successes in using the company's technology.

Coursera has about 36 million users, and Russia, with 880,000 of them, is the company's biggest non-English-speaking market, Shravan Goli, Coursera's chief product officer, said in a presentation at last week's conference.

The company wasn't the only MOOC provider represented at the meeting, though. Another speaker, Shijie Yu, director of the online education office at Tsinghua University and deputy director for online education for the Chinese ministry of education, discussed the rapid growth of Tsinghua's own platform, XuetangX, which now claims 14 million users.

Yu portrayed online and especially blended education as central to Tsinghua's future, with the university having rolled out more than 1,800 blended learning classes since 2013, enrolling more than 44,000 students. And the Chinese institution recently started two online certificate programs, joining the international push to give more options to professional learners unable to get to campus.

Neil Morris, dean of digital education and chair of educational technology, innovation and change in the education school at the University of Leeds, said the research literature clearly makes the case that "digital technology does support learning -- it's not a fad." There is strong evidence, he said, that it supports not only flexibility, but "engagement, motivation and, dare I say it, enjoyment" of learning.

But he was also clear that the rise of technology is "not a panacea," citing "technostress" and musculoskeletal strain in children, among other potentially concerning effects on individuals.

He also warned of the need to make sure that as education becomes "unbundled" -- allowing students to put together their own educational pathways making use of MOOCs and other university-produced content -- those opportunities don't excessively favor "well-equipped students" and "elite institutions." He added, "We have a responsibility to make sure other learners don't get left behind."

No conversation about innovation in higher education would be complete without somebody questioning whether universities can move fast enough to compete with alternative providers in a fast-changing world. At this meeting, that role was played by Valery Katlako, dean of Sberbank Corporate University, a massive campus designed to provide education and training to the Russian bank's managers and 250,000 employees.

Katlako applauded the "legacy and excellent tradition of Russian universities in math," but said he doesn't "see them transitioning to a new class of programs" that companies like his need.

Yaroslav Kuzminov, the rector of HSE, the host university, described his efforts to transform his upstart institution into a "digital university," requiring every academic program to offer and prodding every student to take at least one online course (which 73 percent of students now do).

But he said university leaders would be loath to ignore the warnings from business leaders like Katlako. If a young man in Russia (see earlier reference to chauvinism) were to ask him "at what university should I study machine learning" or artificial intelligence, Kuzminov said, "I would tell him, 'If you want to be at the top, don't study at a university, but at the doors of Sberbank.'"

That poses a challenge to higher education institutions. "What responses shall we offer?"

It might not be surprising that amid the many calls for technological transformation, occasional pleas arose not to forget the importance of the humanities -- the loudest from a professor, and an American to boot.

William Kuskin, vice provost and associate vice chancellor for strategic initiatives at Boulder, and a former chair of English there, noted that in the U.S., "the humanities … are in a free fall," as students search out "what they see as more practical majors, more practical studies, technical skills."

But "as technology changes, humanities are the only thing that can explain to us where we are and where we’re headed," he said. "Their importance is redoubled in a time of change. It is incumbent on us to realize their application and push ourselves to communicate that all the more powerfully, so we can explain to the world community the transition we're in."

That cannot happen only in seminar rooms, Kuskin said -- a statement he made, it should be noted, during a well-attended session on the digital humanities. Another session explored the philosophy of online education, among other things questioning technology's role in contributing rather than shrinking inequality.

That is another way in which this conference -- in a very different part of the world -- resonated with similar events in the U.S. The meeting may have been put on by avid advocates for technology, and commercial purposes may have been a major part of its foundation.

But speakers and attendees asked hard questions and raised important issues about the impact of technology, even as most of them accepted and even embraced the reality that its role in education is here to stay.

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