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.
We talk, we text, we tweet. And that’s fine. We needn’t require ourselves to think deeply at all hours, in all weather. Some things just don’t need the time, space and gravity we associate with such terms as “discourse,” “debate” and “dialogue.”
But many things do. And one of the dangers for a society that gets too used to the frenetic and featherweight -- and to media tailored to delivering little else -- is that when a real issue comes along, with conflicting ideas and multiple facets, and complexity and weight and much in the balance, we simply have no way to discuss it.
Think immigration in Arizona, justice in Ferguson, religious freedom in Indiana, water wars in California, Confederate iconography in the South, sexual assault on college campuses.
And, importantly, issues like these don’t “come along.” They’re always with us, constantly testing us, and our decisions about them matter. They determine what lives we lead, and what world we’ll leave behind.
So it makes a difference that discourse today, when it happens at all, is often rife with personality, politics, opinion and noise but short on facts -- much less analysis and insight.
This predicament touches on a counterintuitive point that goes to the heart of the problem: facts are not enough. Daniel Moynihan’s eminently quotable “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts” is true enough as far as it goes. But simply memorizing those facts, then trading them with people who already agree with you, advances no argument and makes no decision easier or wiser.
To argue in the sense of debate, to hold a constructive, reasoned conversation with the potential to change minds, we first have to engage the minds we would change: our own as well as others’. Students don’t necessarily arrive at college with the skills to do that, unfortunately, and it’s no wonder. Our digital bubbles and the social media hall of mirrors make it possible to seem connected to every person alive, discussing every topic under the sun, when in truth we’re often engaging merely with enclaves of the like-minded.
A hall of mirrors doesn’t add perspectives, it only multiplies your own; its depth is all pretense.
This is a major paradox of our time. Think, for example, of the heyday of broadcast TV, when news networks numbered exactly three and were indisputably more homogenous than today. And yet they routinely offered opposing points of view. Today our options for news and views have grown exponentially, but paradoxically so too have our tools for sorting ourselves into virtual silos. Two points of view are rarely sufficient in any case, as almost nothing worth arguing about has just two sides. But now, with 1,000 channels and countless blogs that double as echo chambers, we don’t have to listen to even that many.
And while real debate would doubtlessly improve our current landscape, perhaps “dialogue” is the best word for what is most needed today, and always. For true dialogue, two things are required, besides the will to think for oneself rather than accept some authority’s shrink-wrapped opinion package.
The first is to find a sense in which we’re in it together. “We” can be students in a classroom, business competitors, House and Senate colleagues, or newly established neighborhood associations, but the default position has to be the same: if an “us vs. them” dynamic prevails, everybody loses.
In this way, dialogue is equally pledge as practice: it urges us to uphold a sense of community above all, no matter the size of the controversy or the intensity of the conflict. It’s more huddle, less face-off.
It’s also our best tool for delivering productive, civil and nuanced results from even the most passionate disagreements -- which, it’s worth pointing out, is not only inevitable but desirable in a place dedicated to the life of the mind.
Here higher education plays a role that can be easily obscured by the very proper focus on difference. College should most definitely put young people in touch with the vast variety of human thought and experience. But if we do it right, they should also have a growing appreciation for what unites us beneath our differences in color and country, class and gender, age and era: the reassuring bedrock of the genuine human needs, abilities, drives and virtues that we hold in common.
And let’s not pretend any of this is easily done or effortlessly taught. It takes considerable self-awareness, patience and discipline to contribute to such complex conversations, and it takes even more to lead them, to say nothing of the skills and wisdom needed to teach others to do the same. It should be the goal of every intellectual community to advance the depth, breadth and sustaining power of face-to-face dialogue.
The second requirement for true dialogue may be even more important. It depends on a mind-set that can be expressed in four words: I might be wrong.
“The spirit of liberty,” Judge Learned Hand famously said in a 1944 speech, “is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” The rest of his sentence is less often quoted but equally pertinent: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women … which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.”
That’s a high bar for a species as tribal and fallible as ours, but it’s a worthy one. Truth be told, it’s the only way we’ll ever make progress in judging how best to live together, whether that means in colleges, communities or countries.
The best way to start clearing that bar?
Helping our young people to value reflection over reflexes, giving them effective ways to listen, think, converse and cooperate -- not offering them “cut flowers,” as the educational leader John Gardner once put it, but “teaching them to grow their own plants.”
Ryan Hays is executive vice president at the University of Cincinnati.