Disrupting Higher Education – II – remodelling higher education to harness technology

Provost Prendergast, Dean Campbell, CEO BolandLast week, Trinity College Dublin hosted an international symposium on Online Higher Education – Disrupting Higher Education to stimulate discussion about technology-enhanced learning, the opportunities and challenges associated with offering free online courses, and meeting the educational needs of online learners (hashtags #OpenHE #DHE #disruptinghighered on twitter; storified here and here). Pictured left are the Provost of TCD, Dr Patrick Prendergast, the Dean of Graduate Studies, TCD, Prof Veronica Campbell, and CEO of the Higher Education Authority, Tom Boland; and I blogged about their speeches here. The presentations will be soon podcast, and the slides will also be available, and the full text of the Provost’s speech is now available here. Meantime, here are some more of my thoughts from the day.

Diana Laurillard, Professor of Learning with Digital Technologies in the London Knowledge Lab of the Institute of Education, University of London, spoke about “remodelling higher education to harness technology”. Her ultimate point is that the innovation here is by the teachers and lecturers using the technology. She began by pointing to the massively increasing global demand for higher education: the draft UNESCO goals for education after 2015 will see a great expansion of education to meet the increasing needs for knowledge and skills worldwide; this implies teacher training needs in higher education; and this in turn raises questions as to the purposes of higher education. She referred to the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, chaired by Sir Ron Dearing, which saw the ends of higher education as enabling individuals to develop their capabilities; developing knowledge and understanding; serving needs of economy; and playing a major role in society. And she argued that online higher education should serve these goals too, and should not be about mining students’ data or marketing courses or providing free professional developments (as massive open online courses (MOOCs) currently are).

She compared and contrasted MOOCs and standard online courses; in particular, the former are doing far less than the latter, and the things that are missing are the things that are the at the core of quality education. MOOCs are all about fixed initial costs (setting up the infrastructure and courses); whereas standard online course all about variable ongoing costs (such as tutor support). She looked at a report from Duke University on their first MOOC, Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach, delivered through Coursera in Fall 2012. It took 420 teaching hours to develop it and 200 hours to support it, and it had high development and running costs.

Then she presented her preferred alternative, based on innovative teachers, exploring and inventing online education and scaling up existing pedagogies for supporting large classes, by constructing, analysing, testing and sharing innovative designs, in an ongoing process of iterative development. She used the Open Learning Design Studio‘s MOOC “Learning Design for a 21st Century Curriculum” and the Pedagogical Pattern Collector software tool to demonstrate the process of professional pedagogical collaboration online to improve teaching and learning experiences. For her, innovation in education is not top down – rather, it can begin anywhere and spread fast; and educational institutions not only must adapt to and learn how to deal with this process, they must invest in it and reward it appropriately. As they occur, evidence on changes to teaching and learning (especially of technology-enhanced learning) must be collected, and modelled carefully, to understand how academics spend their time, how students are supported, and how to build iteratively upon those changes.

Chip Paucek (CEO, 2U) – after some technological snafus – explained how 2U partners with universities to go online. They started with graduate schools, one in each discipline; for law, they have developed the recently-inaugurated online LLM for the School of Law of Washington University in St Louis (for which he has sought o replicate the socratic method in both in the synchronous and asynchronous sessions). He was evangelical in his presentation about how 2U puts the full school online, takes responsibility for the technology, and helps in the recruitment of online students. The 2U experience is not a toe in the water; rather, it puts universities all in: it doesn’t segregate the online students, but treats online and on-campus courses and students as equal. Underpinning 2U’s partnerships are (i) great asynchronous content; (ii) live classes; (iii) a social networking learning management system; and (iv) appropriate real-world field placements. He spoke eloquently about how the construction of a virtual campus for the university and the provision real connections with the real campus gave online students a sense of belonging, such that a higher proportion of 2U’s online classes fly in to graduate than of the equivalent on-campus classes.

Dr Karen Kear, Senior Lecturer in the Communication and Systems Department of the Open University, spoke about the issues and challenges posed by online collaboration tools. The process of learning needs feedback and interaction, and this in turn builds trust and contributes to students’ motivation and progress – so online courses need online collaboration for these reasons. As for the tools, she divided them into three kinds. First, asynchronous tools: forums allow discussion, and though convenient, they can be impersonal; wikis allow collaborative creation of resources, but whilst progress is visible there are often issues of ‘ownership’; and blogs allow for reflective activities, but may be too public. Second, synchronous tools: IM/chat allows for short quick lively communications between students, tutors, and so on); web-conferencing such as by video/voice & shared whiteboards allows for real-time sharing and discussion of applications, data, and slides; and virtual worlds are useful for practical simulations and role-play, but whilst they provide sense of immersion, some participants find them too strange. Third, blended tools: social networking allows the construction of communities between students and around courses, and microblogging allows students to keep in touch and to monitor and share news and resources; but whilst these tools are sociable and informal, they raise privacy issues and students are often wary of college ‘invading their space’.

She demonstrated all of this in action in one of her OU courses, and highlighted some of the issues which she encountered with group projects online. Students found online communication difficult on forums, and they were often uncomfortable changing others’ work on wikis. Collaboration ran into issues around the availability of student time, and in particularly the co-ordination of availability. Students had issues of fairness, given different levels of collaboration and contribution. And since the process of marking needed to be subtle, it was time-consuming and difficult for marking tutors. Nevertheless, in their feedback, the students said that they found the course challenging, interesting, frustrating, and – “on the whole” – rewarding and worthwhile.

The final presentation of the morning was by Prof Simon Bates (Director of Teaching, Learning and Technology at the University of British Columbia), on “flipping the classroom, flipping the culture”, but I missed this because I had to go to real classroom and teach a real class. I am sure that future classes will benefit from what I heard at the conference.