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Thursday, April 3, 2014

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Re-thinking the Role of Technology in Higher Education: A reflection on the 2014 Berkeley Online Learning Summit

By Jenna Joo (UCSB)

This was my second visit to the Berkeley Online Learning Summit. The first visit took place a year ago in March, 2013, around the time when the excitement over MOOCs was at its peak. I remember sitting through the panel discussions last year, genuinely worried about the future of higher education as a graduate student who was just entering the field. Will MOOCs be the future? Will MOOCs replace faculty and instructors? Will teaching and learning happen mostly in online in the near future? Fortunately, MOOCs have been greatly challenged since then.

The 2014 Berkeley conference definitely held a very different atmosphere compared to the one held last year. The focus of the conference was on residential institutions (with the majority of the panelists coming from elite institutions)—how they think about their own classroom pedagogies and finances while using technology. The general consensus now is that MOOCs (and technology in general) are not the answer to all the problems we have in higher education. They alone will not ensure cheaper, faster, and better education. Flipped classrooms, small-group discussions and blended learning are increasingly being recognized as the key features of quality learning.

In the session titled, Opportunities for Consideration in K-12 Education, one of the concerns raised was the great divide between K-12 and higher education systems. David Malone, a Teacher on Special Assignment with San Francisco Unified School District, pointed out that different educational systems stress knowledge in different ways. In high school, for example, students are encouraged to take as many AP classes as they can and score high on standardized tests just to get into college. Once they are in college, they are expected to perform higher-order thinking skills such as problem finding, interpreting, and analyzing—all of which do not precisely reflect the kinds of preparation they received prior to entering college. The lack of coordination and communication between the two systems could impede successful transitions and consequently diminish educational opportunity for many students. While “the choices that we (higher education) make will have profound impact on K-12 education” (Justin Reich, HarvardX Research Fellow), there is also a lot we need to learn from K-12 classroom research (Robert Lue, Faculty Director of HarvardX). The two systems are interconnected therefore must be studied together, not apart from each other.

In the Learning Analytics session, the promise of big data to solve problems in education was discussed. Big data from online learning environments can be used in at least two following ways:
  • To improve learning spaces: By employing in-vivo experiments that would allow better understanding of the design spaces, we can redesign and improve learning spaces for future use (Ken Koedinger, Professor in School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon).

  • To implement interventions: By logging meaningful user interactions in online environments, we can inform teachers about “at-risk” students so to implement appropriate interventions (Ryan Baker, Associate Professor in Human Development, Teachers College at Columbia University).

  • What I have noticed from the discussion is that there is a rather obvious divide between research and teaching. I agree that big data can be wisely used, but I would like to know more about exactly how results from such data could actually be used. For example, in what ways, forms, and shapes will they be communicated to teachers? Also, who will have a say in which type of intervention may be appropriate for students? In order for such data to be properly used, there must be an ongoing communication between learning analysts and teachers. While we embrace the promise of big data, we cannot undermine the “invisible” classroom data that teachers “collect” in their day-to-day interactions with students which could inform them about students’ strengths and weaknesses. I think that a lot more is expected of teachers and researchers especially after the post-MOOC era. Teachers must be highly competent and knowledgeable in their subject matters while having the skills to communicate with outside specialists. Researchers likewise need to have the skills to effectively present their findings to teachers, other researchers, and also to the general public.

    There was a lot of discussion on different ways to re-conceptualize and re-imagine student learning. Dr. Eric Grimson (Professor of Medical Engineering and Chancellor of MIT), in his keynote speech, asserted that higher education should change because “our consumers (students/parents of MIT) are changing.” Students in today’s world want more than simply earning a degree in something; they are “eager to learn in a global way.” In an effort to expand access to qualified learners and to re-invent campus education, several ideas have been proposed—one of which is creating “modules,” or a set of independent units with a set of outcomes, to increase flexibility in degree and pedagogy. Moreover, by sharing these modules across departments and individualizing them for field-specific interests, modules can “permit re-bundling of an education in new ways.”

    This is definitely a noble idea, but it needs to be approached with caution. It is true that the demands of students are different in today’s world. According to a blog post in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Jeff Selingo in 2012, the number of college students taking on double majors has sharply increased over the years. Students seek these opportunities in order to meet the demands of the rapidly changing economy and the job market. For students in prestigious universities, doing a double or even a triple major may not be a huge challenge; but this may not be the case for the majority of college students. By re-bundling of education, new highly specialized jobs might emerge that only a very selective group of college graduates may enter into, which may further worsen the already stratified workforce.

    In addition, in an effort to re-think the role of students’ residential experience in terms of their learning spaces, Dr. Grimson noted that MIT is thinking about dropping all of their big lecture halls and replacing them with small, interactive spaces to promote development of collective intelligence. I can positively relate with this idea because I truly believe that active, small-group interactions are the key to learning. However, such interactions must occur via extended and supportive relationships built under trust and respect. I wonder whether our higher education system as a whole has (or will have) the necessary resources to achieve this dream in the near future.

    When Dr. Robert Lue (Faculty Director of HarvardX and Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard) questioned the audience at the end of the conference, “To sustain a healthy and evolving instructional ecosystem, what issue is/was the first priority for your institutions,” “integrated pedagogy” arose as the first priority (35%) and “revenue experiments” as the least priority (6%). Many people are genuinely concerned about student learning and are interested in how best it can be enhanced. Dr. Lue asserted that we really need to think about this within the interconnected “ecosystem” that involves not just faculty and other professionals but also students as “profound collaborators.” Reshaping the future of higher education will definitely require collaborative efforts.


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