1.3 No Dress Rehearsal

Although I’m confident about the potential of instructional technology, I’m far less confident about higher education’s capacity to realize this potential. The institution of higher education is unusually ill-suited to leveraging the opportunities that technology affords. And the effects of these limitations are already showing. Most troubling still, the capacity of the institution to make the changes necessary to reverse this situation appear to be severely limited.

Higher education has taken only tentative steps to leverage the possibilities of technology; our colleges and universities continue to operate more or less as before. Although virtually every institution across the OECD has invested in digital learning to some extent, and university presidents now routinely pepper their speeches with the appropriate keywords to signal their commitment to digital education, efforts to realise the potential of advances in technology are regularly limited to a single course, rejected out of hand by other instructors, or are so badly devised that they offer little value. Great ideas run face-first into vested interests and a fear that the innovation will run counter to what has traditionally been understood as the markers of a “great university” - regardless of its value to students.

Despite the frequent use of hyperbolic terms to describe the impact of technology on higher education, such as "transformation,” "revolution,” and everyone’s favourite, "disruption,” initiatives with the potential to improve learning or reduce costs remain rare. Tuition for online students has not dropped; indeed, online programs in the US more often than not have higher fees than on-campus versions.

Students in online courses are regularly presented with digital course materials that are little more than badly repurposed classroom materials, reflecting the fact that the bulk of the responsibility for the design and development of course content still falls largely on the shoulders of individual academics without the incentives, time, or skills required to do more ambitious work. The dominant technology in online education - the learning management system - is used primarily as an expensive and overly complicated filing cabinet for repurposed classroom materials with a 90s-era user interface.

Instalments

1.0 “Losing My Religion: The Promise of Digital Higher Education

1.1 “I’m a Believer, I Couldn’t Leave Her . . .

1.2 “Future Looks Bright

1.3 “No Dress Rehearsal

1.2 Future Looks Bright

The potential is extraordinary. It’s technically possible, for example, to produce and share instructional media with production value that rivals the best of Madison Avenue advertising. Storytelling and other creative arts can be used to engage students in new ways. Data analytics can help us understand how well students are learning and, more simply, what they’re doing. As well, we can use this information to modify instruction in real-time to better align with the needs of each learner. Formative assessments and dashboards can help students understand what kinds of tactics lead them to learn best, and where and when they need help. Students can engage with simulations to “learn-by-doing” in a realistic, relevant, and risk-free environment.

Photo by  Anna Sullivan

Photo by Anna Sullivan

We can draw on the power of games to maximize the amount of time students spend on instructional challenges, thereby increasing chances for mastery. Artificial intelligence will soon be able to assume more responsibility for providing students with feedback, freeing faculty and other staff to focus on one-on-one support. More broadly, technology creates new opportunities to rethink the basic design of advanced learning, helping us, for example, move away from the illogical semester schedule, or integrate learning activities with the life and professional challenges they are meant to support. We know that education needs to be a lifelong experience - not just because of the (often-overblown) expectations of rapid change in future employment, but because advancing knowledge is critical to the sustainability, health, and prosperity of the planet and its’ inhabitants. The challenges we face in the 21st century are more complex and global in nature. The likelihood that we’ll be able to address climate change, mass migration, the global movement of illnesses, nuclear proliferation, and unemployment created by automation is highly dependent on our capacity to increase the level of literacy, knowledge, and skills of the world’s 7 billion people. Technology is a key means by which we can realize these gains.

Instalments

1.0 “Losing My Religion: The Promise of Digital Higher Education

1.1 “I’m a Believer, I Couldn’t Leave Her . . .

1.2 “Future Looks Bright

1.3 “No Dress Rehearsal

1.1 I'm a Believer, I Couldn't Leave Her . . .

I’ve been working in the field of digital higher education since the late-1990s. I began in higher education as a member of university faculty where I focussed on consumer culture from a Critical-Theory, Neo-Marxist perspective. I left faculty to follow my interests in the potential of digital learning. I served an eight-year stint as the Director of what became a large online learning division in a university. I knew that to develop true competence in this emerging field I needed more than to simply study it as an academic, I needed to work within it. Since then, I’ve spent much of my time working as a consultant for start-ups, governments, colleges and universities, and corporations - in each case, trying to help them invest their resources wisely to support in the use of technology in higher education - particularly for online learning.

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1.0 Losing My Religion: The Promise of Digital Higher Education

In the late 90s and early aughts, what now might be understood as the early days of online higher education, advocates of technology-mediated learning, myself included, were largely relegated to the margins of higher education. On our better days we imagined themselves as rebels, the Barbarians at the Gate of the ivory tower, trying to bring the transformative power of the Internet to a centuries-old, change resistant institution.

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