Posted tagged ‘elearning’

The rise of the ‘smart university’?

January 15, 2019

A few years ago for this blog, I interviewed the then Irish Minister for Education and Science, Ruairi Quinn. He was one of those relatively rare examples of an education minister with a real understanding of and sympathy for higher education, and indeed a set of civilised and cultured values.

However, at the time he was trying to think through what needed to change in the university system, and he offered the following thought. If one were to take an early 20th century surgeon, he suggested, and transfer him to a 21st century operating theatre, all he would be able to do that would be of any use would be to mop the patient’s brow and sweep the floor. Take a professor from that era and put him in a 21st century lecture theatre, and he would mostly feel at home and get on with the lecture. So, what had happened, or not happened, that made universities so immune to the passage of time?

One could of course argue, and indeed argue emphatically, with his premise. Most 21st century university lecture venues contain all sorts of new technology, not least the screen with its egregious Powerpoint slides. Our 20th century academic would have been astonished at, and probably not that pleased with, all the paperwork and audit trials and so forth. He (and it would be ‘he’) would have noticed a much better (though not perfect) gender balance. But then again, if in his home era he had just purchased and read F.M. Cornford’s 1908 book, Microcosmographia Academica, he might well have found that much of its satire on academic life was totally apposite a hundred years later. The argument might therefore be that the technology and bureaucracy and demographics had changed, but the basic methodology and the academic outlook had not; or something like that.

It is in this context that I wonder about concepts such as the ‘smart university’, which has been explored in recent literature such as the book Smart Education and e-Learning 2016, by Vladimir Ustov et al (Springer Verlag). The authors explore the concept of the smart university and suggest that it must have a number of key elements to quality as such, these being adaptation, sensing, inferring, self-learning, anticipation, self-organisation and configuration, restructuring and recovery. They see the new university as being technology-driven with far fewer boundaries between branches of scholarship, reflected also in more fluid structures.

As we look into the higher education future, we are bound to experience some tension between a defence of intellectual integrity and intellectual autonomy on the one hand, and a system that is driven by new concepts of knowledge acquisition and processing on the other. What impact will this have, and what are the implications for higher education regulation? What  will it do to the student experience, and even more importantly, to the graduate’s understanding of what she or he has experienced and acquired in their studies? Perhaps of equal importance, can this democratise knowledge (and undermine the value of elite networks), or will it support societal authoritarianism?

The future of universities is, for all sorts of reasons, one of the most important topics for society in the coming era.


How will universities support the next generation student?

October 8, 2011

When I began my career as a university lecturer, my first class consisted of students who all shared the same characteristics: they were school leavers embarking on full-time undergraduate studies. If I were to take the equivalent class today, they would be much more diverse. Many of them would, technically, be in full time employment alongside their studies; some would be school leavers, but a growing number would be mature or second-chance students. At least some (though not enough) would come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

The question now is whether our higher education system adequately recognises and caters for this much greater diversity. One consequence of the changed profile of the typical student is that many of them no longer attend all of their lectures and classes; it is not uncommon in the university system to find fewer than half the students present in the lecture theatre. But on the whole the university community grits its teeth and carries on as before, regretting the absences but not particularly accommodating them.

The first thing to understand is that we cannot return to the past; student diversity is here to stay and will grow. But there are things we can do to ensure that students get the maximum benefit from their studies. We can be more flexible in how and when we run classes. And we can make much more use still of new learning technology. Studies in America have shown that new online delivery tools allow students to ‘perform better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.’ While elearning will not replace real time lectures and tutorials, its use in distance education and as part of blended learning will help to generate more commitment amongst both academics and students.

Particularly in the light of severe budgetary pressures, it may be time to stop doing more and more traditional education with seriously declining resources. It is time to harness the pedagogical benefits of new technology and of new learning methods.

Going entirely online?

September 14, 2011

There is still nothing like a consensus around the role of and potential for online learning. While there are now possibly thousands of university programmes available for free online – including all those collected together through Apple’s iTunes U (which has now hit 600 million downloads) – and while universities and colleges across the world increasingly offer at least some of their programmes in online versions, most degree programmes are still delivered in a classroom setting, perhaps now supported by online materials.

But what will happen in the future? Some are now suggesting that online eduction will make campus-based programmes obsolete. I don’t take that view, in part because the classroom experience still has significant value and will, I suspect, continue to dominate the school-leaver higher education market. But there are some points worth noting:

  • the growth of online programmes or programme materials has brought in its train more serious reviews of pedagogy and learning methodologies (for online and classroom teaching) than had been in evidence for decades previously;
  • the availability of materials and sources has been significantly enhanced; but
  • there is a significant risk that some stakeholders, including governments, may believe that elearning can save money, whereas in reality it needs to be very well funded and supported; and
  • developing elearning is not the same thing as just putting previously used classroom materials online; and some courses may not work well online at all.

Finally, given the costs and the need to maintain the latest technology, I suspect that learning will work best when it is developed and delivered in collaboration between several providers.

The Ten Commandments of online teaching

June 27, 2011

I suspect that nobody is yet quite certain on how prevalent online teaching will become, and whether it is always the same thing as elearning. We know that there exists a fair amount of online material now to record or complement classroom teaching. We know that there are materials available online that are, in essence, traditional classroom materials that have been uploaded and made available somewhere, but which were not really designed for online use. And we know that there are programmes that are now delivered fully online without any physical classroom dimension. Of course we also know that there have been some excellent early adopters in the academic community of online education in its various forms, but equally we know that there are some academics who still struggle to switch on a computer, never mind doing absolutely anything online.

In the meantime, Penn State University’s World Campus has produced what they are calling the Ten Principles of Effective Online Teaching, these being:

 • Show Up and Teach
• Practice Proactive Course Management Strategies
• Establish Patterns of Course Activities
• Plan for the Unplanned
• Response Requested and Expected
• Think Before You Write
• Help Maintain Forward Progress
• Safe and Secure
• Quality Counts
• (Double) Click a Mile on My Connection

The key ingredient of these principles is to be much clearer about what online education is about and what it is supposed to deliver:

‘What we know about teaching in the classroom, good or bad, may not translate well online with somewhat complicated technologies, new social orders, and media-rich resources. Without express guidance on what is expected of the online instructor, they are left to “figure it out,” leading to frustrated students and probably a less than desirable teaching experience.’

What is also clear from this document is that the role of the online teacher is, if anything, more demanding and complex than that of the teacher in the traditional classroom. In particular, the management of students and their interaction with the teacher and with each other is vital and not easy.

It is my suspicion that some universities are slipping into aspects of online education that may not be as fully grounded in pedagogy as would be ideal. Too often online courses are just traditional programmes, slightly (but not sufficiently) adapted. It may well be that online learning will become the norm. If this is so, it had better be properly planned and designed, and indeed properly resourced.

Elearning in times of crisis

April 12, 2011

One of the most impressive public university systems in the world, the University of California, is under extreme financial pressure in the light of major funding cuts imposed by the state. There are major fears that the university, whose constituent institutions include such global leaders as UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara, will have to implement further very drastic cuts and job losses.

One initiative currently being contemplated as a possible contribution to alleviating the crisis is a plan to put a number of programmes online and charge students for taking them – including students not registered with the university. However, in order to do this the university needs to invest to cover the start-up and development costs, and these are estimated to come to up to $7 million. Initially the university declared that this would be raised from private donations, but so far it has only been able to raise $750,000 – and so it has now decided to fund the rest by way of a bank loan. But if it does this, then the overall financial and business plan for the initiative will change fundamentally, and the university also will have to work out how to avoid the significant losses that other universities have suffered with similar initiatives.

How all this will play out remains to be seen. But it might be a good idea for every university president across the world to have a poster in their office reminding them that while online learning is a good idea and can make a very substantial pedagogical contribution, it is never an easy source of profits, and should never be planned with that end in view. Setting up a high quality elearning programme costs a lot of money, and needs to. Running something that is not high quality should not be contemplated at all.

This is not to say that the University ofd California should not be planning an elearning initiative. But it should not do this in order to cover a financial shortfall. To do so is very risky indeed.

A *really* open university

October 18, 2009

Have you heard of iTunes U? Well, if you are interested in learning in innovative ways, you should have a look. You can read about it here, but the basic concept is that universities can upload content for distribution on iTunes, generally for free. You will need to have iTunes (which is also free), but that’s all. On the front page of the iTunes Store, scroll to the bottom where you will find a link to iTunes U, and after that you are right into the content. I have gone straight into the ‘Saturday Scholars’ programme of Notre Dame University, and am finding it really interesting. And very appropriately there is something from the UK’s Open University being featured there as well.

Right now what you find here is free content, much of it fairly random, that major institutions are making available on this platform. But of course the obvious question immediately is: might this be the future, or at least a future, of higher education? Could this be a platform for online accredited education, so that while today you may just be availing of interesting information and knowledge here, tomorrow you may be using this platform to get a BA (or whatever) degree.

Of course online elearning is hardly new, but what makes this interesting is that it is being promoted by the very market-savvy Apple Inc. Big university elearning initiatives have more often than not failed. But maybe this is different. If it is, we may of course get worried quickly about the dominant status of Apple in such an endeavour, but for now we might just look at the potential.

I remain of the view that the desire of people for a campus, classroom experience will continue to drive students into physical university spaces, though no doubt using more and more new technology while there. But there will always be some for whom that is not an ideal or possible choice, and for them this may be heralding a new framework. We’ll have to wait and see.

E-learning: looking back on a great future?

May 19, 2009

For the past ten years or so one of the big questions has been whether new online capabilities would transform the educational experience, and in particular whether a large number of students would in future choose to do their learning entirely online. Distance education was already a reasonably well established, if minority, product, with Britain’s Open University in particular having demonstrated that there was demand for it.  In Ireland similar (if more modest) moves were made by Oscail, the National Distance Education Centre. But in many ways the programmes offered in these institutions were quite traditional, though the Open University did make imaginative use of television as a teaching medium. But anyone with insomnia in the 1980s watching the lectures for some Open University course on BBC2 in the middle of the night will have noticed that, while the lecturer may have been standing in front of a camera, but what they did there was quite peculiarly old-fashioned.

Then along came the concept of doing it all online, and the idea of ‘elearning’ was born. Distance education providers started to use online tools, some inter-institutional consortia were established to pool resources and share a platform for online provision, and commercial elearning companies were formed. A decade or so on, the commercial product is well established, though not necessarily as a tool in the education system. But within higher education, the results of all that elearning enthusiasm have been quite modest. The early big-money initiatives have almost all failed, whether state-sponsored or inter-institutional. In Ireland various attempts were made to establish a shared platform for various providers, but none of them came to anything.

Given the speed with which new technologies have been adopted more generally in society over the same period, why has elearning not made more progress? First, many of those who have promoted it have done so on two flawed assumptions: (i) that it is cheaper than classroom learning; and (ii) that both faculty and materials could be transferred easily from the classroom to the computer. In fact, elearning – when it is done properly and to an acceptable quality – is expensive, partly because it requires very high skills on the part of those offering it, partly because both the hardware and the software are costly and in need of frequent updating, and partly because maintaining any sense of learning community across major geographical areas is difficult.

But more important still has been the failure, on the whole, to invest elearning with any real pedagogy appropriate to the medium. It is simply not the same as traditional teaching that happens to use technology. But because, apart from some educationalists who took an expert interest, elearning was often offered by institutions that had made no special effort to develop a pedagogical outlook, the whole thing was often strangely unsatisfactory. There was some sense of what population groups might benefit from online learning, but much less of what that learning should be like, that was different from traditional educational programmes.

In the meantime, the online experience has shot into higher education, but from an unexpected direction. What galvanised student interest was not the ability to do traditional learning online, but the arrival of social networking on platforms such as Facebook. The new online world that students inhabit is community-oriented and highly interactive. If elearning is to be a successful tool after all, this is where the pedagogy will also have to go. In fact, it is arguably time right now to go back to the drawing board and consider whether a new form of elearning, based to an extent on the social networking experience, is the way forward. And if this is to work, student communities will need to be involved in the design of the product.

I strongly believe that elearning has a future. But maybe not the one it had ten years ago.