Experienced teachers, cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists and other researchers already know a great deal about how humans learn, according to UMUC Provost Marie A. Cini.
But introduce qualifiers, and the subject becomes infinitely—and frustratingly—more complex. How do we learn, given our stressful lives and busy schedules? How do we learn, if we have tried and failed in the past? How do we learn, given the spiraling costs of higher education?
With the launch of the university's new Center for Innovation in Learning, UMUC has set its sights on asking those and other questions, and answering them in ways that are both practical and scalable.
"We intend to create an incubator," Cini said, in outlining the vision for the Center, "integrated with the Undergraduate and Graduate Schools, that is continually and rapidly prototyping new approaches, practices, learning models and support services to give our students the optimum education to meet program outcomes, in the shortest time possible and at a reasonable cost."
The concept for the center grew out of conversations between Cini and UMUC President Javier Miyares, who often describes himself as "a data guy." Both recognized the need and the opportunity for a research unit that would harness the power of big data to solve problems, improve outcomes and reduce costs.
A critical component was put in place in June 2013, when Dr. Karen Vignare—formerly director of project design and implementation for Michigan State University's MSUglobal—joined UMUC as associate provost and director of the center.
Vignare's background makes her ideal for the role, said Cini. As a researcher, Vignare has focused on the use of open educational resources and competency-based approaches in international education, training and development. Her work has won funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation and USAID, and she has published and presented on topics ranging from international education and knowledge organization to evaluation and assessment of learning, online learning and blended learning.
"[The education system] is kind of like our healthcare system," Vignare said. "It may serve some people; it might even serve most people. But there are some for whom it is ineffective, and for some it may even be detrimental."
Vignare cites her own father as an example. Though he eventually would go on to launch and run a successful business, he struggled academically and never attended high school.
The learning environment of the future, Vignare said, can—and must—be different. Modern technology allows us to measure and monitor progress in ways undreamed of just a few decades ago. It is now possible to tailor curriculum, pace of delivery and even modes of delivery to a student's unique preferences, needs and capabilities.
The center's focus, though, will extend beyond learning outcomes, Vignare explained. "Costs must decrease. That is the baseline," she said. "For this initiative to work at UMUC, it must work to reduce costs, making education more affordable for students. Ultimately, we're looking for the sweet spot—an education that is more convenient, more individualized and more affordable."
Vignare's enthusiasm for her new role is infectious, and she calls UMUC "ideal" as a base for exploring innovative strategies in higher education. In fact, the university's commitment to open access—which dates back to its founding in 1947—is itself innovative, Vignare said, pointing to a long held belief in higher education that obstacles to entry serve as motivators and proof of quality. In fact, no hard evidence shows this to be true.
Asked to point out the "dark places on the map"—those areas that promise the greatest potential for research-driven gains—Vignare immediately cites technology. To date, she said, most efforts to modernize higher education have focused on adapting the traditional classroom to the online environment—electrifying the blackboard, if you will.
While that approach has yielded modest returns in convenience and scalability, Vignare expects more dramatic results as the power of technology is harnessed to measure, assess and customize the learning experience. Already, data analytics are being used to identify learning preferences, risk patterns and other trends that, until recently, were hidden in plain sight, buried under terabytes of unanalyzed data.
Another area that is ripe for exploration involves the pace at which information is presented. Content may be excellent, but if a particular course allots too much time to one subset of the subject matter and not enough to another, students suffer. Given modern technology, it is now possible to adjust a course's pace and rhythm, based on hard data and customized for the needs of individual students.
The future is rich with possibility, and Vignare is working quickly to build out her team and launch the Center's initial research projects.
At that point, the Center will take its rightful place as a hub of applied scholarship and innovation at UMUC, with faculty members from both schools serving stints as researchers and research designers. As they identify new technologies or instructional methods that increase learning outcomes, attention will shift to broad and rapid implementation.
Said Vignare, "This is an exciting time to be part of UMUC, part of higher education, and part of the revolution that is changing the way we teach and learn."