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Tools and Technology Take Higher Education Back to the Future

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By 2025, higher education has transformed itself back to the future, to a time of the earliest philosophers of education when learning was self-paced, guided by mentors or coaches, and assessed by how well students had mastered essential competencies, rather than by the credentials they have earned, said John C. Cavanaugh, PhD, president and CEO of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area.

Cavanaugh offered the prediction in his keynote address for the 2014 Orkand Chair Distinguished Lecture sponsored by the University of Maryland University College (UMUC). He was joined by a panel of internationally acclaimed educators, moderated by University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. (Brit) Kirwan, PhD, who convened to discuss higher education's future and to celebrate the official launch of UMUC's Center for Innovation and Learning.

The Center is the university's laboratory for prototyping "new approaches, practices, learning models and support services designed to strengthen the university's curriculum and faculty development model and student support," said UMUC Provost Marie A. Cini during the lecture's opening remarks. The Center provides UMUC an important new avenue for expanding its use of Big Data to solve problems and, among other mandates, improve learning outcomes.

"I think UMUC is all about this idea of trying and testing," said panelist Mark Milliron, PhD, cofounder and chief learning officer of Civitas Learning. To achieve Cavanaugh's vision by 2025, all institutions of higher learning must become what Milliron calls student-success scientists. "I think for us to get to a place where we can impact the learning needs we have for the country, for our regions and for our institutions, we're going to have to use the data that are generated and actually create a different way of approaching the learning challenges," he said.

Achieving Cavanaugh's vision also requires that we adjust the teaching and learning environments in our colleges and universities, which do not change easily, and that "faculty rethink the way they conduct their classroom experiences," said USM Chancellor Kirwan. "'True improvement in post-secondary education will require converting teaching from a solo sport to a community-based research activity,'" agreed Candace Thille, PhD, quoting a Carnegie-Melon colleague.

Thille, who directs the Open Leaning Initiative and is a research fellow in the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning at Stanford University, has significant success getting faculty to rethink the way they teach. Faculty come to value the shift from teaching in isolation to working in teams where they can build on the diversity of faculty expertise― knowledge of the discipline, of human and computer interaction, about learning research. "And it is really supporting of faculty to shift teaching practice from this isolated solo sport where they were expected to know how to do everything," Thille said.

Hal Plotkin, senior policy advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary of Education at the U.S. Department of Education suggests that some transformation of teaching and learning environments will occur naturally as the higher education system rapidly loses the ability to protect itself from market economies. He believes in the power of markets.

When the California community college system where he served as president of the board of trustees adopted a board-level policy requiring the chancellor to support faculty who wanted to produce their own learning materials that would reside in the public domain, the system underwent a rapid process of institutional change. And the transformation took place, "not because all of the professors changed their practice at once, because the board dictated it, but because some did … [and] students began to vote with their feet," Plotkin said.

Students gravitated to the classes that did the best job of meeting their needs, typically those that made the most use of technology, open resources and that imposed on them the fewest unnecessary resources. "Instructors who were not adopting the kinds of methods that Dr. Cavanaugh was suggesting are the wave of the future, saw their sections shrinking and shrinking," said Plotkin. "It had a very healthy effect of inducing transformation in behavior simply in response to the indications that the faculty was getting about where students were finding the best support for their success."

Cavanaugh predicts that in the next decade some public and private colleges and universities will succumb to market forces. We should let nature take its course, he said. "The world is likely to see fewer but financially more viable institutions that provide higher quality education to students."

In some measure, that higher quality means returning to a very fundamental aspect of what education really was all about in the past, a focus on individualized instruction, Cavanaugh said. Only today, the enormity of scale combined with analytic tools and technology explodes the possibilities. Instead of a handful of students, one master or tutor can reach thousands.

"It's the tools, the technology and the scale that make this so exciting and really different than what we've been doing for the last 100 to 150 years."