Monday, April 20, 2015

Looking Ahead: Strategic Issues for the Second Generation of Online Learning

Keynote Speech 
Presented at the
18th Annual Teaching and Technology Conference
Baruch College, City University of New York
April 17, 2015

            I am sure that, for many of us here this afternoon, it is hard to imagine that online learning is already approaching its second generation.  The fact that this is the 18th conference on technology and learning here at Baruch College is one reminder.  And, in fact, we can trace online learning back more than 20 years.   One milestone was the development of the first Web browser back in 1990.  Not too much later—in 1992—the Sloan Foundation made the first of what would eventually be $75 million investment in what it was calling Asynchronous Learning Networks.
            In short, we’ve been doing this for a while now.  Over the past two decades, online learning has become a global phenomenon that has had an impact on just about every kind of higher education institution—not to mention K-12 education and job training.  It has stimulated new kinds of institutions, new collaborations among institutions, new partnerships between colleges and employers, and new ways of thinking about the processes of teaching and learning, on campus and off.   In the process, it has become clear that online learning is not simply a new educational technology.  Instead, we need to see it as a way that higher education can adapt to the new demands on our communities that have arisen as the Information Revolution has matured into a Global Information Society. 
Looking Back
            I’d like to start, though, by looking a bit further back.  I am always a bit surprised when our colleagues—inside and out of higher education – argue that colleges and universities have not changed since the Middle Ages.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.  In fact, we went through a powerful change in the 19th and early 20th centuries as a result of the Industrial Revolution.   That experience can help us better understand what is happening with higher education today—and where online learning can help higher education go in the coming generation.  So let me take a minute to outline that experience.
            The Industrial Revolution was marked by several key changes in our society.   One, of course, was the emergence of new industries—coal, steel, manufacturing.  Along with that came a demand for new kinds of professionals—engineers, business managers, and, eventually, teachers and social service providers.  But industrialization also saw rapid urbanization as people moved from the rural areas to work in the new mills.  At the same time, it drove immigration; people came here from all over the world to work in the mines and mills. 
            It was, in today’s parlance, a time of disruptive innovation.  Higher education—which had been for the privileged and future clergy—responded in many ways.  We saw research take a central role in academic life, for instance.  Colleges and universities introduced laboratory courses and internships to help prepare new professionals.  New disciplines emerged—statistics and social psychology, for instance—to prepare people for new roles in society.  And, whole new institutions emerged:  land grant universities were founded to provide education in the “mechanical and practical arts.”  Normal schools—forerunners of today’s state teacher colleges and universities—were established to provide the thousands of teachers needed to educate the children of immigrants who were crowding into our mill towns and mining towns and industrialized urban areas.
            As the Industrial Age matured, another concern arose: given the massive urbanization that was underway—and the fact that it was harder to “keep them down on the farm”—people began to ask:  did the United States have the agricultural capacity to sustain industrialization, urbanization, immigration?  Teddy Roosevelt chaired a Commission on Rural Life out of which emerged the Agricultural Extension Service at our land grant institutions, a new kind of research and technology transfer that envisioned researchers working with farmers in their fields.   In addition, the Commission proposed something that would better link rural families with the urbanized mainstream, making farm life more attractive.  It was called Rural Free Delivery.  In 1892, while RFD was still experimental, three institutions—Penn State, the University of Chicago, and the University of Wisconsin—launched the first distance education programs in the United States—correspondence study.   Penn State’s was called the Home Reading Program in Agriculture and included courses in agriculture, of course, but also courses designed to improve home life in rural areas. 
            Over the years, as the Industrial period matured, we’ve seen many other innovations in distance education—radio, television, satellite, interactive video—and in institutions—the rise of community colleges and special-purpose adult-serving institutions like Empire State College and Thomas Edison State College—the GI Bill and other services to support entry of new students into higher education, to name just a few.  It was an exciting period, to say the least.
Looking Around
             So, then, how is the Information Revolution different from the Industrial Revolution?  While the Industrial Revolution began as a revolution in transportation—the steam engine that powered the great sailing ships, and the internal combustion engine that gave us cars, highways, airplanes, etc.—the Information Revolution began as a communication revolution—radio, television, satellite and, of course, the computer—the digital revolution that made information freely available to anyone.   The changing nature of information is one of the most significant differences between the two eras. 
            Technology is also changing the way we work.  While the industrial revolution stimulated immigration and urbanization, the information revolution has given us a more globalized supply chain, which requires that professionals of all sorts develop new cross-cultural skills.  At the tip of this change is the phenomenon of the distributed office place, where teams work from their homes rather than in central offices. 
            And, of course, technology is changing many aspects of our daily life:  how we shop, how we find information to solve problems, how we communicate with friends and participate in communities.  In fact, it has changed the nature of community itself.  The great agrarian writer Wendell Berry defined a community as the interrelationships of people and institutions in a particular locality.  Today, most of us belong to both physical and virtual communities and that is changing our sense of ourselves—our identities as members of society.
            The information society also demands a more—and differently—educated workforce.  The STEM movement reflects the need for a workforce that has greater skills in science, technology, engineering, and math.  And it is just the tip of the iceberg.   In the industrial era, the general assumption was that 25% of high school graduates needed to go on to college in order to meet the need for managers, engineers, and other professional specializations.  Today, the U.S. Department of Education has argued that we need to move from the current level of 39% to 60% of high school graduates going on to college to allow our communities to compete in a globalized technology-oriented economy.  That’s a huge increase in higher education student population.  And, for the foreseeable future, it means reaching out to people who are already in the workforce to help them prepare for careers in the new economy.
            Kevin Carey, author of The End of College, has said that the Information Revolution will mark “the end of colleges as we've known them for roughly the last 140 years.” (1)  Indeed, this is happening at a time when public confidence in higher education is at a low ebb.  Just recently, Tom Ross, president of the University of North Carolina, said, “America is losing her way with regard to higher education. We seem to have forgotten the real value of higher education – both to our economy and to our society.”  He added, “We must decide whether our society still values higher education – particularly public higher education.  There is an ongoing debate – sometimes beneath the surface and sometimes more overt – about whether higher education conveys a public good or a purely private benefit.” (2)
            As online learning has matured, it is beginning to help our institutions address that question and the demands placed on us by the Information Revolution and to revitalize our social mission.  Media-based distance education has been with us for decades.  Today, however, more institutions than ever before are using online learning as a strategy to address issues on campus and to reach beyond their local campus constituencies to serve students near to campus and further away whose access to traditional campuses are limited by either time or distance.  As Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman found in their 2015 annual survey of higher education leaders, “The proportion of academic leaders who report that online learning is critical to their institution’s long term strategy has grown from 48.8% in 2002 to 70.8% this year.”  (3)
            As we’ve seen here today, institutions are also innovating with hybrid courses and blended degree programs.  This approach—like fully online courses--provides increased flexibility for students—reducing, but not eliminating physical classroom sessions.  That, in turn, creates increased capacity by releasing classrooms so that we can serve more students in traditional classes or other hybrid courses.  However, the potential for hybrid courses goes well beyond access.  This approach, mixing in-class and on-line experiences, can also encourage curricular and pedagogical innovation that can benefit both traditional and nontraditional students.  Ultimately, pedagogy and flexible access go hand in hand:  both empower the student. 
            Let’s look at one kind of hybrid course: the flipped classroom.   Students go online to get access to subject matter organized by the instructor.  Then, they use both online and classroom time for discussion, analysis, and application.  Of course, the online environment itself allows for a greater level of discussion—interaction between student and instructor and interactions among students—than are possible in a typical undergraduate classroom.  The result is richer student engagement in the learning process.
            And this is the true point of online learning beyond access.   In today’s world, education is no longer about the one-way transfer of knowledge from teacher to student.  Today’s world demands an education in which students actively seek out information, evaluate it and turn it into knowledge, and then apply that knowledge to address problems or situations—an approach to learning that, at one time, was restricted to the graduate seminar or honors   The flipped classroom and other kinds of hybrid learning environments support an active learning environment in which all students are engaged in multi-level interactions—student-content, student-student, and student-instructor.   Increasingly, learning at all levels can be active, collaborative, inquiry-oriented, and problem-focused.
            New educational philosophies are beginning to arise out of these environments.  One of the most popular is the “community of inquiry” model.   First fully developed in Canada, it focuses on creating a “deep and meaningful learning experience” through the development and interaction of three interdependent elements – social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence.  The online environment has proven to be a good way to help students in all three dimensions of inquiry—interaction with content, with their instructor, and with each other focused on finding meaning in a topic—and to do this at a scale that was not previously possible.   Again, access to learning and learning effectiveness can go hand in hand.
Looking Ahead
            Let me turn now to the “to do” list.  Much of the initial institutional focus of online learning has been on increasing access and reducing cost.   As I mentioned earlier, the idea that higher education is less a public good than a private good continues to be a problem.  That said, one major challenge, looking ahead, is to re-envision the social mission of our institutions in this new environment.
            Since we just talked about pedagogy, let me continue on that track for a moment.  Much of our current thinking about the teaching/learning environment has focused on pedagogy and instructional design at the course level.  However, it is also clear that, in today’s information society, individuals need new skills and attitudes if they are to function well as both citizens and professionals.  Throughout the 20th century there were several periods when general education arose as a social policy issue.  In the 1950s, for instance—at the very beginning of the Information Revolution—the Truman Commission on Higher Education identified eleven principles or goals that summed up key characteristics of an educated person on the eve of the new era:
·      An ethical code of behavior
·      Informed and responsible citizen solving problem skills
·      Understanding global interdependence
·      Habits of scientific thought in personal and civic problems
·      Understanding others and expressing one’s self
·      Enjoyment and understanding of literature and the arts
·      The ability to create a satisfying family life
·      The ability to choose a useful and satisfying vocation
·      Developing critical and constructive thinking habits (4)
            The question looking forward is:  are these principles the goal of undergraduate education in the mature Information Society?  If not, what principles should guide the undergraduate curriculum?   Online learning and pedagogical models like the community of inquiry are central to this debate.  They are tools of change.  Properly applied online learning allows us to tackle these general education curriculum goals more effectively and at a scale that we couldn’t do in the past.  This is one dimension of what might well be the most disruptive innovation ahead of us.
Competency-Based Education            
            Another facet of innovation in curriculum is competency-based education—or CBE.  Writing in EDUCAUSE Review last year, Michelle Weise called online CBE  “the innovation most likely to disrupt higher education.”  She added, “It serves as the missing link between learning outcomes and industry needs. A true workforce solution, competency-based education has the potential to bridge the widening gap between traditional postsecondary education and the workforce . . . Online competency-based education marks the critical convergence of multiple vectors: the right learning model, the right technologies, the right customers, and the right business model.” (5)
            The U.S. Department of Education describes CBE as “a structure that creates flexibility [and] allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning.”  They go on to say, “This type of learning leads to better student engagement because the content is relevant to each student and tailored to their unique needs. It also leads to better student outcomes because the pace of learning is customized to each student.”  (6) Given the need to create and maintain a professional workforce in a rapidly changing environment, on-line CBE is becoming increasingly attractive as a social investment.
            iNACOL—the International association for K-12 online learning notes that,  The core element of a competency-based approach is that students progress to more advanced
work upon demonstration of learning by applying specific skills and content.”  (7) CBE is already finding a place in K-12 schools.  Within higher education, the Western Governors University was among the first to promote a CBE approach.
            CBE, the flipped classroom, and the community of inquiry approach are examples of how online learning gives our institutions tools that can shift us to a more student-centered approach to curriculum—and, in the process, re-invigorate an understanding of our societal role.  
Sharing  Resources
            During its first two decades, online learning has tended to focus on competition:  removing time and space as access barriers meant that every institution competed with every other institution for every potential student.  This ran counter to older forms of distance education—from correspondence study to satellite delivery—where institutions shared resources, licensing media-based course materials to each other on a regular basis.   However, several models of inter-institutional sharing are now emerging in the online environment.
Open Educational Resources  One of these is the Open Educational Resources—or OER—movement.   This started with a meeting in Capetown, South Africa, in 2007 when a small group of educators crafted the Capetown Open Education Declaration, which stated, in part:
We are on the cusp of a global revolution in teaching and learning. Educators worldwide are developing a vast pool of educational resources on the Internet, open and free for all to use. These educators are creating a world where each and every person on earth can access and contribute to the sum of all human knowledge. They are also planting the seeds of a new pedagogy where educators and learners create, shape and evolve knowledge together, deepening their skills and understanding as they go.
This emerging open education movement combines the established tradition of sharing good ideas with fellow educators and the collaborative, interactive culture of the Internet. It is built on the belief that everyone should have the freedom to use, customize, improve and redistribute educational resources without constraint. Educators, learners and others who share this belief are gathering together as part of a worldwide effort to make education both more accessible and more effective. (8)

The Declaration has since been signed by 2493 individuals and 257 organizations from around the world, including a good number from the U.S.  The Commonwealth of Learning, headquartered in Canada, remains an international leader in this area.
            Here in the U.S., the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources now has more than 250 members and includes 150 open textbooks.  Internationally, the Creative Commons promotes the open sharing of online content with a goal of “universal access to research and education and full participation in culture.” 
            One possible implication of the CBE and OER movements going forward is that the traditional boundaries of our institutions will begin to blur.  For instance, colleges and universities are beginning to make online courses available to high school students as “dual enrollment” courses in which students can simultaneously earn high school graduation credit and college credit.  We can envision a time when higher education institutions make OERs from selected lower-division courses available to high school teachers to help strengthen the high school curriculum.  This was a major role of public broadcasting through the 1980s, by the way.
            I mentioned earlier the Department of Education goal to increase the percentage of high school graduates who go on to college from the current level of around 39 percent to 60 percent.  One problem with that goal is that, today, most students who graduate from high school prepared to enter college do so.  Thus, in order to meet the goal, we need to increase dramatically the percentage of kids who graduate from high school ready to go on to college.  Together, open educational resources and competency-based education offer a way that higher education institutions can help K-12 schools meet that goal, while lowering the total cost of higher education, both to students and to society as a whole. 
Sharing Faculty and Students  The online environment is also stimulating another kind of sharing, as institutions share not just resources, but their faculty and students in order to offer the best possible education to meet need sin their primary service area.  A good example is the Great Plains Institutional Distance Education Alliance—otherwise known as the Great Plains IDEA.  This is a group of public state universities in the Midwest that are working together to offer online master’s degrees in the human services professions.  Rather than try to duplicate academic expertise at each campus, they share faculty and students offering degrees that include courses from multiple institutions to ensure that students in all participating states have access to the best academic talent.  It also ensures that these specialized academic areas will be able to maintain healthy student enrollments.  Students enroll with the understanding that they will get their degree from their home institution but will take courses from many institutions.   Similar kinds of collaborations can be found around the world.   Increasingly, we will see these kinds of partnerships based on complementary research and teaching strengths, shared professional contacts, shared workforce and economic development needs, and shared commitments to improving society.  The online learning environment makes this kind of sharing not only possible, but preferable.  They not only reduce cost, they also ensure high quality standards and open opportunities for other kinds of collaborations among faculty.
Supporting Students
            One other area where I think many institutions are now ready to innovate is student support, especially for students who have no or limited access to traditional campus services.   At Penn State, the World Campus serves truly distant students whose first trip to campus may well be on graduation day.  Often, the first person these students want to meet is not their favorite faculty member, but their advisor, who has helped the student through many of the life issues that they encounter trying to balance learning with family, job, and community obligations.   A strong, compassionate staff dedicated to helping students succeed is a critical success factor for any e-learning operation that serves off-campus adult students. 
            The newest dimension of helping students succeed is “big data.”  Big data has been described by Christopher Pappas as “data that is created by learners while they are taking an eLearning course or training module.” (9)  The data can be collected within the learning management system and can serve several purposes.  For instance, it can help designers improve the course structure itself by identifying elements that are most used—or least used—by students.  But it can also allow instructors to provide feedback to students during the course by helping them recognize students who are most likely to run into trouble.   This kind of help within the course itself could be a key to a more student-centered learning environment—one committed to helping students truly succeed.
            However, big data also requires that we take a fresh look at our responsibilities to the student.  We need to ask some questions:  What specific student data will be retained after the course is completed?  Will the data be available to others outside the course?   If the data is maintained on a commercial data system, who controls its long-term use?   The principle concern is that the student be fully aware of what kinds of data are being collected and how they will be used.  This is an important policy issue for our institutions.  That said, collecting this kind of data with the student’s full knowledge and sharing it with students to help them succeed can be an important new dimension of a student-centered learning design.
Re-Engaging the Community
            Finally, let me turn to one other dimension of online learning that is fast rising on the horizon.  For the past two decades, most of our attention has been focused on the use of online learning in credit courses and formal certificate and degree programs.  In the future, I would hope that we would also begin to use online technology in a more consistent, strategic way as a means to engage the community for research and technology transfer, workforce training, community development, and other noncredit activities traditionally housed in the “continuing education” or “extension” mission.  Open Educational Resources offer one vehicle for moving our academic knowledge into the community.  Webinars and other online conferencing systems can allow us to convene widely distributed communities of interest around important issues.  And, I personally believe that MOOCs—massively open online courses—will realize their true potential when they are used to bring people together around shared training and development needs in a noncredit—rather than simply credit-free—environment.  They could well be the 21st century’s answer to the 19th century vision of agricultural extension as the researcher working side-by-side with the farmer in his fields.  As we go down the road, these noncredit engagements—institution to industry, institution to community, institution to government, and to other institutions—will be of increasing strategic value.
            I have tried to outline briefly several areas of innovation that could help shape the mainstream of four institutions through online learning in the future:  competency-based education, sharing open educational resources, sharing faculty and students through inter-institutional collaboration, using big data to help students succeed, and, finally, creating new kinds of informal engagements with the communities we serve.   All of these, I believe, will help our institutions demonstrate that, in the Global Information Society, higher education is, indeed, not just a private benefit to students, but new way to serve society as a whole.
1.            Fain, P. “The End of College?”  Inside Higher Ed 3/23/2015.   Accessed 23 March 2015.

2.            Ross, T.  “Tom Ross: The Real Value of Higher Education” The News and Observer, 15 March 2015.   Accessed 23 March 2015.

3.            Allen, I. E., and Seaman, J.  Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United States.  Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group: February 2015, p. 4.

4.            Kennedy, G.  (ed.).  Education for Democracy:  The Debate Over the Rerport of the President’s Commission on Higher Education.  Boston: D.C. Heath, 1952, pp. 25-30.

5.            Weise, Michelle R.  “Got Skills:  Why Online Competency-Based Education is the Disruptive Innovation for Higher Education.”  Educause Review, 10 November /2014.  Accessed 23 March 2015.

6.            “Competency-Based Learning or Personalized Learning.”  U.S. Department of Education. Accessed 23 March 2015.

7.            Sturgis, C., and Patrick, S.  When Success is the Only Option:  Designing Competency-Based Pathways for Next Generation Learning. iNACOL, Vienna, Va, 2010, p. 8.

8.            The Capetown Declaration. Open Society Institute, September 2007.   Accessed 23 March 2015.

9.            Pappas, C. “Big Data in E-Learning: The Future of eLearning Industry.”,  24 July 2014 Accessed 23 March 2015.