Thursday, February 15, 2018

Toward a Learning Society: The University in the Information Age

In 1999, the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges and the Kellogg Foundation charged a Commission led by 24 public university presidents and provosts to look at the future of public higher education in the information age.  The result was a series of six reports, under the general heading Returning to our Roots.  The final report noted:
The mission of our institutions has not changed, but the context in which we pursue it is in every way different. Just as surely as the dawn of the 20th century marked the American transition from agriculture to manufacturing, the 21st will usher in the full flowering of the information and telecommunications age.”  (Renewing the Covenant, p. 16). 

This paper will look at several ways that learning technologies may be pointing to major changes in how public universities can meet that challenge.  I will focus on three technology elements—online learning, Open Educational Resources, and social media—and how they are beginning to shape higher education’s new engagement to fuel the learning society. 
1.         Online Learning:  A New Spirit of Collaboration
            Let’s start by looking at the impact of online delivery of degree programs.  Just last month, Penn State celebrated the 20th anniversary of its online campus, the World Campus.  Starting with just 48 enrollments in 4 courses in January 1998, the World Campus now enrolls 14,000 students in 150 undergraduate and graduate degree and certificate programs.  Back in 1998, Penn State was one of a small number of institutions that were experimenting with the Internet to deliver distance education.  That’s no longer the case, of course.  A new report from the Babson Research Group, which has been documenting the growth of online learning for more than a decade, found that, in 2016, more than 6.3 million students—or 31.6% of all American higher education students—took at least one distance course. (Seaman, p. 3).  52.8% of all students who took at least one distance course also took an on-campus course, and of those who took only distance courses, 56.1% reside in the same state as the institution at which they were enrolled.  In short, online technology is beginning to change how colleges and universities relate to students both on campus and off, in-state and beyond.  This is an important factor as institutions face the prospect of declining enrollments as the Millennial generation moves past college age. 
A New Era of Collaboration
            One thing that the online environment does is eliminate geography as a limitation and as an advantage.  When we first started, the fear was that online programs would make us all competitors, destroying a history of cooperation and sharing in distance education that dated back to the 1930s.  As it is turning out, however, we are beginning to see a new spirit of collaboration among universities to use online learning to share faculty expertise, course content, and students. 
The Great Plains IDEA  An example is the Great Plains IDEA—Interactive Distance Education Alliance.  The Great Plains IDEA brings together public universities to collaboratively offer online graduate degrees in agriculture and the human sciences.  As their website says, “Why rely on just one university to help you earn your degree when we can help you learn from the best faculty at multiple universities?”  GP IDEA began with a group of human sciences deans at seven Midwestern universities who were interested in a collaborative master’s degree.  By the time the Alliance was formalized in 2001, it had ten charter member institutions. Today, it includes 19 universities across the Midwest, west, and south.
            The vision is that institutions will create and maintain strategic academic alliances that “allow institutions working together to field graduate programs that are greater in reach and significance than any single institution could field alone, that manage institutional and shared resources in highly efficient ways, and that enrich the teaching experience for faculty and the learning experience for students.”  The model assumes that a student will matriculate at her home university but take courses online from multiple institutions. The final degree is offered by the student’s home institution.  Institutions agree on a common tuition.  Currently, GPIDEA offers 19 graduate degree programs.
Course Share A similar collaboration was created by the Big Ten Academic Alliance.  Called Course Share, it allows Big Ten institutions to make selected online courses available to resident students at other Big Ten institutions.  The focus is on courses in lesser-taught languages and other specialized courses, where students have limited access to faculty and where campuses may have trouble filling seats locally.  Students enroll at their home institution and join courses online.  “To date,” according to the Big Ten website, “over 130 different less commonly taught languages (LCTLs) and area studies courses have been shared using CourseShare including Swahili, Thai, Vietnamese, and Islamic and Korean Studies courses.”
EPCE  We can also point to partnerships among higher education institutions and employers that extend professional and vocational education to the workplace.  One example in this area is the Energy Providers Coalition for Education (EPCE), which brings together private, public, and government-owned utilities; energy contractors and suppliers; professional associations; local unions; and workforce investment boards and four universities to provide online training and education opportunities for workers in the energy field. 
2.         Open Educational Resources: Sharing Across Sectors
Another innovation that encourages collaboration is open educational resources—or OERs.  The Hewlett Foundation, which funds grants to support the development of open educational resources, defines OERs as “high-quality teaching, learning, and research materials that are free for people everywhere to use and repurpose.”   OERs can be many things:  full online courses, course modules or lessons, video or audio lectures, interviews with experts, demonstrations, simulations, experiments, solutions to math problems . . . you name it.  What makes all of these things OERs is that they have an open copyright that makes them free for the public to use, to adapt, and to redistribute.
            OERs can be shared among institutions to enhance teaching and to reduce the duplication of effort involved in creating local course materials.  Open texts also reduce costs to both institutions and students.  OERs can also be made available to community clients, such as employers, to enhance professional development and practice and to help transfer research findings into practice.
            The idea of OERs as an international movement is rooted in a 2007 meeting of educators in Capetown, South Africa, who crafted a declaration on OERs that called for educators to transform online content into open educational resources that could be freely shared and for governments and educational boards to create policies that recognize these resources.  It has since been signed by nearly 2,500 institutions and public agencies around the world.
             Here in the U.S., the Creative Commons was founded in 2001. It provides copyright licenses for OERs, helping to make materials available for free use globally, with special focus on materials that support scientific research dissemination and educational applications. 
            Community colleges have been especially active in the OER movement.  The Community College Consortium for OERs was founded in 2007 to encourage the development and adoption of OERs with the goal of making college more affordable while expanding the resources available to faculty.  It maintains a catalog of more than 750 open textbooks.  Most recently, it has been encouraging full degree programs based on OERs.
Inter-Sector Collaboration
            We are finding that OERs also encourage cross-sector collaboration.  Increasingly, for instance, OERs developed by colleges and universities are being used to enhance teaching and learning in K-12 schools.  This is likely to continue to grow as states establish online charter schools; as of 2015, there are more than 150 online charter schools in 18 states, plus the District of Columbia.  This does not include K-12 brick and mortar schools that offer some courses online.  iNACOL—the International Association for K-12 Online Learning—reports that at least 8 states are actively working on statewide policies for the use of OERs in their schools.
Curriculum Issues  The combination of university-created online courses and open educational resources in K-12 curricula has great potential to fuel curricular innovation in both environments. In the process, it might also blur distinctions between the two sectors.  For instance, university-level college courses can be used as “dual enrollment” courses that allow registered high school students to simultaneously earn high school graduate credit and college credit. The online environment makes dual enrollment more convenient for high school students who live far from a college campus but want to earn college credit while in high school.  Dual enrollment helps fill vacant seats in both online and traditional university courses, while offering students a head start toward a college career. 
            Similarly, university-developed OERs can help ensure that high school students graduate with the knowledge and skills they need to successfully make the transition to higher education.  
            As these innovations expand, we can expect to see a need to take a fresh look at the transition between K-12 and higher education curricula.  Back in the 1940s, the Truman Commission on Higher Education recommended, among other things, the idea of moving from a universal K-12 schooling system to a K-14 system, under which taxpayers would support education for all students through the second year of the undergraduate curriculum.  The recommendation was not acted on, although it probably helped to reinforce public support for low-cost tuition at community colleges.  Just recently, though, the State of New York approved a plan to offer full scholarships for first two years at SUNY and CUNY to students whose parents earn less than $100,000 per year. The upper limit will increase each year.  San Francisco now has a “Free City” program that provides city residents tuition-free access to San Francisco City College.  These are important steps toward the idea of universal K-14 education.
Re-Thinking the Curriculum  This, in turn, suggests the need to more effectively align the pedagogy and content of the high school curriculum and the general education college curriculum to (1) eliminate unnecessary overlap and duplication, (2) to ensure that critical skills—such as effectively introducing STEM skills and citizenship development early in the curriculum—are properly covered, and (3) to innovate with pedagogy that takes advantage of information technology to develop student skills in finding, evaluating, and applying information, and their ability to collaborate and to solve problems.  A new study by, was just published in January.  It reports, “Faculty collaboration in creating new educational resources that rely on technology can serve as a catalyst for rethinking pedagogy, and has the potential to be a cost-effective means by which liberal arts colleges can provide more students high-quality learning experiences that are in line with the core tenets of a liberal arts education.” (p.2)
Micro-Degrees  Another twist on curricular innovation is the Micro-degree.  EdX, a nonprofit created by MIT and Harvard, offers 1900 open courses—what are sometimes called MOOCs—from 39 institutions around the world.  They’ve been taken by more than 14 million people around the world.  More recently, MIT and EdX have collaborated on a “micro-master’s” program designed to help learners earn accelerated master’s degrees.  One program in supply chain management, for example, includes 5 open courses that are the equivalent to one semester of graduate work.  They are now in the early stages of doing the same with a micro-bachelor’s program.
            It seems reasonable to expect that curriculum change—supported by the kinds of innovations we’ve just discussed—will be part of a re-invention of undergraduate education in coming years.
Other Technology Innovations A couple of other elements also have potential for shaping curricular and pedagogic change.  One is the rise of so-called “big data” services that allow institutions to collect data on how students participate in online elements of courses.  This data can then be used to help guide students to more productive study habits and help faculty and course designers improve pedagogy and course delivery.   Big data—and how institutions use data about individual students—may offer powerful new tools for course design and student advising and support; at the same time, it raises important questions about privacy and student autonomy, but the potential is clear. 
            Another factor is the rise of “badges” and other nontraditional certifications for both credit and noncredit programs.  These certificates could provide a new pathway for universities to engage students throughout their careers and career changes.  However, while many institutions now offer badges and certificates, we still need standards that will ensure quality and acceptance of these new forms by employers and by other institutions.  In January, the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) announced that it is forming a working group on badges and other alternative digital credentials—an important first step toward creating standards in this arena.
3.         University Engagement: Creating New Learning Communities through Social Media
            When institutions first began to innovate with online learning, it seemed that its success came, in part at least, at the expense of more traditional models of continuing education—evening classes, research transfer workshops, noncredit professional development programs, etc.  However, that is beginning to change.  Today, the tools available to us include, in addition to online learning course management systems, OERs, an increasingly sophisticated social media environment that allow us to bring people together both synchronously and asynchronously.   
            This, I believe, will be part of the next phase of our evolution to a learning society:  creating sustained learning communities focused on specific professions, geographically distributed community functions, or research arenas.  Public universities have a long history of bringing together communities around professional development and research and technology transfer.  Information technology will transform these by using multiple IT applications, united by social media, to meet different needs within the community.  For instance, faculty activity within a learning community might include:
·       Online noncredit courses—and new certifications—that help alumni and/or employees in client organizations grow professionally.
·      Webinars that can transfer research findings to professionals in the field and to provide professional development training.
·       OERs—videos of lectures, games and simulations, and other presentations—that are available to client organizations to use in their own internal training programs.
·      Faculty-moderated discussion groups as an ongoing link to the community, to encourage open-ended communication among community members and academics to raise questions and seek solutions from peers and from university faculty.
            Who might benefit from a learning community?  Well, in Pennsylvania there are 501 school districts.  That means there are 501 school superintendents that could join a College of Education community.  Or, 501 school librarians.  Or, 67 county commissioners or directors of tourism, etc. Learning communities could also be built around professions or industrial specializations.  One can imagine faculty-led learning communities around a wide range of specialties, from agriculture to natural gas engineering to tourism to management of personal care homes.  The learning community concept offers a way to reinvigorate noncredit community engagement while better linking faculty with the professional and social communities that they serve and providing ongoing opportunities to identify new research opportunities.
            Finally, the learning community concept could be a very effective way for universities to continue to support recent graduates as they move into their professional lives. 
            The Kellogg Foundation project that I mentioned at the beginning of this talk included a piece called “Toward a Learning Society.”  That report noted a two-fold challenge:
First, we must ensure that the remarkable growth in demand for education throughout the lifetime of virtually every citizen can be satisfied; second, we must demonstrate that we can meet this need at the highest level of quality imaginable, along with the greatest efficiency possible (A Learning Society, p. x).
            The Information Revolution has matured to a point where we are beginning to see incredible changes in our economy and social systems.  Online learning, OERs, social media, and the use of these to collaborate and to create new curricula, new pedagogies, and new kinds of learning communities are examples of where we seem to be heading.  The global information society brings with it the need for people to learn how to work across local cultures and to use technology in almost every aspect of our lives.
           Over the past five decades, we have seen higher education respond to several new technologies as the Information Society has emerged.  There was educational television in the 1960s, satellite and cable in the 1980s, interactive video in the 1990s, and, finally, the mature Internet, which led us to the innovations I’ve focused on tonight.  All have opened new doors to how we engage communities—how we teach and how we share the results of our research.  Today, the range of innovation is astounding.  It is an exciting opportunity for a new generation of innovators.
 Note:  This paper was presented to the Torch Club of Central Pennsylvania on February 14, 2018.

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