Technology and the Imminent Disruption of Higher Education: Is Fear the Path to the Dark Side?

Every day, new developments in the world of cognitive science add to our understanding of how the brain works and, more specifically, how it learns. Whether it is exploring the integration of data both familiar and new, the effectiveness of reward systems, or the brain’s ability to recognize patterns and form associations, cognitive science can help us better understand why experiential learning and experimentation (i.e. trial and error) are so essential to the reinforcement of conceptual and reflective learning processes. Tom Stafford of the University of Sheffield (UK) is but one expert who recently described five classic studies in learning and cognition that help explain how the brain retains information, and it is this same body of work that led Educational theorist David Kolb of Case Western Reserve University to develop his renowned Experiential Learning Cycle based on a synthesis of similar observations. What these studies ultimately tell us is that our changing knowledge of the brain continues to have enormous implications for our approaches to teaching and learning. 

It is important for those of us committed to improving the practice of teaching in higher education to recognize the contributions of cognitive science when we consider the brave new world of technology-enhanced learning. The advent of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other forms of online learning has led some to argue that technology is drawing university education away from effective learning practices. However, there is growing evidence that the emergence of new educational technologies carries significant potential for improving learning outcomes.  Happily, this evidence does not invalidate traditional models of knowledge acquisition and experiential learning within and beyond the classroom, nor does it undermine the timeless value of inspirational teaching and coaching.  The good news is that we do not have to choose between one and the other. 

Re-Imagining (Higher) Education

Last month, I was among 300 people who gathered in Philadelphia for Re-Imagine Education to explore the ways in which new technologies might create fundamental change in education practices. The event featured a stellar list of futurists, ‘ed tech’ (education technology) entrepreneurs, investors, and mainstream educators from more than thirty countries, all of whom prophesized major disruption in the world of higher education.  From social theorist Jeremy Rifkin and Jaime Casap (Chief Education Evangelist at Google) to William Rankin (Director of Learning for Apple) and Anant Agarwal (MIT professor and CEO of edX), the message was consistent: the global demand for affordable higher education is outstripping the current supply, and technology will revolutionise both the provision of university experiences and the access available to learners across the globe.

Jeremy Rifkin’s 2011 blockbuster book, The Third Industrial Revolution, addressed the transformations already underway in the worlds of information technology, energy, and transportation.  His latest contribution, The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism, takes the analysis a step further, insisting that digital technologies now permit many services to be scaled up at relatively little cost because they carry virtually no marginal costs. This logic is of course the same as that followed in the world of higher education by developers of MOOCs such as edX, Coursera, iTunes U, Open2Study, Udacity and Udemy. 

At Re-Imagine Education, edX CEO Anant Agarwal highlighted the potential disruptiveness of pay-for-credential models of education and growing collaboration in next-generation MOOCs. He pointed toward the precedent set by the Global Freshman Academy  (GFA), which has followed the growing global movement for open educational resources by offering free access to higher education while offering a paid option for those wishing to earn a credential in the process. Anyone around the world can sign up for GFA MOOCs—in fact, 65,000 people have done so since their launch in April 2015. But the learner only pays when he or she wishes to obtain a certificate or academic credit—in this case, one from Arizona State University.  Agarwal also identified the features of what MOOCs 2.0 would likely involve: collaboration between learners in self-organised groups and links to personalised ‘artificial intelligence’ software-based tutors like IBM’s Watson.  With developments like these, there is little wonder that the value of the global market for MOOCs is projected to increase from $1.83 B in 2015 to $8.5 B by 2020.

New Adventures in Technology-Enhanced Learning

Numerous presenters at the Re-Imagine Education conference stressed that the real value of technology lies not in substituting uploaded lectures and impersonal online environments for classrooms or experiential learning scenarios. Rather, the value lies in using effective technologies to transcend the limitations that currently exist around access to effective learning because of financial or geographic barriers.

One especially useful component of the conference was a showcase of dozens of award-winning innovations in technology-enhanced learning from around the globe.  From all these cutting-edge case studies, there emerged a number of general trends, all of which were highly consistent with fundamental principles of effective pedagogy.  These trends included: i) the embrace of gamification; ii) the reinforcement of learning by reward; iii) the emergence of adaptive learning software; iv) the development of simulations as a parallel to experiential learning; and v) new approaches to online social learning.  Each of these trends are likely to be accelerated and enhanced by ‘big data’ analytics, which will introduce real-time improvements in learning outcomes through the increased personalisation of individual learning journeys.

Trend 1 — Gamification: Enhancing Emotional Engagement with Learning

From language training to leadership development, it is becoming increasingly common for institutions to deploy interactive video to enhance learner interest and engagement. ABA, Olive Green The Movie and the Copenhagen Business School/Coursera all use teaching techniques more typically associated with video games than classrooms to create a sense of suspense and an emotional desire to learn. Two medical students at Johns Hopkins University, for example, have developed a mobile app called Osmosis that provides quiz-based, rapid reinforcement of learning that allows users to escape the cycle of ‘cramming and forgetting’ that characterises traditional approaches to the study of medicine.  Software systems such as Supermemo and TopHat (developed in Waterloo) further allow professors and students to enhance gamification-based learning processes inside the classroom. 

Trend 2 — Rewards: from Points and Badges to Certificates and Degrees

Consistent with the psychological evidence showing that points and scorecards motivate learners in real time, a number of technologies now allow teachers to provide rapid positive feedback for student responses to learning. These systems allow learners to become actively engaged with their learning journey by achieving points in the classroom (physical or virtual); these points can help them obtain digital ‘badges’ that recognize learning outcomes of interest to employers by integrating with existing social media channels such as LinkedIn.  Such badges and certificate bootcamps’ (offered by providers such as General Assembly) are becoming popular in skills-based programs and even full degree programs. 

Trend 3 Adaptive Learning: From Artificial Intelligence to Tutoring

One of the hallmarks of a great teacher is his or her personal availability to an individual student struggling with a specific problem. But what if this advantage can be replicated in the classroom without the teacher having to spend personal time with every student? The P-12 system Mathspace, for example, already provides an adaptive support system to students who may not have access to excellent teachers and tutors on a one-to-one basis.  The system is free and therefore potentially democratising for students whose families are unable to afford a math tutor. 

Cognii Virtual Learning Assistant is artificial intelligence software that provides real-time online tutoring and feedback, thus facilitating the effective assessment of large numbers of assignments.  Thanks to IBM and its artificial intelligence software Watson, we are approaching a time when great teaching may be available to every student studying every discipline at every stage of their career.  Watson is an example of an adaptive coaching system that grows and develops with the learner according to his or her needs—potentially on a lifelong basis, starting in kindergarten.  Watson has university partners across the world, including Ryerson, the University of Toronto, and Western University. 

Trend 4 — Simulations: From Apprenticeship to Virtual Reality

Educators have long argued for the importance of skills-based, experiential learning.  Hence the popularity of apprenticeships and ‘co-operative’ education in Canada, and equivalent approaches in many other parts of the world.  Until recently, many would have assumed that it would be impossible to replicate real-world learning using digital technology. Yet innovations in online learning are now beginning to undermine even that assumption.  AppreNet provides online roleplay-style education, with teachers and experts offering coaching and peer feedback for skills-based activities such as hospitality, healthcare, and education.  

To this end, Drexel University College of Medicine has pioneered online programs like DocCom to support the development of communication skills among medical students.  Drexel now plans to build on their success with a product called WebPatientEncounter, which is designed to develop WebRolePlay: “a competency based, engaging online tool for learners to engage in remote role plays for the practice and assessment of interpersonal skills.”  

The next step in this trend toward simulated learning environments is virtual reality, as Michael Bodekaer of Labster described in a 2015 TEDExCERN presentation.  These environments follow the same logic that has been employed by flight simulation training for many years; yet in addition, immersive education can now be made available at the individual level due largely to the plummeting cost of virtual reality headsets.

Trend 5 — Social Learning: Reproducing the Classroom and Peer Support Online

Part of the beauty of a traditional university experience is the opportunity for students to learn together with peers in seminars, through group assignments, and through social interactions in and out of the classroom. Technology can help here too. The Waterloo-based education technology start-up Kaizena, for example, provides a platform to harness peer and professorial feedback online, significantly increasing the efficiency and timeliness of feedback.  Kaizena allows teachers to video record their comments, aggregate learning points, and provide rapid individual and collective feedback to a class.

Like Open Educational Resources Universitas, the Berlin-based iVersity employs a partnership model that brings together online programs from many universities.  iVersity also places a premium on processes of social learning and ensures that peer groups can work together across the globe, co-creating and ranking content for usefulness and even contributing to peer assessment. Bay Path University’s American Women’s College On-Line has also developed special software to support collaborative learning among its female adult learners. Similarly, SOUL: Social Online Universal Learning provides virtual classroom space, individual coaching support, and other features designed to pace and enhance the student’s learning journey. 

Finally, SymbalooEdu is a free visual resource management tool that allows web-based content to be stored and shared by teachers and students alike in the Cloud.  This tool can help with group work in blended learning and ‘flipped classroom’ settings through shared tiles on mobile devices.

What Does All this Mean for Us?

Every university in Canada employs people who are following these trends and encouraging colleagues to embrace the potential of technology-enhanced learning. These may be individual teachers who act as champions within their institutions, or they may be ‘teaching and learning’ professionals and IT staff charged with supporting the adoption of these enabling technologies.  

Many universities in Canada are already developing cutting-edge approaches to digital education in both undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as within ‘lifelong learning’ models, as is the case with Ryerson’s Chang School of Continuing Education. The good news is that many of the existing technologies are free to access and create virtually no barriers to entry for individuals and institutions wishing to deploy them to improve student experience.  The bad news, of course, is that not all university professors will want to change their teaching styles in the absence of a compelling reason to do so.

All of the available evidence suggests that regardless of whether individual teachers and institutions embrace this new world of technology-enhanced learning, their future students undoubtedly will.  If an institution cannot support flexible, high quality, and competitively-priced learning journeys for students of all ages and backgrounds, then another institution will, and it may be based anywhere from Arizona to New Zealand. It remains to be seen whether the relatively conservative higher education sector in Canada will become a world leader in this endeavour.  Evidence from the vibrant education technology sector in Kitchener-Waterloo, home to initiatives like D2L, provides some cause for optimism. And the growing e-campus movement in Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia suggests that Canadian universities are capable of coming together strategically in the online world. What remains unclear is whether this will remain a provincially-led effort.

The Jedi master Yoda once said (apparently a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away):  “You must train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose."  So perhaps the biggest question for public providers of higher education is not whether the technological forces are with us; for they are already here to stay. Therefore, we must ask ourselves whether we will embrace these forces and use them to maintain our pre-eminence as institutions of higher learning for the widest possible range of students.

David Wheeler is the President of Cape Breton University. A former international business executive, Wheeler was previously Dean of Management at Dalhousie University and Pro Vice-Chancellor (Sustainability) and Executive Dean of Business at the University of Plymouth (UK).

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