5 gray areas of higher education’s reinvention

By Meris Stansbury, Managing Editor, @eSN_Meris
October 22nd, 2015

New innovations in higher-ed technology and practice are popping up daily in higher education’s reinvention—but that doesn’t mean they have seals of approval.

higher-education-reinventioneTextbook engagement analytics, cloud systems, career training programs, MOOCs, flipped learning, virtual worlds, game-based instruction…the list could continue for pages. And while institutions emphatically communicate that many of these technologies and practices part of higher education’s reinvention need further research, even some of the seemingly accepted innovations have yet to receive a clear green light.

These “gray areas” on campuses across the country often occur due to technology-based changes in social practices; and though college and university staff often are eager to incorporate these practices in the classroom or within administration, conflicts over institutional mission, student satisfaction or learning quality can occur.

For example, take online assessments: the ability for a student to take an assessment anywhere on a computer initially seems to benefit both the student (easy access) and assessment quality (adaptive functionality). Yet, after initial trials-and-errors, the verdict is still out thanks to major concerns over student cheating and identity verification.

But even online assessments seem small in practice compared to the larger gray areas of higher education’s reinvention. Don’t see a major gray area on the list? Leave your suggestions and thoughts in the comment section below.


Gray area: Social Media

Why it’s being considered: The explosion in popularity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, spearheaded by today’s youth, has led institutions to use social media for recruitment, for safety, and simply to better communicate with the student body. According to the 2014 Social Admissions Report, prospective students are beginning to use platforms such as Instagram (26 percent increase since 2012) and Twitter (15 percent increase since 2012) to better help them select their college or university. Nearly two-thirds (67 percent) of students use social media to research colleges, and nearly 75 percent find it influential. Also, the percent of pre-admission students who like or follow a college on social media increased by 23 points from 2012-13.

The issue: Moving away from campus accounts, some faculty use social media as a communication tool with students, or simply use a personal account. Specifically, college and university presidents using social media are becoming more prevalent—in 2012, communications consultant Michael Stoner posted a series on the mStoner blog about presidents who used social media. However, according to a new survey on faculty attitudes about technology from Inside Higher Ed and Gallup, while only a small percentage of faculty members use social media to discuss politics and scholarship, a majority say they are concerned about attacks on academics for their social media posts. Stoner found that although social media gave presidents the opportunity to reach previously untouched groups, they tended to stay away due to a mixture of time constraints, potential control problems, risk aversion, questions of social media’s effectiveness, ROI, lack of social pressure, age, and performance anxiety.

Moving forward: Recently, Dan Zaiontz, social media expert and professor at Seneca College in Toronto, released his best practices text #FollowTheLeader: Lessons in Social Media Success from #HigherEd CEOs. Also, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) recommends that all institutions of higher education work with their faculties to develop policies governing the use of social media. Hank Reichman of AAUP recently wrote this post to help faculty understand the complex issue of social media.


Gray area: MOOCs

Why it’s being considered: From positive branding and recruitment efforts to the idealistic concept that higher-level learning can be broadcast for free to the world, the idea of hosting a MOOC seems like a no-brainer.

The issue: Where to start? From the unexpected costs that could be associated with MOOC development to issues of access, and from new innovations in MOOC formats to determining their value within a range of online learning options [read about these issues here], colleges and universities are still trying to decide whether or not MOOCs are a passing trend or part of a long-term strategy. There’s also the budding issue of who owns MOOC content.

Moving forward: There’s one thing institutions do agree on when it comes to MOOCs: it has to make sense for the individual college or university. While one university’s MOOC experiment could be found unworthy of the investment, another university’s implementation could have real value. The key is in mapping out what the institutional goals are in offering a MOOC, and whether or not the MOOC format delivers on those goals.


Gray area: Online Learning

Why it’s being considered: The potential for online learning to reach a wide population of under-served students for lower costs has seen online learning experiments and implementation explode across U.S. campuses. In fact, recently released data from NCES on today’s student demographic suggests online learning options may be an even larger necessity in higher education that previously believed.

The issue: Do a quick Google search for face-to-face vs. online learning and you’ll find hundreds of articles from both proponents and critics of online learning. On one side, many faculty and students say online doesn’t compare to the human interaction, instant feedback, and sense of community provided by face-to-face courses; and these characteristics make for higher quality learning. Many critics of online learning also emphasize that only a small percentage of students possess the self-motivation needed to take online courses. On the other side, many faculty and students believe that today’s technology tools allow for the communication necessary for community-building and professor-to-student interaction, such as instant messaging, online forums, and VoIP capabilities.

Moving forward: Though most institutions agree that some form of online learning should be on offer, many are testing the online learning waters with blended and flipped learning within on-campus programs with successful results. However, even blended learning hasn’t received the green light just yet.


Gray area: Skills Training

Why it’s being considered: The national conversation on whether or not higher education is worth the financial investment from students is centered on the idea many students may not find a job post-graduation due to the economy’s need for skilled workers. Just take a look at the ever-expanding college ranking lists by sources such as the Wall Street Journal and U.S. News that highlight job procurement after college. The pressure on institutions to help students find employment after graduation means many traditional four-year institutions are turning to businesses for help not just in securing internships, but creating skills-based programs and degrees (i.e. cybersecurity, data analysis, etc.).

The issue: Higher education seems torn between what it considers business versus education, especially in the liberal arts. Critics of the university as a business often oppose what they say is the emphasis on “skills” versus “higher-order thinking.” However, many say higher education has always been a business—it’s just the terminology that’s changing.

Moving forward: Community colleges still reign supreme when it comes to preparing its graduates for skill-specific jobs, but that doesn’t mean colleges and universities can’t help bridge abstract “higher-order thinking” to post-graduation career success through competency-based education options, microcredentials and badging, and community-building platforms. Fidelis, for example, has a learning relationship management (LRM) system with the ability for admin to track student progress of goals throughout their education and receive actionable data on student interactions with communities, businesses, and micro-credentialing opportunities.


Gray area: Mobile for Learning

Why it’s being considered: According to numerous industry reports, as well as simple observation, mobile technology and electronic resources are booming in education. According to a recent Harris Poll-conducted Pearson report on college student use of mobile devices, 84 percent of 2014 college students surveyed own a smartphone, up from 72 percent in 2013. 45 percent own a tablet, up from 38 percent a year ago. 8 percent own a hybrid or 2-in-1 computer. And according to McGraw-Hill Education and Hanover Research’s second annual report, “The Impact of Technology on College Student Study Habits,” 81 percent of students included in the study use mobile devices (such as smartphones and tablets) to study, the second most popular device category behind laptops and up 40 percent year over year.

The issue: Much hype has been built around the concept of today’s student as a tech-savvy digital native, yet many students still prefer traditional tools for learning. For example, even though use of tablets and smartphones is increasing, students still rate laptops as the most useful device. And according to Pearson’s report, when asked about their future use of mobile devices in class, half of students surveyed (48 percent) say their usage is just right, while one in five (17 percent) would like to use mobile devices less often than they do now. The problem, say researchers, is that planning coursework around mobile, as well as optimizing e-Texts for mobile, is still in its infancy and requires fine-tuning. Many students and faculty also say that mobile devices in the classroom can cause distractions, especially if some students are using mobile for the first time.

Moving forward: Mobile is here to stay. But for faculty and students to fully embrace mobile learning, specific use policies should be implemented; as well as lessons designed specifically around mobile that yield measurable, positive learning outcomes.

Add your opinion to the discussion.