What will change everything for higher education is nothing new

Online, AI technologies will wipe out old models of higher-ed…but it’s happened before

socrates-education-technologyWith the expansion of online technologies, like MOOCs, data aggregation, and computing powers capable of adaptive processes, higher education is changing. But to what extent, and is it here to stay? And…is it anything new?

Those were some of the main questions discussed during the Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University to discuss emerging technologies, policy and society—discussion hosted in Washington D.C., “Hacking the University: Will Tech Fix Higher Education?

“If 2012 was the year of the MOOC, according to the New York Times, 2013 was something of a reality check,” said the partnership. “MOOCs were meant to give people all over the U.S. (and the world) access to the best lecturers and classes from some of America’s top universities. But their first iterations have been beset with problems—lack of student engagement, high dropout rates—leading critics to question their long-term value.”

The initial discussion of the event, led by Kevin Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at the New American Foundation, revealed that MOOCs highlight the usual trajectory of new technologies that are supposed to transform education: big promises, followed by the trough of disillusionment, and a return to the status quo.

Or wait…will it return to the status quo?

(Next page: Is any of this technology new?)

An historical perspective

“When you think of the perfect vision of education, is usually looks like two people, one master and one student, discussing ideas,” said Carey. “And that’s the oldest construct of education there is, dating to ancient times when wealthy aristocrats could hire scholars to tutor their children or themselves. But did you know technology changed all that?”

Carey explained that a ‘technology,’ otherwise known as the written word, developed. And just like MOOCs today, there were skeptics.

Socrates, said Carey, was not a fan of the written word’s potential to change education, and even said:

“…this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

“I mean, Socrates was onto something, but what he failed to do was to notice the benefits to the written word, too. Specifically, being able to extend learning across distances, become a larger storage medium for information, and make accessible—and therefore more affordable—education to a larger group of people,” noted Carey. “It also improved the quality of education by allowing for collaboration, revisions, and editions over time.”

Since the written word, more technologies have been added to education, such as the printing press and the postal service, but none have improved the quality of education like the internet has, said Carey, until now.

“Those benefits of the written word are the same for online learning and the tools of computing, AI, and the internet today. Only with the internet, the last barrier of distance has been torn down, and with AI, computing can now surpass even human capabilities,” he stated.

According to Carey, today’s skeptics, usually from traditional colleges, are badly underestimating the potential of MOOCs and the internet.

Do the skeptics have a point?

“Skeptics from traditional colleges have no provable evidence that taking an online course is worse than a face-to-face one,” emphasized Carey. “No evidence—evidence that would met their own criteria for evidence—can be determined. You can’t quantify the benefits of face-to-face, and even then you’d have to weigh those benefits against the amount of money needed to provide, and for students to pay, to have those benefits. These technologies are slowly eating away at traditional higher education and they’ll continue to do so.”

Jeffrey Selingo, author of College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, contributing editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, and professor of practice at ASU, mirrors Carey’s sentiments, saying that change for higher education isn’t new, but this time, it’s not going away.

“Most college officials I speak to say that this is another temporary downturn and it will change, but I don’t think that’s the case this time, simply because of the accessibility of the technology and the financial landscape. The net revenue collected per student reported by most colleges today is the same since 2007, even with rising tuition. It’s not sustainable.”

(Next page: What about retention rates? What’s the future?)

But what about retention rates? And is there value in face-to-face interactions?

According to Robert Wright, Author of Nonzero, senior Future Tense fellow, and visiting lecturer at Princeton University, who conducted his first MOOC on Buddhism and psychology, too much emphasis is being given to retention rates.

“Attrition rate doesn’t matter for the viability of MOOCs because of the fundamental supply and demand: Professors are motivated to teach and there will always be interested students,” he explained.

Of course, Wright did note that there is a certain psychological toll in seeing participation rates plunge, but he realizes that the curve has to go down, since it’s “not like The Tonight Show, where in theory your viewers can increase exponentially, since if you didn’t watch Tuesday night’s show you could still fully understand Wednesday’s show.”

“The question to ask,” he continued, “is ‘How steep is too steep for drop off?’ The answer is maybe the curve doesn’t matter, but rather the absolute numbers. By the end of the class I had roughly 2,000 students complete my midterm and course, with no motivation (since we offer no credits) except to learn. That’s extraordinary.”

Wright also compared the experience to a book, saying that like books, MOOCs may not always get “read” all the way through. Sometimes you just need a chapter, and sometimes you just want to read the table of contents.

“We should measure ‘intention’ in MOOCs,” said Selingo. “That may be more informative.”

That being said, there is value in face-to-face interaction, he noted, as many students, especially in the humanities, need another’s excitement about the topic to become fully motivated.

The future of higher education and technology

“That’s why communities of learning are so important,” said Adrian Sannier, chief academic technology officer at ASU Online. “What colleges can provide, and what may be worth paying for, are strong learning communities. Let’s face it, most people are not autodidacts—they need some form of learning community to keep motivated. I think the next big question will be ‘What’s the next generation of learning communities going to look like?’”

“The universities that will survive will be the ones that stand upon technology,” he said.

Minerva, a relatively new model of higher education, understands that community and curriculum outside of lecture, is the future of higher education.

“We think about what the academic and life experience of the student should be in higher-ed,” said Robin Goldberg, chief marketing officer at Minerva Project.

Minerva, explained Goldberg, believes that lectures are great for information dissemination, and that’s what free MOOCs are for. But it’s the college curriculum that should teach students how to think, or how to develop habits of mind.

“We offer students curriculum that supports higher-order thinking skills and active learning. We also immerse students in new cultures and encourage communities of learning,” she said.

“You can look at this ‘disruption’ of learning as what happened similarly to the banking industry,” said Sannier. “Thanks to new information technologies, no one actually visits the bank teller, except maybe my mother. But that didn’t change banking. There are still banking institutions. What’s changed is the way people bank, and the banks left standing today are the banks that embraced that IT change.”

For more information on the day’s panels and commentary, read “Untangling the knots’ of educational technology.”

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