Researchers say human element critical for tomorrow’s digital university

A new report on the state of online learning provides a look into the makings of the digital university of the future.


MOOCs and online learning are must-have’s for tomorrow’s digital university, but their success hinges on personalization and professorial guidance, says a new report.

The massive report, “Preparing for the Digital University: a review of the history and current state of distance, blended and online learning,” has laid out a comprehensive view of online learning along with key insights into where technology-enhanced education might be headed.

Although MOOCs and other online learning methods have grown rapidly in the last few years, there has been lagging research into their operation and effectiveness, say the report’s principal authors, which include George Siemens, PhD, and Dragan Gasevic, PhD, from Athabasca University, as well as and Shane Dawson, PhD, from the University of South Australia.

The articles presented in the report aim to provide a historical overview of research literature in distance education, blended learning, online learning, credentialing, MOOC research, and future learning technology infrastructures through various methods of comprehensive research.

(Next page: Findings on MOOCs and future technology infrastructures for learning)

Where is research on MOOCs headed?

This section of the report analyzes research proposals submitted to the MOOC Research Initiative (MRI), which is funded by the Gates Foundation. The main areas that were examined in the hopes of establishing a framework for future MOOC research were student engagement and learning success, MOOC design and curriculum, self-regulated learning and social learning, social network analysis and networked learning, and motivation, attitude and success criteria.

The theme of social learning attracted the most interest and funding.

The major themes revealed in the MOOC research provided what the authors say are key insights into how to keep them successful and constructive. First, research needs to offer practical guidance for course design and instruction.

It was also found that peer learning, assessment and problem solving were very helpful to retaining the concepts taught in a class, but that there is much experimentation that needs to be done with applying existing frameworks for social learning to the massive scale of MOOCs.

Furthermore, teaching presence, whether embedded into course design, through direct instruction, or course facilitation, are “essential antecedents of effective cognitive processing” both in person and online. Even though it is a MOOC, instructors still have a major role to play in understanding student motivation and designing learning strategies.

The human element is still important in a MOOC, which may be the report’s largest take-away for future course designers.

Future technology infrastructures for learning

The report notes that there have been three major generations of development of education technology:

  • The first generation of infrastructure closely emulated the traditional classroom, and was focused on basic technology use of computer-based training and websites.
  • The second generation introduced enterprise systems such as LMS’ and CMS’.
  • The third generation centered on fragmentation and diversification through social media, e-portfolio software and MOOC providers, and integrated vendor/publishers.

Importantly, though, a fourth generation is emerging. These are distributed and digitally-shaped technologies such as adaptive learning, distributed infrastructures, and competency models.

The report also names and examines main factors that influence the resource and pedagogical planning of institutional leaders when it comes to future technologies: who has control, how well are the technologies integrated with other tool-sets and the experiences of learners, who has ownership of the data and technology, and what is the nature of the learning structure in terms of centralization and decentralization.

Each of these factors are highly important and can greatly “determine the quality of learning, the scope of teaching practices, and ultimately, how well learners are equipped for both employment and engagement in democratic and equitable models of modern global society.” Moving forward, continued development of flexible technologies that provide meaningful feedback and learning experiences for the student will be highly important in order to achieve the best standard of learning possible.

For the entire body of research, read the full report.

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