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Opening the door to new learning models

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • New blended learning models are breaking down traditional distinctions between face-to-face classes and virtual spaces
  • Technological change is also enabling new types of academic credentials, including competency-based programmes, badges, and stackable degrees

This article is adapted and reprinted with permission from Beyond the Horizon: The Near Future of International Education. Launched at the 2016 NAFSA conference in Denver, Beyond the Horizon is a special anthology of essays and commentary from leading practitioners on the issues that will shape international education over the next several years. The complete edition is available to download now.

It is no secret that the traditional modes and business models of higher education are under pressure. Public funding is softening in many developed countries, just as the population of college-aged students is shrinking and non-traditional options are expanding.

Education technology, and online learning in particular, is playing a part in driving this change. However, online learning is evolving quickly and as it matures, new forms of technology-enabled educational structure and delivery are emerging. These new blended learning models are breaking down traditional distinctions between face-to-face classes and virtual spaces. In the process, they also offer new and compelling opportunities that will help shape the future of higher education institutions.

Getting personal

Google “how to make a fruit salad” and you’ll find hundreds of videos, recipes, and images demonstrating how to create this single dish. Similarly, web-savvy students know that there are many different pathways to reaching one goal. Personalised education is based on the recognition that, in today’s digital environment, universities no longer have a monopoly on the tools and materials for fostering knowledge acquisition. According to Peter Smith, President of the Open College at Kaplan University (OCKU),

Technology is obliterating the old boundaries defined by the campus and its schedule … [A] content-rich world, accessible and diverse, is developing more rapidly every day. Technology [is putting] curricular scarcity out of business.”

Universities such as OCKU have begun to reflect the fact that their students are accustomed to learning in a myriad of spaces and on their own terms and reality by creating degrees that formally acknowledge those experiences – as well as allow them to plot their own pathways through those programmes. For example, in OCKU’s Learning Recognition Course students create an online portfolio that documents prior learning. The portfolio is then assessed and translated into course equivalents that can then be applied to the completion of a bachelor’s degree.

At the curricular level, this new approach can also be seen in the implementation of what is being described as adaptive learning. As opposed to the lecture format, where instructors are only able to offer one stream of teaching and learning at any time, new software can offer tutorials that adapt to where the student’s knowledge is at and provide unique pathways through the content accordingly.

Becoming competent

Students want jobs – and if a university-based education won’t provide them with one, then why bother going to university? Enter outcomes-based (aka competency-based) curriculum. Part of a larger trend in unbundling academic programmes into discrete parts, this system focuses on awarding degrees based on what students have learned or can do, rather than on the number of credit hours they have completed. For example, at College for America, associate degree students have no course requirements but must instead demonstrate their mastery of 120 competencies ranging from quantitative reasoning to communication. While this approach is not the result of a particular technology, a 2015 article in EDUCAUSE Review attributes the ease of its execution to exactly that.

“In a decade, online education may be recognised … for serving as the midwife who delivered competency-based learning into the world. Although competency-based learning is theoretically possible in a non-technology-enabled environment, it’s not nearly as simple and appealing.”

One of the main pedagogical tools fuelling this new educational approach is gamification: the use of rewards, such as digital badges, to propel online students to their next unit. These badges can then be used to market a student’s educational outcomes to employers. As described by the University of British Columbia’s Open Badges website, badges and badge collections are useful means to convey “a detailed picture of the graduate that can be authenticated through … criteria and evidence.” Over the long term, it is anticipated that platforms such as LinkedIn could eventually use these badges as the currency of a competency-based marketplace that would broker human capital transactions with employers and educational providers. In this way universities could one day offer a “full-stack model,” scaffolding students from classroom to career.

Remaining flexible

In an era where renting a movie no longer requires leaving the house, and where calling a cab no longer requires picking up a phone, convenience is king. Recognising this expectation, universities have begun expanding and modifying programmes to accommodate new ways for students to access content without having to physically travel to campus, such as in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) format.

While this trend is several years strong, more recently the focus on flexibility has begun to expand in new directions, leading to an ever-increasing number of student options.

One such example is the introduction of “stackable degrees.” Described in a March 2016 article by the Chronicle of Higher Education as educational Lego blocks, these degrees allow students to “start with a MOOC, then add a few more MOOCs to get an online certificate, then add yet more courses to get a traditional master’s degree.”

For example, in 2015 MIT announced the creation of a “MicroMaster’s” degree in supply chain management that students can complete via a series of free online courses. In what is sure to be the first of a new trend toward hybrid MOOC/tuition-based programmes, students can then apply to a residential programme to obtain a full master’s degree in just one on-campus semester. Not only is this new flexibility broadening in what students can access, but also in the quality of that experience, as is the case with the new movement toward multi-access courses. Such courses seek to overcome the isolation associated with online learning by providing opportunities for remote learners to interact with face-to-face students and course instructors during real-time classes.

As these shifts toward more accessible and student-centred learning demonstrate, post-secondary institutions aren’t all Ivory-Tower-shaped anymore. The question now is: what will they look like next?

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