Blog: The Educated Reporter

Can Innovation Improve Higher Education?

Biology students participate in person and virtually in a Massive Open Online Class (MOOC) offered by the MIT's edX initiative. (Flickr/brewbooks)

The challenges facing higher education today are widely known, but no one really knows the future as technology reshapes how college courses are delivered, how effectively they teach, and who takes them at what cost.

A panel at the Education Writers Association’s recent conference in Chicago discussed innovative technology and approaches to making college more affordable, accessible and effective. The panelists agreed change is inevitable, and that seat time in a classroom will be different in the future. Technology also could help remove obstacles to learning and allow more students to earn college degrees wherever they live, as long as they have an Internet connection.

The panel featured Goldie Blumenstyk, senior writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education; Kevin Carey, director of the education policy program at New America; and Ryan Craig, founding managing director of University Ventures.

All three have written books about higher education at a crossroads, and what it may look like in the future. Blumenstyk wrote “American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know”; Craig is the author of “College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education,” and Carey wrote “The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere.”

The panel discussion was moderated by Paul Fain of Inside Higher Ed.

Consider the student struggling in math, who regularly pores over homework and attends lectures, but isn’t keeping up with the class. There’s a good chance this student won’t pass freshman remedial math, let alone earn a college degree.

Panelists pointed to adaptive learning as a promising tool for meeting the needs of all students. Adaptive learning uses computers as interactive teaching tools to provide more personalized learning. A software program adjusts the experience based on the student’s progress, and provides automated feedback.

The student may take a quiz, for example, and depending on how he or she scores, the software would move the student up to the next skill or assignment, or slow the student down for further instruction or review.

If the student doesn’t understand a video lecture, he or she can rewind it and listen again more carefully — something that can’t be done in a live classroom.

Adaptive learning benefits teachers, as well, because it offers analytics to track what each student has mastered and which lesson plans may need tweaking.

“It’s part and parcel of the larger set of interactives and engagement in what technology makes possible,” Carey said. It addresses one of the great challenges of the modern era, he said, because it’s not practical to hire a tutor for each student.

Adaptive learning will not only be part of higher education’s future, it will link the past, said Blumenstyk. No one wants to pay $250 for a textbook anymore, she said, so the next generation of textbooks will be interactive and allow for more personalized learning experiences, she said.

Craig pointed to Smart Sparrow, a software platform that allows teachers to create their own adaptive lessons.

As technology evolves, it also must address affordability and efficacy, he said.

Using technology as part of competency-based education could broaden access for more students, the panelists agreed.

In competency-based education, courses are broken into individual skill competencies, and learning objectives for those competencies are mapped into the degree program, using direct assessment rather than credit hours to determine completion. Students work at their own pace, whenever they please, rather than being tied to a set time or a  classroom.

“You don’t fail – you take as long as you take,” Craig said. “The transfer credit issue goes away. You’re constantly seeing assessments. This, and adaptive learning, we believe has potential to significantly improve not just efficacy in higher learning, but also affordability.”

Competency-based education may also unlock the teaching pedagogy, Blumenstyk said.

“Identifying the outcome will make departments and schools think more about what they’re teaching and why,” she said.

Defining an education through competencies instead of time spent on coursework leads to a whole new set of questions, such as whether the competencies are good enough, Carey said. On the other hand, he said, “Students who punch a clock and go to class may have to work harder and longer” if their education is measured by competency.

Employers are playing a role in defining specific competencies, Craig said.

“We think it has potential to be larger than for-profit, which is 11 percent of the sector,” he added.

Blumenstyk said she’s “a little less” optimistic. “Will there be a limit who it’s going to be useful for?” she asked. And will accreditation for competency-based programs be a hurdle for financial aid coverage?

The jury is still out on Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, which lack a business model, but have attracted lots of attention for offering Ivy league courses to the masses for free.

Craig said he was among the first skeptics, though he said MOOCs have given online classes “a place at the table” at every university.