Is Higher Education Set to Cross the Digital Frontier?

Change usually only occurs when competing forces conspire to cause it or behaviors are adopted that necessitate it. Higher education and universities are ripe for change but they also have a tendency to resist it. These institutions have a long tradition of establishing prestigious courses and faculties, the cost of which in recent years has become prohibitive for the average student. The traditional model of students receiving instruction from and interacting one-on-one with learned professors has gradually given way to large over-crowded lecture halls, compulsory reading lists and standardized testing, as economics not excellence has shaped university education..

The impact that the digital age is having on everyday life is changing consumer expectations, and consequently challenging the established educational model. The widespread availability of wireless broadband, mobile devices, video lectures and online course material is facilitating the “massive online open course” (MOOC) which is accessible to large and diverse groups of students. The high cost of full-time education and the uncertainty of employment mean that many young people today are looking to work and study in parallel – and MOOC offers the ideal solution. It also supports those who are looking to supplement their existing education and skills and are more interested in gaining knowledge than qualifications.

Tablets and e-readers, according to McGraw-Hill, have the ability to transform not only the textbook and the individual educational experience but also the whole testing process. During a presentation at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, McGraw-Hill described “LearnSmart”, their new adaptive technology program where a student reads a digital textbook on a tablet or e-reader and is asked a series of on-going questions that assess their understanding of what they have read. Subsequently their reading materials are adjusted according to their level of knowledge and understanding.  On this basis, a room full of students or an online group reading a text will all be receiving highly personalized and tailored instruction to help them attain the same required level of understanding. By tracking the results, answers given and also a student’s keyboard strokes it is possible to ascertain and validate their individual performance for the purposes of testing and certification.

The digital and online world is reshaping our cognitive capabilities and, according to some experts, using the Internet to search for information is causing us to “externalize” our memories rather than having to use them to process and store information. While enhancing our logical capabilities, the online world is also hindering our ability to develop the skills of empathy – an emotion that has apparently shown a decline in young people. Empathy is learned over time through social interaction and by reading others’ facial expressions, so if face time is replaced with Facebook time, the implications for enhanced interpersonal skills and moral decision-making could be significant.

One of the advantages of a traditional university education is that it enables young people to interact and develop social skills. In a recent article about Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City,  it was pointed out that an average C-student attending Johns Hopkins University in the early 1960s – which he was – could be transformed into a social and political star through the interactions, experiential learning and networking skills that are an integral part of a four-year residential education. With increased applications for MOOC courses, the new digital educational environment needs to be reconsidered and other options need to be examined. These could include the utilization of enhanced virtual reality conference facilities that enable virtual face-to-face experiences and networking opportunities that supplement real-world social interactions.

Whatever happens, the shape of education and learning from pre-school through to university and beyond is likely to change dramatically over the next five years as the pace of technological progress continues to accelerate and people adopt it more readily into their lives.

Steve Bell, President, KeySo Global

www.keysoglobal.com

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