OpenFiction [Blog]

Higher Education’s TiVo Moment?

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on September 7, 2011

Most of my thinking about educational technology in the past ten years has been about the changes in informal lifelong learning, the space where OpenCourseWare has had its biggest impact.  For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking more about the changes technology will bring to the traditional campus.  It’s been a topic of intense discussion here on the MIT, with a number of interesting ideas emerging.  In particular, the focus on modularity of curriculum discussed in the above article has brought me back to a musing I’ve had for a while about one direction of technology’s impact.  From the article:

MITCET (MIT Council on Educational Technology) has identified the theme of modularity as a key enabler of ideas like the ones above. Rather than trying to dictate specific initiatives, our goal is to foster an educational system at MIT that is more modular and flexible both in time (not always organized into one-semester chunks) and geography (not always on campus).

What I’ve been wondering is  When will campus-based education have its TiVo moment?  TiVo changed everything about the way I consume TV by freeing me from the dictates of the broadcast schedule through a technology that overcomes its constraints.  Similarly, one of the most determinant aspects of the campus experience is the course schedule, which impacts nearly every facet of how campus-based education is provided.  Certainly there are time-shifting opportunities for campus education, but education is far more complex than simple broadcast, and the impacts of technology on academic scheduling are likely to be far more wide-reaching that the impacts on television.

In addition to the basic requirement that groups of people be in the same place at the same time, the rigidity of the academic schedule has other effects as well. Students end up taking courses they otherwise might not have, simply because they fit the schedule slot.  As the MIT article points out, the semester-length course is an artifact of the academic schedule as well.  And because courses are chunked into such large blocks, our systems of prerequisites have been developed to ensure smooth progression.

Scheduling also shapes the relationships that develop between students and faculty.  For most of my undergraduate and graduate programs, my interactions with faculty were bounded by the semesters in which I took their classes.  There were many faculty that could have provided valuable perspective over the course of my education—from my undergraduate years, I can think of a chemist, an anthropologist, a science historian, and a fiction writer who were all quite influential for short periods of time.

There are dangers, of course.  Technology-enabled learning tends to focus on knowledge transfer at the expense of problem-solving and academic inquiry.  Smaller chunks tend to miss the bigger pictures.  And the social tools that might enable deeper student-faculty engagement require a digitally fluent faculty and students that understand and respect social limits.

What might learning  look like on this new, technologically enable campus?  I don’t think anyone can say at this point, but let’s suppose we can agree that flexible, modular and customized learning would still require an overarching structure of some kind, and that generally people learn best when they have a problem they care about to solve.  Let’s also assume for the sake of argument that we agree its important for students to understand how to approach a complex problem from multiple perspectives.

I could then imagine a first year curriculum that was developed around a number of challenges in a range of disciplines—a study of an animal population, design of a mechanical device, a piece of historical fiction.  In each case, the student would pick a challenge, be assigned an mentor from the appropriate field, and have a relatively controlled set of aspects to consider in approaching the problem–historical, scientific, mathematic. ethical, etc—as well as prescribed outcomes including written work.  If curriculum was chunked into relatively small units of a couple a weeks, a student could start into a subject at a more advanced level—say a statistical analysis of animal populations over time—discover they lacked some of the prerequisite knowledge required to carry it out, loop back and acquire the prerequisite knowledge, and then move forward.  In addition to their disciplinary mentor, they might be assigned a mentor for a specific skill set, such as writing.  Mentor relationships would be supported by a social networking software and persistent throughout the student’s time at the school.

During that first year also, the student would be planning for a larger challenge or inquiry, perhaps in coordination with a faculty member’s research, that would structure the final three years of the undergraduate experience.  At the start of the second year, they might add another disciplinary mentor and map out a plan of study to support their challenge.  Again, with shorter, more flexible units to study, students could approach knowledge in a more natural way—going straight to what interests them and looping back to learn the underlying concepts when they have the need and motivation to do so.  They could also be guided to units on perspectives they might not have considered themselves, but that the mentors sees as important to a complete understanding of the challenge.

Obviously this would change the teaching experience dramatically.  To enable the short units of curriculum, much of the knowledge transfer aspects of teaching would move to media platforms, so there would be some elements of creating these.  I’d imagine professors then would spend more of their time working with students in rectitation-like sessions in their discipline, where the focus is on tackling problem areas for students who are struggling; these could be in person or online.  They might also provide shorter, three or four week units in more traditional lecture or classroom settings.  In addition, they would have a more prolonged involvement with a subset of students that they mentored.

Obviously there are many hurdles to overcome to achieve such a vision, and the above might not be the correct vision to begin with, but it’s an interesting exercise to imagine how technology might change the campus experience, and one that is in many ways as difficult as anticipating the way TiVo changed the how TV is consumed.  The only thing I feel sure about is that the TiVo moment is coming for education, and it’s likely not that far off.

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