Friday, September 20, 2013

Socrates in Cyberspace: Scenarios on the Future of Higher Education

Part 3 of a discussion with Dr. Bryan Alexander about current and future trends in digital education
To read Parts 1 and 2, see The Evolution of Digital Humanities and On the History, Hype and Backlash Against MOOCs
bryan alexander

On the Future of Money and MOOCs

Dr. Bryan Alexander thinks the Georgia Tech experiment of providing a for-credit, lower-cost MOOC in the area of computer science will be interesting to watch. It indicates that MOOCs might not only be a cost-saving but a money-making phenomenon for universities.
He noted that organizations are trying a variety of business models. He pointed to, for example, the role of books in courses. If a professor teaching a course with 100,000 students requires them to buy his or her book, then that becomes a potentially large source of revenue and reward.
Other ideas include making money through fees-for-certificates and/or fees-for-proctored exams. And then there is the Web-based “freemium” model in which a student takes a MOOC for free but gets charged for certain extra services such as guaranteed time with teaching assistants or faculty.
Ultimately, though, many stakeholders in academia are concerned that for-credit, low-cost MOOCs might drive down tuitions across the board. “That’s a huge fear,” he stated.

 On the Future of MOOCs and Digital Learning

“I suspect MOOCs are a transition,” said Alexander. “I think we will see a transition to some new form, combining the best of what MOOCs can do with new possibilities. I really think xMOOCs miss out from [the advantages of] social media. I think the cMOOC model is pedagogically superior in many ways.”
He also expects to see more online learning coming from other nations. He noted that Brazil, for example, has shown a tremendous interest in online learning. He wants to see how these international MOOCs differ from their U.S. counterparts.
Another point of uncertainty is whether MOOCs will compete directly with current institutions, be integrated into them, or serve as a kind of second-tier educational system. MOOCs could, for example, become the destination for students who would not ordinarily be able to afford higher education. Or some MOOCs could appeal primarily to students who can afford college but who want to quickly take a required but relatively uninteresting course such as developmental math.
Dr. Alexander has a “bunch of scenarios” about how the future may shake out, but during the interview he focused on three primary possibilities:

Scenario One: The Serpent Digests Its PreyFuture_statue

In this scenario, the current system of higher education does not undergo a radical change as a result of digital technologies but, instead, absorbs them into itself. MOOCs and distance learning become just another facet of what higher education institutions do. Such technologies become like textbooks and the Internet in that they supplement regular courses and curricula without supplanting them in any way.

Scenario Two: The Education Bubble Bursts

In this scenario, MOOCs and related trends result in a bursting of the bubble that has been driving up the costs of higher education for many years. University administrators are forced to use MOOCs as well as hire more adjunct professors — who become 90% of faculty — in order to compete amid these new markets. Generally speaking, the footprint of higher education is reduced, employing substantially fewer full-time faculty and staff members.
By using technology, universities are able to teach the same number of students with fewer resources, but the lower number of faculty numbers means that less research takes place and fewer scholarly articles are produced. Another result is that there are too many graduate students seeking too few jobs in academia. Because supply outstrips demand, the compensation rates and labor conditions for most professors decline. These trends put further downward pressure on tuition costs.

Scenario Three: A Healthy Metamorphosis Occurs

In this scenario, new technologies are reintegrated into the educational system in creative ways. For example, most courses have been “flipped” so that students listen to lectures on their computers and go to classes for more “high-value” activities, such as interacting with professors and other students, asking questions, having discussions, and doing the kinds of exercises that allow them to reinforce and practice new skills.
Other changes occur as well. “Imagine many classes,” said Alexander, “where there’s lots of hands-on work producing stuff. Think of 3D printing across the curriculum, for example. Imagine a lot these classes have collaborations and partnerships with other schools around the world. For example, if you take your Spanish language class, you assume that you’ll be having conversations around the world in Spanish. Imagine the physical classroom changing as well, so that it has a media presence in it as well as lots of space for students to move and do work.” He thinks that this third transformative scenario is, in some ways, the “one that we should hope for.”

 On the Key Drivers of Education We Should Keep an Eye On

As we move forward, there are a number of key drivers that will help determine how education will evolve and which of several scenarios comes to pass.
One driver is demographics. Alexander stated, “For example, the geographical distribution of kids and teenagers just changes radically. The Northeast, the Mid-West, and most of the Southeast have either declining numbers or have plateaued in terms of the number of kids they have…That matters a great deal for K-through-12, obviously, as well as for where undergraduate education recruits from…One side effect of that is that we’re having to boost our international student recruitment.”
Indeed, this leads to a second driver that few experts are watching closely: that is the internationalization of education. “It’s a huge problem to grapple with,” Alexander stated. Because there are so many different nations and regions, there’s a multiplicity of angles to look at.
For example, the African population is going to spike up dramatically in the next few decades. How will these populations be educated? Will technology play a key role? Will those students engage with educational institutions from outside their region? Should those institutions build brick-and-mortar branch campuses in those regions, or should they depend more on distance-learning technologies?
Alexander points out that most MOOCs are already transnational. “In most of the MOOCs I’ve looked at,” he said, “Americans are a minority of the student body. I think that’s tremendous. Pedagogically and ideologically, I think that’s important.”
Another powerful driver is made up of macroeconomic trends. Factors such as unemployment and debt, for example, will influence the way students and colleges use new technologies and which types of courses they will take.
A fourth driver represents the dynamics of technological change. The number and types of innovation will help determine what happens next. For example, will there be wearable computers that many people will want? On which parts of their bodies will they want to wear them? How will this affect their acquisition of information and the ways in which they want to learn?


There are so many factors at play that no one can be sure how the global education system will use and react to new technological models. Making the situation even more uncertain is that “every country does technology in a different way,” said Alexander. “The United States has mobile computing at last, but it took us forever. We were the last country to get a clue about mobile computing…In a lot of these countries, the cell phone can be the primary contact with the Internet. So, should they shape online learning toward cell phones? These are the kinds of issues we really need to account for.”
This is end of Part 3 of a three-part series. To read Parts 1 and 2, see The Evolution of Digital Humanities and On the History, Hype and Backlash Against MOOCs

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