From Higher Education to Eternity: Academic Leaders Pave Way for Future of Unlimited Learning

Frank Newman (front left), Brown University, and Roy Leitch, Interactive University of Scotland, with (rear) Microsoft’s Suzie Calabro at the Unlimited Learning Symposium, Redmond, Wash., Feb. 4, 2004.

REDMOND, Wash., Feb. 16, 2004 — A thought experiment was posed to the higher-education leaders early on the first day of their gathering: What if they were given 20 college students and had all of the world’s information resources at their fingertips — and no boundaries. Forget about daily lectures, semester systems and traditional textbooks. The traditional campus is not even a pre-requisite. How would they turn out students with the analytic skills and knowledge to succeed in life four years later?

The experiment wasn’t entirely hypothetical. A chorus of “what if’s” can be heard on college and university campuses from Santiago to Sydney — including those represented by the 30 educators who gathered Feb. 4 and 5 to attend Microsoft’s Higher Education Leaders Symposium at the company’s Redmond, Wash. headquarters. Titled “Unlimited Learning,” the event was the third in a series of gatherings organized by Microsoft to explore the role that technology and other new approaches play in addressing challenges and opportunities in higher education.

Today’s information, communication, and technology revolution has created educational possibilities never seen before. Students no longer need to study dog-eared copies of William Shakespeare’s plays; via the Internet, they can view and compare multiple versions of the English bard’s manuscripts, as well as the hand-written notes and commentaries of previous generations of scholars in the margins.

Access to higher education also is more flexible than ever. Rather than relocate to a distant college campus to listen to lectures, students can attend live, two-way audio/video tutorials from virtually anywhere in the world. And why form study groups that can never find a convenient time for everyone to meet at the campus library? Today’s students often prepare for exams or work in teams on projects using communication and collaboration tools.

The educators at the symposium, many of whom are pace-setters in the use of technology, may not have been surprised by these possibilities. But their expertise allowed them to move beyond “gee whiz” to focus on the common obstacles that still prevent many colleges and universities from using technology to meet the changing needs of students and the growing demand for higher education.

“Gatherings like this are one way Microsoft is bringing technology makers and higher education together to ensure that both focus on the most pressing educational needs,” said Diana Oblinger, executive director of Higher Education at Microsoft and herself a former educator and university administrator. “The insights and experiences these educators can share with each other, combined with an ever-evolving array of software and other technology tools, are building blocks for the future of higher education.”

Creating New Models Key to Unlimited Learning

Technology has been hailed as the ideal tool to transform education since Thomas Edison introduced the phonograph, predicting it would bring a teacher’s voice into every home. Unfortunately, the telephone, television, videotape and other technologies never lived up to their potential as educational tools, said Richard Detweiler, a fellow and interim president of the Council on Library and Information Resources.

Studies show that colleges and universities that have integrated high technology may have realized cost savings, but only incremental improvement in learning, he said.

Why? Colleges and universities try to shoe-horn new technologies into the same educational model that’s been used since education became formalized within the Western world more than 500 years ago. Because books, other information and instructors were scarce for many centuries, students needed to come to where these educational resources were, and to share them. Instructors lectured large groups as a way to efficiently share their knowledge, Detweiler said.

Higher education must create a new educational framework, one built on today’s abundance of information and resources and capable of spawning new ways to better meet the challenges faced by today’s colleges and universities and the educational needs of today’s students, Detweiler said.

Ignoring these changes and challenges isn’t an option, Detweiler and others at the symposium agreed. Global enrollment within higher education is predicted to increase by more 75 percent over the next quarter century, reaching 160 million by 2025. In the U.S., for example, three out of four students who complete high school — including many more low income and minorities than ever before — now attend some form of postsecondary education.

In addition, higher education is faced with many of the same challenges that even today’s most agile businesses struggle to address: increasing globalization, tighter funding, rapid technological advances and shifting demographics. All are changing what it means to be “educated.” Colleges and universities are being asked to create lessons that encourage cultural sensitivity and global awareness, teach students how to adapt to change, and that is relevant to the needs of older and working students who now need education throughout their lives.

No longer can higher education be strictly about learning specific skills and knowledge — knowledge which may be soon obsolete. “The virtues of the `classic’ liberal arts education are necessary but not sufficient to function in today’s world,” said Clara Lovett, president and CEO of the American Association for Higher Education. She emphasized that educated people need to develop the capacity to deal with “otherness… They need to understand and relate to what lies beyond their family background, social class, religious beliefs or national culture.”

Marti Garlett, founding dean of the Teachers College at Western Governors University (WGU), shared with the other educators at the symposium how the nation’s first competency-based, fully accredited online higher education institution is meeting the needs of non-traditional students whose jobs and family obligations prevent them from attending daily college courses or relocating to earn a new degree.

Less than a year old, the Teachers College already serves 1,300 students in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. The average student is 42 years old. Most are between jobs or careers. The online university has no set, course-based, curriculum; instead it is competency-based, meaning students must only learn the skills they lack in order to earn a degree. They receive academic credit for topics where they can demonstrate skills learned on the job or through life experience or self-study.

Online courses and other lessons developed by other institutions are pulled together by academic mentors, who work with students via e-mail and telephone to develop a personalized pathway to graduation and provide academic direction along the way. Some students don’t meet their mentor in person until they attend their graduation ceremony.

“We meet needs of students that other institutions don’t,” Garlett explained.

Diverse Learning Styles Require Diverse Educational Approaches

Not only are there more –and more diverse — students; today’s students learn in more and different ways than the past. While educational research in recent years has proven that different people learn in different ways, research has also shown that the traditional lecture-study-exam-lecture model of higher education is not the way most students learn best. This is especially true of today’s mainstream college students, those in their late teens and early 20s. Raised on the Internet, video games and digital media, these so-called NetGeners need to be engaged. They embrace multitasking, collaboration and, of course, using technology.

“We all know we have to deal with students in an extremely different way,” explained Frank Newman, director of the Futures Project, a higher education think tank at Brown University, summarizing what may have been the theme of the conference early on. “It takes people willing to think about new methods… (and) willing to implement changes.”

Educators at the symposium shared examples how they and others are doing just this. At Technologico de Monterrey in Mexico, all students have laptop computers, and many courses have been redesigned for active and collaborative learning. At institutions such as Brown, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, problem-based learning is replacing traditional lectures, requiring students to master skills and concepts by employing them to accomplish real-life tasks. By assigning these projects to groups rather than individuals, students also learn how to work in an environment akin to today’s work world, Newman said. If students complain to him that a member of their group isn’t pulling his or her weight, he responds much like a workplace supervisor: “You’ve got a problem. Solve it. ”

“The more I apply these types of approaches, the more students get involved,” he said.

Technology can make these lessons become even more realistic, Newman and others said. At the University of Virginia, software simulators allow students to assemble the apparatus for gel electrophoresis, a process that results in the separation of charged molecules; run the virtual experiment and interpret the results — all without stepping foot in an actual laboratory. And these resources can be shared by students in many locations. One example: Students in the United States, Sweden, and Singapore all share the equipment for a micro-electronics lab at MIT.

“Technology now makes it possible, Newman said, to “do what we should have been doing all along (and to) do this stuff without killing ourselves.”

Resistance to Change From Unexpected Places

But educators at the symposium noted some of the bumps on the road to reinvention.

When Technologico de Monterrey began eliminating traditional lectures and using technology to enable group learning on its 33 campuses, some professors balked. But none left the university after they received training on how to adapt and began employing new ways to maximize their time. Some professors, for example, now offer students videotaped presentations of recurring lessons, rather than repeating the same lectures several times a year, said Patricio Lopez, president of Technologico de Monterrey’s virtual university, a satellite system that provides video links between the university’s campuses.

The new approaches elicited some of the loudest complaints from students. While they otherwise embraced non-traditional learning environments, many still felt that the true pearls of wisdom had to come directly from a professor — even if in a large, impersonal lecture, Lopez said.

Administrators considered posting a sign on campus that read: “You are not here for us to teach you; you are here to learn.” But students gradually began to recognize the value of putting themselves, rather than their professors, at the center of their own education. The change is so profound, Lopez said, that when Technologico de Monterray students study abroad, professors deem them rude because they insist on taking an active role in lectures and lessons.

Similarly, colleges and universities must work to dispel the idea that online courses and other forms of distance education are impersonal. Educators said the ubiquity of e-mail, instant messaging and video conferencing are actually increasing interaction among students, as well as between students and instructors. Technologico de Monterrey’s virtual university allows students to work together on class projects via satellite to build their collaborative skills and learn first-hand the political and social differences among students from different regions of Mexico, Lopez said.

“I don’t think that you can say anymore that you can’t have social interaction without being in touching distance,” said Miguel Nussbaum, professor of computer science within the School of Engineering at Universidad Catolica de Chile.

`Serious’ Games Offer New Learning Environments

Beyond misperceptions, more concrete obstacles still exist. Educational software and other technology must become less expensive and much easier to use; these tools also need to build on — not simply conform to — the learning styles of today’s students, several attendees at the symposium said.

Educators and computer game makers are studying ways to create “serious” games that employ story telling, simulation and role-playing in ways similar to the computer and video games so popular with NetGeners. Such games would allow students to learn topics by experiencing simulations and demonstrating their knowledge by completing tasks within the context of the games, educators said.

Randy Hinrichs, group manager for Learning Science and Technology at Microsoft Research, demonstrated a physics simulator developed at MIT that allows students to draw shapes and models directly on the screen of a Tablet PC and test them against the laws of physics. He also showed off software developed by researchers at Microsoft and Brown for the Tablet PC. It instantly converts math equations into graphical shapes and allows free-hand drawings to approximate math equations, taking story problems to a new level of realism.

“If we want to move education away from lectures,” Hinrichs said, “we need to create software that provides environments capable of responding to students as they make discoveries.”

Students with networked Tablet PCs or other devices can simultaneously view and collaboratively adapt the simulations. When Hinrichs let Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates and other company executives test the simulator, they couldn’t stop trying to perfect their models. “They were like a group of kids playing with physics Etch A Sketch®
,” he said.

Microsoft’s Oblinger stresses that the symposium and other Microsoft efforts within higher education are not intended to promote software as the sole solution to the challenges in higher education.

“This group also came up with some compelling visions of what unlimited learning can mean–at research institutions, at liberal arts colleges, in community colleges and in emerging economies. Clearly, the way we achieve these visions is with a multi-faceted approach.”Oblinger said. “Software is important. But so is policy, awareness of larger educational issues, institutional structure and the concerns of students and the educators who have invested their lives in education.”

Oblinger was struck by the desire of the educators at the symposium to get moving with these new approaches. “They aren’t a complacent lot,” she said. “We already know many things we can do to move towards unlimited learning. They urged us to get on with it.”

Sally Johnstone, executive director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET), came away from the symposium surprised by how united the educators in attendance were about the directions that they need to take in the coming years.

“The information that was exchanged enlarged all of our worlds,” she said. “There are many answers and none of us can do it alone. We all have a lot to gain, and we all have a lot to give.”

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