Monday, July 04, 2016

The importance of faculty in the higher education experience

Speaking notes for for Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey National Faculty Meeting, Mexico City, July 4, 2016. Presentation page.

1. New Forms of Learning

By now in educational institutions around the world we(*) have firmly entered into the technological era. There is no question any more of whether we should embrace new learning technologies; we have done it.

Today we employ tools such as learning management systems, digital learning resources and eBooks. We engage in online discussions, conferencing, and collaborative authoring. More, we have embraced online video, virtual reality, 3D printing, and much more.

We have also embraced 21st Century pedagogy. While there are pockets of resistance from traditionalists, we have generally recognized that teaching is not just about transmitting content. We employ active learning methodologies, project and problem-based learning. 

We create challenges for our learners and where possible let them take control. Learning today involves building drone for competitions, launching companies, doing environmental research, creating art, and participating in the community.

2. The Changing Shape of Learning

All of that said, however, even as we cling to our old ways, the shape of learning is changing yet again.

For example. If we look at the organization of learning in our own community, we can see the continued focus courses, programs, and disciplines, like biology, engineering, literature, and the like. But this is changing. On the one hand, we’re looking at microcredentials, tiny fragments of learning to small even for a course. And on the other hand, looking at overarching competencies like digital literacies such as critical thinking or collaborative decision-making.

Additionally, we have been looking at same standardized package for every student. We still see this in the push for curricular reform and standardized testing. But this, too, is changing. We’re looking for ways to adapt learning to each individual need using technologies such as adaptive learning and personalization. And if we look at the progressive school districts of today we see programs focused on art, sport, religion, science, and more.

It’s true that the old institutional silos still remain. In Canada, for example, the process of ‘articulation’ remains a challenge; moving course credits from one institution to another is complex, and there are limits to what you can transfer. As most migrants can assert, credentials created in one country are not accepted in another country. But this too is changing. There are multinational initiatives like the Bologna process, though are complex and difficult. 

And we have not advanced significantly in assessment. Tests and essays are not adequate, and while part of the community looks to PISA results, LSAT and SAT scores, others are looking for genuine learning, rejecting these traditional measures as inadequate or even irrelevant. And while issues around recognition of learning, initiatives to modernize prior learning assessment continue to make progress.

3. New Technologies Changing the Landscape

New technologies are being addressed directly at the problems described in the previous section and will drive the change into the next generation of learning.

One of the most discussed is machine learning and artificial intelligence. A lot of research is focused toward using artificial intelligence to support adaptive learning by being able to recognize individual learning needs and recommend resources and learning paths. 

But artificial intelligence is not simply for adaptive learning. We talk about predictive analytics as though finishing a course is the problem. This way of thinking is to cling to the old model of courses and programs. The next generation of learning will be structured as an environment with continuous monitoring and adaptation. The real future is in the quantified self; using technology to solve immediate needs, in context.

Another major area of innovation is handheld and mobile computing. More than three billion people have mobile devices today, according to market-watchers like Mary Meeker. But the future of learning isn’t the mobile phone; this is to depict learning as simply the consumption of content. The future is in the integrated performance support system, for example, in devices that help us learn.

A third set of technologies involve the creation of digital credentials. For example, there are the Mozilla Badges and Backpack initiatives. These allow people to display credentials in their own digital portfolio, and more importantly, allow anyone to create credentials. What happens when colleges and universities lose their monopoly on degrees?

Blockchain technologies could be used to support a microcredential system. This is a type of encryption that is used to secure digital currencies. The idea is to encrypt transactions into a series of public ‘blocks’ that cannot be changed once created. While financial transactions can be secured, so can non-financial transactions, such as the awarding of badges and degrees.

A fourth type if technology is called the ‘Internet of Things’. The most immediate use is the deployment of sensor networks to monitor for fire, floods, storms, or anything else. Beyond this, the internet of things will allow devices to communicate with each other, as for example when self-driving cars negotiate with each other on the road. 

But what happens when companies know the state of all your devices? For example, will your car insurance be increased if you drive on non-approved roads? The internet of things raises the question of personal privacy and the ownership of data. The mantra used to be that “information wants to be free” but what happens when the information in question is your bank account? 

Fifth, we are seeing a widespread interest in games, simulations and virtual reality. This could occupy an entire discussion on its own. It’s worth drawing a distinction between using this in learning, and turning learning into an instance of this. 

For example, with respect to games, there is on the one hand ‘Gamification’, in which game elements are added to learning. So for example students might compete for points, unlock levels or achievements, and compete against each other. On the other hand, there is the idea of ‘learning games’ or ‘Serious Games’, where a game is employed to facilitate learning. In the same way, simulations, virtual reality, or other visual and kinesthetic technologies can either be added to learning, or used to create instances of learning.

Finally, we should look at translation and cooperative technology. These are the tools that allow us to interact with each other and work together. Communication is already everywhere and we will continue to use text audio and video conferencing.  Automated translation and improvements to usability will make electronic communications as easy as – indeed, easier than! – talking to someone in the same room.

But this does not mean we will suddenly start working in teams, sharing common goals, or even thinking in the same way. The future lies in cooperation, not collaboration. Each of us remains individual, unique, and rooted experience. Our perspectives are our own, and communications will help us work independently, rather than in groups. If in the past we trended toward single large taxi companies, in the future we trend toward Uber. 

It should be noted that cooperation includes machines as well as people. The internet is the first large-scale example of cooperative computing. It is nothing more than a system that connects us – our commonalities lie in protocols and syntax, not (despite ‘the Digital Citizen’) shared goals or ideals. 

Imagine, if we can, a world in which we can interoperate with and use tools, services and resources as we need them (Uber meets self-driving cars) rather than owning them.

4. Learning in the Future

If we take all of this together and ask where it leads, where does it leave us? It is arguable that many of the traditional roles of the educational faculty will no longer be relevant.

Take learning contents, for example. We are entering a world of open elearning resources. Entire school divisions, entire college and university systems are embracing not merely digital resources, but free and open resources. This means far more than eBooks and course packages; it means any resource you can imagine. The MOOC, which was created as a response to open learning resources, is only the first example of what will follow.

We might think that there is still a role for faculty to write learning materials and create other resources, but we shouldn’t be too certain. A recent experiment at Stanford fooled students with an electronic tutor. Associated Press is using an artificial engine to write sports stories. The Atlantic reported on an initiative to use robots to teach classes. Computers are becoming skilled at creating content, including learning content.

Even if computers don’t create learning materials, students will. The internet has already seen a proliferation of content generated by average users – social networks, photos, artwork, self-help videos, and more. As I have argued in the part, the most sustainable resources are those produced by the community for their own needs. Resources created by professional faculty may be considered unnecessary and expensive.

Today we think of these resources as fixed and immutable (hence there is a ‘discovery’ problem, or a ‘reuse’ problem). In the future these resources will be created as they are needed (the way you give advice to somebody over the telephone). They will be addressed to specific needs or competences. There won’t be the need for a faculty member to know students personally. Computers will know far more than a professor ever could.

Our future learning environments will change as well. Here I am thinking not only of MOOCs, but of a single, complex, interactive learning environment that surrounds each person like a personal bubble. I’ve called this the ‘personal learning environment’ in the past. We will be linked to our friends and relevant resource people, linked to tools, and linked to a distributed network of services we access as we need them.

People when they think of personal learning in the future tend to think of it as operating a lot like Google search. But this again is to think of the problem of learning as a problem of content. Our learning environments of the future will be based on 21st century learning and scientific methodologies. They will consist as much of services and scaffolds as they do content and videos. They will help us work through simulations or scenarios, and will transfer seamlessly into real-world applications and problems.

The practice of teaching – even the practice of coaching and support – will be irrelevant. Already people get more support from their digital technologies than they do from their professors. That’s why they carry them to class.

Assessment and recognition will also shift dramatically. While it may involve microcredentials and a variety of recognition services, it will be based less and less on tests and exams and more and more based on actual evidence. Indeed, at a certain point it will be questioned why we need credentials at all (much less tests and marking and the like). Information about what we’ve actually done will feed directly into employment or project support tools, and instead of ‘grades’ you’ll get job offers.

This is already happening; we’re working on a ‘micromissions’ project at NRC to help Canadian public service people fill jobs on a temporary basis based on their online evidence base. Artificial intelligence can very easily match specific experience to  existing problems, and does not risk losing information through the artificial mechanisms of credentials or even competencies.

5. The New Role for Faculty

We have traditionally thought of the role of faculty as having three parts: the teaching part, where they share their knowledge and expertise though classes, books and resources; the supportive part, where they coach and mentor individuals through the non-cognitive challenges they face; as the assessment part, where they observe student progress and make recommendations for recognition or remediation.

What happens when we no longer require faculty to fulfill these roles? Do they become irrelevant?
The challenges are significant. Students don’t need contents any more. Students don’t need experts any more. Indeed, we want them to figure things out, translate, try activities, work with others. They don’t need encouragement or motivation any more. Their learning will be engaging, immersive and wanted. They will want to be there, they will believe that they’re there, and they’ll believe that they are making a difference.

Think about your own learning. Think about what you do today, as a professional. For the most part, you no longer take courses. You receive learning and support from your environment. You select learning resources that are that is relevant, usable and interactive, be they friends, books, or even classes.

It’s all about context. It’s all about what you need when you need it. The airplane cockpit is no place for a two-week course. You need learning support you can use right away, and even more importantly, that directly helps you solve your current problem. Learning will be like water or electricity – or text. There when you need it. As infrastructure.

Think about your own learning, the type of learning that sticks over time, like learning a language or learning to fly. “To learn is to practise and reflect.” You need support, sometimes, but mostly you need examples and models. Then you try it. Think about learning a computer system. Learners today don’t wait for a course or even read the instruction manual – they try things and see what happens. They keep at it until they become skilled.

Think about your own learning, the way you share it with others outside the class. “To teach is to model and demonstrate.” You probably know by now that you can’t just tell people how to do things, you can’t convince them that this or that is important. You show them – you demonstrate the function, and you describe how you see it in your own mind, explaining using models and demonstrations.
As Alfie Kohn says, if we have to ask “how do we motivate people” then we’re taking the wrong approach. 

The new role for faculty is to show how to be a practitioner in the field – be a carpenter, a physicist, etc. More, it is to show how you try, fail, learn, etc. To show the way you think about problems. To be open with your mistakes and your failings as well as your successes. To be a part of the learning community, the one who forges ahead, the one who discovers a new path.

From the institutional perspective, the shift must be form management to meaning. Pre-network work and learning was about giving directions and telling people what they need to do. In the network era, we don’t do things to people, do things with people, and even more importantly, we help people do things. The success in the future economy will not be the one who takes the most, it will be the one who gives the most.

The new model of work and learning – and ultimately, the true importance of faculty in the future, will be based around three principles:

- Sharing – by working openly, modeling and demonstrating one’s own practice, including the application of specific skills, but also how we think and how we see the works, by creating linked documents, data, and objects within a distributed network

- Contributing – by helping, supporting and being there when needed, supporting their learning or work objective, responding to their priorities and interests

- Co-Creation – by working with other people in social networks, facilitating and acting as a role model for group communication, group communication, by being a co-creator (rather than an aloof expert or a disengaged coach)

The traditional role of the faculty – even faculty currently working with learning technologies using 21st century pedagogies – is changing. Work that today seems essential will in the future be done by students themselves or by computers.

But the role of faculty becomes something even more important. It is no longer enough to tell students what they need to know and how to learn about it, faculty must be part of this active learning process. In a rapidly changing environment, both teacher and student work and learn at the same time, and the role of the teacher is to be the role model for our students.

This is not a role we have always excelled at. Certainly our politicians, business leaders, and other officials have not excelled as role models. We, the teachers, must hold ourselves to much higher standards in the hope that they, eventually, will learn.

(*) “we” = “the educational community as a whole, in general with exceptions noted, as interpreted by me”


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