The need for sustaining high quality education through the COVID-19 pandemic not only accelerated the use, and acceptance, of online/digital modalities, but also fast-tracked the development and implementation of a range of technologies, enabling new opportunities for institutions of higher education to enhance the quality of education, focusing on equity of opportunity and access for all learners, while also offering new mechanisms for greater engagement between those with knowledge and those seeking it (learners), and for bringing the world (and through it critical experiences) into the classroom.
Just as the Gutenberg press irreversibly changed the way knowledge was shared, digital technologies are helping transform education from an industrial revolution based “one size fits all” paradigm where students receive the same information, at the same time, and at the same pace, akin to an assembly line, to one that can be self-paced, adaptive, and personalized - focusing on the learner. Rather than knowledge transfer being passive in the commonly seen “sage on the stage” mode, the interaction can be fully immersive, active, collaborative, and inquiry focused. The modality also provides flexibility, in reducing the previous constraints of time, space, and location, enabling access to larger numbers of learners, more effectively combining pursuit of academic knowledge and credentials with other responsibilities of life. It also has the potential to result in lower cost to the learner increasing equity of opportunity, truly democratizing access to knowledge. While the use of fully online and immersive modalities will continue to increase, the use of hybrid modalities combining the current best of traditional face-to-face instruction with the flexibility and scope of digital modalities is likely to become the standard soon.
Beyond the use of technology in connecting expert/instructor to learner, here are a few additional technology-enabled aspects that are already changing delivery and modality of instruction and learning and could have an even greater impact on higher education in the near future.
- Building greater connectivity between centers of knowledge and learners: Traditionally, learners have had to go to IHEs to access knowledge. This, intrinsically, restricted access to those fortunate to stay/work in close geographical proximity to the IHE or have the resources to travel to the IHE. Technological advances have made it not only possible for access to be enabled through digital means relieving the necessity for close geographical colocation and travel but have also increased the flexibility of connection and engagement. While much has made of the use of Zoom, Teams, Webex, and similar platforms, for meetings the delivery of lectures during the pandemic, these advances also created advanced channels for greater connectivity bringing learners and experts together, now even if they are in different time-zones and thousands of miles apart. The ability to effectively take knowledge to where the learners are, greatly expands the ability of IHEs, and disciplinary experts, to meet the mission of higher education (and for that matter continuing- and professional-education), enabling knowledge to be accessed as, when, and where needed. It also ensures that engagement between interested parties is no longer predicated on the resolution of complex travel logistics. From meetings between student/learner and learned faculty member, and discussions between experts at different locations across the globe, to meetings held between people in different time zones, technology is making it easier to engage, including in full immersive mode, building greater connectivity. Technology also acts as an equalizer for those who are shy or need more time to prepare for engagement. In traditional classrooms a large segment of the population could be left out being overwhelmed by a few who dominated the conversation and the available time. In addition, the instructor/moderator now has enhanced tools to both encourage, and coordinate, participation, thereby enhancing equity in involvement.
- Enabling virtual group work using online tools both during and outside class: Learning often happens best through peer-interactions. The division of students in a class into smaller groups allows for greater engagement and interaction between the students themselves, and between the instructor and their students, not just through exploratory and experiential activities but through deeper dialogue and discussion otherwise impossible in large traditional classes. However, the increasing number of students and decreased resources make expanding this difficult in the traditional mode. Digital technologies enable virtual groups to be formed simultaneously, both formally and informally, adding to peer-to-peer learning unrestricted by constraints of space as in the physical world where classroom space for group activities is often an impediment. In addition, these tools enhance flexibility in time since groups can now meet at times convenient for members in the group unconstrained by university schedules. The structure also allows the instructor to move between groups engaging as needed with individuals and/or groups while maintaining an overall connection with all groups. Projects can also be designed to ensure participation of all members in the group obviating the concern of a few individuals carrying most of the load within a group.
- AI and ML powered learning – Beyond the use of AI/ML as related to adaptive learning, development of customized pathways where learners can move at a pace that is the best for them individually while still focusing on overall timelines for completion, and as a driver of “gateway” courses to which students come with a range of prior knowledge making it totally ineffective to use the “one size fits all” traditional methodology, there are growing efforts, and initial implementation, of AI enabled tutors able to serve as “virtual” teaching assistants through discussion/tutorial sessions. This not only increases the number of learners who can be served but also enhances availability from specific hours to a 24/7 schedule ensuring that routine assistance is available as, and when, the learner requires it, thereby reducing the frustration of not being able to get help as needed. AI-assisted grading of assignments along with assistance in punctuation and grammar, as well as in style, are also being considered through partnerships between IHEs and publishing/assessment companies. In addition, platforms using AI are already being used to assist in “early-warning” systems and for consequent personalized academic programming and enrichment although some of the subsequent steps are still handled through traditional means. The ability, however, to interrogate data on a continuous basis and to use trends to forecast potential outcomes can be extremely valuable in ensuring that the appropriate support and assistance is provided to learners in a timely manner that better enables student success. In the traditional mode intervention, if any, is often too late to make a difference towards a successful outcome in the same term. It is important to emphasize that true, long-term, success in this area will necessitate the integration of systems, the removal of data silos, and the creation of a culture of awareness of data that includes the addressing of extremely critical issues related to privacy and potential misuse of data.
- Enabling greater ease of inclusion of "what-if" scenarios: True learning is enabled by a move away from the dualistic mode of True/False and correct/incorrect to one based on discovering paths between options and enquiring about the “what-ifs” and “why-nots,” to discern and understand. The use of simulation tools easily incorporated into a digital learning environment enables learners to explore multiple paths, even engaging in new discovery within the structure of a course. While simulation tools have been used successfully in the traditional site-based (face-to-face) environment, technological advancements linked to an online/digital environment releases several restrictions related to parameters of use, inclusion of groups, and use of multiple/different scenarios within the same class, allowing for personalization and adaptation of the scenarios to the individual or groups of learners. Laboratory sections have been used traditionally to increase a student’s understanding about phenomena (e.g., chemical reactions) or situations (e.g., operating a turbine). Over the years, aspects such as cost considerations, increases in class sizes and safety concerns have decreased the students’ ability to use these in a modality catalyzing learning through enquiry and discovery. Increasingly, these are conducted as demonstrations or in group settings with only one or two students getting the hands-on experience with others involved, at best, as highly engaged spectators. The online environment enables all to be engaged, varying the experiment by individual, allowing for multiple runs, with different parameters, at a student’s own pace, and even learning through modes inaccessible in the traditional classroom – such as the effects of an oil spill on the environment, or a region being flooded due to poor design of storm surge mitigation measures, or a nuclear reactor core going “critical.”
- Providing fully immersive “real-world” scenarios for learning and training: Advances in augmented realty (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies have made it possible to provide "real world" scenarios to learners, individually and in groups, including transforming the "class" to a manufacturing assembly line, a hospital, a construction site, an archeological "dig" etc. - providing experiences that would otherwise be difficult at scale. The ability to teach/train nursing students to work under stress associated with the rapid changing and fast deteriorating condition of a patient who is dying, or for engineers to see the results of decisions that lead to catastrophic failure are tremendous experiential tools. Similarly, the ability to “immerse” students in the times of the French revolution or the American War of Independence can provide a far greater appreciation and understanding of history, the socio-cultural norms prevalent in those times, and the effect of decisions taken. Consider for example the ability to immerse students into scenarios associated with the discussions around the drafting of the Constitutions or the writing of the Bill of Rights, and the consequent deeper appreciation of the significance of the events and the strength and frailties of the people making those decisions in tumultuous times. At another level, these advances can also provide students the ability to “visit” museums and art galleries, interacting with exhibits and studying them through being “transported” historically and socio-culturally into a world that otherwise would only be available to very few with the majority experiencing these through single dimensional books and videos. A further advantage already in use is that of full immersion in learning a language and simultaneously imbibing the culture associated with a region without having to travel to that region, bringing equity of opportunity to a far greater number of learners. While the examples provided in this section pertain primarily to students at a university, these technologies have similar impact when deployed for the re-skilling and upskilling of employees.
- Using AR/VR to integrate work and learning: Work integrated learning is traditionally facilitated through structured experiences such as practicums, internships, co-ops, and mentored field experiences. While extremely effective if designed appropriately their use is constrained by the curricular structure at some IHEs as well as limitations on the number of participants and need for geographical co-location. Advances in digital technology, including through AR/VR, provide additional avenues, not just for greater incorporation of such modalities into the curriculum but also for greater integration of systematic and purposeful work-experience as part of a credential. The ability to “immerse’ the learner in the work environment virtually provides significant potential of directly linking academic course work to real-world application as well as the ability for the learner to expand their experience at the intersection of humanistic skills with those of function, know-how, and technology. The ability to be a part of a team through virtual attendance at meetings, and to be immersed in a digital twin of the manufacturing line with insight into, and structured control of, equipment and logistics is a possibility hereto far not envisaged. Students specializing in manufacturing, for example, would be able to not just learn theory, but also gain experience through actual assembly lines and manufacturing processes through structured interactions enabled by technology. While the discussion about the dichotomy between academic knowledge and workforce talent development is unlikely to be ended anytime soon, the advances in technology will undoubtedly resolve some of the issues, providing value without diluting the academic rigor, further integrating intellectual development through academic knowledge with talent development for success in the workforce.
When implemented with purpose, technology can, and is already, transforming higher education. Our challenge, and opportunity, is to incorporate these tools in a systematic, integrated, manner putting the learner at the center and dismissing the NIMBY attitude regarding new technologies. Success requires adequate planning prior to implementation including (a) ensuring that learners have easy access to the technology and the digital divide does not further inequities, (b) assuring adequate ongoing budgets not just for the acquisition of technology tools but also for their maintenance and upgrade and for hiring of appropriately qualified support personnel, (c) enhancing technology support for learners and faculty 24/7, (d) evaluating current metrics of assessment to ensure that they are appropriate and modifying them as needed to align with the new models of instruction and engagement, and (e) being open to continuous assessment of outcomes and improving the connection between learners and those imparting knowledge irrespective of whether they are geographically co-located, or thousands of mile, and many time-zones, apart.
Vistasp M. Karbhari is a Professor in the Departments of Civil Engineering, and Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington where he served as President from 2013-2020. He is a fellow of Complete College America and can be followed on Twitter at @VistaspKarbhari and on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/vistaspmkarbhari.