In a series of recent articles, one of the leading futurologists of higher education, Michael Feldstein, predicts that the future of higher education will be mixed: combining the virtual and the face-to-face and merging the guided inquiry with active and experiential learning.
Feldstein, who at various times served as deputy director of the SUNY Learning Network, product and program manager at Cengage and Oracle, partner at MindWires Consulting, co-publisher of eLiterate, and now co-founder and chief innovation officer at Argos Education, is one of those surprisingly rare figures in higher education who combines thought leadership with real-world implementation experience.
In other words, its predictions are based on a realistic sense of what is and isn’t likely.
Feldstein is, as his brief suggests, convinced that technology will play a greater role in teaching, not just because of its possible cost savings, but its potential to fill some of the gaps in teaching today. . These include the need to do a better job of:
- Learning about scaffolding.
- Adapt teaching to the needs of each student.
- Address differences in student readiness levels.
- Promote collaboration.
- Monitor engagement and learning.
- Provide more timely, substantive and constructive feedback.
Technology, he says, can help achieve all of these goals, but it will force instructors to rethink their role and see themselves as learning experience engineers, activity architects and assessment designers.
Why? Because instructors, especially those in the most difficult and in-demand disciplines, will be under intense pressure to:
- Reduce performance and achievement gaps and ensure that all students in a particular course achieve a minimum viable proficiency level.
- Ensure that students acquire discipline-based ways of thinking and can apply discipline-specific skills.
- Expand opportunities for students to engage in inquiry, inquiry, and active learning by doing.
- Make sure their students stay engaged and on track.
I doubt most instructors have the will, skill, or time to design the kinds of next-generation interactive courseware that Feldstein envisions as a key part of the future of teaching. But, then, individual instructors will not need to reinvent the wheel. They could adopt courseware, just as they adopt textbooks, or could remix, edit, and modify courseware, if license terms permit.
I guess one way forward will involve partnerships between academic publishers, specialist teams, foundations and other funders, with Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative or the Dana Center/Agile Mind and their supporters of Advanced Mathematical Decision Making courses as plausible models.
All of this raises several questions:
- Will faculty be willing to adopt courseware that will serve as the backbone of a particular class?
A textbook is usually a learning resource, usually combined with other reading. It is a component of a course, not its backbone. The courseware, while customizable, largely dictates course organization, content, and assessments. Currently, very few professors have adopted existing courseware, although there are some exceptions, such as Pearson’s MyLabs.
- Will faculty be willing to hand over much of the responsibility for content creation and instructional design to external groups of professionals?
Already, some instructors rely on PowerPoint slides, class handouts, and test banks provided by publishers. I have also taught at prestigious institutions where teaching assistants deliver courses and course materials designed and developed by faculty members.
But I think it’s fair to say that this approach is widely seen as offensive, unprofessional, and a breach of an instructor’s responsibilities. It remains to be seen whether mass-produced courseware will be viewed in the same way.
- Will courseware be a step towards standardizing instruction and reducing the personal touches provided by individual instructors?
There is, of course, something to be said for standardized coverage. This ensures that all students taking a particular course must have mastered the same content and skills. It seems likely to me that a heavy reliance on courseware could, potentially, limit some of the course’s individuality. But because the courseware only provides the online content of a course, what happens in the classroom, in the actual interaction of an instructor and students, can remain highly personalized.
My personal view is that while interactive courseware promises to improve student learning and raise the average level of teaching quality – provided, of course, that the learning materials meet of truly high excellence – there is a real danger that they will reinforce already existing tendencies to:
- Treat unimportant core and bridging courses as literal service courses that are mandatory but superficial and do not deserve the serious attention of homeroom teachers.
- Replace expert instructors and university teachers with course mentors and teaching assistants, as much of the delivery of content moves online.
- Reduce the amount of reading required and degrade learning by turning it into a process of simply accomplishing various tasks.
- Assess student learning in a largely mechanical way that can be automated. My review of advanced-level high school history questions suggests that most don’t test students’ thinking skills or higher-order conceptual understanding, let alone their research, analytical, and writing skills.
Let me say here that myself, together with a team of graduate and undergraduate students, have developed tutorials that I use in my very large history inquiry classes the United States. The questions I ask other developers are the same questions I ask myself.
I know very well that too many students view the tutorial modules as the only important part of my class and view the in-person portion of the course as inconsequential.
Here’s the catch. I want instructors to see themselves as learning architects whose primary responsibilities as teachers are to:
- Turn their course into a journey and community of inquiry with the goal of leading all students to success.
- Design engaging and useful learning activities.
- Proactively track, scaffold and support student learning.
- Develop meaningful assessments that truly assess students’ knowledge and skills, including their critical thinking and higher-order skills.
- Provide meaningful, substantial and useful feedback.
Interactive tutorials can help us achieve these goals. It should, indeed, play a crucial role in the future of higher education. For my part, I have benefited immensely from my ability to keep tabs on student engagement and on content and issues that students find confusing. Nevertheless, we must guard against delegating too much of our teaching responsibilities to others.
Teaching is first and foremost about relationships – relationships of trust, support, encouragement. This necessarily involves improvisation, creativity, inventiveness and inspiration. Without these elements, education is nothing more than training.
So remember: while training is about acquiring and practicing particular skills, education is about learning – acquiring the ability to research, think critically and communicate effectively in any context. While a small number of autodidacts can learn on their own, most of us need something more: A guide, a mentor, a Virgil to guide us in our quest.
Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.