April 23, 2019

The Most Consequential Innovation in Higher Education?

You may recall that in December I shared my thoughts about why we need to expand Mason’s online education. This spring, we have had extensive campus engagement through town hall meetings, panels, roundtables, and invited speakers. In many of these sessions, we began to shift our focus from why to how Mason should develop online learning at scale, while extending our education to adult learners.

Given the trajectory of our online evolution, it seems that we have (at least) three possible paths forward. We can gradually scale our own online program in-house; we can create an online entity with investment from a partner; or we can acquire an existing online university that already serves a significant number of students.

Whatever we choose to do must reflect Mason’s commitment to the highest ethical and academic standards. As you know well, over the past decade, a segment of online education has been impacted by the predatory practices of some for-profit universities. It is understandable that some in the Mason community are concerned about the stigma attached to online learning, and the risk it may pose to Mason’s reputation.

In fact, it might be helpful for us to lay out essential characteristics for the kind of online entity we can all be proud of. The first principle should be students first enhancing students’ success must be at the core of what we do. Our mission has always been to provide access to excellence. Therefore, the use of new technology is worthwhile solely to the extent that it produces successful learning outcomes. To achieve student success would require us to operate with uncompromising academic integrity in whatever entity we create.

Quality should always be our imperative many still remain skeptical regarding whether high-quality online learning is achievable. True, universities have been struggling with online learning for decades. Nevertheless, with technological and pedagogical innovations, higher education is on the cusp of a major shift. Reputable, affordable, at-scale models offered by top-tier institutions are emerging and starting to change the landscape and perception fundamentally. It is our responsibility to take that trend seriously. Many institutions are legitimately concerned about competition from those that offer academically rigorous online learning options¾the demographic shift from traditional students to adult learners has exacerbated that concern.

Perhaps the most important characteristic is the opportunity for us to push the envelope for innovation. In one of our campus engagement sessions, Mason hosted Richard A. DeMillo, a computer science professor and director of the Center for 21st-Century Universities, to learn from Georgia Tech’s success in providing a high-quality online degree program. Importantly, Georgia Tech is leveraging artificial intelligence to create an individualized approach to serving students.

Professor DeMillo described Benjamin Bloom’s mastery learning strategy in the online context. As much a philosophy as an approach, mastery learning holds that all students can learn if provided the opportunity to set their own pace. Bloom found that tutoring, combined with regular corrective feedback, enabled students to perform two standard deviations (2 sigma) better than students taught in the traditional classroom. Using this strategy, a curriculum is taught in smaller learning units, followed by an assessment of what a student has mastered and where work should focus to achieve the learning outcomes. This way of learning is not possible in a classroom with a large number of students; a teacher is limited in the extent to which she or he can individualize the learning to students’ respective needs. The challenge that Bloom set out, and which has remained unmet, has been how to scale mastery learning in an affordable way.

With recent innovations in online learning platforms, we are starting to see potential to meaningfully respond to that challenge by applying mastery learning. It is now possible to provide high-quality instruction on a number of topics, at a lower cost, and with individualized lessons that allow students to learn at their pace. This may be combined with collaborative learning¾joint intellectual effort by groups of student to offer powerful new paradigms of learning that are not possible in traditional classroom settings.

This sort of innovation reminds me of the personalized and connected experience that is intrinsic to the rise of Netflix, Uber or Amazon. We use these services at our convenience, at the time and place we want, and in the ways that we want while connecting to the rest of the world. And while Mason is motivated by an ethos of public higher education, let us not forget that these services fundamentally reshaped their corresponding industries.

For the purpose of spurring our collective thinking and discussion, here is one example of how high-quality online learning might better serve our students. Many professional fields are increasingly accentuating competencies. The shift in focus from degrees to specialties is akin to breaking things down into a mastery learning format. Ideally, individuals would be able to curate their own online education based on their goals and interests, or improve their credentials without a near-prohibitive investment of time and money. Ultimately, we want individualized online options to inspire students to become lifelong learners who continuously gratify their intellectual curiosity.

Let me close for now by saying our dialogue on online education has surfaced the key question: can online learning open new grounds for Mason to claim a leadership role in potentially the most consequential innovation in higher education? If Mason is to do this properly, we need to focus our conversations on how we can do so in a manner that stays true to our values: to put the student first, to uphold our commitment to academic integrity, to deliver high quality and affordable online learning at-scale, and to drive innovation at a critical moment in higher education.

I hope you will share your thoughts and feedback.

7 thoughts on “The Most Consequential Innovation in Higher Education?

  • I have done both in-classroom and distance learning through formal education, professional learning, and certificate programs. I think our challenge is similar in classroom as well as online – how to address distractions. I think self-paced classes are a great way to implement online content, when students are ready to set aside time and “binge” learn, they may want to complete several modules. I would like to see us utilize Gamification for learning – in both online and in classroom settings. Getting students to engage can be a challenge and making classes more interactive may be a great way to do this.

    I am not sure there is a one-size fits all, Carnegie Mellon University does distance learning very differently than Johns Hopkins University and University of Maryland University College and maybe we need to have flexibility to allow multiple formats for students (and instructors) to find what works best for them.

  • I spent several years on the Liberal Arts Board of Western Governor’e University. We were supposed to advise on curriculum in the compenency based program. This experience makes me very concerned about maintaining academic integrity in online programs. I believe it can be done, but it won’ be easy or automatic

  • I think meeting competencies and acquiring certificates through online classes may be beneficial. My one concern is the feedback I have received from current students on their online courses. At the beginning of the semester I asked one of my classes if they would prefer to take a face to face class or online class, all 25 said face to face. Many students I have spoke to don’t enjoy, feel engaged or retain the information they learned in their online courses. Of course proper instructor training and evaluation of online courses will be key. I did want to voice some of the opinions students shared with me this year on online courses. I hope that we can find the appropriate programs that would fit well with an online education model.

  • I am glad to learn that you are committed to the highest ethical and academic standards. I would like to know whether this includes a commitment to all of Mason’s values, including “We Honor Freedom of Thought and Expression” and “We Thrive Together.”

    The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, jointly adopted by the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, states that “Freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society.”

    Do you believe that freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to any new online venture?

  • I think a case could be made that the most consequential innovation in higher education was the printing press, which I believe goes back to the mid 15th century. I suppose it could also be argued that the printing done in the 8th century during the Tang dynasty could also be highlighted as the most consequential innovation. Actually, it is difficult to say any one innovation was the “most” consequential. It is more like an evolutionary process, not a quantum leap. Prior to the internet, there was satellite courses touted as a most consequential innovation. I recall participating in a satellite course here at GMU. It dealt with chaos theory; and, it occurred over 20 years ago. There was a “satellite course” room in Science & Tech I; now known as Planetary Hall.

  • For the past six years I’ve been collaborating with some of the best minds in online learning (Goel, Saxberg, Dede, etc.) and could offer much to this discussion, but no one on the committees you cite reached out to inquire about my perspectives.

    That said, please read Learning Engineering for Online Education (Routledge, October 2018). Ashok K. Goel, the Georgia Tech Professor you mentioned is also an author, as am I. My Chapter: Creating personalized learning using aggregated data from students’ online conversational interactions in customized groups.

    Lastly, my upcoming book, Artificial Intelligence, Mixed Reality, and the Redefinition of the Classroom (Rowman & Littfield, July 2019) really moves the ball forward exploring real potential for truly effective enagaging and interactive online education. Let me know if you want an advance copy, as I’m sure it will answer many of the questions posed in your blog, (Ashok Goel also provided an endorsement, as did our very own Nada Dabbagh).

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