The Future Possibilities for Technology in Higher EducationBryan Alexander | Senior Research Fellow, National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education
The following interview is with Bryan Alexander, a senior fellow with the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education. Alexander has spoken at length about the current uses of technology in higher education. In this interview, Alexander shares his thoughts on what the big edupreneurial innovations in higher education will be in 10 years’ time, what the challenges standing in the way of these innovations are, and what institutions must do to adapt to the changes in the industry.
1. In the past, you’ve said Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are susceptible to “hype crash.” What is “hype crash,” and why is it something MOOC providers must watch out for?
Well, it refers to the Gartner Hype Cycle. This is a model for understanding the adoption of technology promulgated by Gartner Research and it’s based on a pretty simple idea, that when new technology appears, it goes through a huge boom, sometimes, with expectations. Hype grows for it. People get excited about it; non-specialists get excited. It looks like this new technology will change everything. And then at a point it reaches some kind of peak of all this hype, whereupon things plummet. Their reputation collapses. Criticism builds and people’s view starts to drop off.
My favorite example of this is “Second Life,” which for a while was a huge media darling. It appeared in television shows, Time Magazine covers; it looked like it could be the next huge thing — the replacement to the web. And then people realized that it wasn’t all that and the criticism began to feed into itself and it really, really plummeted. Its user base dropped and it’s never recovered.
So you need to watch out for that, whenever you see new technology of any kind. When we look at MOOCs, what we’re beginning to see is that hype builds to really extraordinary levels; New York Times op-eds, discussions on the radio, discussions on TV news. Just in my own work, talking with campus leaders, talking with presidents, trustees, deans over the past year, I heard MOOCs come up just almost everywhere I go. And so we have to watch out for the possibility that at some point, perhaps this very year, all of that could just collapse. The faith could just dissipate or the interest could go away. And again that feeds in itself. Once people see other people leaving something, that may provoke them to leave as well — a pretty vicious circle — so MOOC providers need to really watch out for that. On the one hand they need to be prepared that it’s possible that the number of students taking MOOCs could drop. It’s possible that we could see some campuses that have had agreements decide not to, it could be that MOOC providers are banking on a big swell of numbers following campuses like San Jose State beginning to make contracts with them. That might not manifest, that might not appear. So, they need to have contingency plans for what to do in that case. And I think when all of us are looking at online learning, it’s possible that we might see a wave of disillusion and trauma in learning in general. I know that following the dot-com bust in 2000-01, many campuses backed away from aggressive plans for doing things with technology. They just felt, “Ah, well maybe this isn’t going to be a big deal after all.” It’s possible that if we see a MOOC hype crash, that we might see something similar to the rest of online technology. It could impact other fields like digitization of materials. It could impact the move of classes to course management systems. It could even impact the digital humanities movement. I’m not saying this will happen, I’m saying this is a possibility it. There’s a lot of historical evidence for it and we need to think ahead.
2. MOOCs have certainly created a taste for disruptive innovations in the higher education space; what do you think the next big changes will be?
Well, I think one huge change that we’re really just beginning to look into is mobile devices. America is the last country to figure out that mobile devices matter. And, over the past 10 years, if you take a look at what counties really adopted — mostly mobile phones, but other devices — it was pretty much the entire planet except the United States. And the [United States] really didn’t jump on until the iPhone took off and then Android phones. So, we are just beginning to see some of the really big transformations and I think that really potentially disrupts just about any part of education as well as civic life. …
Availability of extra class collaboration, the ability to really double class size by having conversations go on through back channels is really extraordinary, and I think we’re just beginning to realize this. And, we’re going to be dealing with that realization for years to come.
3. Looking 10 years into the future, how do you see mobile technologies being used in higher education classrooms and courses and how do you see them changing the way that institutions go about teaching?
Well, I think it’s important to look at the different spaces where learning happens; or “knowledge transfer,” as you put it. One is to think of the classroom space. The second should look at campus space. The third is to look at the world beyond.
We’ll start with the campus itself. The library community has often spoken about the transformation from the library as a space where people go to get library services, materials, to the whole world as a library. So it used to be you’d physically have to go walk to a library to get a book. We would physically have to go there and use a card catalog. Now, of course, we can get all those services just about everywhere we have connectivity. And we can … use Google if we want to go into that system, we can download materials of all kinds in digital form from just about anywhere. But I think the same is true if you look at a campus where now … the entire campus is basically an extension of the classroom. If you and I are in a class and it’s a class, say, on urban studies and we’re walking across the campus afterwards, talking about the growth of St. Petersburg and we have an insight, we come to an agreement and think, “We need to share this with our classmates.” Well, you could quickly whip out a tablet or a laptop or smartphone and go to the class management system and add a little note to the discussion thread. Or if we’re blogging, put up a post about this or, even faster, on Facebook, Twitter or Google+.
In a classroom, discussion really extends it through space and time to cover the entire campus. If we use technology such as augmented reality, we can go even further. So, for example, if we’re in an art class and working on a project, we could install that digital project on location in campus so that our prof or the other students or that so anybody could notice that object once they reach a certain location of the campus. Meanwhile, if you and I are working and want to find a third person, we could use augmented reality later to discover where that person is so we could meet him or her. We’re just beginning to look into what this means.
But that’s a campus, if you go back to the classroom, really, then all kinds of different affordances open up. … For example, for a long time we’ve been using clickers. These are small handheld basically remote controls; they’re polling devices. So for a math class, a prof can go to the front and say, “Alright, here’s this equation, and I’m going to give you four different solutions for it. Now please pick one of these solutions: A, B, C or D.”
And when we look at that, the prof can get everybody to answer that question and then display the results on the next screen. Now, when they do that, the prof quickly is able to assess how we’re thinking as students and if we’re all correct, if 90 percent of us get answer C and that’s the right answer, the prof goes, “Okay, we’re up to speed, we’re following along,” and they can advance. If it turns out that 90 percent of us pick answer B, the prof can understand the mistake we made and work it through in pretty close detail. If a prof wants to do a constructivist approach, he can break us into groups and have us discuss, “How did you get the answer B or answer C?” and then walk around and help each group figure it out.
That kind of pedagogy is really solid. … You can apply all kinds of technologies this way with mobile devices. For example, just having quick research questions … asking students to divide into groups and research a question. …
Then when we leave that [classroom] space, that learning space, the ivory tower, if you want, or campus, if you prefer — if we go out into the world as a whole where all kinds of changes have been happening. For example, if there’s curricular work or research work that must be done off-campus such as field work for urban studies or social work, well, mobile devices speed all that up. It’s easier to collect and share information and data. You can imagine other pedagogies, other assignments. …
If you break it down to these three zones of learning — the classroom, the campus, the world as a whole — you really begin to see such vistas and challenges to learning that are opening up. … We ask what’s next; that’s actually now! And it’s really unfolding and it’s very intensive in a big, big way.
4. The topic of augmented reality is becoming increasingly prevalent in discussions about the future impact of technology in higher education. How do you think augmented reality will change the postsecondary space in 10 years?
I think it’s really a multi-level issue. At first, if we think about augmented reality as a spectrum or continuum of technologies … you think about light AR (augmented reality) such as tools like Yelp or GPS-equipped cars, where we’re accustomed now to very, very basic geo-location. … “Augmented reality” is a term that dates back to the 1990s when we were using the term “virtual reality” all the time. The idea is that if virtual reality was the ability to recreate a physical world in a virtual environment, augmented reality is the inversion of that, to take the digital world and return it back to the physical environment. That’s what you do with this sort of thing, Yelp or the GPS, you take digital mapping and social media and glue it to your physical location. …
The other extreme of this continuum of augmented reality are tools that visually bring information to where you’re physically looking. For example, IBM did a tool when people went to Wimbledon in Britain, the great tennis championship. The physical area there is extremely built up, but if you don’t know the area, it’s easy to get lost and it’s very hard to find things. Now, we built this new layer for a smartphone, so that you could pick up your phone, point it at the part of Wimbledon where you don’t know where you are. You look for your camera, you can see all the buildings, and rooftops the alleyways, the roads and superimpose flags on each one, telling you what you are looking for. So here’s where bathrooms are, here’s where restaurants are, here’s where shops are and so on.
But this is a very, very useful technology. It’s intensive, it’s computationally intensive and still takes a lot of really interesting research development to work. But that kind of intensive use is the other extreme for it. Now, in that continuum, if you imagine all these possibilities of the different ways you can glue digital data, physical information, digital content, digital media to the physical world. If you think about the ways this connects actual learning, go back to what I saidabout mobile devices. If you’re going through a campus, imagine being able to learn about where you are. So, a lot of residential campuses have a physical campus as a major part of their culture and life, buildings that are significant historically.… Imagine walking across the campus, looking at the observatory and being able to open your mobile device to pull that information about that building, say, its floor plans from when it was built, or drawings of the time of the horizon and landscape of when it was first built. Imagine people who scroll forward from that year-by-year, decade-to-decade to the present, you’d see how the campus transformed, new buildings, added buildings, tracking roads, the whole horizon, the whole fit description of history beginning to change in front of you.
There’s a great scene at the very end of the movie “Gangs of New York” where two characters rest in front of New York City, across the river, looking at it and there’s a beautiful shot where it fast forwards from 1866 or so to the year 2000 and you can see the buildings change; you can see New York develop rapidly. Imagine being able to do that on a campus and see how your campus changed over time. You can do a lot with this, with, say, campus special collections, being able to add photos, movies, documents about a time, about how a campus changed. Imagine being able to go to a campus in the south, looking at how it changed in the 1860s. Did it close during the Civil War? What did it look like when there were camps there? What was it like in the 1950s? Was it a really different, very challenging, very productive time? But also, to think about speeding creations imagine students may be able to take their own work, creative work, a dance project, a video of that and be able to pin it to a location, into a studio. Imagine students may be able to take their own art, their own work, their own experiences. “This is a bench where we’re sitting, I realized that I wanted to become an industrial banker, or I wanted to become a musician” or whatever.
You can build an augmented reality universe over a campus that would be extraordinarily rich for alumni to come back and revisit or prospective students to go and see, “What is it like to go to a college physically?” Now, that’s all for the campus environment.
You think about the world as a whole, as we start adding more and more augmented reality data to the world, that changes how we do research. It changes how we visit and think about locations. If we want to go to, say, New York City, to return to that example, and explore it as a sociological site, or as a historical site or as an urban studies site. Now, as we go through it, we can pull down historical information, we can pull down urban planning information, we can pull down GIS-based data about populations, about electrical ability, about water flow. It really deepens what we can do as researchers, as professional researchers and faculty or as students learning to be researchers. …
It sounds like a cliché now to say we’re reproducing the physical world in a digital format. … For example, in a few seconds you can get the directions from Google Maps. Now you have Google Street View based into it, so that when you want to figure out how to drive down this one street, which way to turn, increasingly … you will see photos from Google Street View of that very corner, of that street sign, buildings there and landmarks. This is pretty helpful and pretty interesting. Reproducing the physical world in a digital environment and then being able to associate that as we move through the physical environment. What an extraordinary environment for learning, and what does that mean for 18-year-olds when they come to our campuses and they’ve grown up in that environment? Will they expect being able to have that fast digital world associated in their hand-held device as they strive through the first day of campus. I think that’s a huge and fascinating set of challenges and opportunities that we’re really going to need to think through.
5. What are the biggest barriers standing in the way of the integration of these innovative technologies into higher education?
There are a whole set of barriers and it’s really important to bear these in mind. Some of them are historical, ones that we are familiar with, that we have experienced as we looked at the adoption or lack of adoption of new technologies.
One is, especially since 2008, financial stresses. We’ve been living in the shadows of the financial crash of 2008 and it’s impacted all kinds of institutions in different ways. Public institutions have seen a funding cut to such a level that … many public institutions [now] consider themselves to be private because they get so little state funding now and so much of their funding is tuition-driven, that comes from grants, from federal as well that, basically, they’re acting like a private institution. The cuts are so large that it becomes really challenging to say, “As a campus planner, we’d like to ask for money to do this brand new thing.” That’s not always going to fly.
The second problem is that we have a huge crisis in higher education, … [with] public faith in the value of higher education. I’ve never experienced this in my lifetime, this kind of skepticism. They say that colleges costs too much, that universities deliver too little for the price, and when I talk to a campus leaders right now, they say they’ve never seen such pressure exerted by parents and students on them. “Am I really getting a good value for all of the money that we’re going into loan for?” That makes a lot of campuses want to draw in to return to their strengths, which for them are often historical strengths, rather than futuristic strengths.
Another challenge is … sociological challenges. Most faculty are trained in graduate school to be researchers in their specific field … and that’s their main focus. And when they leave graduate school and they head into a profession, their main job is to succeed at that and get tenured in that field. They are usually not trained very much in pedagogy and teaching and learning. Some are, some develop a passion for it, but most are not trained. … Their experiences in technology are often rapidly outdated, if you think about someone who got their doctorate in the year 1990. Surfing the web didn’t exist; the internet was barely on anybody’s radar at the time. What kind of training do they have to be able to teach students through social media? Through augmented reality? That’s a huge, huge gap to cross. For professional development, faculty didn’t cross that gap. But professional development has been hit very, very hard by the recession and the professional development now occurs through new technologies, through video conferencing or social media, again, which a lot of these faculty weren’t ready for. We’ve seen a huge generational divide.
Now there are all kinds of exceptions to this. There are younger faculty who don’t want to do anything with this [and] there are older faculty who are very innovative. But broadly speaking, the generational gap is very, very large. The Pew Internet American Life Project, which is a tremendous research project for how Americans actually use technology, keeps finding a substantial general gap where people over 55 are much less likely to use just any technology that they look at, from mobile devices to social media.
There’s another gap as well, or another challenge, which is that K-12, if you think about it, traditional-age undergraduate student, 18 to 22-year-olds — they are the products of the K-12 experience and that K-12 experience has not been at the cutting edge or even in the mainstream of technology use for various reasons. … There is a lot of work for campuses to do to … educate students to be citizens in the digital environment. And that’s a really big challenge. And I could go on, but those are some of the major challenges right now.
6. Do you see these barriers being overcome or do you think it’s going to be a major hamper on the industry’s ability to innovate and move forward?
The economic one is the trickiest to grapple with because you have to think what will the American economy be like in 10 years? And some parts of that are already baked in, demographics, for example. So we know that the K-12 population generally across the [United States] has plateaued and may be dwindling. We know the undergraduate population is likely to come under a lot of pressure. If you think about that — what will U.S. GDP look like? What will the financial situation look like? — that’s very, very hard to predict. We don’t know if we’re in the middle of Japan-style “lost decade.” We don’t know, on the other hand, that we might see a boom through new technologies, like nanotechnology. So that makes it hard to figure out what will the impact be of the economy [on technology adoption]. I do think that we’ll be struggling with this long recession for a while, which will add economic pressures, which we should assume. If we get past them, if we have a robust economy, then, excellent.
I think generational problems are one that is going to be solved demographically; as faculty age, retire or die, I think they will be replaced by younger faculty. The big challenge, though, is that, generally speaking, higher education will also be retiring tenure. A few years ago we passed a point where the majority of teaching was done by adjunct faculty. … The median teacher in the United States is part-time, conditional labor, and those guys have very, very few resources to be able to implement these kinds of technology-assisted, technology-enhancement pedagogies. Institutions now have the burden of being able to create frameworks and sustain frameworks to be able to make this happen when they don’t have multi-year faculty that is their backbone of teachers.
When it comes to the question of K-12, again we may be stuck with that for a while. K-12 traditionally changes very, very slowly for all kinds of reasons, so we may probably expect that to be there. I think maybe the brightest spot beside the demographic change is that if we have this crisis of faith in higher education, generally speaking, technology may gives us ways of addressing that. So if Americans, for example, fear that we do not have enough access to higher education, MOOCs are one way of addressing that, for example. Professors becoming public intellectuals through using social media to share their thoughts about their discipline; I think that is another way to increase access and demonstrating the value of higher education to people outside of higher education.
Innovating through technology is way of responding to criticisms. Can we use digital media to help teach critical thinking? We are famously in crisis about our ability to teach critical thinking. There is a famous book from a year and a half ago, “Academically Adrift,” which argued pretty convincingly, for a lot of people, that undergraduate education was doing a bad job of teaching critical thinking. If we can use technology to help change that, maybe that’s something that we can do maybe that will be a way of addressing it.
That kind of angle of using technology to help improve education; that might be the way forward.
7. Is there anything you’d like to add about the innovations that we might see from the edupreneural space in the higher education in 10 years’ time?
Well, the edupreneurial space is contributing all kinds of possibilities as well as threats.
Higher education, to be honest, really sees itself under siege right now … from multiple directions including the business world. And this is becoming very politicized. On the flip side, we’re seeing a lot of interesting solutions being offered; a lot of entrepreneurs trying to help connect learners with learning and I think that’s very positive.
I think as a big picture issue, it’s incumbent on us in education to really think hard about the future. We don’t often do this in part because we have in each of our professions — be they faculty or staff or administration — we have all kinds of incentives for thinking about the very near term of the semester, maybe a four-year plan. It’s really important for us to start thinking futuristically. Technology is really beginning to impact education. Other forces are beginning to shake this up and it’s important to step beyond what’s happening this week and think about the next decade, think about the big picture. What huge forces are beginning to act?
If we don’t do that, then we can’t think strategically in a very effective way and we’ll be at the mercy of these forces.
Author Perspective: Association