Published on 2013/03/25

The Vulcan Approach to Education is On The Horizon

The Vulcan Approach to Education is on the Horizon
In 10 years’ time, online teaching and learning is likely to be far more student-centered and personalized for learners than it is today.

Imagine a time when students of all ages, levels and abilities would be able to receive individualized instruction designed to meet their specific learning preferences and needs, and would not be constrained by time, distance or economic status. Imagine a place where learners could be immersed in personalized learning contexts with interactive, three-dimensional content and mixed media to stimulate all of the senses. Visualize a system with such powerful artificial intelligence and algorithms, it could learn and track students’ decision-making patterns, content preferences, pace and achievement and then automatically alter instruction, path, media and assessments to provide the optimal experience for each learner.

If this way of learning sounds a bit utopian, or like something inspired from a science fiction movie, it is. This is an enhanced description of how the young Spock character and his Vulcan classmates learn in J. J. Abrams’ remake of Star Trek. However, as we look ahead to the future of learning here on our own planet — and particularly how online learning technologies will change in 10 years — are we that far away from this? The Vulcan way may seem far off but there are some embedded themes that align with our current online learning trends.

Now more than ever, higher education institutions are being asked to create accessible, affordable, individualized education at scale for an ever-changing, increasingly diversified population, both local and international. Already constrained by shrinking budgets and limited physical facilities, colleges and universities will increasingly embrace information technology, mobile technology and digital content to attract and serve students, both on campus and at a distance. As a result, educators and administrators will require highly-advanced, artificially-intelligent systems which can support seamless, quality learning experiences for large numbers of students on the devices they prefer, systems that also provide opportunities for personalization, social and informal learning, assessment, reward and achievement provision and learning analytics.

Where does this leave faculty in the equation? As learning may become more automated, and reliance on digital content and open educational resources increases, will instructors still be needed? Of course! There is no doubt that subject matter expertise and facilitation — human interaction at its core — will still be a necessary component in online learning instruction, no matter the level of artificial intelligence involved. However, faculty will likely want tools that provide greater insight into students’ learning processes and outcomes, along with the relationship between those. I can foresee instructional approaches evolving in all disciplines and faculty roles becoming more specialized. Rather than requiring faculty to be all things to all students, institutions will increasingly create instructional systems which can deliver differentiated instruction to all levels of students that rely on the strengths of researchers, instructional delivery specialists, assessment experts, media designers, social media moderators and more. As part of this, we will see more tertiary institutions becoming content providers to help differentiate themselves among the higher education landscape.

In conjunction with demanding better technology to drive the institution’s academic experiences, educators and administrators will seek easier ways to collect, connect and interpret data from multiple systems to help drive decisions around course design, curriculum design and development, assessment, retention, accreditation and recruitment.

As I write this, I realize some of this sounds familiar and a number of questions are left unanswered. There are some pockets of innovation out there that address some of these needs, but more advancement is necessary to help institutions increase the access to education, not just to information, and empower students to achieve at their highest levels. All of this will not be easy for a single technology or vendor to achieve. We will continue to see more start-ups, some industry consolidation, and (hopefully) quicker advancement of content and administrative standards enabling institutions to have greater choice and portability of content. As well, it is my hope that, as institutions broaden their audience, they will make education more affordable — but that is a complex issue involving more than just the volume of students.

Working in the education realm for the past two decades has been exciting and challenging, and I believe the next 10 years will yield even greater, faster-paced advancements. As educators, the one constant we can rely on is change. I accept that as part of my responsibility to stay current, including educating myself about the best tools and techniques that will serve my students the best, no matter the age gap. I look forward to pulling this article out of my time capsule in 10 years to see just how far off I may be.

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Readers Comments

Ursula V.F. 2013/03/25 at 4:28 pm

This is a really good discussion of what the faculty role might be in 10 years’ time. I think there has been a lot of fear and uncertainty among faculty over what they might be asked to do (or, worse, no longer be needed for) but this article presents a clear picture of how different parties can work together to deliver a course. It might require some additional effort to coordinate among the different partners, but there is potential here to create an improved student experience.

Dan Jones 2013/03/25 at 4:47 pm

I’m concerned that, with the ongoing funding cuts, institutions won’t have the budget to invest in these new developments. Converting to the ‘Vulcan style’ of education delivery will require at least some additional staff resources, as well as new software/tools for instructors — all of which can quickly add up to cost a pretty sum.

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