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Innovation in higher education moves beyond MOOCs

Dan Schwartz, Annalee Saxenian, Ellen Junn and Brian Murphy on the learning panel at Stanford. (Photo: Steve Castillo)
Dan Schwartz, Annalee Saxenian, Ellen Junn and Brian Murphy on the learning panel at Stanford. (Photo: Steve Castillo)

Innovation in higher education moves beyond MOOCs

Stanford's Year of Learning capstone event brings together experts from public and private institutions to discuss technology and innovation.

For a while, innovation in higher education meant using technology to bring college coursework to a wider audience. Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, dominated the conversation.

But recently, there's been a shift, said John Mitchell, vice provost for teaching and learning at Stanford University. Educators, administrators and policymakers are now looking more holistically at the undergraduate system itself. It's not just about getting more courses to more people at a reduced cost, it's about what the college experience should look like as a whole.  Technology and learning is "intertwining," and that, Mitchell said, will create opportunities for innovation way beyond the now "traditional" MOOC.

Mitchell spoke at Learning Summit 2016: Inventing the Future of Higher Education, hosted by Stanford. This year’s summit was the fourth iteration of the Online Learning Summit, jointly convened by MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley and Stanford every year since 2013.

It was also the capstone event of Stanford's Year of Learning, overseen and coordinated by Petra Dierkes-Thrun in the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning.

Mitchell introduced and moderated a panel discussion on innovation in higher education that included representatives from private and public colleges — both four-year institutions and community colleges.

He asked panelists to discuss the challenges facing higher education in general and their own institutions, specifically, and to comment on where technology may afford opportunities for collaboration and learning. He directed panelists to think of "the three Ps: policy, pedagogy and porosity" — institutional changes and partnerships, what we learn about learning, and availability of learning activities on and off campus, throughout one's life.

Randy Bass, vice provost for education and professor of English at Georgetown University, said his institution was thinking about how to create opportunities for informal and formal learning, how to responsibly use student data and how to include digital learning that engages students in deep inquiry.

"My hope for higher education," Bass said, "is that we have the capacity to help all students to develop a life of purpose. An education that's built around the whole person."

Daniel Schwartz, dean of Stanford Graduate School of Education, said there's been a lot of interest in studying the science of learning and that inquiry has generated many findings about the best teaching methods but there's been less investment in getting that information into classrooms, embedded in learning games, or online. He argued for stronger partnerships between research institutions and creators of learning technologies, as well as more collaboration between researchers and practitioners.

"Doing this would benefit both instruction and learning," he said.

AnnaLee Saxenian, dean and professor at the School of Information at UC Berkeley, shared the success of her school's online graduate program. She said her greatest challenge — which resonates with most administrators in higher education — is financial. The online program allowed them to generate revenue, fill a need from mid-career professionals for high-quality but flexible education, and learn about how to provide an educational environment that integrated digital and classroom learning.

Ellen Junn, provost and vice president of academic affairs at California State University Dominguez Hills, urged the audience to consider the populations each institution serves. The majority of students at her school, for example, were from traditionally underserved communities: first-generation students, minorities, bilingual, low-income. This fact changes how you look at learning possibilities and outcomes.

"It might be time to revisit that notion that learning is not an isolated kind of activity, it is one within a social milieu, it is one that is also impacted by powerful belief systems about one's own ability ... that also are mediating the success and performance of students," she said.

The final panelist, Brian Murphy, president of DeAnza College, also encouraged looking at student needs when reforming, reimagining or innovating in higher education. Then he broadened the conversation to global needs.

He faulted the current dialogue around higher ed that examined its need through an economist lens, making "going to college" a vocational pursuit. Murphy asked, "What issues beyond getting a job will dominate their lives?" Climate change, migration, fundamentalism, inequality, he charged. So, when thinking about his students, he asks, "What are they going to need to address those issues?" That, he said, changes the conversation about education and learning.

The panelists ended their time in conversation with the audience. They offered their expertise in response to questions about how to disrupt online learning with the best of the physical classroom experience, how to export best practices of teaching, and how to engage students both in formal learning environments and informal.

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