Crow: keep online education connected to academic research

Arizona State University president says digital learning shift must ‘stay attached’ to core knowledge-generating activities

February 4, 2021
Michael Crow
Source: Arizona State University

One of the biggest risks of the pandemic-related shift to online learning is that universities separate this strategy from their core research activities, according to a pioneer in digital education.

Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, said a key part of the institution’s success in transitioning to a technology-enhanced “teaching, learning and discovery environment”, which started long before the Covid-19 crisis, was keeping the academic faculty front of mind.

“We’re a regular university with over 5,000 faculty members. Thousands of them are involved in discovery and creativity and heavy research; we’ve got hundreds of millions of dollars of research activities at the core; we spend tens of millions of dollars a year on a library that’s at the core; we have a staff of hundreds of people working to curate knowledge and synthesise knowledge,” he said during a Times Higher Education event to launch THE Campus, a new virtual community for academics to share best practice in online teaching and learning.

THE Campus launch: ASU president Michael Crow on the future of online learning in higher education

However, Professor Crow said, “the risk” for institutions only just starting to move to digital or blended teaching on a permanent basis was that they “drift off the cliff that some for-profit universities have gone down, which is that they forget or don’t know how or never wanted to participate in the notion of a faculty”.

“If the digitisation of teaching and learning activities moves away from the core of knowledge, then it will fail – as it has in so many for-profit cases and in some not-for-profit universities. But if it stays attached to the core, then the ship is moored in the right way to the right thing. That’s the big worry I have in digitisation,” he said.

Professor Crow added that Arizona State did not “make a faculty member become technologically advanced” or “make a department go online” but rather created a central enterprise unit, called EdPlus, that focused on the design and scalable delivery of digital teaching and learning, and offered interested academics advanced levels of training in various areas.

“Thousands and thousands of our faculty members, without a single request, have all taken that training, and they have augmented their ability now to use those assets,” he said. “The key was the construction of the mechanism that allowed for creativity to be accelerated.”

Professor Crow – who said the institution was spending $40 million to $50 million (£29 million-£37 million) a year on EdPlus and its related technology partnerships – also rejected the notion that remote synchronous learning was cheaper than in-person teaching.

“If anything, there’s a cost acceleration because now we’re using a technological set of systems to mediate between the learners who are still coming together live, still interacting. The faculty are still engaged in the same way – in fact, the faculty now are engaged in multiple ways at the same time,” he said.

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