Networked learning requires networked universities

Experts in technology and education must work hand in hand if genuinely innovative teaching is to be delivered in the digital environment, says Simone Buitendijk

June 21, 2018

A holistic approach to digital learning is the holy grail of universities across the world. For some, it has been for decades. Yet scepticism and even cynicism persist, and many old, bad habits still block the way forward.

In recent conversations with acquaintances from other universities in the UK and elsewhere, I have been struck by how many commented that their digital technology and their education experts still consistently fail to share their plans with each other. In truth, however, this is not at all surprising to those of us that have been involved in rolling out digital learning in recent years. Nobody is deliberately aiming to be obstructive, but I do believe that this disjointedness – a consequence of our siloed organisational structures – remains one of the major stumbling blocks to evidence-based education innovation.

For as long as I can remember, university technology experts have focused primarily on making life less arduous for busy students and staff. This is a noble aim in itself, but from a strategic perspective it lacks rigour. In contrast, education innovators have long grappled with a lack of tools for implementing new ways of teaching. And a paucity of large datasets has made evaluation of their new teaching methods particularly difficult.

It is evident that the rise of digital learning innovations is changing people’s lives for the better all over the world. Our efforts at Imperial are varied. They include massive open online courses on maths for machine learning and, from September 2019, a fully online master’s in global public health. The former provides an engaging way to boosts students’ and working people’s skills in an important but complex area; the latter will enable students from all over the world to obtain an Imperial degree without quitting their job or moving to the UK.

Of course, pushback against innovation is human nature. I've found that the surest way to convert colleagues to the cause is to highlight the scalability of what we are achieving: the fact that academics can now share their expertise with learners on the other side of the world.

But even as attitudes change, the risk remains of repeating the mistakes of the past. Chief among these would be a failure to deliver innovative teaching in the digital environment. If all online learning does is provide traditional lectures and “talking heads” in a digital format, we will have missed a tremendous opportunity for real and large-scale change. We need to make our online spaces as innovative as the newest of our bricks-and-mortar classrooms; at Imperial, we’re launching interactive teaching across every one of our faculties, in an effort to move away from primarily lecture-based teaching.

The surest way to avoid falling into the trap of bad online teaching is to collaborate with staff and to partner with students, learning together where digital technology strengthens our sense of belonging and community, and where it has adverse effects that should be mitigated.

High on the current agenda is the idea of blended learning: merging digital and in-person teaching. Ideally, this would deliver the best of both worlds, but many institutions currently fall well short of that.

“Flipping the classroom” is one of the better examples: factual knowledge is delivered via, for instance, a video lecture, allowing classroom time to be used for group work and interaction with the teacher. We know that this kind of teaching dramatically improves learning outcomes, student satisfaction and teacher happiness.

Blended learning is also an incredible tool for transforming course assessment. At the touch of a button, teachers can use the data garnered from students, almost in real time, before they even come to class. They can react to students’ understanding of the material being discussed, instead of having to wait for assessment scores and feedback responses after the course has finished. This could have a radical impact on student satisfaction and perhaps even on dropout rates.

There is nothing more powerful than a learning experience that truly unites the latest developments in education research and technology. But to secure this future we need to abandon our prejudices and challenge the idea that delivering this ideal will permit business as usual. The time for complacency is over.

Simone Buitendijk is vice-provost (education) at Imperial College London.

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