Distance Learning via 2020 Foresight

(originally pubished at LinkedIn on March 20, 2018)

When I first worked in distance learning in the mid-1990s, we mailed out textbooks and workbooks to students who took proctored exams over green screen terminals. I even took some of the courses myself because I feel strongly that administrators must be intimate with both ends of the instructional transaction.

However, in the last three decades, little has changed from this sender-receiver model which Aristotle himself would recognize. The technology is more robust, and the media are more diverse, but the system is still designed around pushing content and receiving validation of learning. It has been a self-limiting model, like a governor on a go-kart engine. It simulates a racetrack but cannot fully replicate it any more than an online course fully replicates the vibrancy of a university campus.

And there is the fundamental flaw.

By trying to make online courses into simulacra of on-campus courses, mimicry was the goal, not creativity. For good or ill, as experienced educators who attained our degrees in brick-and-mortar settings, the gold standard was represented by that which we had passed through. Over the years, in papers and at conferences, I have tried to blow up that idea. For the grey heads who approved our budgets and strategic plans, we had to show how our distance learning design and delivery could most closely hew to the curriculum espoused by our regulators and our accreditors. Otherness was rejected. We had to build college analogs in a digital age. The fact that the Carnegie unit gets its name from a man who ran steel mills in a previous century might be an indicator of thinking trapped in a gilded age. 

Distance Learning in 2020

Without a trigger event, distance learning will not seem very different in only 22 months. Absent a Space Race, Manhattan Project, or Cold War, there will just be incremental progress along this same trajectory. Unless…

… we recognize that our student-customers have changed. Consider that online education was considered something strange within our professional lifetimes. It had a “less than” stigma as if it was something scandalous that someone had attended a non-traditional institution with short-residencies or independent study.

As a fan of the annual Beloit College Mindset lists, the incoming freshman in 2020 will have always had an Internet. Going to college online is no more unusual that shopping for a car, mortgage, or spouse online. It is NOT being online that seems weird. The first colleges to recognize, embrace, and celebrate this revolution will be the new mainstream. Those slow to market will be left behind as surely as the once-beloved Sears Christmas Catalog.

How can we address the Digital Natives within such a short turnaround as two years? Consider that this timeframe only allows for one full budget cycle, one college catalog cycle, one election cycle. It will require us to do the best we can with what we already have.

Step One: Collect

There should be a ruthless inventory of all digital content across the campus. A single photograph could be considered a Learning Object that can be repurposed in multiple ways. Let’s consider this example:

police roadblock

I shot this photo in the late 1970s while working as a reporter for the Panama City News-Herald. Could it be a banner for the home page of a criminal justice online course? Could it be a prompt for a creative writing course? Could it be raw material for a digital media class to colorize? Could it be an artifact in a Florida history course? “Yes” to all.

A university of any length and breadth probably already has lots of “stuff,” much of it already converted into digital files. All of the text, audio, video, and graphic content must be captured and curated. Just finding it all and negotiating digital reproduction rights with the various originators would not be finished by 2020 but it would begin the truer understanding of the assets already in hand.

Step Two: Retool

Among the hard-won knowledge I have amassed across my career is that the real cost of building a three-credit online course comes to about $250,000. The various sunk costs of instructional designer salaries, software, and hardware are seldom counted. Instead, we only look at new costs like faculty stipends and original media produced or purchased. If I was doing tax accounting on this like a business, I would depreciate that course using the Double Declining Balance method because in three years, it will need to be fully refreshed, even it if gets updates every term. Things get old sooner these days.

Part of the reason for this is the concept that each course is a stand-alone unit, hoarding its own material into a single package. It belongs to a faculty member who is the author, a discipline which is its guild, and a department chair overseeing the fiefdom. In this “Game of (Endowed) Thrones,” there is a strong incentive for protectionism and a disincentive for collaboration. The general disregard for digital creation by junior faculty in tenure and promotion evaluation is also at cross purposes with the university of the future but that is a matter for another audience.

At that cost level and with the thickness of a college catalog, rebuilding the university’s offerings into a “digital first” mode is clearly cost-prohibitive. However, that priority can be set for each iteration of a course refresh, each updating of a lesson, even each refilling of a faculty line.

Another principle I try to follow is that even administrators should teach. So, along my career path, I have designed and taught a lot of courses in a lot of subjects. Even in a course that had no online component, I was better served if I conceived everything as if it was going to be online. If I would have drawn on the board in a live class, can I do that in a drawing window in GoToMeeting? If I would have given a pop quiz in class, can I do that with a product like Nearpod?

This mindset lets me use my digital content in a live setting, post it to a course website, or even use it as an alternate delivery if I must miss a class meeting due to illness or emergency. Once it is built, it can be used and reused. However, there is an even greater efficiency to be attained.

In a communication theory course that I really enjoy teaching, there is a unit about Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Now, I am not a classically trained scholar, but I get by. I think my lecture on the subject is pretty strong and I have used it to good effect in class and at conferences. However, if in Step One we identified our university’s foremost expert from the Philosophy Department and captured her lecture in the campus-wide digital repository, why can’t I just click on hers rather than waste my time gilding the lily? If all of our stuff belongs to all of us, we can have less duplication and more innovation.

It may be that the university already has some early adopters of this kind of thinking who are doing interdisciplinary research and team-teaching. The old vertical silo model worked in the agrarian age, less so in the industrial age, and is an impediment to the digital age.

By accomplishing these two steps, online learning in 2020 will set stage for what is yet to come to higher education but is already in the commercial marketplace.

Distance Learning in 2030

It’s just learning. Anywhere. Anytime.

When I was at FSU, managing the student and faculty support for all online degrees university-wide, I frequently argued that we were a utility, not an accessory. The more that Blackboard (our LMS of choice) was used campus-wide for administrative functions and student organizations, it would be harder to turn off. It would be a vital part of the campus infrastructure like water, power, and parking, not an appendix that hung there vulnerable to elective budget cuts. Ubiquity was the answer. Imagine not having wi-fi. Perspiring yet?

Our incoming freshman in 2030 might look at this essay and wonder about terms used like “semester” or “credit hour” or even “department.” Beloit College will describe them as “never used cable TV.”

Streaming. Binge-watching. On-Demand. Playlists. Shuffle Mode.

If I don’t have to be home on Tuesday night to watch NCIS, why do I have to go to English every Wednesday night? If Netflix was a university, what would it look like? The new season of Western Civ would drop on February 15th and I could hunker down with enough pizza and caffeine to watch every episode over the weekend. I could have my study group on my phone and access the review quizzes after each episode or do yoga while it plays. If necessary, I can pause, rewind, or access the “special features” menu.

Who cares how much seat-time it took to plow through the material? Some students will need a lot of time, some won’t. Some might do better with the audio version of the course rather than the video. Courses ought not to dictate format because that dictates which student learning styles can succeed. As architect Louis Sullivan famously extolled, form follows function. The subject matter shapes the course and the faculty member should follow the natural shapes. If you recall doing responsive in-class readings of Shakespeare (and how truly painful it was), you know how forcing a three-dimensional form like drama into a two-dimensional platform is an epic fail.

“Others who viewed Western Civilization I also watched …”

Imagine how artificial intelligence can guide students into pre-requisites, co-requisites, electives, and course sequences. Just like achievement levels in video games, this technology can also track progress toward majors, minors, and embedded certificates. This does not replace advisors but instead supports them, automatically doing the flowsheets (quantitative) freeing them to actually counsel with students (qualitative) about goals and desires.

It will be a less prescriptive world. The student/customer will want control and access. The idea of taking what everyone else is taking, at the same time and in the same place will be anathema. If we have successfully inventoried all of our objects, built new ones in a modular fashion, and set up to deliver them as needed, we will have moved into more than a la carte education. I think of it as bespoke education, treating each student as an individual. Who wants to shop “off the rack” anyway?

If the idea is to perpetuate a factory model, raw material (students) come in, go through a process (courses) and get stamped (degrees) on the way out, then nothing needs to change. You can produce a lot of black Model T Fords that way. However, might that stifle us from ever developing the aerocars from The Jetsons?

The University Campus in 2030

There is an implied question here about what happens to the brick and mortar model. Not only will it still exist but it will be rejuvenated. The student who possesses strong technical skills, a flexible mind, a clear sense of purpose, and comfort with ambiguity will thrive in the online world previously described. Everyone is not like that.

The campus is still “home” for the faculty and the students who need or want structure. They will still be coming from brick and mortar high schools and community colleges. They will still be coming from literally regimented military careers. They will still be coming from 9-5/M-F workplaces. Until the rest of society goes through a similar digital transformation, universities will still need their physical plants. Socialization is still going to be a role for the university, perhaps more so as instruction becomes more individualized.

However, digital liberation will make the campus spaces much more productive. Moving rote delivery and recitation of content into a techno-organic space will free student time and faculty expertise into more collaboration and experimentation. There will also need to be many more discussion spaces, large and small. Learn what you need to know online and then come use it at our university to change the world.

About drronthomasjr

Dr. Ron Thomas, Jr. heads Thomas Consulting Group, a consortium of professionals in leadership, crisis management, and media relations.
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