(Looking Back and Looking Forward takes look at the articles and posts I found interesting from the previous week, along with reflections about how the trends they point to might shape my thinking about education and technology.)
One of the major trends of the pandemic era has been the shift to remote work and education. With the initial outbreak and adjustments during winter 2020, I think most people assumed these shifts would be short-lived and that everyone would soon be rushing back to their offices and classrooms. Well, flash forward to the present moment and it’s obvious the severity and duration of the COVID pandemic have brought on/hastened the evolution of some deeper, systemic changes.
Almost 25% of office jobs are now fully remote, with another large percentage having partly remote and/or flex working arrangements. In addition to finding that their productivity suffered from the transition to remote work, many companies are seeing an uptick in employee satisfaction related to greater workplace flexibility. As this article suggests, the next turn of this evolving scenario may be an increased emphasis on asynchronous work and communication. Increasingly, employers are also rethinking the economics of the modern workspace and how they can save on operational costs.
This move to remote working environments has much in common with the similar changes we’ve witnessed across our educational institutions. Not surprisingly, in higher education circles, the increase in online learning hasn’t been embraced so warmly by some administrators, faculty, and students. And, while some of the reasons for opposing online learning might make a certain kind of sense — such as, if students don’t get the full campus experience they may be more likely to drop out or enroll at a different institution, thus causing a loss of revenue for the institution — one that won’t fly is that online courses are inherently inferior to face-to-face instruction and result in lower levels of learning/achievement. As Matt Crosslin points out, there is legitimate research showing that there is no significant difference between various outcomes of online learning and on-campus learning. Consulting the National Research Center for Distance Education and Technological Advancements (DETA) at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee’s “No Significant Different” database, we see some of the following numbers regarding studies in this area.
- 141 studies that show no significant difference
- 51 studies that show “Significant Difference – Better Results with Technology” (online usually being said technology)
- 2 studies that haven’t been indexed yet
- 0 studies showing “Significant Difference – Better Results in the Classroom”
- 0 entries showing mixed results
Challenges With College Enrollments?
As consumer-behavior researchers like to say, people tend to vote with their feet/clicks. In that regard, we saw a report from National Student Clearinghouse Research Center last week revealing that “Higher education enrollment fell a further 2.7 percent in the fall of 2021 following a 2.5 percent drop in the preceding fall. Continued enrollment losses in the pandemic represent a total two-year decline of 5.1 percent or 938,000 students since fall 2019.” Bryan Alexander and Phil Hill, respectively, provided nuanced analyses of the data and the ways in which the downturn in enrollments is affecting different sectors of the market. And, as Phil Hill pointed out in a follow-up piece, the numbers for four-year private non-profit universities take on a completely different shape when you take out the growth of online programs from Western Governors University, Liberty University, and Southern New Hampshire University.
One clear takeaway is that the pandemic has certainly benefitted universities with proven, quality online degree programs and strong brand recognition.
Credentials and Workforce Readiness
Two of the particular challenges facing high education institutions are (1) the gap that remains between the traditional degrees they offer and the skills/competencies required by employers, and (2) the length of time required to earn a college degree. Regarding the latter, many adult learners are looking for education credentials for professional/life advancement that can be completed in two months as opposed to two years.
Providing alternative and/or stackable credentials represents a significant departure from the usual way of doing things for most institutions. And, programs such as Pathways for Single Moms, run by Pima Community College and the Women’s Foundation in Arizona, show that success in providing workforce credentials for adults requires more than just a library of certificate courses. Many of the adult learners Pathways for Single Moms looks to reach also require additional learning supports and post-learning guidance in order to continue their journey.
With this context, and even though the final budget is still a ways off, I am encouraged by California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget for the state’s three university systems. In it, the Governor is setting clear expectations for addressing the state’s under-educated adult population segment, including increasing the percentage of students attaining associate degrees, credentials, certificates, and skills for in-demand jobs by 20% by 2026.
AI in Education
There were a number of interesting articles in the past week related to AI in education. Three that caught my eye dealt with AI and formative testing, its use in personalizing learning experiences and content recommendations to help improve learning, and in auto-generating just-in-time questions for students based on the page of text they are reading. Each of these solutions combines the structured data/content that is so common in education with machine learning to geneate new forms of content.
I expect to see increasingly sophisticated applications like these in the education space this year, alongside an ever-improving suite of tutor-bot programs. That said, I think we’re less ready for applications like Jarvis that promise to “do your writing for you.” Notice I said that we’re less ready, meaning I would prefer for these types of programs not to gain traction with students. Like the song says, however, you don’t always get what you want. I’m sure many students will be persuaded by the promise that Jarvis can produce coursework, lab reports, and even term papers. And book reports: “Jarvis will produce high-quality, plagiarism-free book reports that will impress your teachers and show you are capable of writing academic essays that matter.” Perhaps I should find solace in Jacobs’ statement that “Jarvis’ writing is not very good, but it’s better than what many students turn out.”
Speaking of things we’re not truly and broadly ready for in education, this year’s Consumer Electronics Show had plenty of hype regarding both Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR and AR). Don’t get me wrong. I think there are huge opportunities for these technologies in workforce training and in some institutions/schools and programs. That said, the development of curricular tools, the upskilling of instructional staff, and the cost/maintenance associated with special hardware will make it difficult for these technologies to see wide adoption among schools and universities.
Ironically, and perhaps as a sign of dejà vu all over again, I noted that the founder of Linden Labs (and Second Life), Philip Rosedale, is coming back to the company to guide its competition in the metaverse.
While I’m generally bearish regarding VR/AR in education over the coming year, I’m downright allergic to Web3 and the hype it’s receiving. I appreciate the value of blockchain technologies and see many uses for them, but the current noise seems to be a made-up party looking for a place to happen and some people to attend. That sentiment goes doubly for education.
As I shared in a post last week, technology in education cannot and should not be separated from the other three levers of innovation– curriculum, instruction, and community.