"The Future - The Era of Engagement"

Monday, November 17, 2008 (Around 5 years ago)

“The Future - The Era of Engagement”

Higher education is shifting from a passive teacher-centered approach to a transactional collaborative approach. Three forces of change have been largely responsible for this transformation.

The first profound change in higher education is the unprecedented advances in communications technology. In particular, the Internet has made possible a wide range of teaching and learning innovations associated with accessing educational opportunities and information. Online learning was the first step in this process of providing increased access and convenience to students. However, by itself, the Internet and online learning did not initially have the same transformative effect on higher education as it had in society generally. Approaches to teaching and learning were still dominated by information transmission techniques such as the lecture. Other forces were required to effect a transformation in teaching and learning.

The second set of changes is within the institutions themselves. There are budget constraints, an increasing focus on research, and growth in class sizes, resulting in a commensurate loss of contact with the professor. Efficiencies are needed to address the cost of higher education while addressing quality concerns. The challenge cannot be met by simply increasing funding for higher education. This is not a realistic prospect. Institutions of higher education have begun to recognize that they are in a difficult situation in terms of reducing costs while addressing quality concerns.

The third change is the recognition and the dissatisfaction with the quality of the learning experience in higher education. It is becoming clear to many, including students, that traditional methods are unable to address the need for higher-order learning experiences and outcomes demanded of a changing knowledge- and communication-based society.

The convergence of these forces of change has created the conditions under which it is imperative that higher education seriously consider new approaches to teaching and learning. As daunting as it may seem, these approaches must address financial constraints and quality concerns while maintaining and even enhancing the core values of higher education.

These forces are multiplicative and have converged to effect fundamental change. This convergence started to take shape at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Sustained educational discourse and collaboration came to the fore, and the visionaries recognized that it was not enough to simply layer these capabilities onto conventional delivery approaches to teaching and learning. Likewise, incremental changes will not address the challenges faced by higher education. Fundamentally new approaches and designs are required. The seeds are blended approaches to learning.

Blended learning offers an approach and a way of thinking about the educational experience that avoids either/or choices and the downsides of online and face-to-face experiences. It offers a way to maximize effectiveness and efficiency. Online learning was perceived as isolating and did not fit will with the ethos of the campus-based higher education institution. Blended learning provided an acceptable means to question traditional face-to-face learning experiences in terms of not fully capitalizing on the opportunities of the Internet, or recognizing the potential of sustained online communities of inquiry. Alternatively, blended learning offers a way to extend and to enhance the educational experience in an effective and efficient manner.

As a result, blended learning has emerged as a major break-through to enhance both the quality of the teaching and learning transaction and the cost-effectiveness of designing blended learning courses. The early advocates, scholars, adopters, and senior administrators now are converging on a solution to the dilemma of addressing costs and enhancing learning. Most important, incentives are being put in place, and there is an increased adoption of blended designs by those in the mainstream of higher education. A critical mass of blended learning course designs serve as exemplars, having received the serious attention of leaders in higher education.

Blended approaches to learning are not just more trendy technology-driven ideas and gadgets that will fade as fast as they come. Blended learning questions conventional practices and the belief in the lecture as an effective approach to engage students in critical and creative thinking and learning. Blended learning designs illustrate how higher education can revisit and strengthen the fundamental values and practices that have been seriously compromised over the last half-century. Serious discourse about blended learning has reached the highest levels of academia.

From the students’ perspective, rapid societal and technological changes have had a commensurate impact on how they think and learn. But it is not the talk of Net Geners, “digital natives,” and Millennials, nor is it the suggestion that students want technology for technology’s sake. In fact, it has been shown that higher education students are not totally swayed by technology and do have a discerning perspective about technology. Moreover, they appear to be more willing to challenge traditions. Certainly, undergraduate students have begun to question the quality of their educational experiences and are a major catalyst for change.

The coauthor of a recent study on students and technology stated that students “want to be linked in the network, but they want a lot of face-to-face time” (Kvavik, 2005). Moreover, students want this interaction not as an “extra” tagged onto the “normal” workload. To be purposeful and meaningful, such interaction must be integral to learning activities that allow reflection. Net Geners or Millennials are also much more predisposed to collaborative learning experiences (Dziuban, Moskal, & Hartman, 2006; Howe & Strauss, 2000). Students are knowledgeable about technology. They understand and want to use it when it makes sense and when it can enhance the collaborative learning experience. Changing student characteristics and expectations create the condition and reason for adopting blended approaches to course design. However, blended learning designs must get it right, and they must make sense to the demanding and critical Net Geners. Students want to be actively and collaboratively engaged in relevant learning experiences that have meaning and practical implications. In short, they want both face-to-face and online learning experiences that connect them to other students and the instructor. This represents a serious challenge for instructors and designers in meeting these expectations.

The forces cited above are flattening the educational world, not dissimilarly to the way the rest of society has been flattened (Friedman, 2005). Blended learning is about flattening the hierarchical control of the classroom with increased interaction and engagement. Students are being asked to assume increased responsibility for their learning but must be given commensurate control of the learning experience. Faculty are being encouraged to adopt new approaches, incorporate collaborative tasks, and develop technological skills. Institutions are being asked to provide attractive and welcoming common spaces for individual and collaborative inquiry. Classrooms will need to become more open, and learning spaces will need to become more flexible. Although for many this change is barely visible on the horizon, the transformation has begun.

The challenge is to reexamine the core values of higher education so that they will be enhanced and not lost. The goal is to create, enhance, and sustain the vitality of communities of inquiry. Higher education will be the poorer if the result is to simply deploy blended learning designs to find greater efficiencies but without the commensurate qualitative gains of purposeful collaboration. Frankly, higher education has to do better to improve the design, the facilitation, and the direction of meaningful learning experiences. There is no longer any reason to use the lecture to simply transmit information. Students can and should come to “class” armed with the most current information and be ready to engage in the critical and creative process of making sense of the information followed by an exploration of the implications and applications.

Blended learning is the organic integration of thoughtfully selected and complementary face-to-face and online approaches and technologies. As a result, blended learning redesigns will multiply exponentially resulting in variations and related innovations that will spawn even further advances. The word blended is used to suggest that it is more than a bolting together of disparate technologies with no clear vision of the result. Blended approaches to educational design recombine concepts that were previously considered contradictory, such as collaborative-reflection and asynchronous-community. The primary measure of the impact of blended learning will be the qualitative shift in the process and outcomes of learning itself. The results will be most readily determined by the satisfaction of our students and the success of our graduates.

Reprinted with permission. www.josseybass.com.

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