Opportunities in Digital Learning: Considering emerging trends in Postsecondary Education

Black ceiling with light bulbs that are lit up

My prior two blog posts in this series on the Future of Digital Learning considered definitions and questions raised in our community this year. The writing thus far touches on opportunities present in these ideas about education and emerging potential in the digital era. This post will identify several in brief teases. Each of these ideas excites me, yet exploring them each could potentially take a project, and most of these are over the horizon and not an in-flight project. In posts during 2019 I look forward to exploring some of the actual projects in the Hub and at MSU that demonstrate the potential of digital to transform our institutions and expand our ways of learning. 

Leveraging our scale and breadth 

Experimenting in digital learning helps to leverage the scale and breadth at a place like MSU. I have been fortunate in my career to interact often with colleagues from the Big Ten Academic Alliance, the Common Solutions Group, and the University Innovation Alliance. These schools are all committed to graduating significant numbers of students and serving the public interest. Enterprise largesse is often discussed as a disadvantage, because changing large and long-lived institutions is difficult. However, in digital transformation, scope can be powerful. It allows us the resources to curate a portfolio of projects that are small-scale, small-bet, and contextual in their innovation. We also can test things at large scale or to scale-up proven improvements, such as our work with the proactive advising experiment with the University Innovation Alliance. 

Liberal Arts by subscription 

Many colleges now offer Masters Degrees online. MSU was an early entrant and leader in doing so. Yet, an interesting idea that seems to be just out of reach, would be a subscription provider that allows anyone to participate in online coursework in the liberal arts. With college students, parents, and future employers all emphasizing a direct path towards a career, the college curriculum is sometimes more avocational then broadly developmental. Most options are still presented to the public in rather traditional evening college, return to college, enrichment, or executive development catalogs. I wonder if universities will begin offering a catalog of courses to their alumni, and this will begin a national trend. Or if a for-profit, subscription-based streaming provider will branch out into the master-lecture as a content source. Imagine the marketplace of value-add opportunity in social gatherings, grading of assignments, or certified learning that could pop-up in this digital ecosystem of lifelong learning. This could help many people connect across great distance and make many of us more worldly. 

Going digital with education ought to afford us opportunities to offer smaller learning experiences that are still linked into a conceptual fabric.

Shorter more frequently offered 

Going digital with education ought to afford us opportunities to offer smaller learning experiences that are still linked into a conceptual fabric. This helps learners personalize their experience and also allows us greater opportunity to offer variations or flavors of a topic that increase relevance to certain programs, careers, or interdisciplinary approaches. The short-course, or if I dare say it in a digital context, one-credit course, has long been proposed. Rarely has it been introduced in traditional university contexts to truly change the game. I sometimes wonder if we switched to semesters to cut down on administrative costs at the end of the analog era, and have yet to realize that digital can keep these costs low while freeing us from large blocks of seat time. 

Allowing machine learning and artificial intelligences to help 

Great strides have been made in predictive algorithms, suggestion engines, natural language processing, pattern recognition, and artificial intelligence. Yet none of these together can replace a human. The empathy and learning loops are still decades away from being capable of educating a person. Yet as an assistant, our current generation of technology have great potential for learners, for teachers, and for collegiate support professionals. We all long for more time with our teachers, with our fellow students, and hope to build relationships that can yield deep advice and true mentoring. Yet so much time is wasted on basic mechanical things, and in a big learning space like MSU’s campus, social distance can be real in addition to perceived. Virtual assistants could bring our place down to size, and free up our time for meaningful relations. I am grateful for faculty leaders at MSU like @sfritzc for considering how to navigate emerging potential and pitfalls in this area by leading the Education 2035 discussions at MSU. 

What’s next? 

In my next post, I will consider what is at stake in US Higher Education as we transform in the digital learning era. If you have thoughts about this, please share them with me in the coming days. Things will get quiet on most campuses across North America as students depart for winter breaks and the US Holiday season. I will continue to think, write, and participate in conversations about digital learning when I am not focused on my dissertation or enjoying the fresh powder of another alpine ski season.