Bandwidth, Online Education, and Learning

For me, the highlight of the Fujitsu Laboratories of America Technology Symposium 2012 was the panel on “Bandwidth, Online Education, and Learning” where many new trends in education — something near to my heart — were discussed. Blair Levin from the Aspen Institute gave a great keynote in the morning, and the entire day had experts on many topic, it was the education panel that was my greatest interest.  What follows are my notes on it:

Andrew Ng – Stanford

Introduced the panel and set the stage.  Stanford has been doing some very leading edge research in online education, not the least of which was a class with >100,000 students.  They are experimenting with more than just a video for the student to watch.  There are graded exercises mixed in. The students do the work and get immediate feedback.  One of our biggest challenges today is the scarcity of quality education.  Costs of university education has risen 450% in the last 10 years alone — much faster than even medical costs have risen.

He is also the founder of Coursera, a company that makes technology for teaching. They have partnerships with many different universities.  There is the potential to offer free education to anyone in the world.

Etienne Wenger – Social Aspects of Learning

He is best known for his 2002 book “Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge.”  His work is not so much about technology. Current work is as social learning theorist. Social learning is popular phrase, but it is often confused with social media. Understand that “learning is a social activity” is centuries old. Now, it happens that the web is alive with this theory of learning, filled with peer to peer learning relationships.

People have been studying social learning for a long time.  In the late 80’s and 90’s it was business that was most interested. Business was confronted with question: if knowledge is an asset, how do we manage it? They naturally concluded that the solution is technology. E.g. a Lotus Notes database. But it didn’t work that well. They did continue to expand on the idea that behind the org chart are informal network and communities. These are ways of thinking how learning and knowledge exist in an organization. How to support them by giving a voice to them.

After Business, Government then followed. They saw it as a way to cut across silos. International development is interesting. For example, he will be going to Togo to work with parliamentarians to increase transparency of their government.

Education has been lagging behind these other sectors. It is not surprising when you think about it:  learning theory is so central to an educational organization, that any change to the theory requires a corresponding change to the organization, and that slows things down.  He was recently in Hong Kong, where they are trying experiential learning.

If learning is social, and it has to be driven by an experience of meaningfulness.

In the past educational institutions were about access to information. That is going away. Access to information is something that educational institutions no longer have a monopoly on. Anyone can accessed anything now, from anywhere in the world. It is a very interesting time we are living in.

In spite of all the advanced in education technology recently, the problem of meaningfulness of education has been pushed under the rug.  It is most important to consider who are we becoming when we are learning.

Jeff Merriman – MIT

He spent much of his career thinking about infrastructure of education. Much of his time at Stanford was spent trying to wire up students in 1980’s. Once the Internet was established, he shifted focus to software. Computers are wired, what can we do with them? There are a lot of products today to support the classroom. Ten to fifteen years ago we felt we had to dictate technology to teachers, make them adopt certain standards. We had to worry about the help desk and how to support students. The idea of supporting choice was not considered because seemed impossible to support.

Teachers are now saying that the recommended software is not working well, but they have something else that is getting the job doen. IT people like control, but this is a situation where they have to give up control. His group found out about Piazza because a teacher of theirs was features with a testimonial on the web site.  They checked into it and found that many MIT courses were already using it — and they had no idea. There is no going back. The faculty is moving forward with or without the help of the IT department.

John Mitchell – Stanford / Coursera

There is a lot of good technology that can be used to support learning.  There are four key capabilities desired:

1. A video that pauses and asks questions is much better than something that just goies on. Students like being asked to do something.

2. Another promising area is automated assessment. If you can automatically grade their input, you can serve a course to 10,000 or 100,000 students.

3. Discussion forum and social network processes are highly developed. Young people are adapted to sharing online, they have ways of chatting, and these are effective in teaching. There is a scalability thing that all students benefit from. If you have so many students working on the same thing, maybe the same assignment, a student can ask a question at any time, and there is a good chance that another student can respond. Discussion and interaction within a class is good.

4. Evolving set of collaboration tools.

Part of the surge in adoption is from these four components. Effective education, to large numbers of students, at low cost. For-profit universities have been around for a long time (e.g. U Phoenix) which involve a large number of humans. A new form of online University that is entirely automated can operate at a much lower cost. Not clear where this is going, but clear something is happening.

Q & A

Q: what is an education? If you are hiring someone, what do you want? Someone who blazed through a series of videos? What do the schools need to do beyond this? What other mechanisms do we need to value? How do we give the benefits of a residential college in shorter time: lots of online first, and then on location.

Kahn academy has an entirely asynchronous format. There is no schedule that students work through. Coursera courses run on a schedule with deadlines and cohorts. Which better? We don’t know.

Q: What will be the consequences of this disruption? Will we dismantle traditional universities? What will happen to community colleges and other lower priced schools? Will Individuals who need attention suffer?

This is a technology based revolution.  We have seen big changes in other areas when this kind of telecommunications technology was introduced, and there is no reason to doubt that schools won’t se a similar change.

Q: On the massive courses: do you charge? (Mitchell) So far Stanford was not charged anything. Long tradition Silicon Valley of thinking that if you get a lot of people to come to a site, you can figure out how to make money later. (Some audience laughter at this point.)  Happy to run at a loss for now to learn how to produce good teaching material. (Merriman) All MIT materials are available for free. Does this take money away from faculty who might be otherwise selling it? Found that faculty were happy to do that. And it is a great thing to do for the world. 1998 and 1999 trying to figure out how to monetize, but became clear that is not the right question to ask.

Q: What will be the future of universities?: (Mitchell) Where else will the teaching materials come from?  Today they come from interaction with academic colleagues. Each colleague belongs in turn to larger academic communities throughout the world. There is a question of delivery. It is quite likely that it is better to be able to see a person. Universities provide more functions that just lecturing to a room of students. There is the issue of age 18 to 22 where it might be better to have those kids out of the house. (Merriman) Capstone courses provide students with a significant challenge. It take an entire quarter or two to complete. They have to work as teams as well. They learn to experience failure and success. How do you model that online?

Q: What about experiential Learning?: (Wenger) I am all for online university, but worried that this is just a business model. We still need to have institutions where learning is the focus. There are times in life when learning is a focus itself. In the future this is probably more likely to be spread across life. Life is moving. no point in cramming all learning into the beginning of life. The web access forces us to ask the question about what is unique about the beginning of life. (NG) Age distribution is very broad among online course takers. (Mitchell) There are more working professionals than college students in online courses. Some took the course because they wanted to take something, and ti was the only available. We are at beginning, there sia pent up demand. It may wane. There is a very big interest from working professionals for continuing learning.  In UK, they make a huge investment in a course, and then they distribute it out. For example the community colleges could work like this.

Urge everyone in the audience to look at Los Altos School System, and how they use Kahn academy. Structured around Kahn academy materials, and the classes then build on that.

(Wenger) In Switzerland if you don’t go to college, there is a structured system to apprentice or otherwise help young people enter a trade.  Not saying that this is the best thing, but in the US, there is nothing to support people who don’t go through college.  It is sort of all-or-nothing.

(Wenger) To give somebody a degree just because their parents can afford, and they can persist the entire duration of 4 years, is not really a reason to give a certificate.

(Mitchell) First movies were made by putting a camera in front of a stage. Things have changed a lot since then. Today we are at the camera in front of the stage level, but it is likely that education will learn and adapt new and unexpected ways. Get teachers together in a group, and have the one most comfortable doing talking, others playing other roles.

(Merriman) Lots of people are talking about flipping the classroom. It is time to think about ways that classroom time is used.

Last Words

(Mitchell) Could look at how technology has effected the way that we work. You can expect similar things in education. Working remote might come to education.  There is likely to be some very unexpected developments.

(Merriman) Really does feel like a tremendous point in time to be living through.

(Wenger) so exciting to see what technology allows us to do. This will allows us to focus on the meaningful aspects of learning.

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8 Responses to Bandwidth, Online Education, and Learning

  1. Thanks for this post. So glad to hear you enjoyed this panel. Just a quick detail. It was at the University of Hong Kong (not Singapore) that I was involved with the initiative on experiential learning. (See my blog post about it:

    • kswenson says:

      Thanks so much for the correction (I updated the post). Given the chaotic way I type this while the panel is speaking, I fear there are even worse blunders remaining. Corrections are always welcome.

  2. Keith,
    Wow, I loved this post! So many great ideas. Thanks for calling to my attention and your efforts in this area.

  3. Thanks for the review, Keith! This was a favorite panel of mine too. I think education is ripe for some disruption…

  4. jprebil says:

    Keith this is a great post. We are working with a foundation funding social and emotional learning causes and a good friend is working as the CFO of a major global online university. I am sure that both will find interesting. – Jim

  5. dieta says:

    Open and Social Technologies play an increasingly important role in many educational settings. Social technologies are naturally entering primary, secondary and higher education where they blur the boundaries between formal and informal learning. Social technologies also enter the workplaces where they connect learners and bridge the boundaries between individual learning and organizational knowledge processes. Not only do these technologies connect learners independent of place and time, they have also been found to exert emergent properties. For example, wikis or social tagging environments are increasingly used for collaborative knowledge construction where new knowledge emerges from a large scale interaction of individuals. These properties and their impact on individual, group and organizational learning have only started to be researched.

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