Imagine: you wake up at 9:23 a.m. one September morning in 2020. Your alarm failed to sound and now you're late. But don't fret. Your commute to school consists of carrying your laptop to the kitchen table. No need for a back-to-school outfit, as you settle in wearing pyjamas.
When you load today's lecture video you don't see your professor; instead, a classmate appears on the screen. On the first day of class, you got a list of possible topics the course could explore. You ranked them, and the instructor customized the course accordingly. But instead of the professor teaching – how to prepare lessons, if the curriculum isn't set until the first day? – he assigned students to research topics then take turns teaching. You've never met the student teaching today, who recorded the video at home in India. You won't meet any of your classmates, who watch this lesson from five different continents.
Your classmate uses the word "atavistic" and you pause the lecture to look it up. In a text window, you type a note containing the definition and link to its occurrence in the video so that your classmates can also view the meaning when they hear it. As you watch, you flag other important points and read your classmates' highlights and notes.
After a while, your eyes wander to the window. It's a gorgeous day, the warm morning sun offering reminders of a long, hot summer. You abandon your computer and finish the lecture on your cellphone from your backyard.
If the above seems like a far-fetched prediction of what a classroom might be like in 2020, you're behind the times. The video highlighting technology was created by a team including the University of Essex's Thomas Foulsham and Arizona State University's Evan Risko, who worked together at the University of British Columbia. In fact, much of this futuristic course resembles a real-life one being taught (co-ordinated? delivered?) by David Vogt of the University of British Columbia. "My job as an educator is not to disgorge knowledge," Vogt explained recently, over orange juice in Vancouver. "My role is to set the parameters, get everybody engaged and in their places, then just ride it like a freight train. I learn as much as they do."
This is the brave new world of higher education, where students teach professors, technology enables digital note-passing and online courses enroll thousands of students. The pupil-tutor relationship has been turned on its head. A perfect storm − extreme financial constraints, a technological revolution, groundbreaking pedagogical research, and increased expectations from students facing weak job prospects − is forcing universities to reimagine their purpose. And all the while, a university education has never been more in demand from so many parts of the world.
In an era when a student can access more information through her cellphone than a professor can consume in a lifetime, is the university as a physical place obsolete?
In Vogt's words: "Technology, and mobile specifically, is going to enable a bigger transformation in learning than any invention of humanity ever, from clay tablets onwards."
Vogt is an admitted futurist attracted to mobile technology's educational possibilities, in part, because of his interest in science fiction. He was an astronomer before joining the faculty of education. Yet he prefers an in-person experience to online interaction. "I'm a huge fan of live theatre," he explains. "I would see a poor live play over a good movie any day. On the other hand, a movie is an excellent way to distribute entertainment to the masses."
In the same way, universities are looking for technological solutions that allow them to deliver education to more students for less money. Higher education seems poised to undergo the type of technological disruption that upended creative sectors such as the music and publishing industries. And this transition has sparked a debate among educators that speaks to the core of teaching.
This summer, one of the most visible front lines of the debate happened at the University of Virginia. A seeming culture clash between Teresa Sullivan, the university's president, and other administrators at the institution had culminated in Sullivan's resignation in early June. One of the issues at the heart of the conflict? Sullivan's apparent reluctance to embrace online education.
(Sullivan was reinstated later that month.)
In the 2011 book The Innovative University, Clayton Christensen, a professor of business administration at Harvard, argues that universities could be overtaken by competitors if they fail to adopt new technologies.
Stanford and Princeton had just announced a new online platform called Coursera that offers free courses to anyone anywhere. New providers such as the Khan Academy and iTunes U joined the online education arms race. And Sullivan didn't seem to be keeping up.
The president was eventually reinstated, but within a week of her return the University of Virginia announced its intention to join Coursera. Mark Edmundson, a
University of Virginia English professor, was provoked to write an op-ed in the New York Times defending in-person classrooms. He argued that a great teacher must be able to judge where students are at intellectually in order to help them learn. "Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition," he writes. "There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background."
On July 17, the University of Toronto announced that it had joined Coursera and would "launch a new suite of online courses that will be accessible to anyone," according to a press release. Fault lines in the online education debate appeared almost immediately.
Clifford Orwin, a professor of political science at the
U of T, argued in The Globe and Mail that classroom experience is at the heart of education, but he drew a distinction between education and instruction. "Widget-
making (however complex the widget) may well be teachable online," he concedes, before defining education as the formation of the whole person. "My theory of education is simple: you have to be there. … The electricity that crackles through a successful classroom can't be transmitted electronically."
Cheryl Misak, vice-president and provost of U of T, clarifies that Coursera isn't a replacement for education offered on campus but is about accessibility. "This will get the University of Toronto into every corner of the world. Anyone with a computer can get access to our fabulous teachers." Yet the naysayers hold fast. When Orwin was offered an online platform that would make his lectures available to students worldwide, he declined.
What diehard technology resisters fail to recognize, according to their critics, is that the standard teaching format, even employed by the most charismatic lecturer, doesn't work very well. Although lecturing has been the primary vehicle for teaching since before he printing press, research suggests that students ought not be viewed as empty cups to be filled with bits of information espoused by a professorial orator.
Carl Wieman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from the University of Colorado, was once the type of professor who taught in this manner. He would reflect on how he understood a given concept and then explain that to his students. But he was also a very good scientist (he won a Nobel Prize, after all), so he approached teaching like an experiment, taking careful note of learning outcomes. It became clear to him that his explanations, while perfectly clear in his own mind, were baffling to his students.
After reading all the academic literature he could find and experimenting with new techniques in class, Wieman came to believe that he had more to offer researching science education than physics. The University of
British Columbia offered him a receptive (and well-funded) environment in which to pursue this research.
Six years after establishing his science education research initiative, Wieman has a clearer idea of what is going wrong in science classrooms. Most students learn science as a set of facts, he explains, without understanding how they are related to the real workings of the world. They memorize formulas and definitions. They learn to test. But they don't gain an understanding of science as "a set of interconnected, experimentally determined concepts that describe the world."
No matter the student's level or major, teachers should focus on equipping them to think about science more like scientists rather than teaching facts to regurgitate in tests, Wieman argues. "This means acquiring the problem-solving skills, habits of mind, content knowledge and beliefs about the nature and relevance of the subject that are like those of practising experts," he writes.
With the amount of information readily available to anyone with a laptop and the speed with which technical knowledge changes, these "habits of mind" are as important as content, Vogt explains. "The average individual can expect to change careers half a dozen times before they retire. Therefore we need students who are able to embrace change, who are highly versatile learners in a continuous way and who are very confident across a variety of disciplines," he says. "What you want to do is immerse them in the culture of a discipline. How do experts pursue this field? The content becomes almost irrelevant."
People do not develop this level of comprehension by passively listening to explanations, according to Wieman. "True understanding comes only through the student actively constructing their own understanding through a process of mentally building on their prior thinking through 'effortful study.'"
Sara Harris, a professor in UBC's earth and ocean sciences department, has implemented "effortful study" into her classroom. Instead of delivering the content of the course orally in a traditional lecture, she has her students study the nuts and bolts of the subject (the rote learning) on their own time through readings or other activities. That frees up class time to explore the concepts actively. "Rather than watching me eloquently explain what makes the winds blow the way they blow," she explains, "the students practice figuring out how the winds blow in some scenario."
This is similar to what U of T calls "the inverted classroom." Lectures, especially those typically delivered in large classes with little opportunity for interaction, are taped and made available online so that students can view them at their convenience. Instead of attending lectures, students use valuable on-campus time for discussion in small groups, hands-on experiences or community-based projects.
Another key element of this more effective classroom is timely, targeted assessment and feedback. In the typical traditional classroom, students are required to complete assignments alone and they often don't receive their marked homework back for up to two weeks. "Research shows that such feedback serves very little if any pedagogical function," explains Wieman. He sees a role for computer tutors programmed to respond to common misconceptions, provide targeted feedback and reinforce correct thinking.
Although research suggests that technology, when used well, can have a positive influence on learning, students don't necessarily perceive these benefits. In a 2011 report by the Higher Education Strategy Associates, students were asked about their views on e-learning. They responded that they did not learn more in classes that used electronic resources. Moreover, four out of five said they preferred to attend in-person lectures than watch online. "Students are so engaged online through social media that people assume they want to learn online," U of T's Misak says. "But Facebook doesn't replace getting together at the pub."
The shifting emphasis away from teaching content mirrors a transformation occurring at libraries. Although the number of books at libraries has decreased dramatically in recent years − the Amsterdam Library, for instance, has reduced its visible holdings by 70 per cent − libraries are being used more heavily than ever before. "This dematerialization of content is a Gutenberg moment," explains journalist and author Michael Harris, who has written about the state of libraries. "Once we don't have to go to the same place to access information, we find that we still need to get together to hash out ideas."
And this is changing how we design universities. When Michael Heeney attended university, he joked with friends that he learned more in the cafeteria than in the classroom. Now, as a principal at Bing Thom Architects, he designs universities and finds himself attempting to create spaces that foster that type of casual intellectual exchange. "The in-between spaces are important. The chemistry is different when we're all in the same place, bumping into each other, talking, sharing ideas."
"Science is rooted in conversations," the physicist Werner Heisenberg once said. He believed that the best scientists weren't loners but the kind of people who talk constantly with others about their findings, challenges, techniques, ideas.
The same could be said for education. Survey after survey shows that the most satisfied students are those who have the most opportunity for connection with their peers and professors. Of course, thoughtfully used technology can bolster interaction. The video highlighting tool can push students to actively engage with lectures. Clickers, a remote control-like device that allows students to answer questions in real time, can give professors an immediate assessment of student comprehension so they can react. Online hubs like Coursera can make university-level learning accessible to millions. But the type of conversations at the heart of an undergraduate education are not the type that can be accomplished with a scheduled Skype date; they rely on happenstance. To borrow Orwin's phrase, educational electricity does not crackle only in a successful classroom but also in the campus pub.