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The changing face (and place) of higher education

New ways of learning mean new ways to design for higher education.

In the last decade, a number of trends in higher education have come together in a perfect storm of change that is rattling the foundations of venerable brick-and-mortar institutions. Longstanding theories on how we present information to learners (Google “pyramid of learning” to get an idea) and how we categorize learners, such as Neil Fleming’s VAK model (visual, auditory, kinesthetic), have been fertilized by technology to produce an explosion of non-traditional teaching methods that are turning the concept of how we deliver higher education on its ear.

In the early 1990s, physics professor Robert Beichner championed a new type of classroom – a Student-Centered Active Learning Environment, or SCALE-UP – that responded to the idea that class time really needed to support engaging activities that could drive a deeper understanding of STEM concepts rather than merely provide a captive audience for a 50-minute lecture. Instead of row seating, SCALE-UP classrooms typically feature large, round tables for nine students that serve as the basis for group work, and with no proscribed teaching wall, different parts of the room can play a primary role in class discussions. Beichner is an outspoken proponent of SCALE-UP, and dozens of universities have adopted this model, particularly for STEM classes. Studies indicate that students in SCALE-UP environments have a better conceptual understanding of their course material than their peers in traditional lecture-based classes. SCALE-UP rooms support a ‘flipped classroom’ model where students listen to lectures as homework, using class time for hands-on activities with a professor who acts more as a facilitator than a lecturer. Instructors have brought a lot of depth and variety to this pedagogy by bringing in outside experts via Skype, consulting the Web for on-the-fly research, and turning over some teaching responsibilities to the students for peer-to-peer learning.

To add to the chaos, brick-and-mortar institutions are seeing more competition for students these days. Distance learning and online universities have become commonplace, but there are some new kids on the block who have been making waves. In the mid-2000s, a man named Salman Khan began posting math tutorial videos he had developed for his niece on YouTube. By 2009, the near-viral popularity of these videos led to the formal foundation of the Khan Academy, whose course library has expanded from math to include science, economics, and humanities in dozens of languages in an engaging, micro-lecture format. Their motto: “A free world-class education for anyone anywhere.”

More recently, massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have stormed the castle as well. These free courses provide open access to topics to anyone who can get on the internet. While MOOCs originated in Manitoba, it was an artificial intelligence course offered by Stanford University in Fall 2011 that really demonstrated the change-making potential of this new format. Stanford’s entire student enrollment for the 2011/2012 academic year was about 20,000 students; this single AI course enrolled 160,000 students from 190 countries. 

As educator are pondering the currency of a MOOC, certificate options are emerging, but the value of such courses is presently seen as a supplement or complement to an accredited certificate or degree program. One logical evolution might be the replacement of entry-level courses that are currently delivered in 300-student lecture format with a MOOC that taps into elite professors who are the best-in-class at lecturing on that material. Accredited institutions could leverage that mass-instruction with a much smaller “hands-on, high-touch” discussion group environment. I highly recommend a podcast from NPR’s archives of The Diane Rehm Show from July 31, 2012 for a great discussion about the influence of MOOCs – “Universities Shift to Online Learning.”

Designers serving the higher education sector need to be engaged in discussions with our clients about how they are weathering these changes – ask them how their institution is reacting to the whole MOOC phenomenon and how their instructors are teaching inside and outside the classroom. In the short term, no one expects that online courses will drive the extinction of brick-and-mortar universities, but there is no question that MOOCs are forcing institutions to reconsider how they “commodify” their offerings. Online options are driving a new economic model in higher education, and I’m curious to see how different institutions respond.

The degree (no pun intended) to which universities adopt online formats, active learning classrooms and informal learning environments will affect their academic programming and space type inventory. This is particularly relevant as the median age of full professors in the US is about 55 years and trending upward, creating a bubble that will leave a void for younger faculty when it bursts. Many educators feel that there are fewer high-caliber PhDs available to replace retiring faculty, so competition for highly qualified candidates will be intense. Designers’ professional expertise can help institutions strategically plan and maintain the right mix of high-quality learning environments, leaving them poised to draw and retain top-notch faculty and students in the years to come.

Authored By Kristina Vidal 

SCALE-UP rooms support a ‘flipped classroom’ model.

Designers’ professional expertise can help institutions strategically plan and maintain the right mix of high-quality learning environments.

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