(This entry is part of a series by Gordon Freedman, Blackboard’s VP of education strategy, in which he reflects on technology and education as he travels around the world to meet with innovative education leaders and researchers, government leaders, and Blackboard clients who are experimenting in e-Learning and changing the education landscape.)

E-Learning is part of a larger set of changes in higher education globally, both in practice and in policy formation.  In this entry, “The New Education Agenda,” I aim to examine these changes from a traditional education point of view, and toward an education point of view that is more flexible, transportable, and interactive.

One can argue that the first level of technology revolution is simply to automate or translate what existed in a previous form into newer technologies.  The next level is often described as a departure, where more efficiency is brought to the previous form, but the functions are similar.  The final level, the level of innovation, is where the original objectives are met and, hopefully, substantially exceeded, but the means, or technology, is no longer the same.

E-Learning, in the first instance, was very much the conversion of distance or correspondence courses translated into Web-based courses or the extension of class-based materials onto the World Wide Web.  It was a matter of taking text and graphics and adding minimal functionality and moving these online.

Today’s e-Learning is in the second phase, that of efficiency and expediency, where what was done in the traditional classroom is expanded into e-Learning formats that either, one, extend the classroom; two, create a blended model of courses a student attends physically while studying, collaborating, and building projects online; or, three, move to fully online distance education courses.  These are the three common online modalities.

However, we are now on the border of the third level, that of innovation and departure from previous forms.  How will this final level materialize and in what ways?

What separates the way e-Learning is approached in different countries, regions, and through different associations or organizations, is how e-Learning is interpreted in a social, cultural and administrative sense.

In traditional English-speaking countries, such as the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and England, e-Learning is primarily used as an adjunct or extension to the institution, like a new building wing or a set of portable classrooms. 

The exception is on the other end of the spectrum, the for-profit institutions, many of which are fully online.  These organizations use e-Learning as the central infrastructure of their operations.  So, you have both extremes in these countries—an online extension of existing traditional activity and a fully online infrastructure in the for-profits non-traditional institutions.

This is in contrast to the primary practice within the European Union, the Commonwealth of Learning, UNESCO and other groups which see e-Learning in somewhat broader terms, leading to social and administrative changes.  E-Learning is seen by these groups as being the set of tools necessary for innovation in education methods, pedagogy, and delivery, as well as seeing the entire process as one that could assist or lead in reforming education institutions and national approaches to education.

Because of the forces of globalization, the supply and demand for education is being altered by the new forms of access to information, knowledge, learning, and training. 

As represented in the work of the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD), the new economic model globally embraces two concepts as organizing principles.  The first model is the knowledge economy and the second model is human capital.  These reinterpretations, within globalization, examine how economies, nationally and globally, are reliant on knowledge and its application over the older modes of manufacturing and production alone.  Secondly, labor is seen not as a cost, but as an investment in both national and individual worker potential.  In each case—the knowledge economy and human capital—the modern university is seen as an obvious home for the development of the skills necessary for the new economy and the re-conceptualization of employees as life-long learning individuals.

At the same time that these changes are being promoted by international organizations and national governments, young people are going through traditional school systems, but are exposed to and using (with ease) many very advanced technologies and services on the Web.  For the students who have been well-exposed to technology, they are arriving on college and university campuses that are not as sophisticated about technology as are the young people.  Thus, we are seeing a new kind of student arriving on campus, at a time when we are operating in a new type of economy based on knowledge, and a new corporate and government demand for human capital.

The question is: How can institutions service this type of new student, make it easier for students of fewer means to attend higher education, and, at the same time, respond to the pressures to change that are being exerted from funding sources?

It is important to see that human capital is a driving force for people and economies.  With this in mind, institutions have to move from their traditional organization and practice to a model where they provide the structure to help both students and governments be more competitive, more innovative, and more socially responsive.

While these goals have always been in the background of higher education, globalization is forcing them to the foreground.  At the same time, the global economy at a national or regional level is demanding that higher education move from being a privilege for a small percentage of the population to a mandate for all young people or adult learners.  You might think of this as a full-education model, a counterpart to the full-employment model.  The equation is simple and proven: higher education equals greater earning power.

Where does all of this lead higher education?

It leads, I believe, to a system of education that is a mix of in-class and online, but one that is horizontally and vertically integrated and one in which the student is more responsible for his or her education than in the past.

What would this system look like and how would it operate?

I conceive of a circular pipeline that follows students or student use from their primary school years through secondary education and into technical training or higher education and into the workforce.  Such a structure is what we in the United States loosely refer to as K-20 (Kindergarten through graduate school).  A K-20 system would envision a set of technologies—student information, course or academic management, assessment and tutoring—existing on a system or backbone that the student, family, and various institutions along the way would have access to.

In such a system, more concern could be given to the transitions where we lose students, or they lose interest, such as finishing out their secondary education, or proceeding to higher education or further training.

In the United States, we lose students at every juncture.  It is hard to motivate them forward, difficult to retain them, and challenging to get them to graduate from higher education institutions.  Yet, it is important that we try.  There are attempts at a systematic approach in various U.S. states, such as Kentucky, and in various nations such as Singapore.  However, there needs to be a better body of knowledge, research, and innovation to be able to expand and promote such a concept in a boarder way.

As we contemplate such advances that require changes in policy, regulation, and legislation, I think it is important to look at where education technology has come from and how it is progressed to date, to more fully understand what could evolve next.

To begin with, in the early 1990’s the Internet and the World Wide Web were just starting up.  Early experiments were being tried in education, primarily from the technology savvy people on campuses.  A few years later, the early adopters came on the scene. These were educators who saw how technology on the Web could assist them to do their job better in the classroom.  Some of them, the Open University for example, saw how distance education courses could embrace the new interactive form of delivery.

By the end of the 1990s, the IT management divisions at universities went from worrying about wires and servers to worrying about serving the whole institution with a technology backbone.  Along with this change came senior technology managers, chief information officers (CIOs), who entered newly created positions in many learning institutions.  They went from reporting to facilities managers to reporting to the president, vice chancellor or someone high up in the administration. 

The learning technologies, however, were not yet robust, nor did they integrate well with other technologies.  As we moved into the 2000s, the technology stepped up; and XML, Web services and the coming of Web 2.0 allowed technologies to speak to each other.

Suddenly, a year or so ago, higher education leaders began to understand that technology on campus was not simply an addition to the campus, but was a new infrastructure for the campus, like buildings and grounds, that could change a university.  All of a sudden, the CIOs had the keys to a form of innovation that was compatible with globalization and changes elsewhere in society.

In the United States, we at Blackboard surveyed the higher education leadership about their top concerns, beyond just technology.  They mentioned four areas: student engagement, institutional accountability, globalization, and revenue generation.

During our research we discovered that institutions were going after these areas in three different ways: incremental, transitional, and transformational models.  In the incremental model, a program or department may be changed.  In the transitional model, the goals of a strategic plan are being met.  In a transformational model, like the level three change with technology, the university itself is being re-thought in terms of how it most effectively reaches its objectives, regardless of the dictates of tradition.

Today, around the world, policymakers, higher education leaders, international organizations, and governments understand that a technical infrastructure tuned to the missions of innovative institutions is absolutely necessary to service the new economy, the new labor force, and to help produce the flexibility and adaptability necessary for the 21st century.

The goal now is to transform technical goals and the use of technology into social goals.  Information and communication technology (ICT) should not be a world unto itself; rather, ICT should be a gateway and set of tools for enabling institutions and individuals to have the best opportunities in the future.

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