Co-authored by Mike Brown.

The future of higher education may be online, but the present is still a mess.

The New Yorker recently published a thorough exploration of MOOCs and higher education. Coincidentally, this piece came out as the same week that my alma mater announced it had failed to fill about a third of its incoming freshman class. Whether a temporary enrollment misfire or permanent disruption of the education system, both the struggles of terrestrial universities and the potential for an online future raise important concerns about how higher education will survive.

Although perhaps not the author’s intention, the article revealed five key differences between traditional teaching institutions moving traditional courses online and courses designed to be online from the very beginning:

No experience in producing online content. The main video editor for Nagy’s course is a graduate assistant who recently defended her dissertation in Greek history, not a Web editor by vocation. Good educational content requires audio, video, graphics, and subject matter to work in unison. Universities are buying platforms like marble mansions and filling them with cardboard content.  But live teaching is hard, which is why good lecturers are hard to come by.  The same applies to other modes of delivery, and with MOOCs, the potential efficacy lost from skimping on the experience will scale with the course, growing linearly, while the cost of getting it right from the beginning is fixed, getting cheaper per person as number of students scale.

No clear teaching or evaluation model. This is still the “let a thousand flowers bloom” stage of online learning, but that has to end eventually. While it was good to see the back-and-forth on the socratic method, without methods of evaluating work, it seems premature to congratulate education on cracking this nut. Multiple-choice quizzes to test reading comprehension will never replace essays, and machines are a long way off from being able to grade 31,000 essays accurately.  But besides peer grading, which is successfully used by Coursera and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization’s “Around the Globe and Around the Clock: The Science and Technology of the CTBT,” we don’t have better ways of evaluating student progress in depth, as well as breadth.  New models and tools are needed for these subjects.

No clear business model.  It initially seemed unnecessary to take a trip and cameraman to Greece as part of the budget for this course, but if students are willing pay for that authentic experience, then why not?  It may well be that including such edutainment content as shots from the real places, much like the history channel used to do, will benefit students greatly;  what’s most important is that they track how it changes how students engage, and perform further experiments to validate these theories.

No access to social networks.  Perhaps the most telling part of the article was the admonition of universities not just as delivering elite education, but connecting elites with one another into lifelong networks. Emphasis on admonition.  Not only is more data available to mine when students interact in social network type settings, but students and teachers benefit from the collaborative and iterative experience inherent in group-based contemporaneous learning.

Traditional universities are, in the words of the article, standing in front of an avalanche. They are understandably attached to their current model, which they have developed over centuries, but it leaves them vulnerable to the scale-free model of online learning. The prospect of a global audience and substantial cost savings from online coursework is attractive. However, they are poorly positioned to benefit from either without revolutionizing their entire approach.  Universities, in this new age, are facing the classic Shumpeterian forces of creative destruction.  Much like the railroads, which once dominated transport, innovation is placing pressure on their model, and if they remain attached to a model displaced by innovation, they will be destroyed by it.

Are there more ways that universities are failing to keep up with the times?  Are products of e-learning startups falling too far from the educational tree?  Join the conversation in the comments.

This past week I had the privilege of meeting and working with fifteen fellows from across the African continent who came to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for a two-week training organized by the UPEACE Africa Program with a supporting grant from IDRC Canada.

The training covered a variety of areas related to strengthening research capacity for governance and security in Sub-Saharan Africa and was designed to provide these fellows with critical support for carrying out their PhD work at various institutions of higher education across the continent.

Dissertation topics included:
– The Life of exiled Zimbabwean Soldiers in South Africa: Coping with the Repressed Memories of War and Political Violence
– The North & South Sudan Conflict on Abyei since 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement: Challenges & Prospects
– ‘Go back to your Ancestral Land’ Autochthony, Citizenship and the Quest for Return Among Internally Displaced Persons in the Rift Valley Province, Kenya


Session Overview: Mobiles, Maps, and Presentations

My sessions provided the fellows with a practical reflection on the role of technology in governance, peace and security as well as hands-on exposure to a variety tools and platforms that are being used to collect, visualize and analyze data.

On the first day, we explored FrontlineSMS, EpiSurveyor, GeoPoll, and OpenDataKit and their applications for supporting research via mobile data gathering. Activities from our online course TC105 Mobile Phones for International Development were used as a basis for this session.

On the second day, we looked at ArcGIS Online, Ushahidi and MapBox – all mapping platforms for data visualization and analysis. As part of this session, fellows had to create their own maps, analyze advantages and disadvantages of using different platforms, and reflect on applications for their own research.

We also spent time each day working with Prezi, the web-based zooming presentation tool. Prezi was probably the most popular platform of all the ones we explored, given what seemed to be a formidable and far-reaching frustration with PowerPoint. It sounds like almost all the fellows will be transitioning to Prezi for their classroom teaching and presentations in the near future.


Technology Capacity Building: Regional Implications

In the fields of international development and peacebuilding, attention is often focused on solutions and programs that meet basic needs and deliver urgent care (disaster response, food, water, shelter, health etc). For those efforts to have effective and sustainable impacts over time, countries must also have their own robust higher education and research sectors that provide critical analysis, develop comprehensive strategies, and train future generations of leaders. That is why programs like the UPEACE Africa Program that are focused strengthening the capacity of universities to carry out this work are so important. Special thanks to Tony, Jean-Bosco, Tsion and Tewodros and all the fellows for making this a memorable experience.

While the primary focus of TechChange has been and always will be online learning,
we believe it’s important to be connected to the communities like this and support this type of in-person learning. As an organization, we look forward to participating in similar projects, trainings, and initiatives in the near future.

As K-12 teachers experiment with iPads in the classroom, Twitter streams in the backchannel, and TEDtalks as the new textbook, university professors are figuring out what to make of massively open online courses and how it will affect their classroom. After reading the barrage of stories this past year on new innovations in education technology, from the flipped classroom to edX, I began to wonder why K-12 teachers reported feeling empowered by the new technologies while massive open online courses (MOOCs) seemed to pose a threat to all private higher education institutions that’s so indecipherable most are unsure how to react. Why were stories on the flipped university classroom so rare this past year? With our upcoming course on Social Media and Technology Tools for Research in mind, we wanted to find a model that was actually leveraging tech tools in a way that was improving higher education learning on a broad scale.

We found Dr. John Boyer of Virginia Tech, who has been innovating and enlarging his World Regions classroom for the past decade. When he started he was in a classroom of 50 students using an inherited world regions textbook that leaned heavily on Western history. Now he is in a 3,000 seat auditorium, using the 6th edition of his own textbook and a companion website for digital and social media content that more than twenty other universities have adopted. We came across him in the same way that many have–through his plea to Aung San Suu Kyi for a Skype interview (which she agreed to) and the ensuing visits from Martin Sheen, Emilio Estevez, and Invisible Children’s Jason Russell. “We hope to have President Obama visit, which would make a lot of sense for him. Why wouldn’t he want to have 3,000 screaming university students tweeting and facebooking his interview?” He told me that those celebrity visits are not planned in the syllabus but come about organically, which also reflects the nature in which he adopts technology into the classroom.  From my chat with him I gleaned three questions for university educators to ask themselves as they adapt hybrid classroom methodologies.

1. Will it improve communication between the professor and students?

Effective teaching depends on the way that information is communicated to the learner. Professor Boyer literally brings his curriculum to the fingertips of his 3,000 students on his website, While his textbook may cover very recent issues in its sixth edition, the website covers global news and issues of the week. Students can easily scan video interviews, articles, and twitter streams and they can earn credit by participating in class dialogue over social media networks.

In a class of 3,000, students can easily feel distanced from their professor, but his online office hours and regular availability on Twitter and Facebook provides a safety net of communication. In my worry that he was online all day and night communicating with students he reassured me, “just a very small percentage actually use it and having the safety net of knowing it’s there satisfies the rest.”

2. Is tech interaction built into the syllabus?

As opposed to traditional pedagogies where students start out with an A and then lose points as they respond incorrectly, his students start with nothing and are rewarded for each activity they complete. Grades are determined by gross point accumulation and students can choose the way they want to earn those points. They can go the traditional route and take standard tests, fill out atlas quizzes, and write papers, or they can earn it through interacting with world leaders on Twitter, commenting in global news reports, or listening to podcasts.

According to an article in The Atlantic, flipping the learning model in the university setting in this manner leads to more personalization of the learning process. Professor Boyer’s exemplifies this by allowing the student to choose the assignments (not a single one is required, not even tests) that fit their learning method best. From the start of the semester, students have the flexibility and the accountability to complete the class how they want to.

3. Am I offering technology that students already use or can easily start using?

Virginia Tech is not only at the fringe of the flipping the university classroom, but physically it’s at the fringe of an urban-rural divide. Located in Blacksburg, Virginia, 60% of the town’s 42,000 are students and many come from rural communities. Students may not be used to many of the newest apps or devices. “I would love to start using foursquare to have students check in for attendance but I’m pretty sure only 1% of my students even know what it is,” Dr. Boyer told me. Despite some limitations, he is able to use quite a diverse tech toolset in his class. He uses (most links go to the unique class page) Delicious for bookmarking articles, online discussion forums on the class page, international movies, iTunes U, Skype, UStream for online office hours, for their class international playlist, and one of my favorites, PollEverywhere, is used to instantly poll to students on what they want to learn that day. These tools offer a plethora of options rather than required tools to use so that the students can involve themselves in the way they like.

Each of these questions asks what kind of options do the students have to learn the material and how they will be awarded for it. The hybrid classroom puts more accountability on the student to take the time to learn the subject matter, but also allows them the freedom to choose how they want to learn it. Dr. Boyer is evolving his classroom depending on the way that his students use technology and not the other way around. It won’t be long until university students are expecting the hybrid “flipped classroom” experience, especially when they have come from high schools that have already been implementing it.


If you are interested in international peacekeeping, consider taking our next course, Social Media and Technology Tools for Research, starting Monday, August 20th.