Digital Technology and the New Culture of Learning

President Susan Aldridge of University of Maryland University College (UMUC)delivered this keynote address, titled “Digital Technology and the New Culture of Learning” and delivered in Eden Research Workshop. Paris, France.

Like many of you, I began my academic career at a time when the university was still considered a “place”….where students went to earn a leg up on the future….by completing a succession of degrees…within a rigidly partitioned system of higher education. But those days are long gone, thanks in large part to the ever-evolving “global village,” with its insatiable thirst for knowledge.

Let’s face it. We live in a “plug and play” world that is far less concerned about who you are than about what you know and how well you can use it. A world in which global development and prosperity rely heavily on creating and disseminating knowledge, cultivating human capital, and stimulating innovation.

In fact, knowledge has become the basic currency in today’s global economy…and advanced education is the common denominator for both personal and professional enrichment.

The worldwide demand for higher education — which is expected to double by 2025 — is fueling a global realignment of the attitudes and principles; norms and practices that have traditionally driven the academic enterprise.

And this realignment has, in turn, given rise worldwide to an entirely new “culture of learning”. One that values education as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself…a necessity rather than a luxury…an essential investment rather than a discretionary expenditure.

This new culture promotes learning as a lifelong pursuit — rather than a diploma-driven activity — which serves as the underpinning for individual growth and fulfilment; employability and adaptability; global citizenship and social inclusion.

The act of learning is no longer seen as simply a matter of information transfer, but rather as a process of dynamic participation, in which we cultivate new ways of thinking and doing, through active discovery and discussion….experimentation and reflection. So in reorganizing our educational systems and strategies to support this radically different philosophical framework, we have begun to think in terms of continuums and communities.

For instance, we are moving away from the traditional stovepipe paradigm —- in which academic institutions operate in isolation of one another — to embrace a more contemporary pipeline model. Under this scenario, educators are forging strategic alliances; thereby encouraging learners to move seamlessly between primary and secondary education…undergraduate, graduate, and professional development programs…on-the-job training and personal enrichment.

In addition, the learning process is something that extends far beyond the school building and well past the school day. In fact, school itself is simply one part of a much broader complex of learning environments.

We are also moving further away from teacher-directed instruction in favor of a learner-centric approach…thus responding more effectively to what students need to learn, instead of offering only what faculties want to teach.
Our colleges and universities are no longer merely learning structures, but rather vibrant learning communities, connecting broadly dispersed students and faculty as equal partners, across a myriad of cultural and linguistic traditions; political and socio-economic perspectives. And in doing so, custom-tailoring their academic offerings to meet the needs of all community members, regardless of where they live and learn.

When it comes to academic content, these same institutions have moved well beyond the more traditional liberal arts curriculum to incorporate one that is far more relevant not only in the present, but for the future, as well.
So in addition to the standard fare of math, science, language, and social studies, students at all levels are also taking courses in computer programming and literacy, bioethics, genomics, and nanotechnology.

Moreover, we have begun to see a sharp rise in degree and certificate programs in such workforce-relevant fields as information assurance, homeland security, global business management, and environmental planning.

In truth, this notion of lifelong learning is hardly radical or even new, having first been fully articulated in 1929 by Basil Yeaxlee (pronounced Yakesly) and Eduard Lindeman, key figures in the adult education movement. In promoting their theories, Yeaxlee helped the British Ministry of Reconstruction author a groundbreaking report, referring to education as “a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and therefore should be both universal and lifelong.”

Former U. N. Secretary General Kofi Annan took this concept even further in 1999, when he called education “….an essential human right, a force for social change — and the single most vital element in combating poverty, empowering women, safeguarding children from….hazardous labor and sexual exploitation, promoting human rights and democracy, protecting the environment, and controlling population growth.”

And today, eight years into the 21st century, education is still the engine of opportunity. But with digital technology now powering that engine, we can achieve unprecedented global access to quality learning environments and experiences that both empower and inspire.

Technology is quickly becoming a fundamental work tool for students and faculty alike, much in the same way we used to rely on pencil and paper. In fact, we are just as likely to learn from blogs and wikis, as from lectures and textbooks.

And while computers have always been a wonderful way to access and transmit information across time and space, they have now become an extraordinary medium….with which to create everything from sophisticated music videos and animated business presentations….to virtual math models and complex robotic simulations.

But that is only the beginning.

By harnessing the power of technology, distance educators like all of us here today, are transforming our colleges and universities into cyber-portals of lifelong learning. These portals allow learners of all ages, abilities, ethnicities, and economic circumstances, to move in and out of the learning environment…at different times…in different places…and for different reasons.
They also open the floodgates to a vast selection of world-class e-learning programs and platforms….through which to access learning products and experiences that are both applicable and inclusive.

Of course, the ability to actually use these cyber-portals depends largely on both digital access and fluency. And while nearly one-fifth — or more than one billion — of the world’s citizens claim access to the Internet, the highest penetration is still among industrialized nations in North America, Europe, and the Pacific Rim.

That said, these countries are rapidly closing the digital divide.
Even those of us who were not born into the digital world, have come to welcome the many wonders of modern technology as a useful tool…although one that requires us to speak an entirely new language.

But for the “under 25” crowd —- or the so-called Digital Generation —- technology is more than just a tool. It’s a way of life….and their native language.

These young people have spent their entire lives consuming everything that digital technology has to offer. The statistics are staggering. According to e-learning experts like Marc Prensky, before leaving for college, the average five-year-old in America will have racked up hundreds of thousands of digital hours —- browsing the Internet; sending and receiving emails; playing and creating videogames; texting and talking on cell phones; downloading and listening to MP3 players….and yes, even watching that old standby, television.

And stack that up against maybe — at the very most — only about 5,000 hours spent reading books. Indeed, leading neuroscientists predict that this heavy reliance on technology will, over time, actually reconfigure the way the brain creates, processes, and retains knowledge.

So it’s hardly surprising that digital natives use terms like “power down” to describe what they must do to participate in the conventional face to face learning experience, with its lengthy lectures and tell-test instruction. And it stands to reason that their long-term academic success lies in our ability to develop and deploy the cutting-edge learning technologies and strategies they crave.

But now, what about learners in developing countries, where the digital divide is still a stark reality at any age? Even with increasing access to Internet technology, the rate of transfer is slow and online students face a host of user problems, from outdated hardware and limited bandwidth to technophobia and computer illiteracy.

And given that the global learning market is hardly monolithic, there is no “one size fits all” model for effective e-learning. This is particularly true when it comes to language and culture.

Although English is the official language of most Internet sites and distance education programs, it is at best a second language for more than 90% of the world’s population. Consequently, the degree to which e-learners are fluent in English has a tremendous impact on their reading speeds, the quality of their written assignments, and their ability to interact with instructors and other students.

There are also inherent differences in learning and communication styles between those who grow up in individualistic societies and those in communal cultures….all of which have an enormous effect on academic success.

These are just a few of the most basic challenges facing all of us here. So how do we cultivate a global system of higher education with which to support a culture of lifelong learning….that actually balances excellence with unfettered access, while at the same meeting the needs of an emerging global landscape and its vastly diverse population?

I believe that we must reach beyond our own university walls to collectively research, evaluate, and share promising practices and innovative technologies, while also promoting sound international policies and academic standards of excellence. And in doing so, create a far more inclusive knowledge ecology.

An ecology that fully supports the new culture of learning, while exploiting the fluid boundaries between knowledge producers and knowledge consumers. And one that empowers us to identify critical interdependencies; integrate core learning technologies; and sustain commonly held values and principles.

Let’s begin by looking at the issue of accessibility.

If we are to support and indeed maximize the global lifelong learning community, we will need to design e-learning technologies and delivery systems to the lowest common denominator. And by that I mean making them exquisitely easy to use and capable of accommodating variable bandwidth and interface capabilities. What’s more, they should be reliable and scalable….interactive and multi-purpose.

While a number of ubiquitous and cost-effective solutions have emerged over the past several years —- including 3G cell phone technology and $100 laptop computers — we still have a long way to go in making them widely available within the developing world.
So as distance providers, committed to expanded access, we will need to join forces with both the public and private sectors to champion additional investments in these and other similar innovations.

The “diversity factor” also plays a major role in promoting expanded accessibility…and as such should demand our attention and fuel our curiosity. Indeed, it is one of our greatest priorities at UMUC, as we explore new and more effective ways to develop culturally sensitive e-learning products and environments.

Using an assortment of multimedia, along with the latest digital technology, we have begun customizing virtual classrooms to accommodate for native languages and traditions; different learning styles and abilities….in a variety of ways and for the vast majority of those we seek to enroll.

Certainly, in choosing digital technologies and creating virtual learning environments that work for all learners, we must also pioneer new ways to bridge the gap between what our students see on the screen and what they need to use it successfully.

That means putting quality student support on par with quality academic programming….by providing easily accessible online services. This is especially critical when it comes to automating and supporting information resources….for students who live in places where good libraries and book stores are very few and far between.

And inasmuch as the “campus connection” has always been an important part of any higher education experience — particularly among today’s widely dispersed e-student population — virtual universities — such as my own — are linking students electronically with mentors and tutors; clubs and honor societies; experts and future colleagues in their chosen fields.

Of course, in supporting the new culture of learning, we must also address the issue of applicability, especially as the number of distance education offerings continues to increase at exponential rates.

Put simply, an applicable e-learning product is one that allows students and faculty alike to acquire relevant information, participate in meaningful exchange, improve specific skills, and develop individual abilities in a way that is transferable beyond the learning environment.

So we must cultivate active learning communities and develop experiential learning activities that encourage plenty of interaction —- student-to-student, student-to-faculty, and student-to-content. E-learning environments must also foster intimacy and immediacy, while at the same time providing private space for students who don’t feel comfortable sharing their ideas with others.

Even the most basic social networking software offers an exceptionally flexible and cost-effective communications platform….linking thousands of learners….within an environment that allows for both asynchronous and real-time communication.

Moreover, these one-to-many technologies make it possible for us to build online communities of practice, connecting learners in even the most remote locations with others in their specialized areas of work and study. Communities such as these are becoming “virtual greenhouses” for new ideas and inventive solutions, while also promoting a sense of joint enterprise and professional identity.

And with the first wave of digital natives now through the university door, distance educators are scrambling to “power up” the learning process. At UMUC, we are already allocating significant resources to this effort, looking for new ways to provide highly relevant learning activities, with the help of familiar technologies.

For instance, our innovative network systems and security lab —- designed specifically for remote access — offers students an extraordinary opportunity to experiment with real, hands-on applications, using state-of-the-art hardware and software systems for cyber security.

And most recently, we began exploring the use of digital gaming strategies and technologies. This approach has already been a successful one for the U.S. military…tasked with educating over a quarter of a million 18 to 20-year-olds each year…across a wide variety of tasks and content areas. In addition to providing essential information in a language these soldiers can understand, gaming also strengthens their critical thinking, strategic planning, and effective decision-making skills.

Of course, in addition to anytime, anywhere learning, digital technology enables anytime, anywhere teaching….thus making it possible for us to recruit and retain faculty members and guest lecturers, who are not only internationally renowned academics, but also widely recognized experts in their professional fields. It also facilitates global alliances, through which foreign students and faculty may learn abroad without ever leaving home.

But in doing so, we will also need to ensure that distance educators are well-versed in the new tricks of the online teaching trade. Which means using our digital tools to provide both high-quality professional development and continuous assessment — particularly among faculty members and institutional partners in less-developed countries.

We must also be prepared to evaluate every aspect of the student’s e-learning experience: from acquired knowledge to applied skills; self-concept to world view; learning styles to learning attitudes. And this assessment should be ongoing, outcomes-based; multi-dimensional, and well-integrated, with frequent opportunities for interaction and feedback.

While accessibility and applicability are indeed critical priorities for virtual campuses everywhere, we must also take a closer look at accountability and affordability.

Not surprisingly, the new culture of lifelong learning has attracted its fair share of for-profit ventures. Institutions that are not really universities in the traditional sense; given that they do not employ regular faculty, conduct research of any kind; or encourage a participatory governance system. As such, their primary focus is the stockholder, rather than the student. Therefore, as our knowledge ecology evolves, we must be especially vigilant in our efforts to discourage the mass production and export of online higher education, as a profit-making venture.

We can begin by developing and encouraging multinational distance education collaboratives among universities and other learning organizations. These collaboratives should clearly articulate a mutual mission and purpose, along with consistent standards of excellence…..which allow them to educate knowledge leaders and workers of and for the world, who are thoughtful, innovative, responsive, and, above all, responsible.

They can also serve as a central point of reference for students and their families when it comes to choosing regionally accredited colleges and universities. Institutions that not only meet their academic needs, but also incorporate stringent quality assurance mechanisms and reporting structures…with which to evaluate academic products, track student outcomes; and document the return on tuition investment.

And last, but certainly not least, collaboratives such as these can help make the cyber journey a far more fluid one. The criteria for degree completion and professional qualifications vary greatly from university to university and from nation to nation. So e-learners often face transfer credit obstacles…and countries sometimes refuse to recognize foreign educational credentials.

Cooperative articulation agreements among universities build longer and stronger pipelines, thus promoting equitable transfer standards, while also supporting global workforce needs. My own university now has 10 such agreements with institutions of higher education in Europe and Asia.

Innovative e-enrollment initiatives also make it possible for lifelong learners to move more easily across borders and between institutions.

Having already led the effort at my own university to bring our transfer credit process fully online, I can envision a time when technology will link thousands of institutional global trading partners in real time….to achieve in higher education something as universal as, say, the automated global banking system.

This e-enrollment process would provide lifelong learners with the option of choosing and completing coursework from different universities around the world….in pursuit of accredited international degrees, continuing professional education, and personal enrichment.

Of course, without affordable options, lifelong learning is merely a pipedream for most of the world’s population….even in developing countries like Tanzania, China, and Iran, which view distance education as a way to meet growing demand, while also preventing brain drain.

Most of us here are already involved in global efforts to develop sustainable models of affordability. Models that take full advantage of strategies like recycling course content…unbundling and sharing student support services – like online libraries – within common domains….designing highly scalable delivery systems…and developing mutually beneficial public/private partnerships and demonstration projects.

International organizations such as UNESCO and OECD — have also endorsed the use of Open Educational Resources — or OER — which offer open and free access to high-quality digitized learning and teaching materials for students and educators.

Yet while making these materials available is certainly noble, it also poses a threat to core business revenues, given the very public nature of online information transfer. This is particularly true among large open universities…for which global distance education serves as the primary source of income.

Not surprisingly, conflicts over international copyright protection have been around for centuries…but cross-border education introduces a whole new set of questions. Even with international agreements governing intellectual property rights, distance educators everywhere continue to encounter a multitude of legal and ethical issues along the way…from licensing, course ownership, and high permission fees…to academic integrity, fair use rights, and system security protections. And there are still some countries who disregard these agreements altogether.

So it is imperative for the distance education community to take a far more proactive approach, which begins by sponsoring joint efforts to conduct timely research and provide continuous training around intellectual property questions and concerns. We must also heartily support UNESCO’s ongoing efforts to tighten and enforce international copyright protections.

To be sure, a cultural shift of this magnitude demands transformational leadership of the highest order. International scholars and distance educators….global business executives and government officials….all working together to champion the cause…facilitate the coalitions….and jumpstart the technologies. And we should take every opportunity at conferences such as this one…to share what we have learned and discover what we can only imagine.

It is an extraordinary undertaking….but one that promises an equally remarkable return on investment. Especially in a world where the only constant is change and the race for knowledge, more critical than ever.