Learning Through Technology

Learning Through Technology
President Susan Aldridge of University of Maryland University College (UMUC) delivered this keynote address, titled “Learning Through Technology: From Institutional Course Delivery to Collaborative Knowledge Creation” and delivered in the Hamdan Bin Mohhamed e-University 4th Annual Congress. Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

As president of the largest public university in the United States…and a truly global
academic enterprise…I am often asked to speak to educators, business leaders, and
policymakers in many different parts of the world.
And in the course of doing so, I have learned that nearly every nation…large or
small…developed or developing…is beginning to view technology as the great
academic equalizer…at a time when the race for knowledge is more critical than

In fact, as workers everywhere move en masse out of agricultural and industrial
jobs…and into the knowledge-driven workforce…information is rapidly becoming
the global currency of trade…and tertiary education, the passport to economic
growth and prosperity. Yet while most countries are making an effort to expand
academic opportunities at home…the demand still far exceeds the supply.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization…or
UNESCO…estimates that the number of students in all age groups worldwide, who
are seeking university degrees, may reach as many as 250 million over the next
two decades….with the majority of them coming from Asia, Africa, the Middle
East, and Latin America.

And although the number of traditional students between the ages of 18 and 23 is
actually declining throughout most of the developed world and in China…it is
growing exponentially in many of the developing nations. In the Middle East,
almost 65 percent of the population is under 30…while in India, more than half of
its citizens are under 25. With rising unemployment rates in both regions.

Needless to say, we cannot possibly meet this exponential need by relying solely
on the traditional, land-based university system…with its many physical and
political…financial and cultural barriers to expansion. For example…the Indian
government estimates that given current trends…it will need as many as twentyfour
hundred additional universities in the next 25 years – or roughly two new
institutions per week.

And while the number of universities in the Middle East North Africa region
nearly doubled between 2000 and 2007…from 140 to around 260…this is still far
from where it needs to be to meet the projected surge in academic demand.

Therefore, as the gap continues to widen…e-learning is quickly becoming essential
to the big picture…by making it possible for millions of students of all ages and
abilities…ethnic traditions and economic circumstances…to access any number of
academic programs and resources…both formal and informal…open and closed.

For many years now, institutions of higher education in every corner of the globe…
including my own University of Maryland University College…have been
harnessing the promise of information technology to teach beyond the face-to-face

In fact, seventeen years after launching its virtual campus with little more than 100
enrollments in only a handful of courses….UMUC has experienced phenomenal
growth…with well over 200,000 enrollments in some 120 programs that may be
completed entirely online…from just about anywhere in the world.

So today, we operate divisions on four continents…and serve students in 28
countries…who span the age continuum from 18 to 80. We have also used our
vast online capabilities to expand our international horizons…by forging academic
exchange programs with more than a dozen universities and technical schools in
such nations as Russia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Indonesia, and South Africa.

But as digital technology continues to evolve we have found that it furnishes far
more than simply a platform from which to teach. It offers a remarkable tool
through which to learn…as we move beyond the educational technologies that
mediate conventional course management and delivery…to adopt the learning
technologies that engage both our students and our faculty in active, collaborative,
and authentic knowledge creation.

Of course, this radical shift in emphasis is, in large part, a by-product of the digital
revolution itself…with its laser focus on information, connectivity, and

And while most of us have incorporated technology of some form into our daily
lives…there are those for whom it has become a way of life. This is particularly
true among the so-called Digital Native generation…as it continues to emerge on
to the global higher education scene.

Also known as millennials and transliterates…the majority of today’s college
students under the age of 30 …in nearly every corner of the world…have grown up
with the wonders of technology…consuming everything that it has to offer.
Consequently, they rely on the Internet for information…on video gaming for
entertainment…and on a growing array of hand-held devices for communication.

As masters of multi-tasking…these natives often work simultaneously and
proficiently across three or four digital platforms at once. And because their
technologies offer a truly panoramic window to the world…our students regularly
connect and collaborate with peers they have never actually met face to face.

Not surprisingly then…they are building what amounts to a vast global learning
community that, in transcending the boundaries of country and culture, exhibits its
own special attributes and attitudes.

In fact, after investigating the Digital Native factor in eight Middle Eastern
countries…including the United Arab Emirates…a well-known public relations
firm…Asda’a…came up with results that were relatively similar to ours in the
United States. Of the Arab youth surveyed…nearly four out of five owned a
mobile phone…of which one in four was Web-enabled.

What’s more, three out of five of these young adults reported using the Internet at
least once a day…primarily for downloading music, uploading photos, or
accessing email. Likewise, a full three-quarters of them regularly connected
through Facebook and other social networking media…with many using it to make
new friends…both at home and abroad.

In evaluating these digital trends, a growing number of educators and
neuroscientists have noted changes in the brain as it rewires to adapt.

For example, digital natives crave sensory-rich learning environments and handson
learning experiences. So as they increasingly trade the classroom for the
computer…blogs and wikis are quickly replacing lecture halls and textbooks…as
their favored medium for generating, synthesizing, and acquiring new knowledge.

In addition, they are more collaborative and achievement –oriented…preferring to
work and learn as teams…in environments that clearly articulate the parameters,
priorities, and procedures for accomplishing a specific learning objective.

But they are also able to shift their attention rapidly from one task to another…as
they independently seek the necessary information with which to achieve a given
goal. Indeed, American educator Marie Sontag wrote that today’s learners hunt
and gather knowledge through a process she calls “link, lurk, and lunge.”

And as they take far greater control over their learning process…they are
becoming experienced resource navigators, multimedia creators, and content

With these evolving traits in mind, learning is no longer merely a matter of
information transfer…but rather a process of dynamic participation… in which our
students cultivate new ways of thinking and doing, through active discovery and
discussion….experimentation and reflection.

Consequently, they not only expect….they, in fact, demand… a learning
environment that is simultaneously engaging and empowering…with plenty of
opportunities to apply what they know within the context of real-world scenarios.
Moreover…as we are all beginning to realize…they are looking for a different
relationship with their teachers. One that is no longer based on the traditional
concept of expert to acolyte…but rather is built around the premise of co-creator to
co-creator…as they assume ever-increasing responsibility for both producing and
consuming new knowledge.

Therefore, as institutions of higher education, tasked with preparing creative and
competent 21st century knowledge leaders…we find ourselves having to
fundamentally realign the attitudes and principles; norms and practices that have
traditionally driven the academic enterprise.

And for distance educators that means creating an e-learning model that combines
the stability and structure of the conventional learning management system we
favor…with the flexibility and interactivity of the personal learning environment
our students prefer.

To be sure, we have come a long way since the early days of Web-based
education…when our course modules were little more than a series of hand-outs
published and delivered online…through the university’s proprietary…albeit
somewhat primitive…learning management system.

But as technology improved…we gradually developed an LMS that was above all,
reliable, scalable, and secure…offering new and exciting options for expanding
both our reach and our capabilities.

So in addition to downloading courseware…we were soon using this structured
platform to give and grade exams…evaluate student performance…coordinate chat
rooms and discussion forums…and furnish a variety of student support services.

Then with the advent of Web 2.0 and its highly interactive technologies…we
ushered in the era of networked learning…which allows us to in many ways
replicate the virtual worlds our learners inhabit in their downtime.
In fact, our faculties and students alike can meet, connect, and collaborate at
will…while at the same time exercising greater control over every aspect of the
learning process…from time and space…to identity and relationship.
Consequently, we are able to do more than simply imitate the face-to-face learning
environment. We have improved it tremendously.

And now, by expanding our learning management systems to incorporate both the
tools and the services our students use to organize and control their personal
learning environments…we have an unprecedented opportunity to provide them
with both the solid academic credentials and the 21st century knowledge leadership
skills they will need to successfully compete in today’s ever-changing global

Skills that include the ability to create, exchange, and apply new knowledge across
cultures and disciplines…while working and learning effectively in virtual teams
and communities of practice.

To be sure, these learning technologies facilitate active learning environments that
can be easily customized to accommodate for individual learning preferences, local
languages, and cultural traditions.

They also enable our students to expand their learning experience beyond the
virtual classroom and into the real world…while at the same time organizing and
maintaining their own network of contacts and collection of resources.

And although the possibilities seem virtually endless…I would like to offer a few
particularly good examples.

For instance, in designing our new online cybersecurity programs at UMUC with
different learning styles in mind…we carefully incorporated a variety of researchvalidated
e-learning tools…including robust graphics, streaming podcasts, and
integrated simulations.

What’s more, to ensure plenty of ongoing exchange between students and
faculty…we embedded an assortment of social networking platforms…from which to post comments and conduct threaded discussions…work on group projects and
share learning resources.

In the interest of authentic learning…we also developed a Virtual Cyber Lab that
employs the latest in remote access technology. This unique environment allows
students to experiment from a distance…by accessing real world scenarios and
hands-on applications to detect and combat simulated cyber attacks.
And as UMUC continues reengineering its learning management system to better
support the personal learning environment…we anticipate adding such other
capabilities as e-portfolios for preserving and sharing individual learning
artifacts…and e-publishing applications for producing blogs and online journals.

Video-conferencing offers yet another wonderful option for supporting learning
environments that are both dynamic and diverse. In fact, as these digital
networking tools become increasingly ubiquitous among personal users…colleges
and universities everywhere are successfully incorporating them for any number of

As inexpensive real-time learning technologies, they can be used to create virtually
blended e-learning environments. Thus, they offer a cost-effective solution for
furnishing face to face instruction from a distance…in mediating such culturally
sensitive issues as religious beliefs and social traditions.

Additionally, video-conferencing enables students of different ages and
abilities…languages and lifestyles…to develop and practice concrete strategies for
multi-cultural, multi-generational, and multi-disciplinary communication and
collaboration. Which, of course, are important skills they will need to become
effective and ethical global citizens.

And, finally, they allow us to connect students within an academic setting that
closely mimics the cross-functional virtual team model that has become so
prevalent in today’s highly fluid global marketplace.

For example, Marratech is a remarkably nimble video-conferencing software
application that can be downloaded at no cost from the Internet. Like such popular
platforms as Skype and MSNChats, it supports sustained face to face video
discussions in real time. It also hosts multiple users across multiple modes of
integrated communication…including an interactive whiteboard where students
may work together on small group projects.

Consequently, it facilitates virtual encounters over an extended period of
time…that not only build trust and promote responsible participation…but also encourage active learning and cross-cultural competency…as group members work
in teams…negotiating their individual differences to achieve a common goal.

Wikis also support these learning experiences…both in and out of the
classroom…by furnishing digital workspaces in which any group of co-producers
may join forces to generate, synthesize, and assess subject-specific knowledge.
That said, they are also an excellent tool for promoting both cross-cultural
communication and cross-functional teamwork.

And given that wikis are open, collaborative, and asynchronous they invite
students to expand the field of contributors by enlisting their own personal learning
networks in the process. What’s more, these contributors naturally assume
leadership for specific tasks beyond knowledge production…based upon individual
strengths and styles. So while one might check for accuracy and
grammar…another refines the structure.

And as ideas are generated, problems investigated, and content created, feedback
becomes the combined output of peers, colleagues, and friends…experts and
critics…often evolving into vibrant communities of practice.

Like wikis, these communities are generally formed around some common
interest…and can serve hundreds of members, regardless of where they live, learn,
or work. What’s more, they are both…for the most part… self-organizing and

On the other hand, communities of practice are far more socially interactive and
interdependent. So they offer enormous potential for forming professional
networks that are both lifelong and life-wide…as members regularly meet and
collaborate as co-creators…sharing information and insights…across borders and
beyond organizational hierarchies.

And considered by many to be the fastest growing type of learning
organization…they are quickly becoming virtual greenhouses for new ideas and
inventive solutions…while also reinforcing professional and cultural identities.

Certainly, as we contemplate both the power and the promise of technology as we
know it now…there are new developments every day…all of which we will need
to factor into our institutional planning.

For example, hand-held mobile devices…with advanced browsers, customized
applications, and other plug and play features…are rapidly opening global
education territories previously uncharted. In fact, as I speak I-Phones and Blackberries…IPads and PlayStation Portables are transforming the higher
education landscape.

And while there are still a few barriers to hurdle before m-learning replaces elearning
as the distance education standard…these highly portable m-learning
devices are becoming increasingly interactive and user-friendly.

Even more significant, as their quality rises and their capabilities expand, their
costs continue to fall. Thus, as the number of cell phone users worldwide now
exceeds well more than three billion…we have an exceptional opportunity to
greatly expand academic access.

Next generation Web 3.0 technologies are also gearing up to enter the market in
the not too distant future…and if Internet experts are correct…they will take
independent learning to an entirely new level…by providing users with intelligent
browser capabilities.

While Web 2.0 uses the Internet to make connections between people, Web 3.0
will use it to make connections with information…by allowing us to tailor the
browsing experience according to our unique Internet profiles. Or as some say, to
create a virtual personal assistant…who, by knowing practically everything about
our information preferences can actually anticipate our information needs.

Still…as effective as these current and future learning technologies may be when it
comes to enhancing and customizing both the learning environment and the
learning experience…we must also understand the challenges that undoubtedly lie

For instance, how do we guarantee data security and student safety within an elearning
environment that is seemingly infinite, given the ever-expanding virtual
bazaar of digital applications and service providers? Are younger students really
sophisticated enough to figure out how they learn best or what technologies
actually support their academic goals? What are the implications for intellectual
property rights and academic accreditation…not to mention faculty roles and
institutional boundaries? And perhaps most important…how do we bridge the gap
between student and faculty skills and expectations?

At UMUC, we have created our award-winning Center for Teaching and
Learning…or CTL…which uses a highly interactive e-learning environment to
furnish self-paced tutorials and training workshops…along with an abundance of
independent resources and information sharing platforms…in a variety of formats.

And by learning experientially…under the same conditions as their students…our
instructors are far more likely to be successful in the virtual classroom.

Yet in addition to its professional development function, this center also hosts a
Media Lab…which brings faculty members, course designers, and content experts
together online to create innovative e-learning enhancements. Therefore, we are
able to research and pilot technologies as they emerge…so that our instructors can
become more comfortable with and adept at using them.

Of course, paradigm shifts of this magnitude require far more than reconfiguring
systems and training faculties. They demand transformational change across every
aspect of university life…its people…its practices…and its programs. So as the
agents of this change, we will need to summon both our influence and our
ingenuity to collectively champion the cause, facilitate the coalitions, and
jumpstart the technologies.

We must also remain diligent in our efforts to verify the authenticity of the new
learning strategies and environments we promote…by developing the appropriate
metrics and gathering the necessary data with which to analyze their ongoing
impact on both our students and our institutions.

And we should take every opportunity at conferences such as this one to share
promising practices, identify critical interdependencies; and build stronger
pipelines for innovation…in our common quest to educate global knowledge
leaders for the future.

It is an extraordinary undertaking….but one that promises an equally extraordinary
return on investment. Especially in a world where the only constant is change and
the demand for knowledge, rapidly accelerating.