Institutional Course Delivery to Collaborative Knowledge Creation

Institutional Course Delivery to Collaborative Knowledge Creation
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 Computers and Advanced Technology in Education (CATE) Conference. Virgin Islands.

Like many of you, I began my career in higher education at a time when most of the
students we served made their way to the college campus right out of high school.
And when they weren’t cheering athletic teams on or making the weekend party
circuit, they were busy getting their degrees out of the way…for a shot at that one
great job in the real world of work. But a lot has changed since then.

With the advent of the global knowledge economy…and its laser focus on
innovation…career needs and priorities are constantly shifting…and our one great job
out of college is most likely the first of many over a lifetime. So periodically, we
need to retool our skills and sometimes even reinvent ourselves to keep up with the

Not surprisingly then, as educators, we are at the heart of what amounts to a global
learning revolution…and it is rapidly realigning the attitudes and principles, norms
and practices that have traditionally powered the academy.

Under this new scenario, higher education is a lifelong pursuit…rather than a degreedriven
activity… while colleges and universities are but one component of a much
broader learning environment…which encompasses everything from structured
academic programs and professional development opportunities…to on-the-job
training and personal enrichment.

The act of learning itself is no longer seen as simply a matter of information
transfer…but rather as a process of dynamic participation…in which students cultivate
new ways of thinking and doing…through active discovery and discussion,
experimentation and reflection.

And in keeping pace with exploding change, today’s student must look beyond
discipline-specific knowledge acquisition to develop a much broader set of 21st
century competencies.

The capacity to discover and disseminate relevant information, along with the
judgment to ensure its reliability and the knack for synthesizing it across multiple
modalities. The facility to apply new knowledge, while also negotiating across
disciplines and cultures to generate innovative solutions to real-world problems. And
the ability to discern and seize opportunity…while also taking the initiative to learn

That said, faculties are growing beyond the conventional research track to include a
new breed of scholar-practitioners…who artfully combine their educational training
with their professional experience. Likewise, academic content and curricula is no
longer defined by the institution, but rather driven by the marketplace…while learning
activities are designed to build on previously acquired knowledge and skills.

The growing need for continuing education is also transforming the face of today’s
postsecondary student population…making it ever more impractical for colleges and
universities to plan for any one type of learner.

There are adult students, with or without previous college experience. International
students, who cover the gamut of customs, languages, and geopolitical realities. And
“digital natives,” for whom technology, in all of its many forms, has become a way of

But regardless of their demographic profiles, college-bound learners everywhere are
trading the campus for the computer. Logging on to classes at all hours of the
day…exchanging emails with their professors well into the night…and connecting
with classmates whenever and wherever the need arises.

In fact, digital technology is quickly becoming a fundamental work tool for students,
much like pencil and paper once was…with blogs and wikis replacing lecture halls
and textbooks…in the quest for self-directed learning experiences that are active and
authentic, collaborative and constructive.

What’s more, e-learning experts…such as Canadian Tony Bates…agree that being a
21st century scholar means knowing how to find, analyze, organize, and apply digital

For decades now, colleges and universities in every corner of the globe… including
my own University of Maryland University College…have been harnessing the
promise of information technology as it evolved to teach beyond the face-to-face

But the waters truly parted with the advent of both personal computers and the World
Wide Web…which when combined offered tremendous possibilities for extending our
academic reach, while at the same time expanding our teaching effectiveness.

So today, in a growing number of academic institutions, web-based distance
education technologies are enabling students of all ages and abilities, lifestyles and
traditions…to move in and out of the learning environment…at different times…in
different places…and for different reasons.

Consequently, higher education has now gone global as e-learning transcends
language barriers, geographic boundaries, economic circumstances, and cultural
divides to create and exchange knowledge that is multi-generational, multi-cultural,
and multi-disciplinary.

However, we have reached yet another critical innovation juncture in our distance
learning evolution…one that is being driven by the so-called Digital Native
generation. as it emerges on to the global higher education scene.

Having spent their entire lives consuming everything that digital technology has to
offer, these natives are essentially the leading edge of the mobile learning movement.
On average, today’s tech-savvy youth carries 94 numbers in a cellphone; 78 names on
a messenger buddy list; and another 86 within a social networking community.

And using a variety of mobile devices, the digital natives among us regularly “poke”
one another, as they call it….by blogging, sending messages, or posting photos on
MySpace and Facebook.

They spend hours living in virtual worlds and online gaming communities…rely on
YouTube as a primary source of communication and self-expression…and view the
Web as an ever-expanding gateway to collaboration and commentary.

Needless to say, these students crave learning environments that are simultaneously
engaging, experiential, and sensory-rich…using terms like “power down” to describe
what they do in the conventional face-to-face learning environment….with its lengthy
lectures and tell-test instruction.

So they are beginning to demand that we educators reinvent standard teaching
practices…especially when it comes to our penchant for controlling every aspect of
both the learning environment and the learning experience. And we must start by
taking a hard look at how mobile technology can support that transformation.

Mobile devices are rapidly opening global education territories previously
uncharted…while at the same time transforming the learning experience for teachers
and students alike.

For the most part, these devices function as small handheld computers…with an
advanced browser and a customized suite of applications…along with the ability to
plug and play other compatible technologies…such as a camera. So imagine an IPhone
or Blackberry…a Mac tablet or an HP Pavilion…a PlayStation Portable or a
Nintendo DS.

As most of us in this room will attest, these new technologies are becoming
increasingly more embedded, ubiquitous, and networked…with greatly enhanced
features for communication, interactivity, and connectivity. So mobile devices can,
in fact, support a vast array of personalized m-learning environments and
activities…designed for students of all ages and stages in life.

They are also exceedingly portable and interactive…enabling learners on the go to
read their email, watch a podcast lecture, obtain an assignment, or text a
professor…wherever or whenever they choose. And a growing number of these
digital tools are equipped with voice-activated software…an especially important
feature for learners who are visually impaired or physically immobile.

Even more significant, as their quality and capability rises, their costs continue to
fall…thus making these them more readily available across a broader segment of the
global population. Indeed, there are now well more than three billion cellphone users
worldwide…and that number is climbing every day.

Yet while mobile technology continues to improve, there are still more than a few
barriers to hurdle before m-learning replaces e-learning as the distance education
standard. This is especially true when it comes to some of the smaller devices.

For example, mobile phones and PDAs are still battery-dependent, with small
screens, even smaller keyboards, and limited data storage. What’s more, they are far
less robust and secure than their desktop counterparts…and do not handle moving
graphics as well.

There is also the issue of variable operating systems and hardware platforms…which
preclude universal access to shared content…while wireless bandwidth sometimes
degrades as the number of users grows. That said, these devices are not particularly
well-suited for accessing most proprietary e-learning systems and products.

And they are still optimized for consuming rather than producing content…which
makes it difficult to integrate blogs and wikis into the learning environment.

Of course, given the lightening speed of media development, I have no doubt that the
mobile communication industry will soon conquer most…if not all…of these technical
issues. But even at that point, we will still have a ways to go on the implementation
side…as academic institutions around the world struggle to bridge a growing divide
between the instructivist model they have always favored and the constructivist
paradigm their students have come to expect…and the 21st century global economy
now requires.

That will mean moving beyond conventional course delivery to embrace continuous
knowledge innovation…by replacing the teacher-directed educational technologies we
currently use…with the student-centered learning technologies we must adopt. Or in
other words, making a radical shift in focus from the learning management
system…or LMS…to the personal learning environment…or PLE.

The term personal learning environment describes the tools, communities, and
services that make up the individual educational platforms our students use to
exercise greater control over their lifelong learning process.

Universities that support PLEs usually provide a framework for academic study,
which includes links to a variety of web-based learning tools, portfolio management
services, and other course-related learning materials…to which students may then add
their own network of contacts and resources.

That said, academic institutions can create effective personal learning environments
by combining three basic e-learning components…the first of which is, ironically, the
LMS itself.

In responding to the stepped-up global need for continuing education, a growing
number of colleges and universities worldwide have jumped on the e-learning
bandwagon…converting coursework and generating course materials with the help of
web-based learning management systems…or, as they are sometimes called, virtual
learning environments.

For the most part, these systems mimic the traditional face-to-face instructional
model…in both form and function. With e-learning content and e-classroom control
firmly in the hands of the institution…or more specifically those of the course
instructor. It’s no wonder then, that the largest commercially produced LMS goes by
the name of Blackboard.

In preserving the proprietary nature of higher education, these systems are designed
to organize, package, and deliver a university’s unique academic products and provide
them to the students it enrolls. So they serve as protected gateways to the virtual
campus…and incorporate a fairly standardized set of e-learning tools for downloading
courseware…giving and grading exams…evaluating student
performance…coordinating chat rooms and discussion forums…and furnishing a
variety of student support services.

In addition to these standard functions, most learning management systems now offer
both asynchronous and real-time learning environments…while providing access to
vast digital libraries and shared file areas.

To be sure, these systems afford institutional providers with a number of
administrative advantages…beginning with learner authentication through single signon
via the university database. They are also extremely convenient for both students
and faculty in that virtual learning tools may be fully packaged.

Moreover, because the LMS functions as a centralized system, we can furnish
centralized support…which ensures a higher degree of reliability…along with
information security…both of which are extremely important to anytime, anywhere
learners. And finally, by using a self-contained and institutionally managed delivery
platform, we can more effectively monitor student progress…to quickly identify
problems and offer appropriate support.

But even with their many benefits, these systems are still far from learner-centric, in
that most of them secure the learning environment behind relatively impenetrable
virtual walls…leaving students to manually copy their work into personal folders…or
lose all traces of the learning experience once it’s over.

Consequently, a growing number of distance providers are embedding e-portfolio
capabilities into their learning management systems…thus enabling students to
maintain a running record of achievement for both personal reflection and future

Essentially, an e-portfolio is a digitized collection of artifacts comprising text-based,
graphic, or multimedia elements archived either on a Website, a CD-ROM, or a
DVD. It also serves as an administrative tool with which to manage, organize, and
control access to work produced.

As the second essential component of a personal learning environment…these digital
portfolios make it much easier for students to plan their academic
trajectory…document both their knowledge and their skills…track their
progress…share their work with others, including current and prospective
employers…and evaluate their academic performance.

Moreover, they are gaining ground among academic institutions…with or without
highly developed learning management systems… in a variety of
disciplines…including business, technology, architecture, medicine, and engineering.

Typically, the university provides its own e-portfolio venue. For example, both
students and faculty at the University of Mary Washington in the United States, use
UMW Blogs…a WordPress-facilitated, multiuser publishing platform…customized to
provide flexible web spaces for presenting finished work, sharing ideas, and teaming
up on projects.

Yet while this system is institutionally controlled, it also allows students to post and
manage internally generated content alongside work they create and maintain
elsewhere on the Web…using such freely available services as StumbleUpon, Flickr,
and YouTube. And because UMW students have responded so favorably, Baylor
University, Penn State University, and the University of British Columbia are
developing similar sites.

Having succeeded in providing a solid platform from which to teach, we are now
exploring the many ways technology serves as an extraordinary tool through which to
learn. And with the advent of Web 2.0, distance educators are uniquely positioned to
create the rich learning experiences…dynamic learning environments…and vibrant
learning communities our students seek on a daily basis and in every area of their

As the third element of an effective PLE…these applications pave the way for
distance education students to engage in active, collaborative, and authentic
knowledge creation that extends well beyond the classroom. Even the most
traditional face-to-face universities are using blogs, wikis, podcasts, and Second Life
communities to engage their students in a variety of meaningful learning activities.

Working with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland, a Harvard
University biology professor unveiled BioVisions…which combines the highest
quality multimedia…developed in Hollywood animation studios like Disney’s
Pixar…with rigorous scientific models…to show in great detail how the most complex
biological processes unfold.

And today, the BioVisions film…The Inner Life of the Cell…has become the most
often downloaded scientific animation in history…rivaling even the most
sophisticated movie screen effects in its breathtaking visual displays.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation funded a videogame designed to teach the fine points
of college and university management. Virtual U…as it’s called…provides studentplayers
in more than thirty academic institutions in the United States…with the real
world problems that college administrators face every day…along with a simulated
environment in which to solve them.

For example, after attempting to improve faculty diversity, a player might have to
deal with the consequences of new hiring policies that affect promotion and tenure.
Or work through the budget and economic constraints of expanding the workforce.
Remote access technology also offers a phenomenal platform from which to learn by
doing…and one that my own university has put to exemplary use in creating its
network systems and security lab.

This relatively new technology…which operates without broadband connection
…affords our students a unique opportunity to truly experiment from a distance, using
actual hands-on, real-time applications…and state-of-the-art hardware and software
systems from such industry icons as Cisco, Oracle, Microsoft, and Computer
Associates. Therefore, UMUC students gain real-world experience with cutting-edge
technologies and applications…while the workforce benefits from hiring graduates
who bring this experience with them.

Having explained the mechanics of a personal learning environment, I would now
like to take a few minutes to talk about its pragmatic aspects…by creating a possible
scenario…using an imaginary student named Sara.
Sara is a successful television news producer by day and a budding young poet by
night…who would very much like to sharpen her skills. So she enrolled in an online
creative writing course.

Her instructor began the class by explaining that students were required to develop a
personal learning environment…using a variety of applications and services. The idea was to design a blog through which to share completed assignments with
classmates…who would, in turn, provide constructive feedback.

Sara chose Windows Live Spaces as her blog site service…and Windows Live Writer
as her desktop authoring application…which allowed her to establish a customized
look for her site…using a standard complement of headings, fonts, colors, and
background images. She also added a series of hyperlinks to some of the writers
forums and chat rooms she regularly took part in.

As much as Sara enjoyed publishing her own blog, she also enjoyed reading those of
other students…and soon subscribed to a variety of RSS feeds so that she would know
when her favorites were updated. She also found the feedback she received from her
cyberspace classmates was exceedingly valuable for improving upon her own writing
skills. And before long, Sara was even posting some of the poetry she loved to write
in her spare time.

The final assignment was to compile an anthology of completed work…with each
student contributing at least one favorite piece. Working together, the class chose
Scribus…an open-source desktop publishing software…and downloaded Skype for
instant messaging, file transfer, and video conferencing. They then distributed project
tasks on the basis of individual talents and interests.

One of Sara’s classmates…an amateur photographer…offered his work for
illustrations…using Flickr to share some of his more appropriate selections. Other
students volunteered to create the graphics. Sara joined yet another group designated
to edit the entries. And with everyone working collaboratively…albeit from a
distance…the finished product was, in the words of her instructor, simply terrific.

Sara and a few of her classmates continued to maintain their blogs once the course
was over and are still using them as a way to communicate both professionally and
personally. She also created her own online anthology and sent it electronically to
family and friends…along with a handful of online literary journals. Needless to say,
she was ecstatic when one of these publications asked her to join the staff as a parttime
contributing editor…a job she dearly enjoys.

Sara’s story exemplifies a few of the many ways we might use PLEs to give our
students greater control over their lifelong learning…effectively allowing them to
build on prior knowledge and experience…while also facilitating many of the 21st
century skills they need to be successful. For instance, by working collaboratively
over time, students come to trust their network of contacts…thereby learning how to
separate reliable information from the noise.

What’s more, PLEs provide a readily accessible venue in which to organize,
synthesize, and regenerate information…using a vast array of digital applications.
Therefore, our students are becoming experienced resource navigators, multimedia
creators, and content contributors…all of which are extremely valuable talents in
today’s highly competitive job market.

And given that there is no such thing as a pedagogically neutral educational
technology…the PLE encourages learners to design and develop a learning
environment that actually facilitates their individual learning preferences and
problem-solving approaches.

But as effective as the personal learning environment may be…it also comes with its
share of challenges.

How do we guarantee data security and student safety in a learning 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 responsibilities?

And perhaps most important…how do we bridge the gap between student and faculty
skills and expectations?

In meeting these challenges…while making what amounts to a radical shift in
institutional paradigm, colleges and universities everywhere are racing to bring their
faculties up to speed…often creating whole departments and full-blown training
institutes devoted exclusively to research and professional development around the
wonders of technology enhanced learning.

My own university’s award-winning Center for Teaching and Learning…or
CTL…uses an interactive e-learning environment to furnish self-paced tutorials and
structured training workshops…along with an abundance of resources in a variety of

It also provides a unique Faculty Media Lab, which brings faculty members, course
designers, and distance education coordinators together online to create innovative elearning
enhancements. Moreover, this lab publishes “best practice” case studies, for distance educators at other academic institutions to use in their own instructional and
resource development efforts.

The University of Southern California’s Institute of Multimedia Literacy also focuses
on new and better ways of using the digital tools we have at our disposal. For
instance, USC professors take part in a two-week summer workshop, where they have
an opportunity to experiment first-hand with an assortment of media
enhancements…using course syllabi to storyboard multimedia assignments that
effectively support both course content and learning objectives.

And The Centre for Research and Innovation in Learning and Teaching at the
National College of Ireland recently launched its groundbreaking National ELearning
Laboratory. The new facility incorporates state-of-the-art hardware and
software to actually measure user-screen interactions…and uses this data to inform
screen design, content development, and target group suitability across a wide range
of screen-based applications.

Of course, when all is said and done, 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 change agents, we will need to summon both our
influence and our ingenuity to 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 collecting 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 quest to educate creative and competent knowledge leaders for
the 21st century.

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
race for knowledge, more critical than ever.