Distance Education and the Lifelong Learning Revolution

Distance Education and the Lifelong Learning Revolution
President Susan Aldridge of University of Maryland University College (UMUC) delivered this keynote address, titled “Virtual Pathways, Virtually Unlimited Possibilities: Distance Education and the Lifelong Learning Revolution” and delivered in the World Conference of Open University Presidents. Saitama, Japan.

As the 21st century approaches the end of its first decade, we find ourselves living in a
world that is far less concerned about who you are than about what you know and
how well you can use it. At a time when we are generating unique information at an
astonishing rate of four to five exabytes a year…or roughly 800 megabytes for every
man, woman, and child on earth.

In this new world, jobs are moving en masse into the knowledge sector…with its laser
focus on technology. Thus, we are more likely to work with our heads than with our
hands…even on the assembly line, where sophisticated production equipment requires
increasingly higher levels of critical thinking and technical know-how.

The nature of the knowledge work we do is also evolving at exponential rates. For
example, half of what engineers learn as first-year college students is effectively
obsolete by the time they graduate. Even more astounding, these same engineers
will, on average, move through at least ten different jobs before they turn 40.

So to remain proactive in the face of what can only be called exploding change, we
must be prepared at all times to retool our skills…and even reinvent our careers…by
going back to school regularly and often.

To be sure, this growing need for continuing education is 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.

In addition to the so-called “traditional” student, there is the adult student, with or
without previous college experience…the international student…and the “digital
native,” for whom technology, in all of its many forms, has become a way of life.

And while each of these student populations has different needs, they all want
credentials of value.

Needless to say, this tectonic shift in the higher education landscape is fueling what
some call a Copernican learning revolution; realigning the attitudes and principles;
norms and practices that have until now powered the academic enterprise. In turn,
this realignment has given rise to a new learning paradigm…as opposed to the old
instruction model — designed to meet the challenges of a knowledge-intensive world.

Under this new paradigm, education is an open-ended lifelong pursuit…rather than a
highly structured degree-driven activity…which includes everything from primary
and secondary education…to undergraduate, graduate, and professional development
programs…to on-the-job training and personal enrichment.

That said, learning moves beyond the school building and well past the school
day…with academic institutions becoming integral components of far-reaching,
collaborative learning communities…rather than the self-contained learning structures
they have traditionally been.

Instead of catering to an exclusive subset of students, these institutions connect
broadly diverse learners…across a myriad of customs and perspectives; abilities and
lifestyles…and provide them with the support services they must have to meet their
academic goals.

What’s more, colleges and universities can no longer operate within the “one”
model…one location, one timetable, one credit hour system, and one delivery mode.
Instead, they must embrace a far more flexible, multiple choice
approach…customized to meet the needs of all students…regardless of where they live
and work, or how they learn. And institutional quality is measured by learning
outcomes produced, rather than by assets acquired…such as faculty, facility, and
research dollars.

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.

Continuing education is also by necessity, more self-directed, as students seek to
connect the dots between what they already know and what they need to learn. As
such, teaching becomes more facilitative than prescriptive…and learning activities are
designed to build on prior experience and previously acquired competencies.

Because academic offerings are more responsive to ever-changing professional needs,
faculties have grown past the full-time research tenure track, to include a new breed
of part-time educators…who are both renowned scholars and recognized practitioners
in their fields.

Likewise, academic content is no longer defined by the institution, but rather driven
by the marketplace…moving beyond traditional college curricula to include learning
opportunities in such high demand career fields as cybersecurity, global business
management, and environmental planning.

Not surprisingly then, such unconventional institutions as the Open University of
Japan and my own University of Maryland University College are leading the
lifelong learning revolution…using the latest digital technologies to create vast
learning communities and effective learning environments…in literally every corner
of the world.

These virtual pathways offer seemingly unlimited possibilities when it comes to
teaching and learning… paving the way for collaborative knowledge innovation and
exchange that is multi-generational, multi-cultural, and multi-disciplinary….among
individuals, institutions, and even nations.

Indeed, by harnessing the power of technology, we can build and continuously assess
asynchronous learning communities of nearly any size…through which learners of all
ages, abilities, ethnicities, and economic circumstances can move seamlessly…at
different times, in different places, and for different reasons.

And distance technologies allow us to recruit scholar-practitioners in any number of
professional fields as faculty members and guest lecturers…while at the same time
promoting rapid scholarly exchange across disciplines and from many perspectives.

The University of Maryland University College…or UMUC…has always been at the
forefront of distance education…bringing first-rate academic opportunities to the
people, at times and in locations that are convenient and accessible.

Founded in 1947 as a truly visionary experiment in adult education…it is now one of
academia’s greatest success stories…as the largest public university in the United
States…serving more than 90,000 students in 28 countries around the world.

And like other open universities, UMUC uses the very latest digital technologies to
create what we like to call ideal learning environments….that are customized, engaging, authentic, and measurable…in a way that fosters individual success across
the university’s broadly diverse student body.

Our culturally sensitive classrooms readily accommodate for everything from age and
ability…language and cultural tradition…lifestyle and learning preference. So for
international students, we can replace standard icons and menus with locally familiar
words and symbols…or include locally-relevant case studies, textbooks, and data.

For adult learners, we are moving away from the concept of teacher-directed
education to promote the theory of student-centered learning….in an effort to help
these students build on prior knowledge and experience.

And for our digital natives UMUC is beginning to integrate the latest social
networking and remote access applications…as a way of enabling continuous, realtime
collaboration and communication.

Moreover, distance learning technology also permits our faculty members to masscustomize
academic coursework…thereby adapting it to meet the individual needs of
a large number of students, without additional cost.

So rather than having each professor create his or her own course curriculum and
materials…which is an expensive and labor-intensive process…UMUC uses one
common course curriculum, along with standard learning objectives, shared
assessment tools, and linkable course units across multiple sections. It then
encourages its instructors to “customize” their teaching strategies in accordance with
the unique learning needs of their students.

At UMUC, we are also careful to ensure that our virtual classrooms engage students
in active learning…designed to promote self-efficacy, rather than factual recall. That
said, we are using distance technologies to re-engineer many of our more
conventional teaching practices. Take the ubiquitous large lecture hall, for example.

Now although this technique is certainly economical, it is neither effective nor
empowering for the student…who becomes little more than a passive vessel for
receiving information. And even when the instructor is a charismatic speaker or
extremely adept at using visual aids, it is difficult at best to keep a room full of minds
from wandering for an hour or more…much less ensure that they remember the
important points when exam time rolls around.

So to make the process a bit more learner-friendly, UMUC incorporates podcast
technology…with audio, video, and graphic elements…to upload lecture content into a
format its students can access on demand…whenever and wherever they choose.

We are also exploring how we might use videogame technology to further enhance
the teaching process. Essentially, this popular digital pastime provides students with
a hands-on, multi-sensory learning activity…which is at the same time constructive
and collaborative…immersive and interpretive…analytical and applicable.

These virtual scenarios can also be designed to yield a great deal of useful learning
assessment data…including an individual student’s demographic profile…her progress
in achieving stated learning objectives…and her participation in the learning
experience.

Interestingly enough, this strategy is quickly taking hold in the United
States….among even the most traditional institutions. Dartmouth College, for
example, has developed one such virtual environment to train community emergency
response teams…while Harvard University recently inaugurated River City…a virtual
simulation designed to educate public health professionals in identifying and treating
epidemics.

The ideal distance education environment also promotes authentic learning…by
integrating both problem- and knowledge-based instruction. That said, it provides
ample opportunities for students to apply what they are learning within the context of
real-world situations. So rather than simply learning about physics…they experience
what it actually means to be a physicist.

Remote access technology offers an extraordinary way to learn by doing…and one
that UMUC has put to exemplary use in creating its network systems and security lab.
In looking for something more sophisticated than animation or simulation to support
its information assurance program, UMUC settled on a remote access
environment….a quantum leap, educationally speaking.

In fact, this 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.

Needless to say, this lab represents what we Americans call the ultimate “win-win.”
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.

UMUC is also beginning to embed interactive social networking technologies.
Even the most basic of these tools offers an exceptionally flexible and cost-effective
communications platform…potentially linking thousands of students to engage in both
asynchronous and real-time learning that promotes plenty of ongoing
interaction…student-to-student, student-to-faculty, and student-to- content.

For example, blogging enables learners to share and evaluate information and ideas,
while also becoming proficient writers. And from the instructor’s perspective, it
supplies an ongoing record of work from which to measure student progress. So
given these advantages, professors are using blogs for a wide range of learning
tasks…from creating digital journals and personal portfolios…to coordinating group
projects and maintaining discussion boards.

Moreover, this one-to-many technology makes it possible for UMUC to build easily
expandable, online communities of practice…connecting students, faculty members,
and professionals from various institutions and organizations to create and share new
knowledge…engage in cooperative problem-solving…and promote a sense of
collective enterprise.

Certainly, when all is said and done, successful learning begins with good teaching.
And state-of-the-art technology has made it possible for UMUC to recruit an
exceptional faculty. UMUC hires its online instructors from among the growing
number of international scholar-practitioners…who have taught and worked all over
the world.

But having knowledge and experience is one thing…teaching effectively is quite
another…especially from a distance, to students with diverse learning styles,
computer skills, and academic backgrounds.

So to reinforce the quality of their instruction…while also measuring its
effectiveness… UMUC has created a virtual training institute to provide its faculty
members with professional development and peer mentoring that is both continuous
and self-paced. Even more important, it enables our instructors to experience online
education first-hand…a critical step in understanding what it actually means to be a
distance learner.

UMUC s award-winning Center for Teaching and Learning…or CTL…offers an
interactive e-learning environment, with an abundance of faculty resources in a variety of formats…from written articles to self-paced tutorials and podcasts. UMUC
faculty members may also earn teaching credentials through a series of structured
distance training workshops in six areas of concentration…each of which is essential
to successful teaching and learning in any environment.

And the CTL provides a unique Faculty Media Lab, which brings instructors, 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 reference for their own
instructional and resource development efforts.

UMUC also uses one-to-many social networking technologies to facilitate costeffective
faculty peer mentoring. That said, the CTL connects new and emerging
faculty members…working in even the most remote areas of the world…with their
more experienced peers…to share proven teaching strategies; explore diverse teaching
philosophies; and develop new teaching methodologies.

Moreover, veteran faculty may observe newer teachers in action…by visiting their
virtual classrooms at various intervals…to ensure that they do indeed meet all of the
university’s requirements for an ideal learning environment.

These same virtual pathways also afford endless options for providing the ongoing
support our students need to learn successfully from a distance. And at UMUC, we
have invested wisely in a comprehensive system of easily accessible online support
services…which includes everything from course registration, tuition payment, and
financial aid…to placement testing, academic advisory, and, career counseling.

And inasmuch as feeling connected to a university community has always been an
important part of any memorable learning experience, UMUC’s Center for Student
Success creates a virtual campus of sorts…linking students electronically with
mentors and tutors…online clubs and honor societies… experts and future colleagues
in their fields of study.

We are especially proud of our user-friendly library services. This digital library
system maintains a vast webliography of online library resources…including more
than 100 databases…many of which furnish full-text versions of articles from among
some 74,000 professional journals.

What’s more, we have reference librarians on hand around the clock to assist students
by e-mail; chat room; or telephone….while also obtaining copyright permissions for
our faculty members….and digitizing selected books and articles for them to use in the classroom. And so that students know how to effectively use both the library and
the technology, UMUC provides a mandatory course on library skills and information
literacy.

Of course, as a leader in distance education, UMUC must remain a few steps ahead of
the curve, with next generation service technologies…such as our recently automated
enrollment management system. This innovative system is designed to quickly and
accurately furnish our students with the information they need to plan each step in the
lifelong learning process…saving them untold dollars and countless hours taking
courses they do not need.

And with automation in place, the university no longer struggles with the high cost of
paper storage, the tedium of paper juggling, and the devastating potential for paper
loss. Consequently, the system has significantly improved efficiencies of scale
overall…while freeing additional staff and faculty time for serving our students far
more effectively.

I can even envision a day when it will link thousands of institutional trading partners
in real time to achieve in higher education something as universal as the ATM
banking system.

Distance technology also makes it possible scholarly exchange and collaboration
across cultures and beyond borders. For instance, UMUC’s innovative Center for
Intellectual Property has furnished thousands of administrators and faculty
members…at many different institutions …with both timely information and quality
professional development around the complex issues associated with the very public
nature of online information transfer.

And digital delivery systems facilitate for vibrant learning partnerships with
governments, corporations, and other like-minded institutions of higher education,
both at home and abroad. Again, UMUC has long been at the leading edge of online
collaboration…as a way to increase both the diversity and the richness of its academic
offerings and research efforts.

One of the most successful of these alliances is our longstanding joint degree
program with two Russian universities. After completing this five-year
program…partially on campus and partially online…Russian students receive two
degrees….one in international economics from their home university and a bachelor
of science in business and management from UMUC.

Besides the opportunity to study at a distance with students from around the
world…our Russian exchange group enjoys full access to UMUC’s extensive online library…along with face-to-face classes taught by visiting professors. And if family
finances permit, these students also have the option of spending a residential semester
or two with us on our American campus in Maryland… thus allowing them to have an
overseas experience without the four-year price tag.

It’s certainly safe to say that distance education is not just a passing fad, but rather a
permanent…albeit rapidly evolving…dimension of today’s knowledge economy. Yet
in maximizing its benefits and meeting its challenges, we must carefully nurture its
potential, by reaching beyond our individual learning communities to collectively
research, evaluate, and champion promising technologies and applications.

Open educational resources are a perfect example of such collaboration. While
building on the model developed by open source software designers, hundreds of
colleges and universities worldwide are now working together to develop highquality
digitized learning content and teaching materials…as well as the means with
which to implement them locally. And in the process, overriding intellectual property
concerns; producing knowledge-specific content, as needed; and opening new
avenues for lifelong learning in even the least developed nations.

Of course, an academic paradigm shift of this magnitude demands transformational
leadership of the highest order. So each of us here today must be prepared to use
both our influence and our ingenuity to ensure that every aspect of our own
university…its people, its practices, and its programs…is aligned with the mission, the
vision, and the academic values we embrace.

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.