Navigating Changing Student Dynamics and Heightened Technology Expectations – A speech by Dr. Susan Aldridge

Navigating Changing Student Dynamics and Heightened Technology Expectations - A speech by Dr. Susan Aldridge

Dr. Susan Aldridge delivered this opening address at Philadelphila, PA on April 14, 2015.

Thank you and welcome to our beautiful city of Philadelphia. I am indeed honored to be here today, with such distinguished and accomplished colleagues.

As innovation evangelists in higher education, you are at the forefront of mobilizing campus commitment and talent around optimizing digital technology in the service of effective teaching and learning.

In doing so, you are paving the way for your institutions to move high-quality technology-enhanced education into the mainstream of academia….with the explicit goal of creating, capturing, and delivering progressively greater value on academic investment for your students.

And not a moment too soon.

To coin a popular phrase, quality is the “new black” in technology-enhanced education…now trumping convenience and flexibility as the benchmark for value on academic investment. Because as e-learning experts, we know that it’s not the technology itself that’s important, it’s how we use it to engage our students in mastering the complex skills they will need to move successfully from coursework to real work.

Skills need to be grounded in the student’s ability to think “on their feet” and “out of the box” to turn knowledge into action and action into innovation…as creative and collaborative problem-solvers…self-directed learners…and self-empowered decision-makers.

Likewise, in navigating todays plug and play world of business and governance, tomorrows professionals must be well-versed in the digital tools that have given rise to a new generation of virtual workers, partners, and consumers.

And after years of research and practice, we know that the best way to achieve that outcome is through active, authentic, and customized learning experiences that integrate problem-based with knowledge-based instruction. So by optimizing the dazzling array of interactive technologies we now have at our disposal, we are far better equipped to provide those quality experiences.

In light of where we are now in our online education trajectory…and where our students will most likely need us to go…we should probably begin the quality discussion by trying to envision the future of technology-enhanced learning from what we know and what we can reasonably predict. Here the emphasis is on enhanced…as we are moving into an era when a growing number of educators on even the most traditional campuses are incorporating digital technology in some form to complement the face-to-face learning experience.

Although there are more than a few emerging trends that will undoubtedly have a real impact on that future, there are a few mid-range developments worth noting…all of which support the steady move to give students greater control over and responsibility for their own learning.

Given that self-directed, lifelong learning will continue to be essential for satisfying and gainful employment, forward-thinking colleges and universities are focused on becoming readily accessible cyber-portals of continuing education…that make it easier for students to move in and out of the learning environment…at different times…in different places…and for different reasons.

For example, The University of Maryland School of Pharmacy’s Center for Innovative Pharmacy Solutions has developed something along these lines with its Knowledge Enterprise. Designed to provide asynchronous, online continuing education for working pharmacists, it is a one-stop cyber-portal to a wealth of professional development courses, state-of-the-art practice tools, and evidence-based research materials.

What’s more, it serves as a professional networking site. A one-time portal fee guarantees lifetime access to course materials that are updated regularly to reflect emerging research and user feedback. So each learning experience becomes a continuous learning opportunity.

With this shift in control, we will also begin to see less emphasis on the conventional, course-based learning management system… and more on student-focused, personal learning environments and networks that connect the dots between formal and informal learning…classroom, workplace, and everyday life.

Personal learning environments…or PLEs…enable students of all abilities, ages, and stages in life to take fuller advantage of the rich virtual learning landscape, with its many digital tools and devices, resources and communities.

PLES also provide a uniquely dynamic and customized digital interface for collecting, curating, constructing, and sharing knowledge, regardless of the source. Consequently, students become highly independent and proficient resource navigators, media creators, and content contributors…intent on meeting their individual needs and supporting their individual interests.

Personal learning networks take this concept one giant step further, by using the PLE to build professional connections around common interests and collaborative projects. So by encouraging both…knowledge acquisition and creation is not only an independent activity, but also an interdependent endeavor.

Not surprisingly then, learning on the go is another mid-range trend that is driving the design in quality, technology-enhanced education.

In fact, given the many sophisticated mobile devices that are now on the market, it’s hard to imagine our lives without these gadgets. And as they become ever more compact and ubiquitous, they provide an effective and portable tool for students to use in accessing flexible and adaptive learning experiences that are active and authentic, individualized or collaborative.

These devices can be deployed either in the classroom for structured learning activities or on the move for independent study that extends beyond the classroom. By the same token, they enable rich content for interaction – as in multimedia simulations and social networking sites – as well as discrete content, such as quizzes, simple games, and class announcements.

Likewise, we can push content out to our students or ask them to pull it in for themselves, depending on their individual interests and needs, both in and out of class. And in the process, they will also have the option to either consume it or produce it – an important factor in promoting knowledge synthesis and co-creation.

Of course, digital devices of all sizes and types are virtually useless without the digital tools that power them…and there are a few hot technologies that offer an exceptional return on academic investment in all learning environments.

For example, the social media we use every day to connect and communicate with just about everyone in our lives can become what Georgetown University educators, Randy Bass and Heidi Elmendorf, refer to as cost-effective social pedagogies in the classroom…whether online, on-the-ground, or a combination of both.

At Boston College, every on-campus business student is required to take an Introduction to Management class. And although taught in person, it has been designed to harness the power of so-called social pedagogies as primary teaching tools that greatly enrich the learning experience.

Indeed, by integrating wikis and blogs, discussion boards and Facebook pages…course instructors are engaging their students in authentic, self-paced, and communication-intensive learning…while at the same time keeping them up-to-date on real world problems and events.

As a result, they have what amounts to a permanent virtual meeting place for deepening concepts, sharing insights, and exchanging relevant resources. For instance, the course incorporates user-friendly and easily scalable wikis hosted by Socialtext…which provide students with ongoing access to relevant news content from media outlets like The Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek.

So in addition to a virtual meeting place, they also have a virtual newsstand that supports real-time in-class discussion…as well as online student exchange.

Likewise, by commenting on and contributing to these wikis, students are actively building intellectual communities of practice…that serve as virtual greenhouses for problem-finding and problem-solving, as well as outlets for promoting a sense of joint enterprise and professional identity. What’s more, they are getting hands-on practice in effectively using the very social networking tools and applications that, as future professionals, they will be expected to employ.

And with YouTube now reaching more American adults age eighteen to thirty-four than any of the cable television networks, it’s easy to see how self-produced videos can also become transformative learning tools for mastering important skills.

In teaching her online training and development course at our School of Education, Jamie Callahan includes a key assignment on public speaking. And to make it more engaging and authentic for her students, she requires them to post their own video presentations…using a software called Acclaim…developed by a design team that included another Drexel faculty member in our Close School of Entrepreneurship.

This platform allows for time-stamped, annotated comments…a feature that is currently unavailable within the Blackboard learning system. But as you can imagine, it’s an extremely valuable video-recording tool for eliciting feedback from both the professor and the class. Students then use these comments to produce and post a new and improved video presentation as their final assignment.

Karl Okomoto…a professor at Drexel’s Kline School of Law…is also using this approach to help law students perfect the art of negotiation.

Working with a team of fellow designers, he created LawMeets…an interactive website that law students across the country are now using to post videos of themselves counseling “clients” which are peer-reviewed through a digital voting device. Top-rated performances are then evaluated by a cadre of seasoned practicing attorneys, who furnish a demonstration video of their own, as well.

And given that the user reviews and faculty feedback have been outstanding thus far, Karl is making plans to deploy his role-playing platform for building similar skills in other disciplines on and beyond the Drexel campus.

Videoconferencing is yet another great way to enhance the learning experience. From simple applications like Skype and Facetime…to cloud-based services such as Google+ Hangouts…these digital tools pave the way for supporting real-time, face-to-face interaction from a distance, with anyone, from anywhere, via any number of devices.

In fact, video communication is in many ways a dream come true for students and faculty alike…because it allows them to exploit the technology they love…while experiencing the face-to-face camaraderie they genuinely need and enjoy. And the teaching and learning possibilities are limited only by the imagination…especially given the minimal cost and coordination time associated with facilitating any number of innovative activities.

One faculty member at the University of Nevada, Reno uses Skype in an online course to simulate “live presentations” for students to share their capstone projects with one another. In a similar vein, institutions in different parts of the United States are joining forces through video Communication to revive courses in rarely taught languages like Yoruba and Zulu.

And this same technology allows two Emory University professors to link their students with Shakespeare performances around the world.

Workforce education expert, Elliot Masie, also makes a good case for providing students with videoconferencing access to real world experts interested in contributing to course discussions or facilitating group projects.

For instance, a chemistry professor might use this technology to take his students on a 20-minute, real-time video tour of a nearby biotechnology lab…which includes a quick chat with a chemist who is conducting research in the field of virus resistant crops. These sessions can also be recorded as vodcasts for future online viewing.

In our push to educate students who can think on their feet and out of the box, virtual reality is a great way to help students learn by doing…as they apply expert knowledge and practice complex skills within a safe, but challenging environment. Equally impressive, these digital tools are typically designed to generate large amounts of data for instructors to use in assessing performance and customizing the learning experience.

At Drexel, our College of Nursing and Health Professions faculty is well-acquainted with the value of patient proxies for teaching essential clinical skills, having built a high-tech simulation laboratory on campus, complete with life-size mannequins and state-of-the-art medical equipment.

But this arrangement is anything but convenient for Drexel’s many online nursing students. So to sharpen their clinical practice skills from a distance, the college has moved its lab onto the laptop, with the help of an avatar named Tina Jones.

A product developed by Shadow Health…this 29-year-old virtual patient is nothing short of amazing in her ability to respond like any real-life patient with a complicated medical history and a distinct personality. Consequently, Tina offers our online RNBSN students a unique chance to test-drive their diagnostic and interpersonal skills, by performing high-stakes clinical assessments…over and over, if necessary.

What’s more, by observing the interaction, instructors can also supply immediate feedback around targeted areas for improvement.

Drexel’s College of Nursing and Health Professionals also offers an online certificate program in forensic trends and issues in contemporary healthcare…designed to provide healthcare professionals with the requisite expert knowledge and practical skills to conduct comprehensive, sensitive, and legally sufficient clinical assessments in the aftermath of violent crime.

And to ensure that students have plenty of opportunities to authentically apply their newfound knowledge and skills, we have incorporated sophisticated simulations that produce different outcomes…leading to success or failure…depending on the course of action taken.

For example, a three-dimensional virtual crime scene…complete with multiple “clues” and continuous feedback…empowers students to conduct a vulnerability risk assessment. There are also realistic simulations that reinforce effective strategies for interviewing victims and offenders to elicit details of the crime…along with a playback feature for reviewing and improving performance.

Educational videogames are another technology enhancement that provides a risk-free, but challenging environment for engaging students of all ages in authentic and collaborative problem-based activities and role-playing exercises, aimed at developing more than a few of the complex skills they need to become successful practitioners in their fields.

To be sure, the goal of any good game is to develop some sort of proficiency through repetitive and thought-provoking practice, riddled with wrong turns, major hurdles, and dead-ends. So when designed with education in mind, these high-tech digital tools empower students to apply new knowledge and make mission-critical decisions, while identifying obstacles, considering multiple perspectives, and rehearsing various responses.

For instance, engineering students are learning more authentically at Northern Illinois University, thanks to Brianno Coller, an associate professor there who developed Spumone, an entertaining videogame that doubles as a great way to teach engineering dynamics.

Students interact with the game by engaging in challenges and inputting formulas and algorithms to accomplish a variety of virtual tasks, depending on the learning objective…for example, building and racing a virtual car.

Spumone has become so successful it is now a central part of the curriculum, as well as an integral component of the final exam. Even more impressive, Coller’s students are moving ahead of their peers in traditional courses, scoring better on assessment tests in eighteen out of twenty-one Categories.

Gaming technology has, in many ways, greased the wheels for adaptive learning…a promising digital innovation that may very well revolutionize technology-enhanced education.

Let’s face it. As educators, we know that some students…especially non-traditional students… move more successfully through their courses than others, simply because of diverse abilities, learning styles, and academic experiences.

So to level the learning field, we have developed all sorts of strategies over the years, from extra credit assignments to remedial coaching. Yet while these tactics may be useful to some extent, they are not, for the most part, truly personalized or easily scalable.

On the other hand, adaptive learning systems empower students to master difficult concepts and competencies at their own pace…whether learning fully online or in some sort of hybrid setting. Using richly interactive digital content and sophisticated data-collection technologies, these systems automatically generate customized instruction…complete with immediate feedback…to provide simultaneous remediation, promote active learning, and cultivate deeper engagement.

And although there are many different designs, models, and ready-to-use products, adaptive learning tools appear to accomplish two important objectives. Students feel more successful and instructors become more productive.

Because this technology is relatively new, there isn’t a great deal of research to date. But the early returns do seem promising. For example, after teaming with Knewton to rethink and redesign its entry-level math courses, Arizona State University recorded an eighteen percent jump in pass rates, along with a forty-seven percent drop in withdrawals…thereby saving the school some twelve million dollars in lost tuition revenue.

Equally impressive, the University of South Wales reports a fifty-five percent decline in dropout rates among students in an engineering course there, even as course enrollments increased by nearly thirty percent…all thanks to adaptive tutorials produced by Smart Sparrow.

Of course, there are literally thousands of learning applications at our fingertips…many of which can be downloaded on any device…that can be incorporated as additional course resources and enhancements.

For example, an increasing number of both online and on-ground instructors are using pre-recorded expert voices for supplementing in-class readings and discussions. And a heavy dose of genius from among the TED Talks archives…which are available for free at…gives students access to some of the real thought leaders of our time.

One of my personal favorites is…an application designed to engage online science students in high-quality, media rich, and immersive simulations…such as virtual dissections and lab experiments…which can be used from any device, at any time, to master discipline-specific knowledge and skills.

In addition to planning for and designing high-quality online and hybrid courses and content, we also need to think about how to make these digital enhancements available to our students. And while learning management systems are becoming more flexible with respect to supporting a personalized learning environment, a growing number of instructors are building online webmixes of course-specific virtual resources…with user-friendly software applications like Symbaloo.

There’s a free version for individual student use, along with a relatively inexpensive premium account for instructors and campuses that provides additional features for creating, customizing, and managing multiple webmixes, and sharing them with an unlimited number of users.

Symbaloo is also easy to organize and effortless to update. What’s more, it can be accessed from any device, and allows for hosting almost any platform­-from learning management systems, to social networking sites, to collaborative cloud tools. Consequently, students can add and share new resources, as needed, which makes it a wonderful tool for supporting self-directed, continuous learning.

You have all had a big hand in realigning the attitudes and principles; norms and practices that have traditionally driven the academic enterprise. And conferences such as this one offer an extraordinary opportunity for us to build even stronger pipelines for innovation and investment…by disseminating groundbreaking research…exploring creative solutions…and forging robust coalitions.

So as we move into the future of higher education…have no doubt that your remarkable work will continue to set the bar for high-quality, technology-enhanced education that is as customized as it is authentic…engaging as it is transformative. Because when our students succeed…we all succeed. Once again, thank you for having me here today.

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Dr. Susan C. Aldridge is President of Drexel University Online. For the past 18 years, Dr. Aldridge has held university leadership positions; as President of the University of Maryland University College for 6 years and as Vice Chancellor of Troy University’s Global Campus. In fall, 2014, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities published a book, Wired for Success, which Dr. Aldridge coauthored.