At their creation in the 2000s, massive open online courses (MOOCs) were thought to be a revolution in higher education. The new form of learning, helped by the digital revolution, was thought to be a game-changer. Yet nowadays, most people agree that they did not achieve the full extent of their expected potential: a study from MIT and Harvard MOOCs showed that, in 2017–2018, the completion rate of the courses was only of 3.13% – down from 6% in 2014–2015. While the potential of digital enhancement of learning was confirmed, it turns out that the way technology impacts education is going to be more nuanced and complex than simply making every degree available online. In this article, we will study three aspects of this transformation: blended learning, active learning, and personalized curricula.
- Blended learning
Blended learning designates the range of possibilities presented by combining digital media with established classroom forms that require the physical presence of teachers and students. For example, professors can provide content (videos, texts, podcasts) for the students to study before the class so that the time spent in the classroom becomes an opportunity to ask questions and apply the concepts learned. This digital content can be defined as Microlearning when it is divided in various small learning units coupled with videos, games, and tests. Introducing them alongside more traditional teaching methods at university is an empowering way to prepare students for their future jobs, as microlearning is being increasingly used by companies to form their employees.
In the classroom, professors and students can also use digital tools, such as screens, tablets, or augmented reality devices, to improve their learning experience. For example, students in medicine can practice their skills on a virtual dissection table, like the Anatomage Table used at the Heidelberg University, a technique that makes them achieve 27% higher scores in anatomy.
That is something that European countries could collaborate on. For example, they could develop a common data infrastructure to make exchanges of knowledge easier. Higher education institutions can also share their best practices in terms of innovative teaching skills, to insure they remain attractive to students from Europe, as well as from other countries, to prevent a “brain drain” and loss of talent.
- Active and collaborative learning
Similarly to changes happening in the workplace, digitalization is making education increasingly collaborative. The time spent in the classroom is seen more as a place for exchange than a one-way input of knowledge. The class becomes a community, thanks to web-based platforms, which make student-student and student-instructor interactions possible, even outside of class hours. Such online communities are a place to hold debates, share documents related to topics discussed in class, and submit projects to share with everyone. On these platforms, professors also have the option to post digital content on alternative supports: short videos, surveys, photo gallery, audio, etc. This multiplicity of formats gives them more flexibility and makes difficult notions more accessible. It is also a great way to keep students active and to adapt lessons to them and their interests.
The relationship between professors themselves is shifting as well, as they tend to collaborate to develop courses. In schools, such collaboration between teachers has proven to have a positive impact on student learning by increasing academic rigor and supporting students’ non-academic needs. The same model can be implemented in higher education institutions to offer a better experience to students. Moreover, social networks and online communities make it easier for professors to share their experience and develop their creativity together. They increasingly tend to use online platforms to create Personal Learning Networks, and 78% of all faculty report using at least one social media site, most often YouTube or Facebook, in support of their professional career activities. This can also help them respond to the students’ demand for more cross-disciplinary learning and thinking.
- Personalized curricula
In the future, higher education is going to become increasingly personalized, with students being able to choose when and where they study, among a large pool of disciplines. It is going to get easier for working adults to go back to university for further education, or for people to be hired directly out of high school by an employer that offers a college degree while working. In this context, new technologies, especially tools of data analysis, are helping universities to become more student-centric, by improving their assistance for things such as orientation and time management. The pool of students is becoming more and more diverse in terms of socio-economic background, age, or identity. Hence, it is important for higher education administrations to make sure their programs can be tailored to the needs of every one of their students.
At the London South Bank University, a lot of students are part-time and from minority backgrounds, and often at risk of a sudden drop in academic performance. The university is using big data to get a better understanding of when a student is having difficulties in a course to try to prevent them from falling into a downward spiral leading them to eventually drop out.
Another major aspect of twenty-first-century higher education is mobility: students increasingly want – and are expected to – do part of their studies abroad, or in different institutions. Unfortunately, universities often lack universal recognition of academic achievements, which makes studying in various institutions more difficult. Credit and degree mobility should be a priority for universities that want to offer their students the chance to spend a semester or a year in another country. This can be achieved by shifting from a paper-based workflow to a digital workflow, as is the aim of the initiative Erasmus Without Paper, as well as creating common central depositories where students can individually manage their data and documents. Moreover, the European Commission is currently developing initiatives to help implement a European Education Area. These initiatives include an automatic mutual recognition of diplomas and learning periods abroad by 2025, as well as the development of European Universities, which are transnational alliances between all types of higher education institutions. An important aspect of these initiatives should be to make sure that they do not only concern universities, but also vocational schools and community colleges, to ensure that all students are given equal opportunities.
Overall, the main thing that higher education institutions should keep in mind is to remain student centric and embrace the full geographical and pluri-disciplinary potential of each one’s curricula in three ways:
- Educational institutions shall build on a common platform, gathering and organizing knowledge in an accessible way, regardless of where you are
- Educational institutions should enable mobility – of the student and its degrees, making them equally recognized on European level
- Educational institutions should adopt the ambition of being pioneers in the use of data and technologies leveraging this data, enhancing education places as an area of innovation and digital testing.
This would allow European institutions to remain attractive to students from EU Member States as well as from other countries, by offering them specific curricula tailored to their needs and giving them the right tools to begin – or pursue – their professional lives.
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