I was intrigued by my recent experience of teaching a course to undergraduate students at the Singapore Management University (SMU). It has been more than 20 years since I last taught undergraduates.
When I entered the classroom, many students were seated behind a laptop computer – and almost all had a smartphone if not a tablet computer as well. Technology is not alien to me. I have actively participated in already three waves of using technology to change the nature of higher education: the development of videos for individual learning in the early 1990s, the first interactive online programmes in the late 1990s, and blended tailor made programmes for executives in the early 2000s, all with a somewhat mixed result. But I have to admit that what I lived through in the recent year is of a very different nature, a radically different learning paradigm.
IMPACT ON LEARNING
The student who is always connected, who has access to an overload of information, who wants to express freely his or her opinion on blogs, who combines living in virtual and face to face networks is a different person than the one who went to lectures to take notes, who studied from printed textbooks and wrote letters. If we accept this reality, we need to look for a different learning paradigm that optimises the learning of this new student.
We are moving from a teaching paradigm towards a student-centered learning paradigm. Our role evolves towards that of a guide and a facilitator: a guide to help students make the difference between the good, the bad and the ugly information; a facilitator to help make sense out of the overload of information available at our fingertips. As a consequence the initiative for designing a curriculum may well shift a bit from the academic supplier to the student-user.
The new learning paradigm will be no doubt be more experience-based. Project-based learning as a subcategory of experience based learning is not new. It was a hallmark of a lot of engineering education. The simple idea to start from a real as opposed to a stylised problem, and have the students learn from the experience they build up in solving these problems will get more and more application in other disciplines. Related to this is the concept of the flipped classroom where we let the student learn the conceptual frameworks outside the classroom, thus freeing up time in the classroom to apply the concepts by solving problems, debating applications, and so on. This may not sound revolutionary to those of us who have been teaching by the case study method for example. The change is no doubt in the richness of what can be done outside the classroom though rich media and social networking.
“Going to the classroom” will be less and less identified with spending time in a well-defined and constrained physical location. The classroom has become virtual and may exist everywhere and at all times of the day.
Educators will have to spend much more effort and creativity on the use of learner data and analytics to predict and advice on students’ learning. While we may always have had some data and support systems to advise the students, it is imperative that in an environment where the responsibility for the design of the learning trajectory shifts from the educator to the student, we provide much more information to guide the student.
IMPACT ON RESEARCH
Future research will be internationally networked. This is a continuation of what already exists, but the tools for communication and for research support will enhance considerably the productivity of internationally networked research. Research, design and engineering support systems, for example, specialised social networks, Product Lifecycle Management Systems for design, cheap video communication systems or retrieval and document management systems have made huge improvements and have enabled a new generation of international research networks.
Both the way we ask questions and how we solve them will be adjusted. There are huge opportunities in this, because we can study phenomena that used to be out of our reach. But there are also some risks. Pattern recognition rarely addresses causality and may thus be effective in prediction, without really being able to explain why. “Fishing”, a more colloquial word for data mining, is not yet accepted or acceptable. But it may only be a real problem when the datasets are too small or the sampling has been too weak to support any insights. I can foresee a future galactic battle between the galaxies of Big Data and Data Science and the traditional scientific approach. And the battlefield will be partially in our universities.
Another trend is the emergence of what some call Social Technology, or the application of Data Science and Big Data to social problems. In social sciences we were often limited by small sample sizes and costly and difficult access to subjects for experiments. How many psychological and sociological experiments have been carried out with undergraduate students at top US universities? I have no doubt about the rigour with which these were carried out, but one cannot but think that the samples were socially and culturally biased and generalisation was therefore difficult. The rapid diffusion of sensors to capture data on all aspects of life and society, and the creation of vast, varied and fast evolving databases of user behavior in social networks and online retailing open up tremendous perspectives for rigorous, relevant and truly revealing social sciences research.
This development is not without risks. There are concerns about security, privacy and ownership of personal data.
The current opportunities offered by technology may lead to a fundamental change in our learning and research paradigms. What might we aspire to achieve with these new emerging research and learning paradigms? Participation in higher education has been “democratised” as access has increased across the world. Most governments invest significantly in research to remain competitive as knowledge-based economies. As a result, research universities today educate a significant proportion of society.
Perhaps a key opportunity for the new research and learning paradigms is embracing and harnessing such diversity, and allowing students to learn how they can contribute not just as individuals, but also as bridges between cultures, disciplines, between theory and application, between stakeholders with different interests — while being keenly aware that every stakeholder shares the same future.
University education should remain an important way to transform society. It is at risk of yielding to pressures to merely transform young adults to play a role in the workforce.
This article is an abridgement of Arnoud De Meyer’s original piece that was published in Luc E. Weber and James J. Duderstadt (eds.) 2016. University Priorities and Constraints, Glion Colloquium Series No. 9, Economica.
ARNOUD DE MEYER
Arnoud De Meyer is President of Singapore Management University.