More focus on the development and imaginative use of AI for instruction. More focus on the development and imaginative use of AI for instruction. All of us with a stake in the future of higher education are wrestling with five significant questions at the start of 2021:
- What three major advances in online learning are likely to happen in 2021?
- What are the three major concerns for online learning in 2021?
- What are the three likely distractors?
- What is one promising development to keep an eye on?
- What are three items to really focus on in 2021 that will enable the development and growth of online learning?
The pandemic is very much still with us. It will take time to vaccinate 70-80% of the population and to develop herd immunity. Face-to-face teaching at the college and university level will remain challenging, if impossible for some time, despite the fact that schools in many parts of Canada are open and functioning.
Instructors and their colleagues will continue to teach online or in a hybrid mode even after the pandemic has abated, with many international students still unable to travel easily. 2021 will be a difficult year, but it will also be a year of innovation and development.
It’s vital to understand what to expect in terms of online learning in 2021.
1.What three major advances in online learning are likely to happen in 2021?
- More focus on the development and imaginative use of AI for instruction. Examples include Professor James Nadler’s Creative Negotiations class at Ryerson, the use of AI and virtual reality to teach neurosurgeons at McGill, Athabasca University’s immersive virtual co-op, Bow Valley College’s Pivot-Ed, and the Mandarin Project at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. These advances are made easier thanks to the development of easy to use intelligent classroom assistants.
- Reimagining assessment of learning and the expansion of competency-based assessment supported by the Future Skills Centre — on-demand assessment for trades and apprenticeship skills
- More people taking Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in Canada. One third of the learners who have registered for a MOOC did so in 2020, and most of those took one or more of the 1,180 micro-credentials. This equates to 180 million learners worldwide, more than 1 million of them in Canada.
Although remote teaching will continue at least until the fall in most higher education institutions, registrations in online learning programs and courses are expected to remain strong (rising from about 10-15% before the pandemic to 20-25% after the pandemic). Innovation will be key to the next phase of development. Following the long tradition of entrepreneurs — “never let a good crisis go to waste” — we can expect all sorts of imaginative and creative responses to evolve this year.
2. What are the three major concerns for online learning in 2021?
- Using Zoom, Google Meet or Microsoft Teams to perpetuate a model of instruction that is ineffective. Some instructors have simply used Zoom to replace face-to-face lectures, making little or no use of the learning management systems (LMS) provided. This is happening despite the lack of evidence of the efficacy of lectures in many subjects and strong evidence that the key factor in driving learning outcomes is student engagement.
- Student cheating and its connection to a model of assessment. There were several reports of major cheating events at Canadian and U.S. universities and colleges. Cheating is a response to a model of assessment that emphasizes high-stakes tests (mid-terms and end-of-term exams) rather than continuous assessment or competency-based assessment. Where assessment is more authentic and the students are more engaged, cheating is rare. When high-stakes testing persists, so will cheating.
- The lack of investment in professional development resources for instructors pre-pandemic, the scramble for professional development during the pandemic and the need for a greater focus on instructional design, imaginative assessment and effective learning. There is much more to do. Some of the heroes of the pandemic were staff at teaching and learning centres who quickly created videos, cheat sheets and help systems for instructors pivoting to online learning. They created terrific resources from which we all benefited. But the pandemic did reveal how little many faculty colleagues knew about instructional design, effective pedagogy, assessment and student engagement. There are now good curated resources, but what we need to focus on is ensuring that all who teach have been through some kind of professional development that better equips them for effective teaching and learning.
3. What are the three likely distractors in 2021?
- The debate about face-to-face versus online. The “which is better” argument is a total distraction that is still raging. It is distraction because the answer to the underlying question (“how do we teach this topic, skill or idea exceptionally well?”) is that it depends on what the teaching is focused on, who the students are, where the students are on their learning journey and several other factors. There is ample evidence that face-to-face teaching is no more effective than online for many learning outcomes. But we know that for some forms of teaching — art, drama, music, some science — presence can make a difference. And that is the key: if we design learning around the idea of presence, then blended and online can work incredibly well.
- As micro-credentials develop, we can expect a lot of distractions around nomenclature: “badges” versus “certificates” versus “nano-degrees” versus “micro-masters.” Part of this relates to branding concerns and marketing. What we need to really focus on is not what a micro-credential is called but the quality of assessment of competences and capabilities and their value to employers. The success of this form of qualification will depend on their utility, not their name.
- Since the beginning of the pandemic, significant new venture capital investments have been made in technology, with Goldman Sachs and others seeing education (especially higher education) as “now ready” for transformation. The distraction here will be the hype and noise about what an emerging technology can do and how it can produce better outcomes at a lower cost. Most of these claims will be both unproven and unlikely to come to fruition, as the Gartner Hype Curve has shown us year after year since its inception 25 years ago. Beware of hype!
4. What is one promising development to keep an eye on?
- The developments in AI / virtual and augmented reality for immersive learning experiences is growing quickly, based on many years of established use and the expansion of 5G telecommunications capabilities. We can expect a lot of pop-ups, start-ups and new developments building on 10 years of experience. Loyalist College, Northern College, University of Ottawa and many others have been using AR/VR for many years (more than a decade at some). New virtual science labs, creative experiences and immersive arts and history classes are all starting to appear. In terms of the “hype curve,” Gartner suggested in 2018 that AR/VR was entering the peak of inflated expectations, but lock-down and the need for engagement has led to many new initiatives for simulation, gamification, remote virtual labs and other forms of AR/VR instruction. AR/VR may move more quickly to the plateau of productivity than many expected.
5. What are three items to really focus on 2021 that will enable the development and growth of online
- Equity of access to broadband, technology and services. The pandemic shone a penetrating light on inequality and discrimination in higher education. At one level there are issues of access to broadband, especially for rural and northern communities in Canada, but also for certain groups of students who have difficulty accessing affordable and appropriate technologies. Canada needs to accelerate investments in broadband infrastructure, perhaps embracing Elon Musk’s Starlink system, while at the same time making sufficient investments in the hardware and software all students need to be successful in higher education.
- The growth and development of micro-credentials. If other countries are anything to go by, we can expect a boom in short, rapid learning both online, in class and in blended learning forms. The key will be aligning these competency-based short courses with the upskilling and reskilling needs of learners, and ensuring the skills they provide are those that employers are seeking. Public and private partnerships at the design stage and real alignment around assessment will be key to this work.
- The emergence of new approaches to blended and hybrid learning. Expect a lot of innovation in 2021. Of the 2015 Fortune 500, half were companies created at the height of a recession or depression, or in the midst of war. Challenges such as the pandemic and the pivot to remote teaching create the conditions for true innovation. Small ideas that worked become new commercial opportunities, especially for very specific situations.
All these observations are set against a backdrop of uncertainty about funding, about the role international students will play in the future of our institutions and of shifting labour markets that have been severely disrupted by the pandemic.
In capturing some key developments, challenges and opportunities, the intention here is to stimulate thinking about what’s next. While many of us are just starting to teach again, we can also use the New Year to reflect on what’s possible and what’s still worrying us.
As we begin to imagine a different future, these observations can help us think about what the opportunities to build back better may look like.