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Technology in Higher Ed: From disenfranchising of “place” to disaggregation of the degree [INTERVIEW]

Posted in Blog on 2 December 2015

Technology in Higher Ed: From disenfranchising of “place” to disaggregation of the degree [INTERVIEW]Kelly Walsh is the Chief Information Officer at The College of Westchester in White Plains, New York, and the owner of EmergingEdTech and FlippedClassroomWorkshop.com.

A passionate supporter in the marriage of technology and education to improve learning outcomes, Kelly believes that properly implemented and supported instructional technologies and tools can help to make learning more engaging and more productive for students and teachers alike.

This week, Emantras interviewed Kelly for his views on technology in highered classrooms. 


EMANTRAS: What immediate problems do you think edtech can solve in today’s college classrooms?

KELLY: Well that’s certainly a rich question! Where do I begin? One of the many exciting things that technology is making possible is the ability to differentiate instruction at a level not previously possible. The idea of differentiation, or personalized learning, has been around for decades. But teachers have never really had the time required to determine the differing needs of each student. Today, the advent of flipped instruction and blended learning has helped to change that. When we can push content delivery outside of the classroom and focus on using valuable face-to-face class time to identify and address gaps in understanding for individual students, differentiation is suddenly far more achievable.

Another huge challenge is the struggle that non-traditional aged students face in finding the time in their busy work and family schedules to attend college and complete their studies. One technology-enabled construct that is poised to make a big difference with that challenge is Competency Based Education. Competency based programs use learning outcomes as the measure of learning, rather than the traditional clock hour. These programs offer the potential for students to complete degrees in less time and at lower cost than would be required for standard clock hour based programs. Pioneers like Western Governors University have had CBE at the core of many of their programs for years, so it is not a new thing. What is new, however, is the explosive growth we’ve seen in competency based programs that are being developed. There were only about 34 CBE programs in the US in 2014, but this year there are believed to be as many as 600 institutions designing or implementing them!

Another challenge that technology has been conquering is access. For centuries, education was shackled to a desk in a classroom for the most part. Today, online learning programs and mobile learning in traditional brick-and-mortar programs have made education more accessible than ever before in the world’s history.


EMANTRAS: Do you think college educators are more open to using technology in classrooms today than they were 5 years ago?

KELLY: Absolutely – I’ve noticed a clear shift over the last few years from a focus on, “Why should we use technology for teaching and learning?” to, “How should we use technology for teaching and learning?” Similarly, as you are probably aware, there has been consistent growth in investments in education technology, which is another strong indicator in growing interest and openness to the potential of technology to make a meaningful difference in the vital work educators and institutions do. In fact, the continued rapid expansion of applications can really be rather overwhelming – this is a frustration and concern I hear from teachers all the time.

That’s where sites like EmergingEdTech can come in – helping teachers, technologists, and educators of all stripes learn about new tools and techniques without having to figure it all out for themselves!


EMANTRAS: What are some of the key challenges higher education educators are facing when it comes to introducing technologies in their classrooms?

KELLY: I’d have to say: professional development, professional development, professional development. I think you get my drift. Seriously though, this is really the single biggest challenge – helping teachers become comfortable with tech tools and giving them guidance about constructive use (like taking them through the SAMR model).

For schools with significant budget challenges, it’s important to take advantage of the wealth of free resources available online today through sites like my own, TeachThought, Kathy Schrock’s Guide to Everything, CoolCatTeacher Vicki Davis, and countless others. Moreover, we need to support each other and encourage a culture of lifelong learning among our teachers!

Of course, access can be a challenge at times – if a school blocks access to specific applications that are increasingly sought by educators that can be a problem. Worse yet, slow or poorly maintained infrastructure can also be a huge roadblock. Technology departments have to stay on top of technology refresh on a defined cycle, and administration has to support it, or many doors will stay shut and effective uses of technology to improve engagement and outcomes will be limited.

Ultimately, the biggest challenge is meaningful use of technology tools and techniques in the instructional setting. Being forced to integrate technology without a focus on pedagogy/andragogy is usually a waste of time and money. And there are many proven applications of technology that can clearly enable and enhance the learning process. One often cited example is the 2009 U.S. Department of Education study, “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning,” which found that students learn better in a blended model than they do in either fully online or traditional “brick and mortar” models.

Unfortunately, the occasional large scale tech implementation failure can get more notice than the many successes, like the iPad debacle in the LA Unified School District. That was a classic case of poor management and implementation, not a failure of the technology itself. Too often schools and school districts don’t understand and utilize good, proven practices in technology implementations and make a mess of the effort, giving “edtech” a black eye and discouraging innovation and progress for many others.


EMANTRAS: What is the first step for colleges looking to take their curriculum online?

KELLY: Trying to define a “first step” really oversimplifies a very involved process. There are so many things to think about when preparing to offer online programs, starting with a business plan that looks at need among the population in the region you serve. Of course, once the decision is made to develop an online program, it is vital that faculty get trained in the discipline, as online is most certainly a different teaching and learning environment than traditional classroom learning.

At The College of Westchester we require online teachers to take a training program developed specifically for online faculty. We also strongly recommend participation in the Quality Matters Higher Education Professional Development program, which certifies the design of online and blended learning course components. In fact, I’m proud to note that the college was just recognized as the 2015 recipient of the prestigious Quality Matters (QM) “Making a Difference for Students” Award in the Institution Category for online excellence in teaching, training, online observation, and online pedagogy and andragogy.

Technology is also a vital consideration when implementing online learning programs. In addition to having robust support for elements that are common in face-to-face classes, like the LMS, you may also want to consider technology specifically for your online programs. For example, I feel that one of the more commonly overlooked elements that is present in brick-and-mortar classes but is largely absent from online courses is the social aspect. Social learning plays an important role in face-to-face learning, and it needs to have a place in the online classroom, yet it takes a very conscious effort to bring that about. One tool that can help is a synchronous meeting platform. There are many other technologies and technology-related services that help improve on the challenges that can come with online learning, like 24×7 support, and online tutoring services to name a couple more.


EMANTRAS: Do you perceive technology in education to be cost-effective? Could you please explain your view?

KELLY: That’s a bit of a loaded question. Some technology implementations can be quantitatively assessed for Return on Investment and other measurable benefits, but some are also more qualitative in nature. Infrastructure builds and projects in general need to be managed well – that is a challenge that all types of organizations face. The unique challenge that education institutions face is in regard to how technology is used for teaching and learning.

When it comes to instructional technology, schools tend to fall into a few different groupings. There are those that have strong support from administration and have a healthy process for vetting applications and these schools are often positioned well to spend smartly and reap benefits. There are also schools that have some strong faculty members and support from a technology department that helps them try new things and this helps to avoid a lot of costly, unproductive efforts. On the other hand, in schools where the support mechanisms are weak or no one is managing technology efforts well, this is where you see the wastefulness and the poor spending with little benefit.

The bottom line is that technology use in education can absolutely be cost effective, but that rarely happens if the procurement, implementation, and support efforts aren’t well managed and highly collaborative.

“Technology is going to be the primary disruptive force in higher education for the next couple of decades. We are seeing it now in so many forms, from the disenfranchising of “place” to the disaggregation of the degree.TWEET THIS


EMANTRAS: How do you see the future of college education with respect to technology usage?

KELLY: I believe technology is going to be the primary disruptive force in higher education for the next couple of decades. We are seeing it now in so many forms, from the disenfranchising of “place” to the disaggregation of the degree. Technology has decreased the need for the teacher to be the content area expert and made it possible for them to focus more directly on student learning.

In the world of higher education in particular, it has been the norm for centuries for professors to own the content much more than the learning, leaving the student to figure out how to learn the material if the teacher’s lectures and readings aren’t adequate. I see this now in both of my son’s courses at highly respected public universities. That can still work out for students who come into those institutions with A averages out of high school and good family support systems, but it is a poor model for students who struggle more or come from a less advantaged situation. And really, regardless of the student’s background or tool set, shouldn’t teachers everywhere be sharply focused on helping students learn?

Today’s technology tools and widespread access have set the stage for a major shift in what it means to go to school, learn, and earn credentials that attest to accomplishments and abilities. With blended or flipped learning, for example, the content becomes accessible anytime, anywhere, and the instructor can focus on helping students construct and reinforce their learning during that valuable, limited face-to-face class time. Professors are also more equipped than ever to differentiate learning, identifying and addressing students’ differing needs and gaps in learning. Couple that with evolving adaptive learning tools, and differentiation can, and should, become the norm rather than the exception.

Another huge evolution that has been enabled by technology is the change in how credentialing works. Competency Based Education is seeing huge expansion as we discussed earlier. Another possibility that is seeing stronger interest and action is microcredentialing. The Lumina Foundation recently published a “Connecting Credentials” framework that offers an approach for easier acceptance of single courses like MOOCs, or multi-course certificates, for credit in a larger degree program. Schools like Arizona State University, Georgia Tech, and others already have programs in place to offer credit for MOOCs, for a fee.

I think we’re going to see this idea continue to grow, and can envision the day when one can assemble a custom degree that focuses on your own unique experiences and interests, and that is accepted and valued in the work place.


Thank you, Kelly!

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