Learning Technologies: Changing the Dynamics of University Education

By Dr. D. R. Garrison, Director, Teaching & Learning Centre

content imageThe President of Penn State University cites the convergence of classroom and online education as ìthe single greatest unrecognized trend in higher education todayî (Young, 2002).

Numerous reports have documented the inevitable disruption of higher education resulting from new and emerging information and communication technologies. The National Research Council (U.S.) recently reported the ìimpact of information technology will likely be profound, rapid, and discontinuousî on research universities. While it is difficult to predict future impacts with any precision, inaction is a dangerous course.

In Alberta, a new Learning & Technology Policy Framework is pending. Anticipating the looming and broad impact of learning technology, this document outlines the use of information and communication technology in Albertaís learning community.

Increasing evidence of studentsí dissatisfaction with the quality of the educational experience as well as access to and use of technology is clear. The recent University Report Card ranked the University of Calgary 32nd (educational experience) and 21st (technology). Questionable survey validity aside, overall quality of the learning experience is a valid issue. Jayna Gilchrist, SU President has publicly expressed grief over a lack of visible education quality.

The University of Calgaryís Learning Plan outlines core assumptions and guiding principles such as promoting the quality of the learning experience, fostering communities of inquiry, facilitating critical reflection and discourse, and integrating research into the curriculumî. As part of the Plan, learning technologies will enhance the campus experience, using on-line resources and electronic communication. Overall, inquiry-based learning will be expanded.

As always, resources are our biggest challenge. Marginal improvements can be made through additional faculty effort, but significant gains require rethinking and re-structuring the educational experience. This is particularly true of large lecture classes. The University will never realize the necessary resources to adequately address quality issues simply through smaller class sizes. Nor, I would argue, is this in itself the complete solution. With changes in information access and graduate outcome expectations (e.g., critical and creative thinkers), we are compelled to alter how we approach the teaching and learning dynamic.

A promising approach addressing these challenges is blended learning. At its core, blended learning is the thoughtful integration of face-to-face classroom and online educational experiences. Blended learning provides the potential to create an accessible interactive community of inquiry. It combines the rich dynamic of fast-paced verbal dialogue with reflective and precise written communication. Integrated capabilities have real potential to provide open dialogue, access to relevant information, critical debate, and negotiated agreement‚ the hallmark of a university education‚ all in a cost effective manner.

The University is facing serious and unrelenting challenges regarding increased expectations, funding limitations, competition and technological innovations. Addressing these challenges will require a significant shift in the mind-set of academics and leaders of higher education. Successfully responding to these demands does not involve overnight resolution; rather commitment to re-positioning the university and making a concerted effort to investigate and support innovative approaches such as blended learning.

Blended learning is consistent with the traditional values and goals of higher education. It is a strategy built upon a progressive, systematic and thoughtful approach. The institution will transform in a manner congruent with our highest ideals. Higher education institutions must react to technological change with understanding and vision, but also with courage and decisiveness that will free resources to produce desired results and realize potential. To date, in terms of learning innovation and quality, most Canadian institutions of higher education can be fairly described as lurching about - fearful of being left behind but not committed to real change. Too many still believe universities can become outstanding learning organizations by continuing to do the same old things. The reality is that times and technology have changed‚ including societal expectations.

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