While technology has transformed almost every aspect of modern life, our higher education system has barely changed. Universities teach young adults today in much the same way they did in medieval Europe: “Sage on Stage,” the model where a professor lectures in a unidirectional manner to a roomful of hundreds of students.
Today’s technology and new insights into using it, however, present very real opportunities. The promise of improving learning outcomes while increasing retention and graduation rates is something we can no longer ignore.
Fortunately, the industry is finally realizing the importance of technology, particularly in higher education settings. Professors are embracing technology in the classroom, and administrators are realizing the ways it can improve outcomes, retention, and assessment. Investors are paying attention too; venture capital money is streaming into this market, with over a billion dollars toward education technology in the last 12 months alone.
To understand where technology can really improve the higher education experience, we must consider the two main approaches today: top-down learning and traditional liberal arts education. By understanding the key differences between these models, we can pinpoint where technology can make the biggest difference in the long term.
Top-Down Education v. Liberal Arts Education
The top-down approach has long been the norm and is most prevalent in K-12 classes. In this setting, things like Common Core keep all teachers on a fairly set schedule, and ensure students are taught a common curriculum based on grade level.
There are benefits to this way of teaching: ideally it enables students to learn at a similar pace and level, no matter what school they go to or who they have as a teacher. On the flip side, this method de-humanizes the teaching profession. It can zap creativity and originality out of teachers, turning them into robots forced to follow a set schedule and curriculum. As a result, students exit their K-12 years with a mindset that school and college should and will be vocational, with a heightened, narrow focus on getting a job after graduation. Moreover, this system recruits less capable and captivating people into the teaching field and ultimately degrades the profession (in some cases literally replacing them with robots).
A second problem is that, in this system, children who are left behind temporarily have no real chance of ever catching up. Salman Khan has pointed out that if we applied our educational system’s logic to another project, say, building a house, we would fail. You wouldn’t build the first floor of a house if the foundation was only 85% stable, yet the current education system continues apace without closing the feedback loop of students’ progress and grasp of the materials in early stages.
A traditional liberal arts education, where students take a variety of courses and pursue interests that do not necessarily correspond to a particular career, is on the opposite end of the spectrum. In this environment, students learn how to learn, through research, presenting arguments, communication, and persuading others. Many colleges are still pursuing this model of education, resisting the push for short-term metrics found in the vocational schooling movement. But these schools are beginning to recognize that, as costs continue to rise and loans remain burdensome long after graduation, their students want a true return on investment for their time and money spent. Without a concrete vocation, these students find themselves in a dangerous spiral of debt.
As a result, colleges are now examining the long-term effects that a four-year education has on their students. A recent study by Gallup and Purdue University found that overall, the well-being of college students was positively impacted by their time in school. The study named six formative college experiences of emotional support and deep learning, which correlated to a 72 percent better chance of thriving after college. Yet only three percent of graduates had all six experiences, and only 14 percent of students recalled being emotionally supported by professors.
Though the liberal arts model is still the most prevalent in higher education, some students are missing its most essential experience: having a professor who ignites a passion for learning. It is at this critical juncture where technology startups are using their platforms to bridge the gap, namely by formulating a modern style of teaching called just-in-time learning.
Just-in-Time Learning Meets Technology
Just-in-time learning is a method of teaching that strikes a different balance between classroom activities and prep work that students do at home.
Much has been written about MOOCs (massive open online courses) and flipped classrooms. At the core of both is the idea that learning happens mostly at home, and time with an instructor should be used for deeper interaction. Just-in-time learning shares that core principle, and seeks not to disrupt traditional college education, but to augment it.
Instead of a traditional college classroom where students go to a lecture and listen to course material, just-in-time learners use technology to inform and enhance their learning in all its dimensions. Whether it’s in the form of a podcast or an online video, students can familiarize themselves with the course material before they ever step foot in the classroom. This leads to a more immersive experience for the student, since when they do come to class their time is spent in discussion, debate, and hands-on learning with a professor or instructor who now gets many more contact hours with each student.
If colleges and universities continue to use technology to enable just-in-time learning within their core liberal arts structure, they will not only offer opportunities for students to engage more with professors in a more enriching way, but will also enable continuous, lifelong education. Through new technology, just-in-time learning can enable not just college students, but also older students to pursue their educational dreams--even if they work full time. A working professional might not have time to come to class three times a week, but could make time to view a lecture, complete an online assignment, or take an accredited course at night. Moreover, this type of learning will enable colleges to reach more students around the world.
Just-in-time learning also enables schools to save money, as these courses are inexpensive and easy to deploy. Forward-thinking schools can then pass those savings on, enabling even more students to attend college in person or online.
The caveat is that technology will only help those colleges and universities that adopt it in tandem with just-in-time learning. For example, USC’s Graduate School of Education historically matriculated a modest 50 students a year, and was regarded as a mid-tier school. Now, by adopting online courses and video lectures, it is reaching 1,500 students in 40 countries. Through tech-enabled just-in-time learning, a school can widen its reach, enhance its reputation, and improve the quality of instruction both in the classroom and online.
Just-in-time learning is pushing the needle on the evolution of the college experience. As the technology continues to improve, it will nudge more traditional schools to adopt change and adapt to the changing times.
John Katzman is an education entrepreneur and the founder of Noodle, 2U and The Princeton Review. He is also an investor in EdSurge. Dr. Shay David is the Chief Revenue Officer and co-founder of Kaltura and a visiting Fellow at the Yale Information Society Project.