The Changing Landscape of Higher EdTech


From political forums to pundit roundtables to the family dining room, education is a hot topic. Many perceive growing deficiencies in access, affordability, and the value of education. Some argue that modes of education should be more student-focused, rather than teacher-centric; more active and less passive; and about doing and communicating, rather than listening and reciting. These conversations, both public and private, are shaping attitudes toward technology-enhanced education. More people are coming to see technology—from online learning to data-driven classroom management—as part of the solution. As we begin 2015, a number of these issues are playing out in Columbia classrooms. Here’s a quick rundown:

Flipping the Classroom
When “flipping the classroom,” an instructor assigns students pre-recorded lectures to watch prior to class. The lectures may be followed by a quiz or other assessment online to ensure students understand the material before moving on. Class time is then used to solve problems, discuss issues, and debate viewpoints, compelling students (and professors!) to be more active in the classroom. This simple idea has taken hold at many universities, including Columbia. Early results appear promising and are leading to further experimentation. (See: A Review of Flipped Classroom Research, Practice, and Technologies and Perry Mehrling on MOOCs and Blended Learning.) Developing a flipped classroom requires instructors to reflect on the teaching process leading to a greater focus on the student and learning outcomes.

Blended Learning
Blended, or "Hybrid," learning has become popular as it offers students greater control over pace, time and location, while supplementing in-class material. André Dua, chairman of the new McKinsey Academy, postulates that blended learning will become the norm, both for digital-centric courses (those based primarily online, where students may gather into self-organized study groups offline), and for traditional campus-based courses. This will allow schools to reuse their most compelling content, getting more from heavy investments in faculty and technology. McKinsey estimates that in the near future, upwards of 70% of campus-based courses will be blended. In 2014, Columbia faculty were invited to apply for "funding to support redesign and delivery of courses using innovative, technology-rich pedagogy and learning strategies." CCNMTL is supporting this provostial initiative, working with sixteen awardees covering a spectrum of disciplines and educational approaches. [Tweet: Blended Learning]

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses)
One thriving form of online education is the MOOC, in which participants may access videotaped lectures and take online assessments for free (or pay a modest fee in order to receive a certificate of completion). Columbia’s experiments with MOOCs – fifteen courses on Coursera and ColumbiaX (edX) – have drawn large numbers of participants and have highlighted the quality of Columbia programs and faculty to the outside world. But they have also done much more than that. Positive feedback and analytics from Columbia’s MOOCs have been a catalyst for conversations around teaching and learning, helping Columbia faculty hone their courses, both blended and traditional. The production of MOOCs has facilitated flipping the classroom (see above), as instructors can easily reuse the videotaped lectures; allowed instructors to give their courses a “global test drive” and improve content based on the feedback of thousands of participants; and illuminated the value of having multiple experts assist with a course (see below). While they can be costly to produce, costs are amortized over time, as MOOCs are reissued; the lifespan of a MOOC is yet to be determined. [Tweet: Columbia’s MOOCs]

Teaching Teams
The era of the lone instructor working on his course lectures may soon be past. Increasingly, educators, evaluators, designers, videographers, animators, librarians and others are coming together to assist a lead instructor in the production and delivery of highly effective online courses that reach all types of students. Traditional on-site courses may follow suit. Teaching teams can be assembled to improve these courses, especially large introductory lecture courses, by including a blended learning approach featuring frequent and effective online components. And, teaching teams that combine faculty from multiple departments can develop new courses and curriculum that bridge disciplinary concepts effectively. [Tweet: Teaching teams]

Active Learning
Columbia students today seek active, collaborative learning experiences, and they expect technology to facilitate this. Having used tablets in high school to access textbooks, annotate readings and work with classmates, they are looking for a similar use of technology at Columbia. Faculty who integrate computers, tablets and smartphones into their classes are able to provide stimulating experiences that reinforce learning. Technology also facilitates more robust assessment. “Just-in-time teaching” motivates students to prepare for a class (by completing assigned readings, for example), because they must complete a pre-class assessment online. And as more classrooms at Columbia use a software-based audience response system (ARS), instructors are able to conduct real-time assessments in the classroom. Meanwhile, learn-by-doing opportunities, such as internships, collaboratories and team learning, are in high demand. In team learning, students work together to solve complex, real-world problems, an engaging activity that can strengthen higher-order skills.

Big Data
The MOOC platforms have made available incredible amounts of data about students’ progress through online courses. Every step--from registration, to watching videos and participating in activities, to completing course assessments--can be tabulated and studied, and the results used to improve the next iteration of the course. Increasingly, faculty will also use the data to know when to intervene during a live course. “Helicopter” staff will email students who have not yet completed an assignment or appear to be having trouble. Columbia and other schools will have to ramp up their ability to process and analyze course data; few departments have the expertise and personnel to manage the effort.

Lifelong Learning
Online courses have been a boon to retirees and those who want to stay mentally active later in life. But increasingly, “lifelong learning” is a professional necessity, not just an activity of leisure. People of all ages are using online courses to upgrade skills, pick up certifications and stay marketable in an ever more flexible workforce. This shift represents an opportunity for universities to serve and connect with alumni in new ways. Alumni associations could become brokers of enrichment and educational opportunities, setting up their own educational programs to serve online learners, similar to but expanding their travel-and-learn efforts. Alumni associations could become brokers of enrichment and educational opportunities, setting up their own educational programs to serve online learners…For example, sites like HarvardX for Alumni, while rudimentary today, will expand and become standard at most universities. Such efforts could change what it means to be a residential university if hundreds of thousands of alumni expect and receive such services. Retired professors are a source of expertise that could be tapped to extend the university online community. Today, Columbia is exploring ideas to make alumni a key constituent for its MOOCs, offering special programs and exclusive access. [Tweet: Lifelong learning for alumni]

The above topics will play a prominent role this year in our work at the Center as they play out at Columbia. We will report on important projects, focusing on culling and documenting best practices. It is also important to recognize that many of these issues are also playing a prominent role beyond the academy. Educational activities, such as annotating scholarly works, have become marketable and public through companies like, which grew out of an environment originally created to annotate rap songs. The aforementioned McKinsey Academy is another interesting and potentially disruptive initiative, competing directly with top-ranked business schools. McKinsey knows that their brand and credentials can be equivalent to university degrees in business circles. As many new companies reach for a piece of the $7 trillion education industry — noting that in 2014 new investments in edtech reached the $2 billion mark for the first time — innovative products and services are bound to reach the market.

We will continue to track, drive and contribute to these developments. It’s an exciting time — and one bound to keep education a hot topic.