Community Colleges | Feature

Extending the Boundaries of Learning: A Challenge for IT in Higher Education

A Q&A with Lev Gonick

"In just one generation there has been the most radical transformation of access to learning ever in human history," Lev Gonick points out. On July 30, 2013, Gonick will open Campus Technology's 20th annual summer conference with a keynote that, appropriately, draws on his experience over the past two decades as a leader in higher education IT, most recently as VP for IT and CIO at Case Western Reserve University and co-founder of the Cleveland-based broadband nonprofit OneCommunity. Gonick will provide a retrospective of key technology changes and describe the "infancy" of the information technology revolution in higher education, but more importantly, he will examine the future challenges waiting for our education institutions and the higher education IT community.

While Gonick's discussion of the beginnings of the information technology revolution and its future directions is relevant to all types of institutions within the higher education community, there is a particularly interesting message for community colleges. Access to education for all has always been a prime mandate for community colleges. But this revolution will ultimately deliver, says Gonick, on promises far beyond access to education: With the guidance of information technology leaders, higher education institutions will experience transformations that extend the boundaries of learning and find traditional models of instruction and credentialing overturned--in fact, Gonick suggests, the information technology revolution in higher education will see our institutions redefining learning for the coming generation.

CT chatted with Lev Gonick recently and explored a few of the themes of his opening keynote.

Mary Grush: Where are we today with the information technology revolution in higher education? What significant disruptions can we point to, and how have they been influenced on our campuses by our IT initiatives and organizations?

Lev Gonick: Most of us who have worked with IT in higher education can count ourselves part of these first twenty years of the information technology revolution and its intersection with learning. Yet, when we are swimming in the fish bowl ourselves, we don't necessarily realize the broader context of this amazing activity we've been engaged in--and we surely don't often see the next horizon.

But among the major developments that we can look back on at this point is a significant challenge to the traditional postsecondary education model--an entrenched model that has almost always been exclusively faculty centric. We, as the leaders of IT initiatives in higher education, have given rise to a conversation on our college campuses about the meaning of student centered learning and active learning. We are a significant part of that reframing--this is enormously important as we think about IT's continuing role.

Another question we've opened up is whether IT makes a difference to learning outcomes. We have at least started a conversation about how we measure learning outcomes--an area which still continues to be obfuscated by the faculty centric view of the world.

Further, in the past two decades, access to learning materials (along with the process of discovery) has been transformed through the information technology revolution and the network.

And mobile experiences and untethered learning are critically important accomplishments that we will certainly tip our hats to as we reflect on how far we've come.

Mary Grush: Even after all that, you've said that the digital transformation of education is in its early infancy. Why?

Lev Gonick: The reason I say we are now just at the beginning of the revolution is that, like almost all revolutions, the first generation looks remarkably similar to its antecedent environments. Think for a moment how the first generation of automobiles looked like the horse and cart. In this first generation of the information revolution in education we look very much like a shadow of the old analog learning environment.

But we are now on the threshold of a very different set of institutional configurations and new learning experience opportunities, and ultimately we will see a reconfiguration of the meaning of learning as enabled by the IT world.

So yes, we're just seeing the beginning of the revolution. But one expression of that is the 3.4 million people currently at least experimenting with and exploring open learning opportunities. In the future we will see hundreds of millions of people around the world participating in what we will recognize as much, much better offerings than we have today--learning materials that will be student centered and created around the student’s ability to organize. And we will couple this with new ways for students to credential their learning.

Grush: Can higher education institutions--especially when you consider traditional credentialing patterns--really keep up with the range of opportunity that's starting to appear with open learning? Will they be able to thrive in this new environment?

Gonick: I think what we are going to see, and one might argue, what we are already seeing, is typical of disruptive innovation. Right now we are not finding many of the incumbent institutions initiating a reexamination of the credentialing formula. But we are seeing a number of organizations that have historically had some advantages [in terms of exploring new pathways] because they are not quite as bound by traditional governance surrounding credentialing, beginning to position themselves for offering alternative credentialing--badging, for example, as a start… And perhaps in 5-7 years we’ll see them working in a completely new, true credentialing environment.

Grush: What are examples of institutions or learning organizations that might now be on that track?

Gonick: Universities like Antioch, or organizations like ACE, or associations that are beginning to validate a cluster of learning experiences and evidence-based learning outcomes… They will be able to provide authentic learning assessments that learners can add to their lifelong learning portfolio or to their continuing professional education portfolio. We are seeing first versions of these new forms of assessment at San Jose State University, and many other institutions stepping up to address the question of new assessments as well--along with new hybrid models of credentialing that will evolve over time.

Grush: What are the potential risks in this changing environment?

Gonick: While generally I am very bullish about what open learning and potential new institutional configurations can mean for the future, I must also add a few cautionary words that I think are important: We need to be concerned about the corporatization of IT solution sets for education, and we need as an education community to remain vigilant and not poised to serve the profit and bottom line of the companies selling us goods--we must try to keep the technology democratic and relevant to the learner's goals.

Grush: Finally, could all this disruption and change we've been talking about lead to a potential end to our traditional institutions? Should institutions feel threatened?

Gonick: Not at all. This certainly doesn't mean the demise of traditional institutions of higher education--it just means that the pursuit of relevance for those institutions is now along a much broader continuum than we have traditionally understood. It means extending education far beyond the boundaries--geographical, technical, social, pedagogical--that we had traditionally accepted in the past. In the end, especially with the personalization of education and a refocusing on the learner, along with open, globalized, and connected learning, I think we are in for an extremely exciting time.

[Editor's note: Lev Gonick will give the opening keynote at CT 2013 in Boston, July 29-August 1.]

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