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Technology: Change is How You Use It

A Q&A with Sally Johnstone

Sally M. Johnstone, a true pioneer in the use of technology in higher education, has worked extensively in high-level technology policy, strategy, and application for the advancement of higher education at prestigious education institutions and in professional organizations, collaborations, and projects. Today she is the Vice President for Academic Advancement at Western Governors University, a competency-based, online institution. At WCET's annual conference earlier this fall, Johnstone joined a panel that reflected on change over the past 25 years, particularly in online learning. Below, CT asked Johnstone to share some of her own perspectives.

Mary Grush: What's generally different now in our environment from 25 years ago, that's driving change in higher education?

Sally Johnstone: There's a series of societal issues now that are driving some real rethinking and changes within postsecondary education. One is the terrific push by our policy leaders for more credentialed citizens, both to enable us to compete internationally and also for us to be able to have a fully employed adult citizenry.

Another big push that we're seeing at both state and federal levels is for more accountability within higher education. With the reality that we now have the capacity for better analytics — because of all the technologies that are in place to collect very good data — the question becomes: Why aren't we all using the very best practices that we know will ensure or at least increase the chances of student success? And today, this discussion is very public. The examination of student success and accountability are no longer taking place behind closed doors; rather this is a very open experience for everyone.

Add to all this a whole new set of students. On the one hand, we see the inclusion of more working adults within our student framework, and postsecondary institutions and organizations still must change in order to meet those students on their own terms — working adult students are not going to come to campus and sit in classrooms all day. This demands technological flexibility. We're learning more and more about what works well and what doesn't — and what kinds of pedagogical practices we need to include in the support for working adult students (or post-tradition students).

Finally, when we look at students who are coming into the postsecondary system straight out of secondary school, we see generally younger folks who are typically engaged with all kinds of technologies and are used to personalizing everything around them: what they choose to look at, who they choose to communicate with, how they set up their communication patterns… They are always going to go for whatever technology works best, and they have high expectations for the quality of what they are using. These are people entering our postsecondary system, bringing these high expectations. Frequently there is a big clash between their expectations and the capacity that we have on what we think of as our more traditional campuses. The bottom line is, there is a terrific demand for very different ways of doing things and for very different ways of using technologies.

Grush: How has the use of technology in higher education changed over the past 25 years, and what are some changes we still need to make in our use of technology?

Johnstone: When we look backwards, about 25 years, we see that we were using certain kinds of technologies that enabled us to reach students who were not coming to a campus. Most of those technologies were video or audio based, but our use of them basically meant that we were exporting the classroom. We had satellite and cable television, and the like. These enabled the faculty member to reach beyond what he or she did in the face-to-face setting and export that, usually to certain, fixed sites. It reached places where students may have gathered for access.

As we move forward in time and the Internet is ubiquitous, we have incredible storage capacity, amazing transmission speeds, and multiple different kinds of receiving devices. So now we have a great framework to reach out everywhere. Unfortunately, we are still somewhat stuck in that old model of mostly exporting the classroom.

Grush: But isn't that changing?

Johnstone: Yes. It's difficult, though, because people think in terms of faculty "controlling" the curriculum. And I would agree that faculty should always control the curriculum within their programs. But: Curriculum today may no longer be so focused on what goes on inside a classroom. When we move into another way of thinking about how we can help make students successful, and how we can change our thinking around postsecondary education, and begin thinking in terms of competency-based education, we really shift the conversation dramatically. Then, the pedagogy does not have to be 'exporting the classroom'. Instead, we can talk with faculty about curriculum being their definition of what it is that students need to learn and how you are going to know whether they have actually learned it.

Grush: So does that shift mean placing more focus on assessment and less on classroom delivery?

Johnstone: Assessment will mean different things for different fields. In many ways, it may mean different things for different institutions, allowing institutions to maintain their own unique identities. But strong assessments make learning explicit. So when you begin having that kind of conversation with faculty, the notion of how the learning takes place becomes much less important than the ability to demonstrate the skills and knowledge that is expected: the learning outcomes.

Grush: Does this open up the use of various learning resources and OERs — if demonstrating outcomes is more important than the specific delivery of education?

Johnstone: Yes, the growth of open education resources and the variety of high-quality learning resources available to students today plays right into that. Resources like Kahn Academy, along with materials available from publishers that are truly personalized learning activities can be incorporated. There are incredible materials that are just emerging and being used, that are terrifically interactive and help students be actively engaged in learning.

Grush: Then how would you summarize the change you are looking for now?

Johnstone: We can change the nature of learning within the structure of postsecondary education, letting faculty be in charge of the curriculum — but redefining the idea of curriculum to include what it is students need to know and how we are going to measure that. We can offer students a much wider variety of learning resources. This all takes us back to our efforts to better serve the needs of working adult students while meeting the expectations of our technologically connected students for a more personalized experience.

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