Josh Baron on Education Technology and Disruptive Change

A brief Q & A with Campus Technology 2010 keynote Josh Baron

Marist College’s Director of Academic Technology and eLearning, a Campus Technology 2010 keynoter [left], talked with CT about potential disruptive changes ahead that may not only alter how we use technology for teaching and learning, but might turn higher education infrastructure on its ear.

Campus Technology: Your keynote at Campus Technology 2010 [July 19-22 in Boston] is titled, “The Ed Tech Journey and a Future Driven by Disruptive Change”--Can you tell me a bit about your own education technology journey?

Josh Baron: My ed tech journey goes back many, many years to when I was a pre-teen. I was at a progressive education school that had adopted a technology program that attempted more than what I’d call the automation of education--more than computerized flash cards if you will--instead it tried to change very radically how students learn with technology. I was exposed to some early examples, such as The Voyage of the Mimi, of authentic learning. And I saw very early on how computers could do much more than help me memorize facts. There, computers were used to engage me in problem solving and critical thinking skills.

Fast forward to college, where through my engineering studies I was exposed to the emerging Internet, and next, to my career after college, when I finally started teaching, as a third-generation educator. I began to experiment with ways the Internet could be used not just to retrieve information, but for communication and collaboration as applied to teaching and learning. Eventually that led to a position at Stevens Institute of Technology and an NSF grant to investigate how the Internet could be used in unique and compelling ways for education--for real-world, authentic activities as a means for students to learn the inquiry process that’s core to math and science subject matter, and to acquire skills they would need for the 21st century workplace. So, by 1998 we had large groups of elementary and high school students collaborating around the world on scientific research projects and accessing real-time, real-world data. It was amazing back then to see students working with the same data as scientists, over the Internet.

Then after being at Stevens for about 8 years I got very interested in distance education, and in applying these kinds of collaboration and communication technologies in a higher education setting. That’s what brought me here to Marist, where I also became involved in Sakai and got exposed to the open education movement. Once again, just as in my early years, I’m looking at education technology that’s not just making teaching and learning incrementally more productive or a little bit easier to do, but showing a potential to change radically, on a very fundamental level, how we teach people and how they learn.

CT: Where do you see us now in that process of radical change you’re talking about--are we at the beginning, on the way, or far along…? How would you characterize this?

JB: We’re only at the very, very tip of the iceberg, in my opinion. We have small pockets of slightly radical innovation happening at our institutions in the U.S. and around the world. What I think we are confronting now is that the core infrastructure of higher education, that’s been built over the past several hundred years, is really becoming a barrier to innovation in terms of what technology potentially can do to improve teaching and learning.

CT: The entire higher education infrastructure is a barrier to innovation in technology for teaching and learning?

JB: I’m talking about the structures that we have in place, the traditional ways we have of teaching and learning: coming to a classroom to sit down in a physical space; the instructor delivering knowledge at the front of the classroom; “seat time” requirements; a specific set of courses and credits to get a degree… That whole structure becomes a limiter of what technology can facilitate for teaching and learning. There are a few early adopter faculty who are doing some really innovative work, but we may need to see a breaking down--a major disruption--of the infrastructure we’ve built around education before we see the next evolutionary step that truly takes advantage of what technology can do.

CT: You talk about a future driven by disruptive change. In your terms and in the context you just described, what is disruptive change?

JB: It’s change that nobody is necessarily expecting, that happens relatively quickly, is rather pervasive, and is driven by technology or at least facilitated by technology. Initially you may see a precursor, a radical effort surface that isn’t quite accepted and maybe won’t be successful but at least shows that there may be a model out there somewhere that may eventually take hold. But we haven’t really seen the type of disruptive change in education through technology that I would like to see, yet.

CT: Are there any particular areas you might keep an eye on for potential successful disruptive change agents?

JB: There are a few I’m watching. I’ll give you a good example. ePortfolios might facilitate true disruptive change in the future. This is an intriguing area gaining lots of interest and attention--the AAEEBL conference, co-located with Campus Technology this year, attests to that. ePortfolios represent a core fundamental technology that’s allowing us today to assess student learning in a very new way, that traditional measures--particularly standardized tests--have never been able to do. Pair ePortfolios with the notion of digital apprenticeship: What if we imagine a world where ePortfolios are at the center of the learning process… no longer are students simply attending classes, far removed from the “real world,” but instead they are engaged in authentic learning experiences, out in the world, guided by mentors? Then think of the ways ePortfolios can change credentialing: Consider a credentialing service that would authenticate someone’s academic and experience credentials, allowing them to become a “digital learning coach” who could evaluate and certify student work as documented in an ePortfolio. Thinking further, ePortfolios and social networks make an especially powerful combination: ePortfolios contain a rich amount of data associated with one’s prior learning, current learning objectives, learning style, research interests, and more… mining this data could create rich “learning networks” that both connect learners and update the disciplines.

ePortfolios, as I’ve just described, can very effectively measure the authentic learning that students are engaged in, along with their ability to apply the knowledge that they’re gaining to real-world problems. In the future, we might not need the whole infrastructure we have at colleges and universities today for students to engage in learning and get credentialed for that learning. That would be a disruptive change, at scale.

CT: Do you have another example of something that might bring disruptive change in the future?

CB: Absolutely. Consider open content/open access and the digital marketplace domain. There is a real opportunity to create a new marketplace for teaching and learning, one that brings the learner, the content, and the content creator together more directly. In the future, digital content is going to become a lot more of a commodity than it is today. The open education movement is going to produce a lot of very rich digital content, as well as open up access to content that today is locked up in subscription journals. Of course, what’s needed is someone to facilitate the learning process around all that content--that’s what completes the idea of the digital marketplace in education. There are open education groups starting to work on just that, and eventually the results of that work could become a big disruptive change for both the publishing industry and the education industry.

CT: All that you’ve just said makes me think back on your comments earlier, about your own education technology journey. You’ve been involved, both in your own education and in your professional life, in education technology that fosters authentic learning, and you’ve been teaching and learning at institutions that work towards educational innovation. But is there a risk that too many other institutions will only address computer-based training, and nothing more?

CB: You’re hinting at the dark side of the disruptive change that could happen, meaning, the disruptive change that’s on the horizon could either push us towards a much more enlightened, much more innovative, much more powerful learning process, with authentic learning opportunities for people; or, it could let us fall towards the other end of the innovation spectrum--the pure automation of teaching and learning to the point where it’s just people on computers memorizing facts. Which future do we as educators want to pursue?

CT: What would help ensure that we don’t end up generating mostly computer-based training modules?

CB: Stronger education technology leadership at our institutions, for one thing. I often feel that academic technology staff are positioned in higher education as simply as technology “support,” to respond to technical problems and issues. But we, as instructional technologists, have the expertise to drive real innovation in education technology--and if we would “step up” and play a larger leadership role in policy setting, resource allocation, and driving innovation, we might lead in the kind of fundamental, radical, disruptive changes I’ve been describing… and hoping for.

[Editor’s note: Josh Baron is the Director of Academic Technology and eLearning at Marist College and Chair of the Board of Directors for the Sakai Foundation. On July 22, he will give the closing keynote at Campus Technology 2010 in Boston.]

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