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Having Deeper Learning Conversations

Today's technologies can support change that puts learning first.

Higher education is abuzz with talk about student graduation and retention rates, the impact of deep budget cuts, and the prospects of technology to change the game. While these are all valid issues, Mark Milliron, chancellor of Western Governors University Texas, believes deeper learning conversations--those that embrace learning as the core value--need to come first. Here's what he told CT.

CT: Is it time to re-examine the definition of a learner?

Mark Milliron: Yes, I think that's one of the deeper learning conversations we need to have in higher education. While we still tend to speak in terms of traditional learners, it's non-traditional learners--especially working adults--who have become the modal learners. They are ubiquitous, and of course technology is enabling that. We need to look at the diversity of learners today and consider what kinds of institutions, learning models, and supportive technologies will serve them best.

CT: Will there be changes in the credentialing of students, and how would you preserve the notion of a liberal education?

Milliron: This brings us back to a key question: Are we ready to take learning seriously? First, we need to ask who the learners are, and what kind of an education journey they need to go on. Then, we must think about the kinds of credentials that will give them the best value both in the marketplace and in their learning lives.

It's likely that we will need to provide a staged approach for many who aspire to a bachelor's degree, possibly including new types of sub-baccalaureate credentials and certifications. But that doesn't mean we no longer care about a liberal education. We absolutely, fundamentally care about it. So I think there's a "both-and" conversation about these changes: It's not about atomizing credentials and creating mere vocationalization, just because it's easy to do with technology. It's about how we blend the best of core technical competencies with those liberal education competencies that we've cared about for a long time.

Lifetime learning has become one of the coins of the realm in education. We are not preparing students for jobs; we are preparing them for a lifetime of learning and career pathways.

CT: What technologies enable this kind of change?

Milliron: Many technologies touch the core of education. Because we have more powerful learning analytics and better data infrastructure now, along with pattern-recognition software and related predictive resources, we are able to guide students in ways we simply couldn't manage before administratively. And we're seeing several other technologies--from learning maps to e-portfolios to recommendation engines to degree-pathway audits--that enable us to connect the dots better between sub-baccalaureate credentials, bachelor's degrees, and advanced degrees. And these same technologies help us map competencies from the job market to discrete learning experiences for the continuing student.

Think about it: We can now map students' entire learning journeys from the individual digital curricular learning resources to mentors and assessments at the course level, to certifications, credentials, and entire degree programs as they complete.

It's not going to be an easy change at first--in fact, it's going to be a bit of a maelstrom for a while. But because we have these types of technologies at our fingertips now, we can start asking more interesting questions about what works and what doesn't.

CT: And make sure those questions and conversations still put learning first?

Milliron: Exactly.

Editor's note: Mark Milliron will give the opening keynote, "Deeper Learning Conversations on Technology, Education, and the Road Ahead," at Campus Technology 2012, July 19-22 in Boston.

About the Author

Mary Grush is Editor and Conference Program Director, Campus Technology.

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