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George Siemens: A New Lab for Research on Technology and Digital Networks

Q&A: Siemens discusses his planned research at the new LINK lab at UTA.

This spring, George Siemens will make the move stateside to the University of Texas-Arlington, where he will base his research on how technology and digital networks influence the knowledge development process within society, and related implications for the future of higher education institutions. Siemens is an internationally known and highly respected researcher, currently based at Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada, an author of books on connectivism and knowledge processes, and a highly active collaborator with global research organizations. His work at the new LINK lab [Learning Innovation and Networked Knowledge Research Lab] at UTA will include both local UTA initiatives and collaborations with other institutions and research organizations worldwide. Siemens also plans to create a global research network to evaluate online learning and digital learning and how they impact the role of the university in society.

Mary Grush: What research areas are you planning to focus on at the LINK lab at UTA, and why are they important for higher education in general?

George Siemens: As you are likely aware, we face a large number of challenges in education. These challenges aren't clearly understood in the sense that we are grappling at what this looks like from a variety of perspectives. There really isn't a clear consensus yet on what education is becoming — what education's role is going to be in the future of society and in the development of knowledge.

Education leaders and faculty are grasping for ways to understand the future of higher education in societies where individuals can access a lot of their learning needs on their own. The role of the institution is somewhat uncertain going forward, especially as we see a growing diversity in the learner population. More students now returning to or entering the university sector are not traditional 18-to-25 year old bachelors or masters degree attaining learners. There are students who may have been in the work force for a while, but the economic structure of their industry has changed and now they are looking at rescaling, or perhaps entering a different field, or maybe updating their skills to stay current. So there's a huge range of factors at play, and as a result the role of the university is what we are trying to understand better.

At the LINK lab in particular, the main intent of our research space is to evaluate how digital and technological networks impact the knowledge development process within society. Questions include: For individuals, how do they get degrees or credentials? For businesses in a particular region, what economic values do universities place within the local societal context? And for society, what does it mean to have an educated populace — one that is well informed and able to engage in relatively complex topical areas? So broadly, we want to look at these questions and the role of the university in a digital and technologically enabled system.

More specifically, our research includes data analytics — how do we evaluate learner performance, teaching performance, and identify or predict at-risk students? We'll also look at micro-credentialing or alternative credentialing approaches — when learning is happening in a variety of spaces beyond the classroom, for example in the workplace, or in a course on Coursera, how do we give credit? Among other systems, we want to look at social and technologically guided learning. One of the questions becomes, what happens if the tools that we use are no longer treated just as tools, but are actually more active agents in our development of knowledge? You'll see this reflected in the growing influence of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other areas where we rely more and more on technology as a cognitive assistant. What does that mean for the teaching and learning process? Those are a few dimensions of our research. We'll be looking at several other factors like wearable and embedded computing. For any interactions involving a learner, technology, and knowledge growth, we want to understand that process and the implications for universities going forward.

Grush: Do MOOCs factor into your research plan?

Siemens: MOOCs certainly become a part of it. But I just want to qualify that and state that MOOCs are not a driving trend; they are not phenomena to be understood. There is value in understanding them better, and understanding the role that they are playing, but actually, they mostly reflect a variety of change pressures. They are more a mirror of change pressures and than they are a driver of change in themselves.

Still, there is the fact that we have technology at our fingertips now, that allows us to do a lot of what traditional universities would have done for us in the past in terms of giving us access to content. So, openness is an important factor — I probably should have mentioned that earlier. The openness component — open scholarship and open teaching and learning — is something that we will be looking at in the lab as well.

And with MOOCs, there are some important questions. I think MOOCs are a bridge that may provide traditional universities with an opportunity to start experimenting with digitally or technologically enhanced learning. Of course this is something that a few early leaders have already taken on: The University of Phoenix, for example, and other for-profits, plus a few public systems, such as Penn State, have been very aggressive in developing their online capacity [e.g., Penn State World Campus]. Some other universities that have largely ignored the online space have more recently discovered that they really need to pay attention to this. So I think MOOCs will provide a lot of value, and not necessarily just in terms of moving universities online, but I think more so in helping those universities start to use technology more strategically.

There are points at which it makes more sense to do certain things online, or it makes more sense to join a global, collaborative network in certain teaching disciplines rather than teaching in isolation. So MOOCs represent a variety of factors that will have impact, but for me, the important element is that MOOCs themselves are a reflection of a large number of trends that need to be understood — rather than seeing MOOCs as a trend to be understood in itself.

Grush: Will your research in the LINK lab be primarily focused on teaching and learning technologies? What about technology that supports scholarly research and knowledge generation within the disciplines?

Siemens: That will certainly be part of it.

On the learning side, my interest is focused on the experience of the learner and of the individual, their relationship with the university, and how the university system needs to change to better accommodate the emerging profile of students and student activities.

But you're right to target also the process of knowledge growth through the work that researchers are engaged in. [For example, in my current lab], we've experimented in this area, along with SOLAR, the Society for Learning Analytics Research, by setting up a distributed doctoral network.

Any time there's a knowledge growth process — whether that growth happens with a learner in a classroom first interacting with a new idea, or with a researcher who has been grappling with a concept in her lab for a long time — if you can improve that process by connecting more people into it, by making it distributed across a larger network of participants, then I think you are essentially looking at the way technology and digital networks influence the knowledge development process.

SARS research is an example I sometimes use: In 2003 when the SARS epidemic first started, a lot of medical fields were absolutely baffled, because this was something they hadn't encountered before, and they weren't quite sure what it was. But in a very short period of time — just over two months — a group of research labs globally were able to identify the corona virus as being the cause of SARS, and that presented some treatment options. This was essentially a networked knowledge problem-solving process. It was a real-time, practical knowledge need that was resolved through digitally connected networks. The time was 2003, and a large part of the exchanges were done via e-mail and the simple sharing of lab results. But this was the process that solved a very complex knowledge problem through the use of fairly basic digital networks. So, that's what I'm looking at from a research perspective: the way we can use all this potential.

Grush: How do you plan to approach your research initiatives working within UTA, and in collaboration with other institutions and organizations?

Siemens: As you may know, the University of Texas at Arlington has very strong programs in online and distance learning, which have received numerous national awards. UTA has one of the largest existing nursing programs online. So, UTA already has considerable competency and a large capacity for and investment in online learning. Still, beyond advancing the field of research globally, we want to have an impact locally at UTA. That may be through work on advanced technology pilots, such as wearable computing, or analytics programs within the UT system, or helping faculty with online pedagogical practices, or making positive impacts for students.

It's also important to note that we think in networks, and we don’t want to make siloed UTA initiatives. We are looking forward, over the next several months, to shaping a global research network that evaluates online learning and digital learning and how they impact the role of the university in society. Different institutions face different challenges and have different strengths to share through a global network. What's going to be of real value is that networked component that goes beyond an insular, siloed focus of what the lab offers the local institution.

And there has to be a practical intent beyond the publication of research. We want to have a practical impact, so that the work that we do will make something happen on the ground and produce real change within different university systems. I'm looking forward to learning how to do all this in collaboration with peers and colleagues internationally. That's the part that excites me.

Grush: For higher education in general, what do you anticipate the most important impact of your research might be?

Siemens: The biggest element to consider is the opportunity universities have to remake themselves. Universities have over the past several years heard predictions of their becoming obsolete, or how residential institutions would become obsolete — but we're not seeing that. I think we're going to see, going forward in the next decade-plus, globally, an increase in the number of universities and education systems. And that makes sense as we are entering [or moving more deeply into] a knowledge era: We need to invest in knowledge institutions.

King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, in Saudi Arabia, for example, is investing very heavily in improving the quality of their education, because they realize that when certain natural resources are no longer available in the region they will need to have something else as a system to be able to compete globally. Another example in the Middle East, Qatar, has invested in what they call Education City, where 6 US universities are represented.

These institutions realize that the future is going to be in knowledge development processes. In the past, most institutions have served just one segment of that process: the early adult stage of our learning. In the future, the university will become much better integrated into all aspects of society. We will have life-long, rather than 4-year relationships with our universities.

I think universities are aware of and paying attention to these trends. It's actually quite a hopeful time.

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