The Promise, Peril, and Possibility of Data, Analytics, and AI in Higher Education (3 of 7): Student Learning

This is the third installment of a seven-part exploration of data, analytics, and AI in higher education. In the first article, I set the groundwork for the series. I introduced the framework from which I intended to write, identifying what I consider to be six distinct aspects of data and AI’s influence in higher education. It simply follows the course of a learner’s relationship with a learning community. As such, the prior article looked at the pre-enrollment relationship, considering how data and AI are changing and will continue to change the way in which learners find, select, and build a relationship with a learning community (whether it be a formal college/University, informal learning, open learning resources or communities, people and experiences that foster learner, or a combination of these). Now, in this third article, I focus my attention upon how data, analytics, and AI will continue to influence the actual learning experience.

I have not intention of providing an exhaustive exploration of the topic. Of course, that would require countless volumes. Instead, what I offer at this point are a couple main observation about the challenges and opportunities that come when we venture into questions about how data, analytics, and/or AI might influence the learning experience.

The Adaptive Learning Revolution Will Really Be a Revolution

For those who still largely conceptualize the bones of the college learning experience as a collection of classes that culminate in the issuing of a credential, the world of data and analytics gives us even more opportunity to reconsider that construct. 

“Learning analytics” is a phrase that we often use in reference to all the data that we can collect and analyze to determine the extent to which students are learning, or the extent to which they exhibit behaviors that someone deems important for student success. Related to this, “adaptive learning” is a system that uses these data points to adjust the learning or learner experience with the hope of some improved outcome. On the K-12 level, we see rudimentary examples with software like Aleks Math or Dreambox. The software includes a hierarchy of levels of mastery. It introduces learners to content, challenges, and lessons; and the learner interacts with this content. All along, the learner’s performance is being assessed, and the software is adjusting accordingly. Each person is taken on a slightly (or sometimes significantly) different learning journey based upon prior knowledge and performance while using the software.

Most of the examples that are prominent today are early experiments with adaptive learning, but the truly interesting stuff is still on its way. While some critique such software as too mechanistic or representative of a simple and behaviorist approach to learning and mastery, that will change. It is already beginning to change. I commend the ingenuity and creativity of early developers of adaptive learning software for math and language acquisition, for example, but most of the work at this point lacks depth. It has yet to dip into the incredible pool of research and insight that now exists about the nature of learning. The companies and learning communities that demonstrate the forethought and wisdom to soak their adaptive learning software into this larger body of knowledge may well end up being some of the most powerful influencers of learning in the 21st and 22nd century.

You might recall the buzz when Thomas Frey made the prediction that the largest Internet company of 2030 will be an online school. I’ll build on his idea to say that it will be a organization that taps into the combined power of AI and the best of learning science research. It will boast of performance increases and learning outcomes that make some dominant teaching practices look like the tools of prehistoric cavemen.

In this new and emerging learning context, we are not talking about a collection of classes that lead to a credential. We are looking at constantly monitored and documented ebbs and flows in learning. We are considering measurements of mastery with regard to discrete skills and knowledge, the nuanced changes in learner motivation, mindset, traits, and disposition as well. As the research develops, we will also see far more complex calculations that look at patterns of thinking and behavior that are predictive of success or failure in various life, work, and real world contexts. Not only that, these new contexts will make massive strides in providing greater insight about knowledge transfer challenges, the extent to which someone’s learning in a classroom or on a computer adequately transfers to various real-world or novel contexts.

Similarly, measurement of learning will not just be about a moment in time. These emerging technologies will make it possible to monitor what is retained, lost, refined, or re-purposed over years or decades. As such, the monitoring of learning for someone like a surgeon will not stop when the MD is earned (if the construct of an MD persists into the 22nd century). Monitoring of learning and performance will continue and be tracked throughout one’s career.

There is much caution when it comes to such measurements. They are often crude and disregard important nuances and factors. Measurements become values-laden clubs that beat people and communities into submission. Over time, they become so accepted and commonplace that many think you are a social deviant to question their propriety.

Education and learning is rarely just about outcomes. As I so often write, education is always values-laden, which is the source of most great debates in the past and present when it comes to the what, why, and how of education in different contexts. Education isn’t just about the future as well. This AI future that I am describing is most likely inevitable, but we are still wise to not forget the significance of the hidden curriculum. We are wise to consider how these new technology-driven learning contexts shape how we think and our sense of humanity. We are wise to discuss and consider the values-laden nature of each new iteration. The most progressive transhumanists among us might dismiss these warnings as nostalgic hogwash. I do not. I hope that many who read this do not consider it hogwash, especially those who will help bring about the AI in education revolution.

Instructor Resistance 

In such a future, holding on to sentimentality will not be a successful resistance. We must think deeply about what it means to use, live, and teach in a world of big data and artificial intelligence. What do teachers do best? Or, what do we want to be provided by other humans instead of from technology, even if empirical data might suggest that the technology achieves the same or a better result?

Clayton Christiansen’s theory of disruptive innovation suggests that innovations often take root by serving a population largely overlooked, under-served, or even disregarded by others; and they do so with what might initially be an inferior product. Over time, the product improves and gradually captures a larger market until it has the potential to disrupt or displace what was happening before. This is already occurrring when it comes to data-enhanced instruction and learning analytics software. These are supplements to traditional teachers. They are also being used as replacements. As the outcomes of these substitutes or replacements increase, a growing number of people will choose to skip the traditional teacher and classroom. We can lament the loss. We can grieve for what this means about the deeply human and personal aspect of education. It will still happen.

Research from the psychology of attention is being purposed to track facial expressions, heart rate, and more. These too will eventually be part of the data set used in adaptive learning software. Smart watches and health trackers are getting more sophisticated every year. All of these lead to data points that will allow for increasingly nuanced and sophisticated learning analytic data sets. Are there problems and concerns with all of this? Absolutely. Yet this is also an indication of what is possible with AI and learning analytics. These systems will eventually capture psychological nuances and social cues that a single teacher cannot possibly notice and take into account when teaching a group of 50 in a traditional classroom. 

This doesn’t mean that people will become obsolete in learning of the future. However, it does challenge us to reconsider roles. In a recent interview with Stephen Downes, he noted that many of these musings about AI are much further in the future than some suspect, and that the most promising present possibilities reside with open networks of learning, new technology-enhanced connections and communities among people. It is amid these connections and among these communities that we can see some of the greatest strides in the more immediate future. We can see support for his position in the rapid adoption of social media, open learning communities, and other such networking over the past couple decades. Perhaps it is within these connections and communities that we can make greater sense of the roles best played by people and the extent to which AI and adaptive learning might be integrated. A blend of these two is what we already see emerging, and I see no evidence of that slowing. What happens in the long-term is yet to be seen. 

The Future of Learning

I have no doubt that AI and adaptive learning will bring about some of the more significant changes to how people learn over the upcoming decades. Tbe algorithms will develop and evolve to draw upon increasingly complex data sets. Incredibly consequential errors will be made along the way. Tension will grow and persist regarding the role of AI alongside the role of human interaction in learning. This is the future of learning in the rest of the 21st century.

What is a Professor Versus an Educator?

What is a professor versus an educator? In a recent conversation with colleagues at my University, we had a wonderful (at least from my perspective) conversation about a single statement in a text, “A professor is an educator.” While several in the group had thoughts about this statement, I simply posed the question. “To what extent do you think this statement is true?” One colleague noted that, in some Universities, professors strive to teach as little as possible. From that perspective, the role of a professor is certainly not synonymous with that of an educator.

When discussing a single statement like this, there are many ways to frame our thoughts and perspectives. For better or worse, my formal training often draws me first to the etymology, second to the modern day usage of the terms, and third to the dominant discourses associated with each word. Let’s briefly consider these two words from at least two of those three categories.

Professor

It doesn’t take much to see the root of “profess” in the word, and while I’m not a Latin scholar, that certainly appears to be a fundamental aspect of its meaning. A professor is indeed a person who professes, namely one who either professes to be an expert in a given domain or professes a given body of knowledge. The word is one that draws our attention to the action of that professor. At least etymologically, it includes a limited allusion to a student or learner, although a study of the usage in context throughout history certainly assumes that the professor is, at least in many contexts, professing to students. Yet, the action is on that which is spoken or written by the professor. What happens after the fact is not included in the word’s origin.

And it is this very concept that allows us to find the humor in the words of W.H. Auden when he writes, “A professor is someone who talks in someone else’s sleep.” Being a professor is independent of what happens as a result of the professing. A class of sleeping students? You are still a professor. As such, for some today, the word professor still conjures images of one who lectures. Even among faculty, I’ve heard their work sometimes described as “delivering content” to the students, a postal worker for ideas.

Of course, there is more to the word. The discourse around professor entails one who works as a faculty member in a University setting. They might teach classes (or students in classes). They might engage in service on committees and sometimes service beyond the University. They assess student work. They mentor. They advise. They curate content and guide students toward growing levels of mastery. Yet, not all of these have equal weight among those who hold the title “professor.” Depending upon the University where you are a professor, the community has different values and priorities among the items in the list.

Educator (and educate)

This has an altogether different etymology and discourse associated with it. Consider the following from Etymology.com.

educator (n.) 1560s, “one who nourishes or rears;” 1670s, “one who trains or instructs,” from Latin educator (in classical Latin, “a foster father,” then also “a tutor”), agent noun from past participle stem of educare (see educate). Latin educatrix meant “a nurse.”

educate (v.) mid-15c., “bring up (children), to train,” from Latin educatus, past participle of educare “bring up, rear, educate” (source also of Italian educare, Spanisheducar, French éduquer), which is a frequentative of or otherwise related to educere “bring out, lead forth,” from ex- “out” (see ex-) + ducere “to lead” (seeduke (n.)). Meaning “provide schooling” is first attested 1580s. Related: Educated; educating.

Notice the metaphors associated with child-rearing, nurturing, as well as the concept of “leading out.” In other words, where the etymology of the word “professor” has no strong connection with the learner or student, there is a relationship that is inherent in the etymology of the word “educator.” I suppose that, technically, one could be a professor without students (and that is indeed the case for some professors who are focused exclusively on research), but the etymology of the word “educator” leaves little space for such a possibility. It is a word that draws our attention to what one does with, for or to another.

This might seem like esoteric musings to some people, but I share it because these distinctions point to modern debates and confusion. From the perspective of some, the role of a professor has lost value while that of educator tends to be spoken of with greater admiration. They parallel debates about professors who focus mostly on the content versus those who give greater attention what students do or do not learn. They parallel debates about teaching versus learning. They parallel complaints by some professors about the modern focus upon “spoon-feeding” students or even on the heavy focus on student learning outcomes. They parallel disagreements about how the quality and contribution of a professor should be assessed.

In short, the distinction between these two words illustrates the modern conflict in the public about the role and value of the modern University. As such (and I know that I persistently return to this theme in my writing), we will not make significant gains in the public discourse unless we acknowledge these differences; collectively develop a much deeper knowledge of their roles, distinctions, affordances, and limitations; and then have a broad and candid debate about our priorities…although I tend to think that this is mostly important to address on the University level, not mandated by some accrediting body or government agency.

Can Badges Help Education (and Society) Recover from Credentialism?

I continue to wonder if open badges can help education and society recover from credentialism. When I first started writing about badges, it was because I saw possible futures where open badges could de-monopolize current credential issuing organizations. I saw the potential to increase access and opportunity for self-directed learners, those who took alternative learning pathways, and those who sought to design a personal learning pathway that mixed learning experiences across contexts and organizations. I saw it as a way to force the hand of more formal learning organizations to invest in the quality of their communities, learning experiences and their benefit to learners (not just employers). I looked at the education landscape and lamented instances where education institutions expected to keep their doors open by trusting that people would come to them with the promise of a quick-to-degree route or the hope of some sacred piece of paper that only these institutions had authorization to dispense.

With the growth of open badges as I saw it, these organizations could no longer depend upon people enduring archaic, subpar, and disempowering practices simply because the institution held the keys to the credential that the learner must have for her/his desired future. This was and is not prompted by a personal desire to hurt formal education. I wanted to help it find its way back to what has always been best about higher education; being a rich, immersive, intellectual, curious, transformational learning community and not a diploma-issuing factory. The best institutions today get that, but many do not believe it enough to have a financial model built around such a vision.

I saw badges as a means of helping to create a future where the increased percentage of college graduates was modest but the education “level” of communities was, nonetheless, greater than past eras. I looked to the example of open professions and intellectual communities in society and saw that many of the thriving communities are among the least enamored with credentialism (with the major exception of the health care industry that I will address momentarily). I saw this in entrepreneurial endeavors, many tech industries, sales and marketing, service industries, as well the tech-meets-social sector that continues to grow. In open professions, the high school diploma or college degree is still a common and respected pathway, but not at the exclusion of other, admittedly less traveled routes. I saw badges as a way to validate and expand these alternatives.

The same is true for those seeing the benefit in a broad and liberal arts education. As long as academia touts its pathway to the liberal arts as the only or superior one, we are hurting the expansion of the liberal arts in society. I’ve long contended that advocates of the liberal arts should be the first to promote informal learning, continuing education, and liberal arts learning beyond the classroom. The liberal arts is in full bloom when people value their books and music, they use their library cards, congregate for book clubs, participate in public lectures and gatherings to explore topics of personal and social import. It happens when museums and galleries are well-funded (due to the desire of the people and not just the lobbying of a small élite); these museums and galleries are valued and frequented places in communities; coffee shops, diners and pubs are robust places of idea exchange; when individuals self-organize groups for growth and learning; and when people value the intellectual life as an important part of their home and communities.

I worry that pushing the liberal arts credential as the only way to becoming a cultured and informed citizen limits the potential of the liberal arts. Yet, in a world of more open learning, the liberal arts college or curriculum doesn’t diminish. It plays a more valued role as one of many important institutions contributing to the humanities and the liberal arts in society. If the only noble place to study or experience Shakespeare is in the college classroom, Shakespeare is on life support and his prognosis does not look good.

As I’ve mused about the role of badges in shaping the future of learning and education (not just schooling), I’ve long recognized that training for healthcare is a major exception in that future. The regulation and oversight of training and credentials associated with these careers likely means that the monopoly on credentials leading to these healthcare jobs is secure well into the future. It is also possible that the model set forth in these programs is part of what is spreading to entire Universities and accrediting bodies, but I still see the open badge movement as a way to help prevent such a future.

My hope for these more open futures is fueled by the connected learning revolution. The digital age opened access to content, communities, open courses, human networks, personal learning tools and resources, and educational software. More people are using these elements to build learning communities, enhance their lives, and achieve personal learning goals. As connected learning expands, I have no doubt that value for this broader world of learning with expand with it. As that happens, open badges have a role in amplifying the effect of the connected learning revolution and de-monopolizing the issuing of valued credentials.

We are not there yet, and there is no certainty that such a possibly future will become reality. There are corporate influences at work that could either help or hijack the potential of open badges. Government and regulatory agencies have the power to create policies that limit or expand the influence of open badges. Lobbyists (many of whom would never see themselves as such) within formal education continue to have a strong voice in these matters (as I think they should), and an unwillingness to objectively assess the affordances and limitations of such a future is also a potential barrier. In addition, decisions about which direction to take with the future of the open badge infrastructure has the potential to speed or halt progress toward this future. As much as any of these, there is also the momentum of the existing system and framework in society that continues to be in favor of giving up power (even if unknowingly) to existing academic monopolies.

This does not need to be adversarial, but I am enough of a realist to know that it will be so. Such a broad change is painful. It creates new winners and losers. It challenges the agenda of desired future of influential people in government, business, and the education sector. It risks devaluing some existing credentials. It challenges people to a higher standard and level of learning. As it empowers more people, that means others will potentially lose some of their existing influence, and they are unlikely to do that without resistance. With such considerations involved, the future that first captured my interest in badges is less than certain, but I continue to see it as an interesting, if not promising possibility and path to recover from credentialism in society.

What if You Were in Charge of the University of Phoenix

The Apollo Group, parent company of the University of Phoenix, was just sold for 1.1 billion dollars, and Tony Miller was appointed the new board chairman.  Let’s use this as a chance to engage in a little imaginative play, a sort of thought experiment. If you are up for it, please keep reading.

The UoP has new leadership on the board level and you just received a cryptic email. It is from Tony Miller with the subject, “seeking your leadership.” You open it and read the following:

Dear ___________,

As you may know, I was recently appointed the chair of the board for the Appolo Group. What you probably do not know is that we have been following and noticing your work for quite some time, and I have a proposition for you. Would you be willing to spare a few minutes for a brief phone conversation?

Of course, your first thought is that it is a scam, although it was not flagged as spam or junk mail. After inspecting the email address and inspired by pure curiosity, you send a reply, accepting the invitation to chat. Moments after sending your email, you get a response asking if you are available now.

You call the provided number and Tony Miller answers the phone. He restates what he wrote in the email and continues.

As you probably, the University of Phoenix has declining enrollment. It has been through a fair share or challenges ranging from investigations to lawsuits, enrollment declines to critiques that have tarnished and weakened its brand. As state Universities and others have entered the online space, the UoP, an ealry leader in online learning, has struggled to find its distinct niche. I would like to hire you to turn it around, to help establish a grand and bold vision for the University of Phoenix moving forward. We will pay you well and, more importantly, provide you with the resources that you require. All that we ask is for you to submit a short vision for the UoP with a sample of 3-5 key initiatives that will represent that vision.

Assuming that you were inclined to accept the offer, what sort of vision would you cast for the UoP? What would you establish as key initiatives moving forward? Of course, the UoP is a for-profit entity, so your plans must make fiscal sense. They must promise a reasonable return on investment. Beyond that, it is up to you. As a place to start, here is the current UoP mission statement:

University of Phoenix provides access to higher education opportunities that enable students to develop knowledge and skills necessary to achieve their professional goals, improve the performance of their organizations, and provide leadership and service to their communities.

I’d genuinely love to hear some of your ideas. Consider sharing them in the comment area. How might you refresh, refine or completely change the mission and direction of the organization? What sort of initiatives would be signature efforts of this new direction? As a way to get things going, here are five elements that I’d consider if I had a go at it.

I would take a new direction with the mission statement.

It might be something like this. “We help people build lifelong learning networks, competence, confidence, and the capacity for mission-minded impact in current and future vocations.

Move away from marketing and leading with the promise of degrees.

We would still issue degrees, but we would now put all of our marketing and improvement efforts upon the people of UoP. Our promise would not be focused on getting a degree to get a job or promotion. It would be upon becoming a personal of such great value and impact, that people would seek you out to help lead the charge.

Everyone builds a world-class, digital age, personal learning network.

This would be a core part of every program and every core offering. Austin Kleon warned that, if it isn’t online, it doesn’t exist. We are going to make sure that everyone from employee to student at the UoP becomes an influencer and is building a robust and useful learning network in the digital age. People will learn how to represent their unique gifts and abilities, their accomplishments, their knowledge and skills, and they will be proud to be part of a worldwide UoP community.

Remember those commercials with the red sox? They were on to something, but they didn’t let it permeate the entire organization. It was a great commercial, but they didn’t let it drive them enough. You can’t make a promise like that unless you are all in on it, and I would invest the effort to be all in.

Reframe drop out and stop out.

Now our goal is to mentor people to gain the competence and confidence to have high levels of positive impact in their work, communities and the world. Our faculty will be identified, trained and then focused upon just that. We declare a moratorium on just grading assignments and letting students pass from class to class, ending with a grade. Our learning experiences will be project-based, inquiry-based, case-based, deeply engaging and persistently enlightening.

When you sign up to be a student at the UoP, you are joining a community that is intensely invested in your future, but we also have high expectations. We care deeply about retention but not because of some DOE standard. We do it because we want each person to thrive. As such, when and if a person has obtained the level of competence and confidence to achieve their goals, we have no problem letting them move on, even if it is prior to finishing a degree. We will get creative about recognizing their accomplishment up to that point and making sure they know there is always an open seating awaiting them upon their return.

We are committed to providing a lifelong learning network.

Once you join the UoP community, we are committed to helping you throughout life. That comes with career assistance, ongoing professional development, coaching and mentoring, and whatever other related elements you need. We will be known for hosting some of the most amazing and inspiring events for our students and alumni that you can find. They will eventually compete with the brand of TED, but exclusive access is limited to those in the UoP community. In addition, we are going to invest in the best ideas within our community, becoming known as a place that supports and ignites entrepreneurship, becoming a place to learn how to start new ventures that benefit the world.

This isn’t necessarily the vision or strategy that I would set for every higher education institution, but given the unique and distinct history and attributes of the UoP, this is where I would take it. I am confident that it would be both profitable and impactful. It could help recover and then improve the brand of the organization. It could also once again make the UoP an industry leader and visionary in the future of learning in a connected age.

That is my idea. How about you? You’ve just been placed in charge of the UoP. Where will you take it?