The Internet can transform teaching methods and educational organisations. What possibilities does accessible information technology bring? The systems are well known: they consist of computers in all forms, from powerful servers in data centres with thousands of gigabytes of storage, to laptops, tablet computers, mobile phones and game consoles connected through the Internet via cellular networks, wireless networks and fast computer networks. Data in any form is collected, transmitted, processed and stored. The computers can be connected to graphics tablets, to sensors for measurement and motion detection and other equipment for data entry; computers can control robots, vehicles and other systems. User behaviour can be logged and provide useful side information such as times for work shifts, multitasking and interruptions.
Let us observe a school pupil of the future who is studying biology and who is in her field of study in nature with her mobile phone. She collects pictures of plants, animals and animal tracks with the camera. She records animal sounds, videos and her own comments and notes the locations of her finds. She can get information in the field to identify what she has found, and she answers questions with answers provided by the system: to identify a bird song is no different for a computer than to recognise the artist and song for music that someone is humming, and for this there are several apps.
The system can provide the student data to find animal tracks as other students report in from the area, and thus one student’s work becomes a benefit to the others. The teacher has supervised the entire outing from back at school and contacts the students for a conversation about how everything has gone and gets the students’ impression of the task and perhaps hears about something unexpected or funny that happened. On the way back to school or home, the system can provide a lecture about the animals and plants that were seen during the excursion. She is offered the chance to learn songs and poems that depict the plants and animals she has seen, and the system repeats the lyrics and melody until the song is learnt. During the remaining school time, and perhaps even after, she will receive questions from the system about what she learnt to ensure that she does not forget anything.
This example can be applied to university level, and illustrates that the technology can be used to verify that tasks are completed ??at a specified time and in the right place; answers can be corrected and lead to additional materials to study with more tasks to perform; wrong answers lead to supplementary materials and to contacts between students for discussion and mutual help, as well as to contact with the instructor.
Web-based teaching materials are video, text, audio and graphics, and the systems are interactive. Simulations and motion detection allow physical interaction between systems and humans to learn to perform a given manoeuvre or dance step, for example. Responses to the system consist not only of clicks in answer to multiple-choice questions, but also hand-written text, voice and video recording, as well as music and pictures. Similarly, cooperation takes place not only between man and computer, but also just as much between people in order to promote learning and contacts. Meetings can take place over the net or face-to-face, where the system identifies and suggests who should meet each other and where and when it can be done: those who completed and accounted for a task can meet and assist those who are stuck. Our communities are full of venues – cafes, libraries and parks – so the need for educational facilities decreases. Students will go to places where there is special equipment for laboratories, experiments and training (3D printers for design prototypes, workshops for dental technicians, simulators for surgical training, for example).
It has been shown to work well for students to help each other over the Internet and also to correct each other’s tasks.
Every student will receive their assignments corrected and judged by other students and offer themselves for correction to the same extent. It is not intended as an examination but as study support. Submitted reports and assessments are anonymous to the students, but the system keeps track of the identities and, where there is reported abuse, the teacher can deal with it and give reprimands.
The system can also offer tutoring to students. From a database such as LinkedIn, professionals can be identified and they can sign up to volunteer or get paid to meet students. Everyone in the community can sign up to offer knowledge and experience in personal meetings: it can apply to languages, hobby interests, culture, religion and life experiences. There are also tasks for those who just want to listen to a student and give advice and encouragement for studies, perhaps to someone who is practising a lecture. We should not underestimate the need for pure motivational assistance that does not require qualifications as a student counsellor, psychologist or social worker, but only sensitivity and compassion. Satisfaction ratings from students compiled by the system would help in the selection of the right people.
Computers are excellent for matching resources to needs, scheduling events, performing procedures such as correction of tasks and compiling and searching through large volumes of data to find patterns. The technology makes it possible to individualise continued learning after the assessed knowledge-level. For one and the same course, one student can learn at their own pace of self-motivation, while another is driven forward on time as part of an educational programme. There is no reason why only one pedagogical approach should apply to all.
What concrete meaning does information technology have specifically for the players in higher education? Online courses can be used as a supplement to the classroom to enhance the quality of teaching, increase throughput and shorten study times. They rely on web-based materials instead of lectures: studies of the material are followed up in the classroom with discussion and problem-solving to ensure learning; online work and the results of monitored tasks are recorded by the system. If necessary, a test may be given. This is not much different from learning where students read a piece in a textbook, which is then discussed in a teacher-led group. Unfortunately, few use this pedagogy, because it does not work well if students do not prepare.
With web-based teaching, the teacher gets information from the system and can check that the students are preparing for lessons. The teacher can prepare tasks for the class in the sections that seemed most difficult to understand online. The benefits of this educational model are proven, but it brings extra costs for proprietary development of web-based teaching materials and access to published materials, as well as increased teacher effort in classroom discussions.
With interactive technology, discussions in the classroom may not add value, but they represent a large portion of the tuition cost. Why not abolish the classroom? Teaching and learning takes place when fully online and utilising students’ support for each other. The teacher’s task is to choose course materials, supervise the teaching and examine students. Access to online courses costs money, but teaching time is reduced and primarily consists of staff with lower salaries as lecturers and graduate students who are used in the labs and for project assignments. Classrooms are only required for labs and other hands-on exercises. The advantage is lower education costs, but the model still allows higher quality because successful online courses, known as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), are very good. They are developed with great resources that are paid for by many thousands of students per year – much more than can be spent on the development of a single university course. It’s easier to understand why this model does not apply in relation to the former: it does not allow faculties to retain their professional role and large groups of teachers become redundant.
Which of these two possibilities can colleges and universities afford? In today’s model, they are paid according to students’ initiated and completed university credits. The state’s appropriations for 2013 have a table of allowances for different courses: the lowest compensation is provided for humanities, theology, law and social sciences, which receive only 47,618 SEK per student and school year, while media courses receive most with 521,632 SEK for the same time. For scarcely fifty thousand kronor, which the humanities and other fields get per year, there is no economic space for teacher-led discussion groups. If the lectures are given in a large auditorium, or on your own computer, it does not matter: the idea of the classroom as a basis for deep learning is already eliminated. Is any value being given to the students, or is it merely an examination right connected to student finance and Swedish as the educational language that retains students in the long run? Other courses like engineering and medicine have higher payments and can utilise online courses as a complementary form of teaching. We’ll see if it happens: there is reluctance among teachers to change their workload without extra reward. For media courses and other equally costly courses, the technology can be used to reduce costs (note that the state can actually save by buying education from Harvard or MIT for 43,000 US dollars a year, rather than educate students in media for an equivalent of 80,000 US dollars in Swedish universities).
But why should the 1970s’ mass-producing college be the reference model for how the future of higher education should be organised? Today’s colleges and universities have imposed and self-imposed tasks that compete with one another: faculties’ three tasks of teaching, research and collaboration, for example, have proved difficult to balance and the emphasis on research is one reason why teaching is not being developed. Based on MOOCs, it goes from a small scale to building up new educational institutions that choose and recommend courses as well as support the students. Even the examinations can be developed into an independent enterprise, like the one established for the certification of proficiency in foreign languages. A student may meet with a counsellor (a coach in today’s terminology) and they can provide an individual study plan that consists of online courses, supplemented by tutors as needed, and with certification of knowledge from examiners at independent testing organisations.
The training is then deconstructed into its component parts and the student can choose the necessary and desirable parts from those that offer the best courses, study- and career support, and certification. To this, add voluntary efforts of individuals and businesses that see it as part of recruitment, and of organisations in civil society. The best support is that which students can give to each other. For that, they need only to find the right contacts, depending on the study material and their learning needs, which is a normal problem of building a social network. Such institutions will also take advantage of the aftermarket with further education, recertification of previously proven competences, career support and competence intermediation to companies; and, with formation courses, lectures, trips and meetings, it will enrich life in general after completing basic education.
With this model, new forms of colleges are started commercially and evolve from existing institutions. I think, for example, that high schools can provide a good learning environment for online learning. They offer togetherness in both urban and rural settings, mostly in a small and safe way. Furthermore, educational associations can offer higher education. They have facilities in more places than there are colleges and the premises are used primarily in the evenings; they have instructors who know how to get along with and motivate people, and they have their own courses to supplement formal studies for broadening and relaxation. Consequently, they will not be ashamed to offer hobby courses.
The model of free institutions requires either that students pay privately, which can happen for disciplines where the university is poor, or because it does not offer the subject at all, or that we have a free-school reform for college. The reform would give money to a college student to pay for courses, student counsellors, teacher assistance and examination. The reform must provide examination rights to independent testing organisations and student finance for completed courses. New organisations that are not locked in conflicting objectives such as research and teaching, and by government regulations, have the opportunity to renew higher education in the same way as private schools within primary and secondary education have pushed public schools to improve their teaching and streamlining.
As seen in the 1970s, there are economies of scale in teaching many students simultaneously, as long as the teacher-time increases less than does the number of students. Thus was created the industrial education process, with stackable modules consisting of coursework and final examination. The same advantage lies behind the argument for reducing costs with online education. Economies of scale are needed to finance the production of web-based teaching materials and to develop systems for interactive online learning. This requires efforts from teachers with pedagogical and subject knowledge, as well as from technicians and presentation specialists. It is understandable that English will become a major teaching language, because it provides global viability to courses that can be read by many. The use of English does not hinder Swedish universities and training companies from developing teaching materials and systems, and they have a responsibility to develop materials in Swedish. The work must be funded and quality assured so that courses in Swedish are as good as those found in world languages.
We now see how education will be available globally in English. A Swedish exam is not required for many jobs, and students can choose to study online rather than enrol in a Swedish university that does not always provide added value. The dangers are that students will not get enough support to complete their programmes, choose bad educators, and not get classmates who may be beneficial for their professional lives. For an employer, it is difficult to prove what has been learnt and what a degree means, even if it’s from an established university. Another possibility is that students study online courses and take tests on them in universities to get their Swedish degrees. University, then, provides a social context with student unions and student associations, but has no other role than as an examiner. For a reluctant teaching faculty, it may seem like a win-win situation, but it only works as long as the online courses are free. Eventually, online education will be part of the cost; the question is who will pay. Will it be the colleges and universities that buy online courses for students, or the students themselves who, with a higher education allowance, choose what they want to pay for? Alternatively, online courses remain free, funded by the companies that recruit talent through them (Coursera has proposed this model). Then we can see that our future skills are moving elsewhere in the world, with implications for our prosperity.
We have such an incredible wealth of technical solutions, as well as access to information, quality teachers and actual sources of knowledge that it would be regrettable if these were not used to improve teaching, so that we, in the long-term, can keep educational courses in Sweden. I hope that the possibilities and threats from online education lead to an overall reform and improvement of Swedish higher education.