Campus & Community

Emerging challenges in digital higher ed

7 min read

Conference examines challenges, best practices as online education matures

Education data scientists from Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning (VPAL) hosted dozens of their peers from colleges and universities across the country late last month to discuss emerging challenges in research and design of digital higher education programs.

Digital learning produced at Harvard has had a far-reaching impact, both globally and on campus. Since the inception of the edX learning platform in 2012 as a nonprofit joint collaboration by Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), millions of learners at universities and institutions here and abroad have taken courses on the platform.

HarvardX, a University-wide initiative that creates massive open online courses (MOOCs), has itself created more than 100 courses on the platform. HarvardX has also worked to identify opportunities to leverage its online learning content in Harvard’s on-campus classes, and has helped create more than 20 blended courses at the University using HarvardX materials.

The recent beta launch of the new HarvardDART (Digital Assets for Reuse in Teaching) tool will support this important goal by offering instant access to HarvardX content and the ability to embed individual learning assets — including videos, assessments, or text pages — more easily in Harvard classrooms this fall.

“As we see more and more movement in the digital learning space, there is a need to bring people together to talk about genuine challenges in our collective work,” said Dustin Tingley, VPAL Research faculty director and professor of government. “Our goal in convening this conference was to create such a space for broad discussion and foster future collaboration.”

Institutions attending VPAL Research’s “Emerging Challenges” conference gathered to discuss the power of the digital space in higher education and identify roadblocks each has faced in supporting research and program development. The group worked to synthesize areas of common challenges, and set the stage for ongoing discussion, collaboration, and development of solutions beneficial to all participants.

The conference included attendees from edX, Arizona State University, Carnegie Mellon University, Davidson College, Haverford College, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, New York University, Stanford University, the University of British Columbia, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, as well as Harvard, MIT, and education companies such as Kaplan.

Participants Mary Ellen Wiltrout (from left), Andrew Saltarelli, Michael J. Parker, and Daniel Seaton talk during a session break. Photo by Elise M. Ciregna

“Our ‘Emerging Challenges’ conference was structured to provide a forum for open dialogue around infrequently discussed issues,” said conference organizer and VPAL Research senior research scientist Daniel Seaton. “Opportunities to address how an institution should design a digital learning research strategy are rare, and help strengthen information-sharing within higher education networks.”

As digital resources have become more integrated within higher education programs, colleges and universities have seen the value of developing in-house organizations to guide the institution’s path on education innovation. However, there is no blueprint for creating such an entity on campus or deciding what its main focus should be (research and development, online education and MOOC development, pedagogical innovation, etc.). Conference participants — some of whose institutions have already created education innovation offices — agreed that gathering and discussing best practices could identify a number of digital higher education strategies and solutions. However, even with a guide, designing an innovative higher education plan can be daunting.

“We can advance research and development in higher education faster and better by creating a network of people who are currently working to build and run research and development models, or aspire to do so in the near future,” said Kristen Eshleman, director of digital innovation at Davidson College. “The talented group of education researchers on hand are all looking at different angles of research, but recognize that, in aggregate, a network is poised to tackle some of the bigger sector-wide challenges around the future of higher education.”

During lively and collegial conversations, participants shared their experiences around a number of key themes through short presentations and panel discussions focused on the design of digital education interventions and experiments, advanced assessment, and learner credentialing.

During the session on experiments and intervention, an emerging theme involved developing systems that better connect participant data. Effectively understanding how participants are learning is critical to designing interventions and structured course improvements that can help future learners achieve desired outcomes. Ido Roll of the University of British Columbia emphasized the importance of bridging the gap between course design and research in digital learning environments.

“Learner data from courses flows into our data warehouses and is analyzed as part of regular practice. But the resulting information and knowledge should be fed back to instructors and course designers to inform their online learning development work,” said Roll, senior manager for research and evaluation at the school’s Centre for Teaching, Learning, and Technology. “Information flow should be bidirectional. Questions and challenges that course teams have should direct our data investigations.”

Another common difficulty faced by conference attendees in their roles as digital course developers and researchers involves the development of innovative courses that meet diverse student needs and objectives without compromising educational quality or depth. Ongoing MOOC research has shown the pool of online learners contains a wide range of ages, cultures, locations, and educational backgrounds.

During a session on credentialing, Isaac Chuang, senior associate dean of digital learning and professor of electrical engineering and computer science and professor of physics at MIT, provided an overview on the evolution of MOOCs around digital content and credentialing. Citing a recent report examining four years of HarvardX and MITx MOOCs that he co-authored with Andrew Ho, chair of the VPAL Research committee and Harvard professor of education, Chuang detailed how online course content is diversifying and credentialing mechanisms are changing.

“New online programs such as the MITx MicroMasters are successfully drawing thousands of learners who are willing to pay for the opportunity to earn an MIT master’s degree, accelerated by academic credit received for MicroMasters MOOC courses,” said Chuang. “These learners are spending over four times the number of hours on the courses compared with certifying learners in a typical MITx MOOC. Novel credentialing mechanisms are clearly developing into a meaningful new market for serious students and academic institutions.”

A significant challenge that elicited a protracted discussion concerned managing the value, both perceived and actual, of MOOC certification for learners’ professional and socio-economic growth. MOOCs allow anyone with an internet connection to enroll, providing great access to higher education — but they lack “exclusivity” (as in not being part of a carefully curated cohort, selected through a competitive admission process), which some participants thought could threaten the perceived value of course certification. However, attendees agreed that open access to high-quality education creates measurable impact in and of itself.

“It is important to encourage future endeavors toward sustainable enhancement of the perceived value of open-access academic credentials,” said conference attendee Curtis Northcutt, an MIT computer science Ph.D. candidate. “I genuinely hope that learners all over the world, particularly those in underdeveloped and developing nations, can use MOOC certificates to demonstrate what they’ve accomplished, and perhaps even improve their lives.”

Conference participants concurred not only on many common challenges they face developing online learning programs at their home institutions, but also on the need for continued collaboration in tackling them.

“Digital higher education efforts combine needs for stable and scalable content-delivery systems, subject matter, and pedagogic experts, researchers who craft interventions but also have to handle ‘big data,’ and complicated programmatic considerations, given that we also offer residential programs,” said Tingley. “That is not easy, so we wanted to make people focus on identifying challenges rather than selling solutions. We found we each face many of the same obstacles — and our conference discussions helped foment efforts for shared solutions.”