Oblinger: Higher Education Evolution or Extinction

There's a generational gap between distance learning providers and their students, EDUCAUSE senior fellow Diana Oblinger told about a thousand delegates at the 18th Distance Teaching and Learning Conference in Wisconsin today.

If we look at changing trends in student registration patterns, changing student mindsets, and recent advances in our understanding of learning, we can map a set of effective practices and program design guidelines to adapt to this changing environment.

Oblinger's keynote address, misleadingly titled "Higher Education Evolution or Extinction," never seriously considered the latter possibility, arguing only that providers of distance learning need to embrace (and plan for) change. And most of Oblinger's observations should have been familiar to this audience of distance learning professionals.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the talk was an outline of statistics, gathered by the National Center for Education Statistics, showing that the demographic shift is even more pronounced than might otherwise have been expected. According to the research study, three quarters of all students are non-traditional. Most of them are likely to leave without a degree, most of them attend two year institutions, and most of them opt for private institutions.

These non-traditional students are opportunists, "swirling" through several college and university programs - often at the same time - picking and chooing their learning, taking time off to work, and opting for applied certificate programs.

The mindset of these students - and especially of younger students - is at odds with traditional college and university services, argued Oblinger. As these students become familiar with the web their use becomes more serious and more focused. 94 percent use the web for school research. Many - 41 percent - use instant messaging to plan and collaborate.

But a deeper difference is described in a recent article in Change Magazine as "Nintendo over logic" - a focus on experience rather than rules, hands-on rather than descriptions. When faced with a new computer program, Oblinger commented, "What would you and I do? We would read the instructions." The previous generation (of which Oblinger claims to be a part) asks "What may I do?" rather than "What can I do?"

The new learners, according to a variety of reports, expect and demand self-service, self-control, and immediacy. They are impatient with bureaucracy. They expect integrated environments and they want to be connected. Quite a contrast, remarked Oblinger, when compared to the supporte services offered at today's institutions.

Oblinger also introduced research work in learning theory and especially the National Research Council's "How People Learn." Though it would be a surprise if this work was new to conference attendees, the audience listened intently as Oblinger described a need for learning beyond facts, a learning that includes a conceptual framework or schema and a means of organizing learning for retrieval and use.

Students, she remarked, come into learning with preconceptions and background, and as a result learning must find some means to connect with what was previously (and sometimes erroneously) known and what is to be learned.

Students who many be described as "digital learners" approach learning differently from their text-bount predecessors. While previous learning was based on being told, an authority driven model, today's learner prefers discovery and experimentation. Older learners prefer a linear and deductive style, while today's learners prefer brocolage (a mixture of information from many sources) and judgement on the fly. When older learners didn't know, they wouldn't try, said Oblinger, but when a new learner doesn't know they will "link, lurk and try."

These new learners and new atrtitudes suggest a new set of best practices, practices seen today in such ventures as eArmyU and the Pew Foundation, said Oblinger. The latter, for example, is working with what is called a "buffet model" for online courses, a model where each learner is pre-assessed, where they select from an array of interactive learning materials, and where they proceed at their own pace in a learning mode of their own preference.

More studies are probably needed, but Oblinger cited enormous cost savings - up to 70 percent of costs per learner - through the use of buffet style learning.

Oblinger sumarized with a set of guidelines for developers of online learning that are (somewhat) related to these finidings. Organizations should attend first and formost to change management, she said. They should adopt known principles of learning, such as learner centered design, experiential,interactive and individualized learning, and a focus on outcomes. They should embrace accountability as an opportunity. And they should "balance the complexity" and not spend too much time on, say, content, at the expense of, say, infrastructure, change, faculty or students.

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