There’s a growing divide between how higher education approaches teaching and learning and what today’s students expect, according to Susan C. Aldridge. The president of Drexel University Online sees educators sticking with teacher-centered learning management systems in which students passively receive knowledge. Meanwhile, outside of school, students eagerly immerse themselves in the latest technology for their own self-directed learning and communication.

Susan Aldridge

Susan Aldridge will explain how educators can create a student-centered focus on continuous, customized, collaborative and problem-based learning experiences.

How to bridge this gap? Aldridge will explore the possibilities in her keynote speech at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Distance Teaching & Learning Conference, Aug. 7-9. “Harnessing the Power of Technology to Enhance the Promise of Education” will delve into Drexel’s Virtually Inspired, a repository of innovative ideas for technology-enhanced education. Attendees will learn strategies they can reproduce in their own classrooms or trainings.

In the following interview, Aldridge shares her vision for the virtual learning environment and explains what it will take to get there.

What ideas will you emphasize in your keynote speech?

 Technology-enhanced education is fast becoming a must-have for colleges and universities of all types and sizes, powered in large part by the reality that working professionals now need continuous and ready access to higher education. But at the same time, technology is advancing at an exponential rate, with new digital tools and devices hitting the market at breakneck speed, from virtual, augmented, and mixed reality to artificial intelligence and robotic telepresence.

Because educators often don’t have the time or the resources to keep up with the rapid pace of innovation, they tend to stick with the learning management systems they know, using the instructivist model that has long been the cornerstone of education. On the other hand, their students are increasingly adept at using the latest technology to connect, collaborate, and construct new knowledge in a way that is authentic and self-directed, immediate and personalized. For them, learning must be more experiential than transactional, both in and beyond the classroom.

My keynote will focus on why technology-enhanced education must move beyond the old mindset of learning management to embrace the mindset of learning experience.

How do you hope conference attendees will translate what you talk about into practical action following the conference?

I truly believe that educators who take the time to attend conferences such as this one are dedicated to finding new and better ways of teaching and learning, because they want to meet the evolving needs of their students. But like all of us in higher education, they are often hampered by budget constraints and competing campus priorities when it comes to turning big ideas into practical action. And while some of them are already deploying these technologies, many still lack the expertise to use them effectively and/or the necessary evidence to support the investment.

So I hope that my talk will inspire attendees to take a more thorough look at the wealth of examples we have featured on Virtually Inspired and to envision how they might replicate one or two of them to the greater benefit of their students and their institutions. Because we have designed this website as a collaborative resource, I would also like them to share their own virtual success stories for others to learn from.

Equally important, I want to encourage everyone who attends to help build stronger pipelines for innovation, through which to expand the body of knowledge we need for continuously improving the impact of technology on the learning experience.

What’s the difference between the traditional learning management mindset and a learning experience approach?

The learning management mindset is rooted in the more traditional instructivist model of education, which casts students in the role of passive and solitary recipients of information, digesting and replaying instructor-controlled content to demonstrate knowledge acquisition. So, in the self-paced virtual learning environment, courses are typically organized around reading materials, videotaped lectures, discussion boards, written assignments, and high-stakes exams.

On the other hand, the learning experience approach is grounded in the constructivist model, with its student-centered focus on continuous, customized, collaborative and problem-based learning experiences. In fact, neuroscientific research shows that we learn more effectively when compelled to actively discover and synthesize knowledge for and among ourselves. And because technology is a way of life for the students we teach, they are fully accustomed to using a wealth of digital tools for doing just that, anywhere and at any time.

Why is the conventional learning management system no longer enough?

In conducting our research, we found that conventional learning management systems were often cited as a barrier to creating an active and engaging learning experience, using the groundbreaking technologies we have at our disposal.

For one thing, most of these systems are still primarily built for handling the transactional aspects of online education—in other words, for organizing, packaging, and delivering our unique academic products. Therefore, they function as gated portals to the virtual campus, designed to leave classroom content and control firmly in the hands of the institution—or more specifically, the course instructor. And in doing so, they typically leave little or no room for learners to integrate and share other relevant content or customize the learning environment and experience around professional interests and learning preferences.

What’s more, because the learning management system is essentially a one-way street, it’s difficult to cultivate a sense of community, in which students are free to connect and collaborate at will with their instructors, outside experts, and each other. Equally problematic, these platforms are built around a relatively standardized set of virtual learning tools for submitting assignments, giving exams, coordinating class discussion, and evaluating performance. Thus, they are not, for the most part, designed to optimize the plethora of interactive digital tools and apps we might use to support constructivist learning through engaging, personalized, and immersive experiences.

Please explain your vision of a virtual learning environment that promotes a powerful learning experience. How can we get from here to there?

We need to design multimodal, multidimensional, and media-rich virtual learning environments that better exploit and measure the constructivist benefits of authentic, social, and connected learning, within the context of the many innovative digital tools and applications we have available.

The Distance Teaching & Learning Conference features leading lights from academia, industry, and government on Aug. 7-9.

These environments will provide ample opportunities for hands-on practice and produce tangible learning artifacts, while fostering active collaboration and supporting just-in-time assessment. They will also enable learners to integrate knowledge-based with project-based learning within dynamic and meaningful contexts, in addition to building purposeful and self-directed communities of practice around shared interests. Likewise, they will support student access to real-world expert knowledge beyond the classroom and document acquired skills through e-portfolios that are both flexible and portable.

What are some of the best examples of innovative approaches from the Virtually Inspired project? What are some of the easiest ones for educators to replicate?

One of my personal favorites involves holography as a technology for transforming the way medical, dental, and nursing students at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic learn about the human body. Instead of cutting into human cadavers, students there are using Microsoft Hololens technology to manipulate and explore the intricacies of a virtual, three-dimensional human body, a learning experience that they say is far superior to the old method.

Yet another great example comes from Texas A&M University. They used virtual reality to create a learning tool called Variant Limits, which connects mathematics and gameplay in a way that not only supports active engagement, but also makes learning fun. In fact, students are free to do what they do best—to explore, develop new knowledge, and practice college-level calculus concepts at their own pace, in an immersive three-dimensional game world.

In addition to digital devices, there are also virtual applications and platforms that can be easily adopted for online and blended learning. Take Osmosis, an adaptive learning platform that two young medical students at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine developed to help their peers at universities around the world remain on top of their studies. This platform combines memory anchors and adaptive spaced repetition, collaborative learning, and gamification to generate high-impact study aids to use in preparing for clinical practice, board exams, and tests. At the same time, faculty and students from anywhere can develop and add local content to the tool’s existing database of open education resources and real-world case studies.

What interests you most about speaking again at the Distance Teaching & Learning Conference?

Conference attendees include a cross-section of international and national faculty and administrators who contribute their research and vast expertise. The participants are engaged in discussions during the sessions, before and after sessions, and during the breaks. It’s an invigorating environment intellectually as colleagues share ideas, learn new practices, and connect with friends. The conference format allows participants to join experts at small roundtables to continue discussions after keynote speeches. They attend the conference to take new ideas back to their home institutions.

I look forward to exploring innovations of the future.

The 34th annual Distance Teaching & Learning Conference attracts more than 800 higher education faculty and staff, instructional designers, and workforce trainers in search of new ways to engage learners. It features leading lights from academia, industry, and government at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, overlooking Madison’s lovely Lake Monona. To learn more or to register for the Aug. 7-9 event, see the conference website. For additional information, contact Wendy Fritz, 608-265-2679, wendy.fritz@wisc.edu.