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Breaking the barriers of higher education

Breaking the barriers of higher education


Llewellyn Flores
Doha
It's a new revolution on the horizon. Several things considered essential parts of a student's life even five years ago are becoming obsolete. So one can hardly notice a student with ink marks on the fingers nowadays nor do we bump into those carrying loads of books as often. Things are changing at a fast and furious pace.
For over a hundred years, sitting in a library and browsing through a mountain of reference materials was inevitable in order to finish a paper. It's no longer so for today's students. They do not even need to sit in a class everyday for a lecture, nor schedule a time with a faculty member for feedback. A Masters degree can be acquired from a reputed institution without the student stepping on its premises.
Technology has been both a driving force and framework to these changes. And with the progress of technology, learners have evolved and acquiring learning has changed. Educational institutions, therefore, need to follow suit.
Ellucian, a leading provider of software and services to higher education institutions, with almost 2,200 institutions worldwide using its ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) solutions Banner, PowerCapus and Colleague and over 1,400 subscribed to its 'Cloud' service, holds an annual conference (Ellucian Live) that brings together higher education professionals. At Ellucian Live 2016, held in Denver, Colorado, which saw 8,500 registered participants from more than 2,400 higher education institutions representing over 40 countries, innovators and educators deliberated on the role of technology in the dynamics of the education system how it can address barriers in acquiring higher education, facilitate student success, and possibly revolutionise education.
Speaking at the conference, Ellucian President and CEO Jeff Ray said,"I do believe that we're entering a fourth Industrial revolution. It's very real and tangible. While there's cause for excitement and optimism, there is also a concern about how we can make sure we provide accessibility to all of these technologies and solutions that are being brought about by this revolution."
Student Success
At a panel discussion at Ellucian Live 2016, Barnard College Information Technology Vice-President Carol Katzman described her institution's view of student success thus:"The expectation is after Barnard, the students leave and become agile, resilient, responsible, creative citizens prepared to serve in their communities."
All educational institutions aim at the best results from their students but getting them there is another story.
For students to succeed in higher education, they first have to be given entry and stay so they can pursue their goals.
"One of our goals is to make sure that (students) know what's available to them and how to take advantage of them," Katzman said.
Katzman and the other members of the panel discussion Jay Fields, Chief Technology Officer at one of the biggest community colleges in San Francisco, City College of San Francisco, and Dr Mansoor al Awar, Chancellor of the first and only online university in the UAE, Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University (HBMSU) all agree on the importance of assessment before a student's journey to higher education,"to know where they should be placed in order to be successful," as Fields put it.
To ensure that students succeed in the programme, their progress needs to be tracked and feedback must be immediate. The nature of today's students has to be taken into account, and in case there is need to stop schooling because of personal or financial issues,"to be able to reintegrate them and make sure they succeed even when there is disruption in their education," Katzman said.
Technology has equipped educational institutions with tools that enable them to ensure student success. Qatar University (QU) is a perfect example.
At QU, students can choose courses and register for classes from anywhere they have Internet access made possible through the ERP 'Banner' by Ellucian. They are equipped with the tools that extend their opportunity to learn and interact with professors and classmates beyond the classroom. A learning management system allows students to communicate with faculty members, get their materials and track their grades from anywhere. Lectures are captured in video which students can later access anytime and play back and forward. A digital repository to which the university is subscribed, gives students access to a large database of academic and research materials, beyond what the institution's library provides.
QU professor and Office of Faculty and Instructional Development Director Dr Arslan Ayari said,"The backbone of the university is technology. It is embedded in its teaching and learning dynamics."
This is all very good for learners within an educational institution but not all aspiring learners are able to avail themselves of such an education environment.
A New Breed Of Learners
"Today, it just no longer works for people to sit around and wait for September to go to class and then get out in December and then do it all again," said Ray."They want to be able to walk into an institution anytime, night or day, based on their demands and begin the learning process. And they want that tight connection knowing that if I finish this curriculum, there is a job waiting for me that is exciting and perfect."
At educational institutions, learners now have sophisticated demands. Katzman said,"Our students want two things: Printing and Wifi, everywhere, all the time, with all their devices. If they have that, they're 90 percent happy. The other part is, knowing their options in choosing courses and their standing."
Defining today's learner, Ayari said,"Universities are getting the millennium students the digital students. When he was born, the mobile phone was there, the digital material was there, the Internet was there, he has used it from age 3 or 5 and he'll continue to do so until he goes to a university. He's savvy with social media and with digital materials. He has expectations."
Education Barriers
Ray points out two barriers in higher education: The rising cost of education and opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is the inability to go or go back to school because it means having to leave one's source of income."We have to find ways of reaching those learners and give them the opportunity to develop the skills that they need," he said."We can go one of two ways as a society we can make things better and improve or we can see a continued degradation in the difference between the haves and have-nots."
Opportunity Cost
Opportunity cost is getting better addressed now. Through online courses, professionals can pursue education without forgoing work. There are contents available online that can be certified for college credit, and educational institutions are partnering with employers for training and certification of their employees. The Community College of Qatar is a pioneer in the country in working with employers in certifying their employees in various skill-sets such as information technology, health care etc.
Outside of educational institutions, technology has opened numerous ways of learning almost anything from simple mathematics to computer programming to life skills. There are an innumerable number of technology-based educational products online, and are constantly increasing. Sites like MOOCS and Udacity and a number of higher education institutions including MIT, Harvard and Yale are offering free courses with certificates. Video-chat tutoring, virtual classrooms, forums and self-learning interactive services are just some of the ways by which teaching is administered and education can be acquired online. All these allow people to learn at their own pace and at their chosen time. An individual can become an expert in computer programming without necessarily getting a degree in Computer Science.
Cost
"Rising cost of education is a very real issue not just in the US. It's an emerging issue in the UK; it's an issue is Australia. We can go around the world and see there are more and more barriers to higher education because of cost," said Ray.
"Our (education) institutions are challenged by the market forces that are going on. The traditional model that was crafted in the middle 1800's is being tested in ways that we have never seen before profound changes in the demographics of people seeking education; much greater demands from employers for a precise set of skills and outcomes rather than a degree that's tied to 126 credit hours," Ray noted.
The Revolution?
At the panel discussion, Dr Mansoor al Awar cited three elements for a student's success: accessibility, flexibility and affordability. He believes e-learning is the answer to educating society without leaving anyone behind. It addresses cost, opportunity cost and caters to today's breed of learners.
Awar said, in many places there is struggle in raising resources to build schools."Even public universities in the Arab World have not been able to absorb the number of graduates from secondary schools. That means we are somehow leaving people behind from getting to universities. Online-learning (which can be adapted to the pace at which an individual learns as opposed to being in a conventional classroom) creates opportunities for people. We need to give people access to knowledge; the society needs to be educated."
HBMSU has three colleges: Business & Quality Management, School of Health & Environmental Studies and School of E-Education. It offers five undergraduate programmes, 13 Masters programmes and three PhD programmes, and uses technologies in the form of mobile learning, discussion blogs, online classrooms, educational gaming and social networking to provide education to high-school graduates and working professionals. It has four categories of learners: Casual Learners (those who access public seminars, workshops and scientific conferences, Committed Learners (those committed by employers for professional development), Concentrated Learners (those enrolled in researched-based driven programmes: Bachelors, Masters, PhD), and Continuing Learners (those involved in executive education.) Besides learners from the GCC, the university has learners from Malaysia, Pakistan, Turkey, Switzerland and even from the US.
According to Awar, the average cost of 4-year undergraduate programmes in a private institution in the UAE is around 0.5 million dirhams. At HMSU, a 4-year undergraduate programme will only cost 90,000 dirhams and the cost can be adjusted depending on the geographic location (or the spending capability) of the country.
He also noted,"We have conducted a research and we have evidence that learners are much more disciplined in smart learning rather than in traditional learning. E-learning is not going to be a choice for the future, it's going to take place whether we like it or not. Sooner or later this will become the norm."
Still, there are misgivings. Can it support all disciplines? What about the classroom environment, where students learn some other skills and gain insights from mingling with other students?
According to Dr Ayari of QU, there are so many areas that can be delegated to online education."The online quality can probably be better than face to face learning because you have an expert team who worked on building the course in a way to serve the student directly. So there is more commitment to the students, the materials are well processed and well analysed, and the learning outcome is well studied."
For the courses with experimental part that needs to be done on a physical space, he said,"It is a challenge that can be resolved."
Qatar University, Ayari said, has"the commitment to go digital."We have the resources, we have the people. I wouldn't see the university completely transformed into this one. But as an option to be available to some students for whatever reason they want to take the course online, definitely."
On classroom interaction, Ayari said,"That may be the case if you are talking to me in the 90s. Now we have social media, we have a digital society and no one is complaining they cannot interact; actually they interact extremely well, even beyond the real life."
It is true that often, people have more meaningful interaction with someone from across the globe than with their neighbour."The online course is the same," said Ayari. Students become connected to their community online more than the person sitting next to them in class for an entire semester. In the online community, they get to see their peers' works, they know them by name, know how they think through their online discussions, and learning comes from that."The social component now is really more on the virtual area," he pointed out.
Awar said the UAE federal government took a decision that by 2021 the golden jubilee year of the country all schools and universities in the country should be converted into smart institutions."Schooling is essential, schools (as brick and mortar) are not. Learning is essential, universities are not," he said.
Could HBMSU be leading the education revolution? Are the future educational institutions without walls, floors and ceilings?

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