This article is the first within the series entitled Dialogues on Edtech
On a cold, clear winter afternoon, I sat down with insendi co-founder and chairman David Lefevre to discuss online education. The combined sheen of a new year stretching out ahead, pliable to new endeavors and projects, and the requisite need to shape and define the trajectory of those possibilities invited a conversation that took stock of the landscape of online education, particularly for business schools. Our conversation highlighted that higher education is at a crossroads where innovation, new modes of engagement, and swifter adoption of technology will play a critical role.
As university leadership develops their future strategy for online learning, it is imperative that assessments of the rapid progress catalysed by pandemic necessity don’t engender complacency. My conversation with David coalesced thematically around three topics: historical blockers to using online education, the significance of confidence building to faculty implementation, and how to rethink conceptions of online education. The changes in modes of teaching and learning precipitated during 2020 have exposed the eagerness of students, learners, and faculty to engage with online learning in a meaningful manner.
A new year provides that opportunity to assess and recalibrate. I’d say that would hold true in any given year, but 2020 converged so many varied and complex issues simultaneously on a global scale. If we narrow in on just online education, what did the past year underscore for insendi about the experience of online education and insendi’s direction of travel?
I’ve always strongly believed that simple, templated technical solutions do not tend to result in optimal, or even good, educational outcomes. I don’t believe that the pragmatic, and understandable, solution to rapidly moving classes online via video recordings and Zoom or Teams—now known as remote teaching—was considered an optimal approach by most involved. There are numerous reported cases of students being unhappy about the quality of remote teaching and many, including the government, held concerns over whether this approach represents good value for money. One of the primary rationales for the insendi platform is that it enables a more nuanced and pedagogy-driven approach to online course design. From the outset, insendi has built pedagogy into the platform, seeing the learning experience through that lens. The pandemic turned our world upside down but this view was reinforced and supported by the experience.
Would it be fair to say that the pandemic accelerated those changes to higher education that technology and multi-modal classrooms were already beginning?
Yes, I believe that when the dust settles, the pandemic’s enduring impact on edtech will be its acceleration of an underlying and decades-long trend towards technology adoption. It is interesting that much of the underlying technology driving current models of online education is actually pretty old. Web conferences, online video, interactive web pages, and internet forums are all based on the Web 2.0 collection technologies, which emerged around 2005. These technologies enable online education which has the benefits of flexibility and, sometimes, cost and fee reductions. Online education has a longer history, but in my view the dominant trend stems from this time and was well underway before Covid-19. Much education provision and practice will revert back to being primarily campus based, likely with some technology enhancement. However, some of the provisions will stay online and this will represent a step forward in the underlying trend.
It is interesting that older technology is being leveraged. What do you think is the reasoning behind this?
It depends on the level of granularity in the conversation. On a micro level, Zoom can be considered a new technological development. But if you broaden the perspective, it can also be considered an extension of a lineage of the video conferencing tools that emerged, again, in 2005. When you consider the latter perspective, then the emergence of Web 2.0 technologies represents a rare and significant step-change in digital technology, and its impact is still playing out in education. I don’t think many would disagree that adoption of educational technology within higher education has been slow. Despite the acceleration recently witnessed, this adoption is far from reaching a mature state. It is important to note that Web 2.0 technologies are not the only trend, with other technologies beginning to gain traction, in particular those relating to machine learning, big data, and AI.
You raise an important point about the sector’s hesitancy to adopt online and edtech. I wonder if you could contextualise that, particularly when one considers the ways that institutions are now thinking differently and changing their strategies.
The historical objections for many institutions focused on the impossibility of adtoping edtech and many of these objections have been removed by the pandemic which may open the door to many initiatives. The pandemic has revealed where the real problems lie and greatly progressed thoughts as a result.
Universities are also more confident with regard to online initiatives. Previously, many involved didn’t have the experience to engage with online learning. It was new and challenging and focusing on traditional face-to-face classes was more straightforward. This has now changed. Faculty have developed the capabilities and this will also be a factor in accelerating the supply of online education.
The pandemic made the question of whether you could teach online irrelevant. It had to be done online. Same for the internal friction. It mobilized everyone and gave rise to a wave of innovation that solved all those little problems and roadblocks. So all the hesitations disappeared within a few days and universities were left with this new capability and new perspective. When programmes return to campus, they will retain some of these innovations.
REMEMBER THE LEARNERS
Let’s talk about the student experience. What are the main things institutions and education technology platforms should bear in mind for the student experience?
First and foremost, the student experience of a university education is more than the component focused solely on knowledge transfer. Zoom classes, and particularly video recordings, tend to focus on delivery, but this is too narrow a focus. An effective university student experience should involve activities such as informal discussion, community building, pastoral support, careers support, interaction with staff, and space for exploration and discovery. These are essential components of the broader university experience and contribute to the impact that justifies the significant investment of time and money. I believe that the sometimes myopic focus of emergency measures during the pandemic prompted many to consider the nature of the university experience. The truth is that being a student, no matter what stage of life or the learning journey an individual is at, is more complicated and layered than just the courses one enrols in.
The human connection is critical to the educational experience. How does the insendi platform keep that relationship and community building present in its design?
I think if serious thought is given to the difference in educational experience between the full, and expensive university courses, and the very low-cost courses enabled by the MOOC platforms (covering the same subject matter), then human connections and contact becomes a main differentiator. University education should represent a human-centered experience. This lies at the heart of the insendi view of the world. The platform promotes and emphasizes connections between students and with teachers as critical components of a high quality learning experience. There is a focus on activities that foster such connections. This means that as one progresses through an insendi course, there is an awareness of being part of a community and being taught by a teacher. This is in contrast to the focus of other learning platforms.
How can universities conceptualise online learning as offerings that both directly address learner’s needs and societal demand?
One of the largest societal level problems for higher education centres is the increase in demand for lifelong learning. Universities need to determine the extent to which they wish to focus on this demand or remain focused primarily on undergraduate and long-form postgraduate degree programmes. Much of the increase in demand tends to focus on shorter bursts of education. Many people in the knowledge economy need to either retrain, or fine tune their skills periodically in order to keep pace with developments. This may mean regular on the job training, alongside regular personal investments in their personal development. Online learning will play a significant role here due to the flexibility it affords, because it enables the incorporation of learning into people’s work and social lives. Universities do need to engage with online and blended learning in order to engage the concept of lifelong learning in a meaningful manner.
CHANGE IS COMING
What perspective can higher education incorporate to keep pace with disruptive educational solutions?
Universities are conservative customers, often advocating one learning platform at a time and reviewing this platform just once every five years or so. This has inevitably led to a rather stagnant technology ecosystem in which three or four vendors dominate this market and the average age of these platforms is around twenty years. Older than the average student! It would be valuable for the sector to collectively realize their responsibility for the state of the ecosystem and engage with R7D and innovation strategies in a formal way to create a more vibrant, innovative edtech ecosystem within higher education.
Looking forward, what would you recommend to business schools to ensure that their educational ethos and robustness are reflected in an online setting?
This is a very large question, however a broad answer is adopt the same levels of care and craft towards online learning as is adopted in devising campus-based programmes. Simple, low-cost, teacher-less models are not likely to be the core business of many universities in the long term. These models will establish a place but others are better placed to do this well. When departments and academics develop a face-to face course or class, they incorporate a great deal of expertise, care, craft and diligence in order to maintain the quality of education offered and ensure this is consistent with their brands. Such thoroughness has not generally been applied to online programmes but this will certainly change. In the long term, platforms like insendi which are focused on pedagogy and more human-centred experiences, will grow in popularity.