Addressing the Wicked Challenges in Higher Ed


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Dr. Larry Johnson currently serves as Chief Executive Officer of the New Media Consortium, an international not-for-profit consortium dedicated to the exploration and use of new media and new technologies. He routinely brings visionaries and thought leaders from across the globe together to define and explore new ways of thinking about and using technology, and to examine emerging trends and issues. He recently presented at the Invitational Summit on Educational Data Visualization and sat down with us for a conversation after the conference. When Larry Johnson, Samantha Adams, and the team at the New Media Consortium (NMC) released this year’s Horizon Report they identified six key trends for technology adoption in higher education, as well as six challenges impeding adoption. This year’s interesting new model is a compilation of the outcomes of conversations with hundreds of international experts including faculty and corporate leaders, campus technologists and technology professionals. They explore these big issues through the lens of policy, leadership, vision, pedagogy, and practice. NMC’s goal is to help educators and thought leaders across the world build upon the innovation happening at their institutions.
Six Key Trends in Higher Education
Because of the inherent visibility of fast trends, few from higher education may find the near-term trends surprising: Growing Ubiquity of Social Media and Integration of Online, Hybrid, and Collaborative Learning. But even the longer-range trends are already generating a good deal of interest, activity, and policy. The Evolution of Online Learning can generate a conversation of considerable length. Take this year’s media giant: MOOCs. “The great things about MOOC’s is they finally moved the conversation around online education from ‘does it work?’ to ‘what models do we want to employ?’ ” asked Johnson. “Despite all of the evidence, for years we had to justify the delivery method. Now, with Harvard, MIT, and Stanford in the mix, the conversation has changed.” Johnson defended Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun’s, efforts.  “People talked about CS101 being a failure because of low completion rates, but if you look at the volume of registrants (more than 200,000 in it’s first 12 months) even a low percentage of students completing creates impressive numbers.” Johnson goes on to point to the original intention of Udacity to ‘democratize education’ and few can argue with Udacity’s first year demographics of students from 203 countries. Students in CS101 ranged in age from 13 to 80-years-old.
Six Key Challenges in Higher Education
The report moves from trends to challenges, clustering challenges in a way that merits consideration. “Challenges are divided this year into Solvable, Difficult, and Wicked,” explained Johnson. “It was interesting to see which ones the experts deemed Solvable, meaning all we lack to successfully address the challenge is the political will.” In this category were two: Low Digital Fluency of Faculty, and Relative Lack of Rewards for Teaching. “The digital fluency issue comes up in colleges, universities, and schools everywhere we do research,” said Johnson. “This is not to say there aren’t plenty of people with really strong digital skills. But in general, our system for teacher training does not place emphasis on ensuring our faculty members have the skills to effectively integrate educational technology into their classrooms, or fully grasp the pedagogy related to it. It’s just not in their training.
“Let’s say you’re trained as a chemist,” said Johnson. “When you go into your university position you’re expected to be a chemist, not a teacher. There are no real incentives to have skills beyond presenting your research.” Johnson says current university and college faculty receive little training in technology integration for teaching effectiveness. Johnson points to the standard practice for tenure and promotion as a root problem in the challenge of Relative Lack of Rewards for Teaching. “There are some really good examples of universities where teaching is the primary mission,” he says, “but in many cases, winning Teacher of the Year will not do the same thing for a faculty member as getting an article published in Nature magazine, or the equivalent,” he said. “These are solvable challenges.“ Difficult Challenges, those that we understand but which solutions are elusive, are listed as Competition from New Models of Education, and Scaling Teaching Innovation.
The Nature of a Wicked Challenge
Of the six challenges the team identified, two classified as “wicked challenges.” These are, by their very nature, not only hard to solve but also often hard to define. These challenges are complex. They have so many inter-related and moving parts that even as one aspect is addressed and resolved, another part remains problematic.  For 2014, the wicked challenges are Expanding Access, and Keeping Education Relevant. horizon_report Johnson’s work requires global travel, and in that capacity he sees many different models trying to address the need for expanded access to education. “In Norway, higher education is free. They see it as a public good and something that will help Norway prosper,” said Johnson. “Here, it’s not a right but something you have to earn. Of course, they do things in Norway we would take issue with, such as like high stakes tests that ultimately divide the body of students into those going to university and those going to trade school. But here in the U.S., the amount of debt students graduate with is a huge added constraint, and a growing concern. That financial burden means people at the lower economic levels aren’t going to get to play. It starts early in K-12. The schools are locally-funded.” Outside the U.S., the cause for access issues changes. “In India, it’s not about the cost of education, it’s about capacity,” explains Johnson. “There are 500 million people of school age from 5-years-old to 25. They have the capacity to serve about 50 million. So, for nine out of 10, there is just not a spot. We have to learn to scale,” says Johnson. And then there’s the other wicked challenge of Keeping Education Relevant. Skills gaps and changing professional landscapes, like preparing for jobs that don’t exist yet, complicate the problem. “Is society making the investment in research, manufacturing and business to build jobs? Will there be spots for the graduates? Additionally, there’s really very little discussion around the reason we formed land-grant systems, and the need for an informed citizenry,” said Johnson. That’s the nature of a wicked challenge. There’s not one solution, and it’s hard to know where to start.
Data & Higher Education
Sometimes, trends and challenges are intertwined. The panel listed Data-Driven Learning and Assessment as an up-and-coming trend. “We’ve been following this topic for four or five years,” said Johnson. “So much of it has been stuck just out of reach. We see the things happening with data in health and public safety that’s nothing short of amazing. We don’t yet have the culture of producing that level of data in higher education. In healthcare there’s a culture to record everything. In education, we are getting the tools and processes to help us, but we need more data collected and analyzed.” Johnson says data-driven learning is listed as a mid-range trend because more and more people are interested in it. “There are interesting folks focused on this, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Pearson, Civitas Learning. Everybody agrees it would be valuable to have real-time data about students and learning. Almost anyone would agree it would be fantastic to have more data,” he said. “It’s going to take creative, visionary leadership to commit an institution to this,” he said. “It’s happening. I’m optimistic.” Fortunately trends toward more collaborative, hybrid and online learning will also address the amount of data that can be analyzed. “As more universities and colleges move to online and hybrid courses, more data can be collected to help inform our decisions about real-time learning,” said Johnson. The adoption of mobile learning technologies has the potential to also provide a robust data set.
Courageous Leadership & Learning
Addressing any of these challenges takes courage, Johnson said. “We can’t tackle the big problems without recognizing that we aren’t always going to get it right the first time out. I was a college administrator and I have tremendous admiration for those who are doing this work well. There’s a tendency to beat up change agents. Many administrators can feel pressured to avoid the fight – the general rule is don’t make waves – make the safe and sure decision. The change is going to come from courageous leaders with a clear vision to carry it forward. The problems we face now are not at all similar to the problems we have faced in the past. The world has shifted.”

Dr. Larry Johnson

Dr. Johnson is Chief Executive Officer of the New Media Consortium, an international not-for-profit consortium dedicated to the exploration and use of new media and new technologies, and Director of the Edward and Betty Marcus Institute for Digital Education in the Arts (MIDEA). Johnson brings visionaries and thought leaders from across the globe together to define and explore new ways of thinking about and using technology, and to examine emerging trends and issues.

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