When I was a campus administrator working in K-12 public schools, we constantly struggled with access to technology. Whether it was having enough devices to integrate technology into our learning or having the wireless coverage to manage the bandwidth of various websites, we nonetheless struggled to provide students with access. These are common issues for a lot of school districts throughout the county.
Still, when we were able to promote the use of technology in lesson planning or staff development, my message to my teachers was always the same, “You are no longer the keeper of the knowledge.”
In the early part of the 20th century, there was a shift in how education was provided to students. A new industrialized country required a different kind of student and schools responded by providing an education model that exposed students to the “basics” as well as some vocational work. As schools expanded their curriculum, it became increasingly necessary to hire teachers who were knowledgeable (not necessarily experts) in their content areas. It just made sense to hire teachers who understood mathematics to teach that subject to students. As such, state certification areas became based on this model and as teachers attended college and the teaching profession expanded, education became a field of study that could be tied to various majors or content areas.
This model has largely gone unchanged over the past 100 years. Despite the introduction of technology into our world and the increased access to knowledge from scholars, experts, and teachers from all over the world, we still send our students to the schools in our neighborhoods to receive an education from “content keepers”.
Higher education is no different. The model for instruction may be different depending on the program or the university, but we still receive degrees from universities who hire experts in their field (i.e., keepers of the knowledge). These experts teach their curriculum which is based on years of expanding research and issue credits to students based on their acquisition of said knowledge.
With the emergence of online classes and online degree programs, universities are finding themselves competing for students. Students, especially working professionals seeking advanced degrees, are looking for convenience when shopping for universities and prefer to work on their coursework from the comfort of their home rather than in a traditional face-to-face course. For universities, the never-ending question that we face is how do we increase student access to our programs without compromising the quality of the coursework in an online course? Many professors will say that face-to-face courses are a better instructional delivery model than an online format.
I disagree with that statement. Universities can provide the same level of quality in the program with an online class when compared to the face-to face format. As “keepers of the knowledge”, we have to realize that students can go anywhere they want, virtually, to receive the information that they want. The higher education community must be better advocates of online learning and trust in the power of the content that is being delivered. Rigorous lessons that engage students in analysis of online content, video chat sessions, and use of social media are new ways professors are driving their curriculum.
The differentiator must lie in the rigor of the content. No university wants to be compared to the fly by night, for-profit “universities” that are producing degrees with a high-quality printer. To gain the students, and provide the quality, universities need to invest more in technology infrastructure, storage for content, and training, and they must regularly evaluate the curriculum. Moreover, professors need to ensure that the content is as rigorous as face-to-face classes and engage students in conversations and discussions using social media, thereby mimicking the debate often found in a traditional college classroom.
As a professor, I still prefer the rigorous debate of a face-to-face classroom, as it fits with my teaching and presentation style, but I also recognize that a new model for education is emerging (albeit slowly) and it is in our best interest to provide as much online access as we possibly can. We just may find that we will expand our reach beyond the walls of our schools, which is the calling for all educators – spread the body of knowledge in perpetuity and beyond.