Interdisciplinary Collaboration Key to Online Learning, Report Says

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

A newly-released report focuses on online education policy, analyzing the current state of higher education and how advances made to learning science and online technology might work to help shape its future.

Led by Sanjay Sarma, professor of mechanical engineering and dean of digital learning, and Karen Willcox, professor of aeronautics and astronautics, the report, titled “Online Education: A Catalyst for Higher Education Reform,” puts out four substantial recommendations.  The authors note the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration, integration between online and traditional learning, a skilled workforce specializing in digital learning design, and high-level institutional and organizational change.

“We hope that this work will help to give our point of view on how university professors, policy makers, and government officials can think about technology and online education in the context of education at large,” says Sarma, who is the Fred Fort Flowers and Daniel Fort Flowers Professor in Mechanical Engineering at MIT.

The report suggests interdisciplinary collaboration among experts in fields that may not have been strongly linked in the past, such as bringing together social scientists, education experts, psychologists, and neuroscientists.

“There are people in everything from cognitive sciences, to learning sciences, to traditional education technology, to discipline-based education research, as well as disciplinary experts,” Klopfer says. “It’s important to be thinking about ways in which all these people interact, for both course creation and understanding what’s working in these online courses.”

The authors argue that such collaboration across disciplines through an integrated research agenda could result in advances being made to the overall online education experience.  In particular, they looked at fields that look “outside in” at education from a more descriptive perspective as well as those that look “inside out” through the study of specific aspects of learning.

The second recommendation deals with answering the question of where and how online learning fits in with in-person learning.  The authors suggest looking at online capabilities as a scaffold instead of a replacement for in-person interaction between teachers and students.

Instead, online learning environments should be used to create longer periods of learning and to improve retention, the authors suggest.  Learning opportunities should be made available remotely and through games or other media, which should result in teachers being given data pertaining to the areas in which students succeed or face challenges.

In order to handle the issue of who will be responsible for the development of such a scaffold, the authors suggest the creation of a new workforce centered around the design of digital learning.  Learning engineers would be well-versed in a discipline as well as in learning science and educational technologies.  Their knowledge across fields would be integrated in order to design and optimize learning experiences.

The final recommendation suggests that mechanisms stimulate high-level institutional and organizational change in order to offer support as the industry begins to transform.  The authors suggest that thought leaders in higher education should push for the development of such elements within their own communities.  Doing so will allow for new educational models to be introduced that take advantage of online education, learning science, and other related advances.