Feature Story

Mobile Technology for Mobile Education

by Eric Rabkin

Mobility is a relative concept, and it is coming to every aspect of higher education.

As Air Force bases go, aircraft carriers are mobile.  In the 1980s, civilian employees of the University of Maryland University College, which now offers many online courses, served tours on U.S. aircraft carriers, under contract to the U.S. Department of Defense, during which they offered accredited, college-level courses to the crew.  Over the span of a long military career, personnel then as now could be reassigned repeatedly and take ground-based courses in Europe or Asia or, when stateside, in the U.S.  Put together, those courses might earn a college degree.

We live in an increasingly mobile world and Americans are particularly mobile, changing "permanent" residence about 14 times in their lifetime. Instead of putting together a string of courses from a single university, like UMUC, modern transplants can now present a portfolio of courses from many schools, and even life experiences, to institutions the like fully accredited Thomas Edison University in New Jersey to undergo centralized review and the receipt of degrees. 

Given the growth of comparatively traditional class-size pedagogy in online environments, like the public Western Governors University and the private Kaplan University, people can change schools without ever changing residences, becoming mobile learners intellectually as well as geographically, to seek the educational experiences that suit them best.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), offering non-traditional pedagogy to thousands of people at a time, can—and some do—offer meet-ups wherever one happens to be, in order to experience face-to-face discussion complementing the online work.  Some instructors, like Prof. Charles Severance of the University of Michigan, travel to attend some of those meet-ups.

MOOC students in widely separated locations self-organize online study groups that may appeal to people on the basis of their native language or their goals.  MOOCs may utilize peer-assessment and online forums that enrich learning in whole new ways.

Even the materials of education can be mobile.  Instead of a fixed textbook, once one moves to a digital resource, networked technology enables constant updating.  This is already the case in myriad courses, online and in place, using, for example, the TIME Magazine Education Program  which supplies fresh material on a constant basis.

When education is freed from the walls, clock, and calendar of individual schools and the fixity of the single, present teacher and printed textbook, the gains are potentially enormous.  The University of Phoenix with its online-only and its mixed-mode courses that exist mainly online but occasionally meet in person with an instructor has the largest enrollment of any single school in the United States. 

This technological revolution seems destined to drive genuine disintermediation in education just as it has in other industries.  The American Council of Education is now reviewing curricula, pedagogy, and proctoring arrangements in order to grant credit to courses, like MOOCs, that may carry no credit from any traditional, accredited institution.  At the moment, those courses are taught by faculty who are themselves members of accredited institutions, as with the MOOCs offered through Coursera, or they are courses that are created by the MOOC enterprise itself in collaboration with an accredited institution, like Udacity  working with regular faculty at San Jose State University .*  But why should disintermediation stop there?

In a very imaginable future, with the A.C.E. accrediting these courses, and Udacity willing to support their creation, why shouldn't a retired faculty member from any accredited institution offer a MOOC that will gain credit toward a Thomas Edison degree?  And what of courses created by experts who have no faculty affiliation at all, such as retired CEOs of major corporations, corporate lawyers, best-selling writers, and on and on?  The chance for the student today to move through the intellectual landscape of ever changing resources is even greater than the chance to change schools.  Hereafter, that landscape will become ever richer and more various.  With proper care, that student can emerge somewhere, of their own choosing, with a first-class education and a fully accredited degree even if the path they follow includes service at sea on an aircraft carrier.

*In the next month, The Network will take a closer look at Udacity's model, including how it handles identity management for students, the technology behind the classes, and how the company partners with professors to provide highly produced content.



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