By Susan Cates
When thoughtfully planned, technology-enhanced learning can improve the educational experience for students and faculty and lower total costs across the system. Although this springâs emergency response left no room for the luxury of thoughtful planning, COVID-19 may provide an opportunity for North Carolina to consider transformation of its higher education system to move toward a more sustainable future.
Although forced off campus by COVID-19, residential college students across North Carolina continue to learn because of the triage enabled by technology and delivered through the tremendous efforts of faculty and staff across our institutions. Largely constructed overnight with existing technology and manned by professors and students with little experience in distance learning, these remote classes are imperfect but still show the potential of online education.
How can technology improve learning? Thinking back to college, hopefully you remember professors who inspired you, but you probably remember more who struggled to share their knowledge with their students. Faculty are experts in their disciplines, trained in research methods but rarely given adequate training in effective teaching techniques. Research shows that students learn best when they are actively engaged. Leveraging technology enables us to build the scaffolding of courses through faculty-created micro-lectures, frameworks and concepts, made easily accessible to thousands of students who can engage with them anytime, anywhere. Combining technology tools with strong pedagogy creates opportunities to engage all students in the material â not just the few who raise their hands to volunteer. Live classroom time in a flipped classroom model, where concepts are introduced through recorded content and application is done in class, then becomes energized with discussion, debate, teamwork, presentations and labsâcritically important moments when learning occurs.
The faculty member in a college classroom is rarely the same person as the author of the written textbook. Similarly, the faculty member in a technology-enabled classroom need not be the same person who created the course materials. Building on virtually delivered content, faculty can focus on actively engaging the students rather than re-creating lectures and materials. Building strong technology-enabled course materials once that can be used by many faculty members, even across institutions, and removing that one way communication from live classroom time expands the capacity of the faculty to teach more students, with a higher level of engagement. The quality of the educational experience can improve for both faculty and students.
In 2011, I was part of a team that led the launch of a technology-enhanced MBA program ([email protected]) at UNC-Chapel Hillâs Kenan-Flagler Business School. Using the model described above, that program has 720 students today and over 2,000 graduates, who have attended classes at UNC from their homes across the state as well as from offshore oil rigs, hospital rooms and military deployments around the world. In 2015, the School launched a Master of Accounting (MAC) program, based on the same structure, and it too has enjoyed great success. Student and faculty satisfaction in those programs has been remarkably high from inception.
This blended model can be used for both residential and online programs. For example, the MAC program has two tracksâone is for traditional, residential, on-campus students in Chapel Hill, the other for online students across North Carolina and around the world (many of whom are non-traditional students who are currently employed). Both tracks use the same technology-enhanced structure described above, differing only in whether the live classroom time is in the building or virtual.
These programs have not been inexpensive to develop and deliver, so how could a similar model lower costs across the system? Nothing has contributed more to North Carolinaâs prosperity, economic development, freedom, and democracy over the last 75 years than its exceptional higher education system. Yet, our stateâs distinctive advantage over time could dwindle. To maintain the longtime hallmarks of the UNC Systemâexcellence, affordability, and accessâwe must deploy our human capital and infrastructure as efficiently as possible. Technology-enhanced learningâdone wellâcan improve quality and reach more students, including working adults, across the state.
The question is whether we have the creativity to chart a new path, as the stateâs founding fathers did in 1789 with the establishment of the first public university in the country. COVID-19 is a terrible disease, but the crisis it has driven can also create new opportunities. With wise investments, we can re-imagine what is possible.
Susan Cates has worked in education for more than two decades as an advisor, investor and business leader. She is a Partner at Leeds Equity Partners, a private equity firm that invests in the education, training and software industries, and is CEO of ACUE (the Association of College and University Educators). Susan previously served as president of executive development at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and founding executive director of [email protected], and as Chief Operating Officer of 2U, Inc.