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The Two Faces of IT in Higher Education: Supporting “Delivered” Education or Supporting Student Agency ​

Posted By Trent Batson Ph. D., AAEEBL, Tuesday, October 18, 2016


The Two Faces of IT in Higher Education:  Supporting “Delivered” Education or Supporting Student Agency

Centralized Control or Distribution of Authority

Long ago, technology historians recognized that information technology offers to society these two choices:  do you want centralized control or do you want a distribution of authority?  Or both? 

Because centralized control, funded by governments, corporations or large organizations of any kind, is quicker to be implemented, there is a danger that the agency of the individual will be sacrificed.  As law enforcement, for example, employs databases whose data is widely available to officers on the ground, law enforcement becomes quicker, more thorough, more broadly employed and therefore, perhaps not only more efficient but more onerous or extreme.  In the financial industry, centralized data led to excesses that caused the Great Recession. 

The Excesses of Centralized Control in Education

Centralized control in education can, as well, result in excess.  Often, the technology is introduced because it promises to do something that schools already do, but more efficiently.  MOOCs, for example, seemed to appear overnight a few years ago and had global enrollments that exceeded the total number of students at even the largest universities.  MOOCs were and are, mostly, lectures writ large.  The value of MOOCs to provide education to those who do not have access otherwise is not in doubt, of course.  But, creating a lecture hall the size of a football stadium is not exactly what one would instantly assume to be an ideal learning context. 

LMS Hegemony

Another example is the LMS – learning management systems – employing technology to extend on what institutions already are doing.  If you think you know what an LMS is, you might be taken aback at what is envisioned as the next generation LMS:

The next generation digital learning environment (NGDLE) is conceived as an ecosystem—a learning environment consisting of learning tools and components that adhere to common standards. While the traditional LMS provides administrative functions, the NGDLE is intended to directly support learning. To do this, next-generation environments must address five dimensions: interoperability and integration; personalization; analytics, advising, and learning assessment; collaboration; and accessibility and universal design. The NGDLE is conceived as both an ecosystem and a mind-set that will allow students and instructors to benefit from the full range of developments in higher education.   

This is from the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI). 

This LMS concept is based, in part, on the belief that institutions will continue to control learning.   From a technology development standpoint, this concept is a logical extension of the LMS as we know it now.  But, will learners (in the new demographic) willingly spend a lot of time in an institutionally controlled learning environment when they have so many other options for learning?

Institutions Losing Monopoly on Knowledge and Learning

Institutions of higher learning had a semi-monopoly on knowledge for centuries but no longer do.  Knowledge is everywhere; courses are everywhere; tutorials are commonly available; a web search can lead to almost any bit of information that a learner would require.  Without the monopoly, then institutional learning environments need to compete with other learning environments; can this LMS vision compete well with the web, as just one example?  (In a previous blog, I wrote about blockchain credentialing which could further weaken whatever is left of the higher education monopoly on knowledge and learning). 

Are Students Ready for Learner Agency?

Just because knowledge and information are so easily available, however, does not mean that learners easily grasp their significance and applicability. For students to have agency in their learning, they need education in the learning process.  How do you find meaning in experience?  How do you then apply that meaning to a new context?  How do you develop your own agency? Helping students address these questions is the business of higher education, not how best to “deliver” education to them.

The next generation LMS, while having some promising features, is still mostly about management (“administrative functions”).  And, of course, there is no portfolio included in this “learning environment.” My guess is that those who developed this vision of the next generation LMS, started with the needs of the institution and not with a vision of student agency. 

Learning Analytics

The description of this new LMS includes a reference to “analytics.”  Learning analytics – gathering data from online learning activities to understand how students are faring – is a burgeoning field complete with conferences and publications.  See the two links to The Society for Learning Analytics Research below, as examples of how this field has grown:

Learning analytics is another use of information technology for centralized control.  Again, there are many positives about analytics, especially if they are used by students to better understand their own learning process.  (I am not trying to say centralized control is bad and distribution of authority is good; but I am saying that the trend in technology development should be balanced – spending millions on central control while spending thousands on active learning applications is not good policy.)

Learning analytics lives in the domain and age of “big data.”  But in the age of big data, there is a problem:

The quantities of learning-related data available today are truly unprecedented. Whether the size comes from the number of individuals involved, such as thousands of learners taking a MOOC, or the fine- grained nature of the capture process, such as second-by-second changes in a learner’s gaze, it provides exciting new opportunities to probe the patterns and processes of how people learn. It is an exhilarating and important time for conducting research on learning. However, there is a danger in falling into the trap of thinking that with sufficient data, the numbers speak for themselves. In fact, the opposite is true: with larger amounts of data, theory plays an ever-more critical role in analysis.

The author, Alyssa Friend Wise of Simon Fraser University, is arguing that having more data can make it more difficult to find meaning.  In another part of her article, she says:

What counts as a meaningful finding when the number of data points is so large that something will always be significant?


Whether it be MOOCs, the next generation LMS, or learning analytics, or any other of the ways that higher education institutions are centralizing functions through information technology, we educators must constantly ask these questions:  “In what way do any of these technology initiatives work for student agency?  How do these initiatives empower students?  How do they open opportunities for students to discover, to explore, to actively learn?” 

Or, put another way, to what extent are any of these initiatives taking away student agency?  To what extent are they making students into objects instead of subjects? 

The Eportfolio Field – An Alternative Vision

The eportfolio field encompasses all uses of eportfolio technology but it is primarily driven by an awareness that student-owned eportfolios free students to learn anywhere.  While eportfolio technology, too, can be used for centralized control as assessment management systems (tracking student progress toward learning outcomes), that use is not what energizes the eportfolio community. 

Eportfolios used to extend student agency, making them less dependent on institutionally “delivered” education, is – I believe – the vision that animates the eportfolio field. 




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