An International Perspective on the Quality of Digital Learning

The global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic severely affected higher education as colleges and universities closed their campuses and countries shut their borders. The crisis has broadly affected the continuity and quality of learning, the delivery of course material, the assessment of learning through examinations and other methods, and the safety and legal status of international students in their host countries.

Perhaps most importantly, the crisis has changed many students’ perception of the value of their degree. Students who expected to attend classes in person are unlikely to commit large amounts of time and money to consume online content. These students go to universities to meet interesting people, to have inspiring conversations with faculty, to collaborate with researchers in the laboratory, and to experience the social life on campus. Learning is not a transactional but a relational phenomenon.

At the same time, employers are rapidly improving their capacity to see through students’ degrees to the knowledge and skills they can actually demonstrate. In the technology sector, for example, micro-credentials and direct assessments of skills now offer far more granular ways to establish what individuals know and can do.

Amid this rising scrutiny of the value of a college education, it is becoming harder for universities to hide poor teaching behind great research. The quality of the learning experience remains the most valuable asset our universities have. To remain relevant, universities will need to reinvent digital learning environments so that they expand and complement, but do not replace, student-teacher and student-student relationships.

While accreditation still gives universities significant power, the digitalisation of education may challenge its ability to guide and recognize learning and assessment. As the scale and nature of online and hybrid learning evolve, the control and ownership of course development, design, and assessment is shifting away from universities. Instructors are relying more heavily on teaching and assessment tools provided by outside publishers and open educational resources. Innovations such as micro-credentialing and blockchain technologies can give far greater discretion to learners to decide what to learn, when to learn, how to learn, and where to learn, all while having their learning gains independently recognised by employers or governments outside of the traditional university degree.  

These rapid changes raise new questions about how colleges and universities can leverage digitalization to shape the quality of learning experiences. Think about the power of “collaborative consumption,” in which international online marketplaces such as Uber or Airbnb allow people to share their cars and even their apartments with total strangers. Collaborative consumption has made people micro-entrepreneurs, and its driving engine is building trust between strangers. It works because behind these systems are powerful reputational metrics that help people know their counterparts and build trust.

In the future, the most distinguishing feature of digitalisation in education might not be how it provides more options for individual learners and educators, but how it can build a learning ecosystem that crosses time zones and borders. Technology can build collaborative communities of learners and make learning more social and more fun. And what if we can build communities of faculty working toward the curated crowdsourcing of best teaching and assessment practices, perhaps even across institutional and national borders? Imagine the power of a higher education system that could meaningfully share all the expertise and experience of its students and faculty. 

By tapping into the desire of students and faculty to contribute, collaborate, and be recognized for their contributions, technology could create a giant, open-source community of teachers and learners. In this way, technology may liberate learning from the past conventions and restraints affecting our institutions and connect learners in new and powerful ways, with collaborative sources of knowledge and innovative ways to apply it.

A Video Discussion with Andreas Schleicher

Andreas Schleicher is director for education and skills and special advisor on education policy to the secretary-general at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris. As a key member of the OECD Senior Management team, he supports the secretary-general’s strategy to produce analysis and policy advice that advances economic growth and social progress on a global stage.

The Next-Gen Assessment multimedia series is coordinated by M. David Miller (University of Florida), Tammie Cumming (Brooklyn College, CUNY), Gladys Palma de Schrynemaker (CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies), and Terrel Rhodes (AAC&U).

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