Digital disruption has changed the face of numerous industries over that past couple of decades. You don’t need to look too closely at the retail sector, the entertainment industry, or even the cab you hail on the street, to see how technology has impacted the way we engage with services —education is no different. We spoke with Dr. Thomas Reynolds, Academic Program Director of the Master of Arts in Education program at Sanford College of Education at National University, to discuss how digital disruption has changed education and the positive impact of teachers in the age of the internet.
Reynolds has had a unique overview of how technology has brought about a change in the field of education. He was introduced to the concept of “instructional computing” in the early 1980s. In the days before the internet, when personal computers were very much in their infancy, Reynolds was primarily concerned with the digitization of educational content for distribution with traditional distance learning packages.
“My first job out of university was taking class notes that professors had and putting them in what was at the time called the Keller Plan,” says Reynolds. “That was a distance education system where you’d get mailed out this huge packet of information, you went through each unit step by step, you completed the activities and then you mailed it back. We didn’t know it at the time but it was the precursor of what would become online education.”
Instructional computing was just the first step on the road towards greater digital disruption of the education industry. It initially helped reduce the size of the packets students were mailed by replacing those huge packets of information with floppy discs.
“Just to put it in the timeframe, in the early to mid-eighties, we would sit around and say ‘Oh wow, wouldn’t it be great to have all of this stuff digitized,’” recalls Reynolds. “We weren’t even thinking about the interactivity that was capable once it was connected.”
It wasn’t just the speed of change in technology that was responsible for these transformations, curriculums were also being developed apace.
“Every year, the information leapfrogged and started to go ahead of itself,” says Reynolds. “You could hardly even predict what was coming down the pipe next year. It wasn’t just the machine advances but the curriculum also advanced as far as the content and what we can do with it. Every year there was a new little program and there was a new line of research.”
BAM! The Internet Changed Everything
According to Reynolds, the internet changed everything. Despite the technology undoubtedly contributing to the positive impact of teachers, this technological revolution was, in fact, led by the students.
“When I came to National in January of 2000, the vast majority of the courses were taught face-to-face,” says Reynolds. “Twenty years later, the predominant mode of delivery is online. It wasn’t the overall abiding direction of the faculty that made that change, it was the students voting with their feet or voting with their clicks.”
While Reynolds sought out National University, citing his belief that the university’s private status and size would enable it to move quickly and “be a player” in the online delivery of teaching education courses, the online revolution wasn’t initially embraced by everyone.
“In this process, we had people that retired,” says Reynolds. “They said ‘I’ll retire rather than teach online.’ You’ve heard the tropes, ‘There’s something unique about the interactivity of face-to-face,’ ‘There’s no way that online learning can be equivalent at a distance,’ all of that was fair game then.”
Reynolds described the process as a “cultural war” but insists that the writing was on the wall for a long time regarding the inevitability of change.
“At the end of the day, in a tuition-driven instruction, you provide the instruction that meets the needs of your learners,” says Reynolds. “When given the choice: drive across town at four o’clock in the afternoon after working all day and sit in class two nights a week for five hours, or drive home from their day job, hopefully kick off their shoes and pour themselves a cup of coffee before sitting comfortably in front of a computer — learners inevitably chose online.”
This change of direction wasn’t taken without careful due diligence.
“Those were heady times,” says Reynolds. “To their credit, National University ran studies on the competencies of the people who primarily took online classes and compared those results against traditional on-campus learning. They also measured their attitudes to their studies and their overall satisfaction with the program — and there was no difference, which was great.”
Online education has become the norm at National University.
“As far as the online/on-site debate goes it hardly ever comes up in conversation,” says Reynolds. “If it does, it’s usually just as a historical reference.”
The Changing Role of Teachers
As the delivery of educational content has changed, so too has the role of the teacher. Reynolds believes that the now everyday experience of online education at National University will filter down across all levels of education. As such, National University very much leads by example.
Reynolds explains that in the online environment, educators are less focused on the real-time delivery of educational content and more concerned about the design and structure of this content. This approach is deep-rooted in National University’s entire strategy.
“At National University, our president is on record as saying that as we move forward we are less and less in the content delivery mode,” says Reynolds. “What he means by this, and I think he is spot on, is that the content is already available. What is not there is the organized structure that’s aligned with standards. So a lot of what the full-time faculty do is organize and design instructional sequences and content. Doing all of that background heavy lifting is something that the faculty at National University do consistently and very well.”
While the full-time faculty concentrate on the organization and structure of courses and programs, the university calls on the services of its highly-skilled adjunct faculty to facilitate the day-to-day educational engagement with students.
“It’s nothing new in higher education to have adjunct faculty teaching a preponderance of the courses,” says Reynolds. “In Research 1 universities you have the large lecture halls with the TA (teaching assistant) system and the TAs do a lot of the teaching even though the course is listed under the primary professor’s name. In our system, our very skilled and very able adjuncts do a lot of the teaching but the vast majority of the instructional design, the content organization, the accreditation efforts — those are carried out by the full-time faculty.”
Nothing stands still in the online learning environment and staying at the cutting edge of online education means pushing the boundaries of technology and teaching methods. The delivery of asynchronous educational content (content that is delivered at a time and place to suit the individual student) takes this process even further.
“Asynchronous content for us means that there is enough content and it is organized in such a way that without having any synchronous contact with the professor, outside of email, the student can access the content. go through the course, do the assignments, and meet the standards that are required for that course,” says Reynolds.
Ensuring the right content is in the right place at the right time leaves very little room for error. This highlights the importance of the teacher’s organizational skills.
“In our 50-year history we have become very good at offering month-long courses,” says Reynolds. “Everything is structured and everything is geared up to address those students’ needs in the short run, rather than in the long run. We don’t have 14 or 15 weeks in a semester to say, ‘Oh well, the textbook is not there, we can wait a week or 10 days.’ If you wait 10 days in a month-long course, you’ve essentially lost the course. The system has to work to make it functional in the timeframe that we’ve set up.”
Teachers Still Need to Know How to Teach
Reynolds is quick to highlight that this new approach to education doesn’t diminish the importance of teachers. Teachers still need to know how to teach.
“As a teaching university, the primary role of the faculty is teaching. The question is how does that teaching manifest?” says Reynolds.
According to Reynolds, the teaching manifests by ensuring that course offerings are aligned to standards, that there is a well-developed assessment system so that teachers know that the students, as they are progressing through these various programs, are meeting the standards — that they know what they need to know regardless of how that content is delivered.
In the constantly changing educational landscape, the traditional school, college, and university settings are complemented by home learning, e-learning and a wide range of personal and professional development programs.
These are all concepts that are explored in National University’s Master of Arts in Education (M.A.E.) program.
The Master of Arts in Education Program
The M.A.E. is appropriate for students who either do not wish to go through the credential program required to teach a specific subject in middle or high school in California or wish to follow a career in education outside of the traditional school system.
“They just want a generalized education degree that teaches them about curriculum, assessment, and instruction,” says Reynolds. “Some may want to teach overseas or in charter schools where you don’t need a credential. Others may want to teach at the community college level, or perhaps work as corporate trainers, or work in departments of public instruction at the state level or in government.”
Some students have very compelling reasons for wanting to participate in an education program while following a career path outside of traditional education.
“I had a student who was career naval guy and he does missile guidance training,” says Reynolds. “Well, he has a compelling reason why he wants to know a little bit more about curriculum instruction. He does this training and he wants to ensure that the students he has are guiding missiles in the right way — that’s pretty compelling.”
The constant pace of change in education is reflected in the development of the M.A.E. program.
“In our system, at the end of each five year period, the program goes through a review and we look at everything from the purpose of the program to its performance,” says Reynolds. “We’re thinking about taking the M.A.E. and having it become the first customized program in the University. Traditionally you have a core set of four classes and then you have four specialization classes with the last two classes being the capstone project. What we are considering is opening up the M.A.E. and making it customizable so that students can participate in the design of which courses populate the eight courses in the middle.”
Greater Flexibility in Education
Delivering greater flexibility in education, particularly in connection to experience gained outside of the traditional school setting, is a priority for everyone at National University.
Reynolds highlights that many adult learners join the university system with years of relevant learning and experience that is not currently taken into account.
“Sitting at a university can we view those people the same way that we view a high school graduate that comes into our institution?” says Reynolds. “Clearly the answer is no because they have different capacities and they have different competencies as far as what they bring to the table in our degree qualification program. So what do we do as an institution?”
In the case of National, the university is choosing to look at what constitutes credit in a new way. “We are developing evaluation systems whereby we look and evaluate those experiences and align them with other codified experiences at the university and award credit,” says Reynolds. “The whole landscape of education is changing in a very dynamic way and so the role of teachers is instrumental in bringing about these changes.”
The Rise of the Superstar Teacher
While technology might initially appear to create distance between teachers and students, technology may actually be making the role of the teacher in society even more visible.
Online education platforms are creating opportunities for teachers to reach a much wider audience than they could ever reach in the traditional classroom setting. This potentially creates the opportunity for teaching professionals to reach a scale of influence perhaps more commonly associated these days with social media celebrities. So will digital disruption lead to the rise of the superstar teacher?
“I hope so,” says Reynolds. “ If they can demonstrate the highest forms of competence in a socially mediated platform, I mean that’s great. That’s almost back to the Greeks.”
Advancing the importance of teachers fits neatly into National University’s raison d’être.
“At National University what has driven us for a long time is the quality of education,” says Reynolds. “We need to be as good as we can be in terms of the programs we put forward.”
To learn more about National University’s Master of Arts in Education or to speak with a member of our faculty, visit the program page on our website.