Embracing Digital Connectivity and Educational Inclusivity

Digital education has acquired something of a bad reputation in recent years. During the pandemic, countless schools and universities across the globe moved classes online for the first time, but their hasty, forced adoption of digital learning often led to less than ideal outcomes. Around the world, the pandemic cost schoolchildren about one-third of a year’s worth of learning, according to one estimate. Its impact on less well-off students was especially severe. A recent UNESCO report concluded that dependence on digital learning technologies during the pandemic led to “staggering” levels of educational inequality. This outcome, according to the report, was an “ed-tech tragedy.”

But does the embrace of digital education always end in disaster?

A new book, Leveling the Learning Curve by William B. Eimicke, Soulaymane Kachani, and Adam Stepan, argues that it doesn’t. In fact, its authors suggest, well-designed digital education can actually improve educational outcomes and reduce learning disparities.

WENR sat down with Stepan, director of Columbia University’s Picker Center Digital Educational Group and one of the book’s authors, to explore the connection between digital connectivity and educational inclusivity. Despite gloomy assessments, countless examples of real-world success have convinced Stepan that digital education has the potential to be more than a temporary fix. Designed and delivered with intention, digital education can form “an integral part of a more inclusive and effective learning ecosystem,” Stepan believes.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Can you tell us what inspired you and your two co-authors to write the new book Leveling the Learning Curve, and to write it?

This book came out of a desire to shed light on the advancements, opportunities, and possibilities that exist for digital learning beyond the emergency response to the Covid-19 pandemic. By exploring the untapped potential of digital education, we hope to inspire educators, institutions, and policymakers to envision a future where well-designed and well-delivered digital education becomes the norm, providing inclusive and impactful learning experiences for all.

We also wanted to place the pandemic digital learning debates in context. Back in 2012 and 2013, when massive open online courses (MOOCs) like edX and Coursera emerged, there was a sense that they might revolutionize higher education. Many of us saw it as a radical and disruptive change, akin to the transformation witnessed in other industries such as publishing and journalism through the use of digital tools.

As time went on, it became evident that the impact of MOOCs was not as transformative as initially anticipated. While they garnered attention, they did not reach as many students as expected, and the revolutionary changes within higher education never happened.

If you were to walk into most university classrooms before the pandemic, you would find a teaching model that had remained largely unchanged for over a century. The format of a lecturer addressing students in person, with the students seated, mirrored the practices of the 19th century. Despite the transformative power of digital technology in various aspects of life, higher education seemed to be lagging.

Then, the pandemic hit, and the world was forced to adapt quickly. Overnight, education had to transition online, but the hastily implemented online learning solutions were far from ideal. We knew that there were better, well-designed, and well-delivered digital education models out there, and we wanted to let people know about them.

We wanted to tell the story of the untapped potential and the ongoing developments in this space. The experiences of the pandemic opened the door to a future where digital education is not just a stopgap measure but an integral part of a more inclusive and effective learning ecosystem.

A photo of Adam Stepan, director of Columbia University’s Picker Center Digital Educational Group.

Adam Stepan, director of Columbia University’s Picker Center Digital Educational Group

How can digital education help bridge education gaps and ensure equal opportunities for learners?

Universities, as reflected in their mission statements, have knowledge sharing as a central purpose. But a critical discussion of how knowledge is actually shared is needed. We believe universities should put more effort into fulfilling their obligation to share knowledge widely, and reach those who cannot afford to be physically present on their campuses. They should actively create and disseminate knowledge that can address society’s most pressing issues in a format that people can more easily absorb.

Universities have begun to focus on this idea, and recognize their responsibility to share learning beyond their immediate classrooms. We argue that there is ample room for universities to create exceptional learning experiences both on-campus and online, while also generating resources that can be shared widely as part of their public mission.

We wrote this book to help demonstrate how digital tools can facilitate this new era of sharing and engagement. By embracing these tools, universities have the potential to have a much greater impact on global issues than they do now.

Can you share any success stories that demonstrate how digital education initiatives can level the learning curve?

One example of a successful sharing and engagement project is our Public Policy Case Study program at Columbia. This project was initially developed to enhance teaching at Columbia University’s School of International Public Affairs (SIPA). SIPA has 1400 students from over 150 countries, many of whom go on to senior roles in various governments, the World Bank, or the UN. Given the complexity of the issues they encounter, we have created video and written case studies that delve into specific topics such as data-driven city management or innovative healthcare delivery methods. We explore these subjects through real-world examples, showcasing solutions from diverse locations such as Mumbai, San Paulo, or Nairobi.

We originally created these digital case studies for our own programs and executive education classes at SIPA, but decided to share these case studies openly with universities worldwide as part of our wider mission. We wanted to foster collaboration and learn about the different ways other professors incorporate these resources into their curricula. Currently, over 250 institutions and groups globally utilize our collection, and it’s fascinating to witness how they adapt and apply the materials to their unique contexts. These case studies have found relevance in numerous countries and programs, often in ways we could not have anticipated.

Our book showcases numerous examples like this, highlighting the generosity and innovative efforts of our colleagues at universities across the world. For instance, Cornell University has created exceptional classes, including legal courses featuring lectures from prominent lawyers. They have packaged these classes in the form of short executive education courses, and also provided some at no cost as part of mission driven projects. These include collaborations with the Government of Rwanda to train individuals in the hospitality sector after a period of civil war and genocide.

Stanford University is another good example of a university focused on using digital tools and sharing as part of its public mission. Stanford established a center dedicated to utilizing digital tools for mission driven programs. They have created online programs for high schools, benefiting both Stanford students – who also use materials – and high school learners.

Another successful initiative, the Open Society University Network (OSUN), was launched in January 2020, just before the pandemic. OSUN builds upon the groundwork laid by Bard College, a renowned liberal arts institution in New York. Under the leadership of OSUN Vice-Chancellor Jonathan Becker, OSUN and Bard have worked to introduce liberal arts learning to countries with emerging democracies and limited exposure to such ideas. The goal of Bard’s international network is to expand this model and explore the feasibility of teaching liberal arts at scale. We were honored to be able to work as consultants and collaborators with OSUN in helping them use the tools of digital education, and set up their own Digital Case Study network.

An exciting aspect of OSUN are their network collaborative classes, which combine local teaching with a shared curriculum and online meetings. This allows learners from diverse backgrounds, from places such as Lithuania, Kurdistan, or a refugee camp in Kenya, to benefit from interacting with peers from different parts of the world. Technology plays a vital role in facilitating this global learning experience.

OSUN’s vision aligns with the idea of creating training guides that empower individuals to generate locally relevant content of high quality. This parallels the model employed by TED when they introduced TEDx, enabling people worldwide to deliver TED-style talks. By offering training guides, TED and TEDx allowed locally created content and voices to reach a global audience. It’s an interesting model to study.

You mentioned the success of SIPA’s digital case studies. Could you elaborate more on how the program came to be and what makes it successful?

I found tremendous inspiration when I first encountered TED Talks. For me, it was a transformational moment in which a new medium allowed video to transmit ideas and learning in a whole new way. I grew up in a time when there were very few outlets for documentaries or videos on more complex topics. You basically only had channels such as PBS, the BBC or National Geographic. The advent of YouTube and other digital platforms in the early 2000’s revolutionized this landscape, prompting us to question how we could harness these new tools effectively. TED talks were a new format that took advantage of this new moment and medium. This parallels the current situation with Artificial Intelligence (AI), where we face similar questions about utilizing emerging technologies.

At Columbia, we wanted to do something similar with the traditional video documentary and written case study. We saw the traditional documentary format as being potentially very helpful for college level learning, especially when examining complex political and social issues. But for digital cases to be created at scale and used we needed to create mechanisms for sharing. We examined successful platforms like Khan Academy and TED Talks and sought to understand the factors behind their effectiveness. One common element we observed was the presence of a trusted platform. Another was deep involvement of experts – such as our faculty – who could serve a peer reviewers of content, and who could inform and direct the filmmakers and case writers.

We also realized that replicating a traditional teaching model on a digital platform, as most early MOOCs attempted to do, was not optimal. It was akin to filming a play and calling it a movie, and missed the opportunity to leverage the unique qualities of the medium. Instead, we proposed a model of digital education that involved creating shorter, modular learning experiences, similar to TED Talks. These bite-sized modules could then be used flexibly by different teachers and learners. This drove our digital case study project and other digital education efforts.

Rather than offering lengthy semester-long courses, we envisioned a platform where users could access concise, peer-reviewed videos on specific topics of interest. By creating a collection of fantastic talks reviewed for quality, we aimed to provide a resource akin to peer-reviewed articles, free from any biased agenda. This concept led us to develop what we call digital case studies—a platform for sharing modular, shorter pieces of knowledge. We believe universities should look to create digital assets that are adaptable and shareable across various contexts. These assets, such as case studies or filmed lectures, could be used in traditional on-campus classrooms, executive education programs, or even distributed freely to non-governmental organizations as part of a university’s mission to disseminate knowledge.

What are some additional strategies or initiatives that educational institutions can adopt to promote equitable learning opportunities?

As an institution, it is crucial to examine your own practices and consider what more can be done for your students and beyond. Most universities’ management systems, structures, and tenure processes, have been in place for a considerable time – major change is hard to achieve.

But there are some relatively inexpensive and straightforward ways to enhance the quality of teaching at many universities that are often overlooked. One “low hanging fruit” is to hire teaching assistants with a specific goal of supporting professors in creating better class websites and developing more engaging online activities. By involving teaching assistants earlier in the course design and delivery cycle, and giving them a clearer mission to improve the digital experience, significant progress can be made in enriching students’ learning journeys.

I would also look at many of the digital education innovations championed by our leading large public universities. These institutions, with their mission to reach a wide audience, have actively explored how to film classes at scale and create effective online courses. They have learned a lot about teaching at scale with digital tools, and supporting online learners. Contrary to the assumption that online courses require less support, they have discovered that online students often require additional assistance. Online is still generally a fantastically cost-efficient way to teach, but it needs to be correctly planned and funded. Understanding this need and planning for it can be crucial to program success.

It’s important to note that these improvements generally involve management adjustments in course support and delivery, rather than technological changes. It is also essential to recognize that integrating digital technology often requires additional work for professors, which many universities do not compensate. Acknowledging this, and finding ways to share some of the new funds that online programs generate with faculty, results in a win-win situation for all.

A photo of the cover of the book Leveling the Learning Curve: Creating a More Inclusive and Connected University by William B. Eimicke, Soulaymane Kachani, and Adam Stepan.

What role should policymakers and governments play in promoting digital connectivity and leveling the learning curve?

The role of government and the public sector in national education policy is key. In our book, we explored national programs in India and Israel that utilized MOOCs and digital education to enhance education on a broader scale.

A noteworthy finding was that government-run organizations in both countries were able to leverage their influence over the educational system to overcome obstacles that block projects which make great economic and educational sense. One recurring barrier was the issue of credit transfer. Even within state-run university systems, students often face difficulties transferring credits or utilizing credits obtained from free online courses toward their degrees. The governments in India and Israel recognized the value of allowing students to earn credits through inexpensive online courses. They intervened by providing additional funding for the creation of online classes only to those universities which also accept similar credits from other universities in the system. This government-led initiative proved beneficial for all parties involved: students could graduate sooner, the government spent less money, and universities received additional funding for online programs.

While we do not advocate for universities to be entirely government-run, we believe certain levers can be utilized to overcome roadblocks. The independent nonprofit sector has proven to be an excellent source of innovation, and we do not suggest excessive government regulation. However, strategic interventions, like the example mentioned, can help universities to navigate challenges and embrace digital education more effectively.

Looking ahead, what do you envision as the future of digital education and its potential to further reduce educational inequalities?

We think that generative AI is a potential game changer, both for good and bad. If used correctly, it can enable a new era of personalized learning. Universities are poised – if we take the needed steps – to enter a golden age of relevance and collaboration. The key is to engage, experiment and use these tools! We are entering an era where lifeline learning is crucial, as individuals will need to continuously update their skills. The concept of a 60-year curriculum is becoming a reality. Universities should be at the center of this.

Digital education tools, including AI, will play a vital role in this transformation. Universities need to embrace AI seriously. The alternative is allow it to be dominated by commercial interests, focused solely on easily marketable commercial applications. Courageous engagement with AI can lead to the creation of adaptive learning experiences tailored to individual needs. For example, the learning requirements of a 12-year-old exploring climate change differ from those of a 15-year-old or a 21-year-old or 40 -year-old. All can use similar learning assets. AI can help personalize delivery for each type of learner.

Our experiments emphasize the importance of both engagement and scale. These two factors are crucial not only in education, but also in various aspects of our current economy, as demonstrated by the success of platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.

The key to make this work is peer to peer interaction and the crowd sourcing of ideas. Higher education has dabbled in these areas – we feel now is the time to be bolder.

The upcoming years promise excitement and challenges around AI, and all the issues and opportunities it raises. We feel fortunate to be working in digital education at this crucial time, and look forward to seeing what the next few years will bring.

Leveling the Learning Curve: Creating a More Inclusive and Connected University, by William B. Eimicke, Soulaymane Kachani, and Adam Stepan, is available from Columbia University Press.


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