Jan 15, 2020
In early October 2019, a group of 17 Germans and eight Americans embarked on a learning journey through Boston and New York. They visited the MIT, Harvard University, edX and The New School - just to name a few. Susanne Staude of University of Applied Sciences Ruhr West kept a learning diary of the journey and shares her insights in this blog post. It was first published on the blog of the Hochschulforum Digitalisierung on November 8, 2019.
The Educational Experts Seminar 2019 was organized by Fulbright, Stifterverband, Hochschulforum Digitalisierung, DWIH New York and Impacthub Berlin. It aimed at fostering exchange and mutual learning. You can also retrace the journey on Twitter through the Hashtag #EdExperts.
Tuesday, 8 October: I am sitting at Newark airport, waiting to board my flight. I am reflecting on the past 7 eventful days. It was a learning journey. And as journeys go, I shall describe it chronologically.
We started on Sunday, 29 September with a joint dinner for the German participants. In a windowless room with overly cold air-conditioning - a theme that shall accompany us throughout the week. Nevertheless, lively discussions started very quickly everywhere as we got to know each other.
First Learning: The two major differences between German and US higher education system:
When students drop out of college they are left with a hefty debt, but no qualification that would allow them to find a job paying enough to pay off the debt. In particular, tier 2 and 3 colleges have significant dropout rates of over 40%! It appears that many people go to college, but the colleges are not serving their needs (which might be more vocational training?). I think that this is a strong argument in favor of our German system of vocational apprenticeships (Duale Ausbildung).
We also learnt some facts about MOOCs (which did not turn out to be as system-changing as we thought):
Dr. Kurt Fendt was speaking on the Digital Turn from a humanities perspective. My main take-home from his impulse:
After lunch, we split into two groups with discrete destinations. Group 1 had the opportunity to visit AdmitHub, Group 2 (our group) went to LearnLaunch which hosts an accelerator portfolio company, an institute and a co-working space, all specializing in EdTech companies. Startups and young EdTech companies could rent desk-space or little offices and thus benefit from access to the meeting rooms and communal spaces as well as workshops, talks and other events LearnLaunch organized. Most important for most of the tenants was access to one of the experienced founders who offers mentoring.
The last lecture of the day was by Prof. Dr. Sheila Jasanoff of the Harvard Kennedy School. She gave us some food for thought, zooming out and looking at science and higher education almost philosophically.
Do we teach our students critical thinking just to solve “grand challenges” – or do we also teach them to ask WHY we are facing these challenges?
For dinner, the Consul General of Germany to New England invited us to sushi (one wonders…) at the consulate – another windowless room, this time in the center of a shopping mall (one wonders again).
Day two started at the Harvard Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning where we first got an introduction into the Learning Lab. This was an exciting space to develop and record online courses using video and audio equipment. Just wandering around the space was exciting.
According to its founder, Prof. Dr. Robert Lue, the Learning Lab is an "opportunity space": An open, flexible and inviting place where something new is created for teachers, students and staff. The users are supported by the Learning Lab staff to create, test and improve.
We then split into groups again, one group stayed and learned more about the Learning Lab from its director, Marlon Kuzmick, and my group went to another room for a more in-depth discussion with Robert Lue about HarvardX, Harvard's MOOC platform. My most important take-aways from this session were:
Currently, HarvardX is being re-developed to create a platform that allows the unbundling of courses into little learning-snippets. These could be input sequences (like videos), tests, assignments etc. They will be available as OER through www.LabExchange.org from spring 2020 both for teachers and for students. The idea is that the user can easily create their own pathway to develop a course that can then also be imported into the LMS.
While the other group had a session with Dr. David Dockterman, my group went on to talk to Barbara Treacy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education who teaches the use of technology in teaching. My key learnings from her talk and our discussion:
For our afternoon session we walked to the MIT. I enjoyed walking through the old building, looking at the posters in the hall ways (don’t they have fire regulations?) and peeking into some labs. That was a real campus feeling!
Dana Doyle, Director of the MITx program explained the MIT approach to online courses. An analysis of the use of the MITx MOOCs shows that the majority of people do not complete a course (of 3.9 million learners, 815.000 completed more than 50% of the courses and only 202.000 certificates were awarded). At MIT, the online courses were regularly used in conjunction with classroom activities.
My key learnings of the day:
The morning started with a wonderful bicycle ride (at least for some of us) to the MIT.
There, we visited the Media Lab. Director of Learning Innovation, Philipp Schmidt, introduced us to the concept of the Media Lab. The Vice President for Open Learning, Prof. Dr. Sanjay Sarma, shared his strategy for MIT Open Learning. One of the things he stressed: ‘A gig economy needs a gig education system.’ Listening to Sanjay Sarma, I was once again impressed how well the leaders of US institutions can “sell” their ideas and organizations.
The vision of Sanjay Sarma was that the MIT will be able to “drop eco-systems of education” in places around the world. To me, this has an imperialistic ring to it and sounds like some form of colonialization. This view was shared by some but not all participants.
Sanjay Sarma furthermore shared his ideas on how to combine online courses with offline application on the Master level, something that he also thought was essential for effective learning. The students would first do an online course, followed by a “boot camp” (a 1-2 week intensive collaborative learning experience on-campus). This would be followed by an “apprenticeship” working on projects within a company.
It was at MIT Meda Lab when we first discussed micro degrees or micro credentials during our journey. They are certificates for individual courses that students complete. Theses micro credentials could then also be used towards a master’s degree (thus shortening the required time and reducing the cost to students). Again, the contrast of how US and German institutions are financed became apparent – both MIT and Harvard seemed to be continuously developing new ways to generate income.
The Media Lab was an amazing place, both the space and the concept. It is home to a variety of faculty from very different backgrounds that work in interdisciplinary teams on various research projects addressing digitalization. Apart from one master’s degree program, the Media Lab only offers doctoral programs. Some things were very different to other schools at MIT:
My key learning at MIT Media Lab: Space matters!
In the afternoon, we had talks and discussions with Johannes Heinlein (edX) and Dr. Sean Gallagher (Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy, Northeastern University) who both talked about both the opportunity of online courses to make education more accessible – and about micro degrees or micro credentials as an important feature for the future of education.
Dr. Otto Scharmer (MIT Management Sloan School & Presencing Institute) discussed institutional changes. His lecture both inspired and provoked us. He stated that in order to address the challenges of the world, we need to apply systems thinking and develop what he called transformation literacy. Admittedly, I did not fully grasp what this is exactly and how it can be achieved. But I did take some learnings for me:
Good leadership needs
No judgement: an open mind
No cynicism: an open heart
No fear: an open will
My key learnings of the day:
Time to leave Boston behind and get on our way to New York City. “Breakfast” was served on the Limo Liner, a "luxury" coach between Boston and New York (please note the quotation marks). We used the journey for reflection. In particular, we discussed our experiences thus far and how to support our American colleagues in their on-boarding to the group, as they would join us in the afternoon.
Upon our reflection, I realised that one thing had thus far been most surprising to me: In the discussion on digitalization of education & teaching, Harvard and MIT representatives particularly stressed the importance of practical training in or with companies as something they "discovered". In Germany, this has been common for decades, particularly at universities of applied sciences.
What has not been discussed yet?
In yet another windowless room crammed with rows of chairs at the CUNY Graduate Center, we finally met our American colleagues. In our peer group, we immediately had a lively discussion on what us Germans had learnt so far but also on the differences (and similarities) between the German and the US systems of higher education. A key quote fore me during the discussion: “Harvard and MIT are irrelevant to the US higher education system”
Later, Dr. Matthew Gold and Dr. Lisa Marie Rhody from the Digital Initiatives at CUNY Graduate Center talked to us about their efforts to address digitalization in the doctoral programs at CUNY. The Digital Initiatives is a cross-faculty initiative that offers support, workshops etc. to all members of the Graduate Center. Their approach is to build communities of practice for graduate students and faculty and to support these. They also teach general methodology for research in the digital age that are relevant for all disciplines.
My key learnings of the day:
After a brisk walk through Manhattan we were greeted at The New School by Maya Georgieva, the Director of Digital and Immersive Learning. She explained how her center tries to support staff and students at The New School to achieve “digital fluency”. They are doing so with great enthusiasm and very little budget – like a startup. In the discussion afterwards, we were mostly interested how they get faculty be open to new technology and to adopt changes both in the curriculum and in their teaching. My key learnings from this discussion were:
The next session was a big contrast. Troy Williams gave us his view on the impact of digitalization on higher education from the viewpoint of a venture capitalist (University Ventures). He suggests we will see an increase in so-called Micro-Credentials which certify a certain skill or knowledge that will be important for a specific type of job at the time. As new skills are required, the employees will take the next (online) course, and so on. Education will thus be less something that happens at the beginning of the career, but rather something that happens continuously. This caused quite some discomfort within the group, primarily because education was portrayed as solely the means to an end (a good job) and not as a value in itself (for example to be an informed citizen).
Nevertheless, the idea of micro-credentials is not so far away from the micro-masters. In his opinion, one of the most important challenges that has to be solved by technology is the authentication in online learning and the verification of the micro-credentials.
A public discussion at the end of the day in the German House confirmed a lot of what we had learned during the past days. Dr. Susan Grajek from EDUCAUSE spoke about the culture shift that comes with the digital transformation (Dx):
She also gave an example of how this culture shift and the technological development can be achieved at university, again reiterating what we have learned before:
Our Saturday started with a most amazing view: at the space of the Hasso Plattner Institute. Would it be possible to work with such a view from the 48th floor?
Besides the view, the space was also fantastic – and very inviting to start creating ideas immediately!
But first, Ash Kaluarachchi introduced us to StartEd, an accelerator for Edtech companies and founders. Ash gave as a very comprehensive account of what he learnt what startups need and how he tries to provide that. The big challenge for edtech founders is that they have to work with relatively long time scales. These time scales are often difficult for venture capital companies.
Primarily, StartEd supplies mentoring for startups. In order for this mentoring to be successful, StartEd trains both the mentors and the mentees for their respective roles. Another advice that they give to their startups: Before you start looking for capital, look for advice from potential investors. This way, you can both learn and build relationships – that may then lead to funding. When assessing the potential of startups, Ash applies the following criteria (in order of importance):
He also gave us some advice on how to open pathways into entrepreneurship:
Entrepreneurs have passion to solve a problem. For me, that means we have to create settings at universities where students can develop their passion with regards to a specific problem. For this, they need to learn the language of framing and defining a problem.
My key learnings of the day:
And then – finally! – we had time for some creative work: First, we got help to create a podcast. Absolute excellent experience by using a very simple yet powerful free tool. Unfortunately I am not technically versatile enough to extract the sound and I don’t have permission yet to share our video podcast…
In the afternoon, we got a short introduction to Design Thinking by Dr. Joann Halpern from the HPI before we tried it out by ourselves. For me this was a fantastic experience! Apart from being fun, imagining the person we were trying to address (Jim, physicist, glasses, suave but not keen on eye-contact, great researcher and unenthusiastic teacher who liked chess), it also produced a lot of good ideas in a very short time. At the same time, a lot of the learnings of the past week re-appeared in our suggestions, helping the consolidation.
(Yes, that’s right – we even worked on Sunday!)
First, Dr. Greg Morrisett, Vice Provost from Cornell Tech, talked to us about their activities on the relatively new New York campus. I was particularly excited about the idea of the “Cornell Studio” courses: During the first semester of the Master’s programs, all students must take one of those studio courses. In these courses, the students work in interdisciplinary teams of five for one semester on “What-if”-questions that are posed by companies or NGOs. The student teams have to solve these questions and produce a (digital) prototype by the end of the semester. The courses start with team building exercises and are mentored throughout the semester by teaching staff. The companies have to pay (‘not much’ – whatever that is) in order to pose a question. This strengthens the commitment of the companies which then helps the projects to be successful. An excellent idea, I think!
Afterwards, Dan Berrett, editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, spoke to us about the trends that he sees in higher education, particularly with respect to digitalization. Here are some of his findings:
Dan Berrett also posed some very good questions regarding the data we use to describe or predict learning at our institutions:
And a good piece advice:
It is not always good to just look at “the shiny new thing”! His example for this was the MOOC-hype a few years ago as MOOCs thus far haven’t revolutionized the education system as predicted by some.
My key learnings of the day:
So far, so good. We have had an inspiring and intense week in the USA, meeting interesting, passionate people in innovative and remarkable settings. We could only touch some issues in depth. Therefore, it is wonderful that we are going to come together as a group again this December in Berlin. Fulbright, Stifterverband and Hochschulforum Digitalisierung invite the American and the German participants to the German capital. So we'll give our English speaking colleagues more insights into German Higher Education discourses and continue our productive discussions. Hopefully then, some students are involved more extensively. Because at the end of the day: students matter.
Read more about the second part of the journey here: My Learning Journey Part 2 – Educational Experts 2019 in Berlin
Susanne Staude is president of the University of Applied Sciences Ruhr West (HRW). Since 2015 she has had the role of vice president for study and teaching at HRW. Susanne Staude is professor for Thermodynamics and Fluid Energy Machines at the Institute of Energy Systems and Energy Economics. Her Twitter handle is @StaudeSusanne.