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Jan 15, 2020

My Learning Journey Part 1 – Educational Experts 2019 in Boston and New York

Von Prof. Dr. Susanne Staude

The EdExperts. Photo: Till Rückwart

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.

Flying into Boston! Photo: Susanne Staude

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.

We are a diverse group of high-level managers in higher education: Presidents, vice presidents, rectors, provosts and vice provosts for teaching, research or digitalization, from universities or universities of applied sciences, and participants from ministries and the DAAD.

Day 1 (Monday, 30 September): Harvard and LearnLaunch

The classical seminar room: crammed with rows of chairs, blackboard and the lecturer behind a desk...Harvard Graduate School of Education. Photo: Till Rückwart

After the welcoming remarks from both Fulbright Foundation and Stifterverband, we were given a short introduction to the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the US higher education system.

First Learning: The two major differences between German and US higher education system:

  1. Almost 90% of all high school graduates start a course at a higher education college or university in the US (compared to around 50% in Germany).
  2. US Universities are primarily funded by tuition fees, company sponsorship and philanthropic giving. Big universities (like Harvard & MIT) have enough funds to reduce the tuition fee for less well-off students by up to 100%.

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):

  • If students want a certificate from Harvard on completion of a MOOC, this will cost them around $1000 per course.
  • MOOCs are regarded by the university as a marketing tool to attract students.
  • Some colleges require their students to complete online courses prior to enrollment at the university.
  • (Quality) online courses are generally not less costly than classic courses.

Dr. Kurt Fendt was speaking on the Digital Turn from a humanities perspective. My main take-home from his impulse:

  • Digitalization is both medium AND content.

Monday afternoon: LearnLaunch

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 2 (Tuesday, 1 October): Harvard Learning Lab and MIT

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.

Look at all the materials on the far wall. Photo: Till Rückwart
And the cool overhead camera installation. Post-its were lying around ready to be used. Photo: Till Rückwart

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:

  • In order to ensure quality and minimize resistance, a faculty committee was installed that approves the material before it goes online.
  • The online courses are for the use in class AND to reach a broad audience (i.e. people all over the world).

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 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:

  • We don’t need more college-ready students – we need more student-ready colleges.
  • To teach lecturers about online learning courses, you have to do this with online learning courses. They must have experienced the format they are trying to apply.
  • Online courses work best when they are accompanied by classroom learning, i.e. blended learning.
  • To learn new things, you must first unlearn what you have learnt.

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 cognitive learning process can be supported by digitalization, but it cannot be changed. The first question when developing material should always be: What is the aim of our teaching?
  • Create a space for students to create learning materials or be involved in the creation (we are all instructors AND learners).
  • If you want to teach teachers how to develop blended learning courses, you need to use blended learning courses.
  • For teach-the-teacher courses, safe spaces are required for teachers to try things and fail unnoticed by their regular colleagues. (Or: Should we address our failure culture?)

Day 3 (Wednesday, 2 October): MIT and edX

Sporty group of EdExperts. Photo: Susanne Staude

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:

  • The strategy of the Media Lab is that the research should lead to deployment rather than publication.
  • Each research group is given space in a laboratory that they share with a different research group to encourage interdisciplinary discussion and learning. All the labs have glass walls so that all researchers (both from the Media Lab and those visiting from elsewhere) can observe what others are working on.

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:

  • Instead of only gazing at the stars (i.e. vision / strategy), we need to look at (and sense) ourselves as a system
  • A change process needs a shift from debate to dialogue.

    Good leadership needs

    No judgement: an open mind
    No cynicism: an open heart
    No fear: an open will

My key learnings of the day:

  • To change a system, support the innovators that are already in the system.
  • The future will bring continuous lifelong learning.
  • To solve the challenges of the future (eg. the Sustainable Development Goals) we need transformational literacy.

Day 4 (Thursday, 3 October): New York and CUNY Graduate Center

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?

  • How do vision or institutional strategy change due to the digital turn?
  • How can and will digitalization change or influence the very idea of education?

Arriving in New York

View from the streets of Manhattan. Photo: Susanne Staude

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:

  • Even though the education system is different in many ways, the approaches to digitalization are very similar in Germany and the US. Generally, it seems more common in the US to “just do things” and start with innovation seeds, supporting the willing and the early adopters.
  • Interdisciplinary and cross-faculty approaches seem to be the way forward (both at the Media Lab (MIT) and at CUNY)

Day 5 (Friday, 4 October): The New School

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:

  • Get at faculty through the students (a similar approach was taken at the Learning Lab!)
  • Curriculum development takes time: Let information and ideas settle. (This seems like sensible advice – not sure if I like it though ;-))

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):

Slide: Susan Grajek

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:

Slide 2: Susan Grajek

Day 6 (Saturday, 5 October): Hasso Plattner Institute

Breathtaking view from the 48th floor. Photo: Susanne Staude

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):

  • People (are the people involved passionate, do they work well as a team?)
  • Problem (is the problem that the innovation addresses significant (size) and specific?)
  • Progress (can we see that progress is being made? How much has already been achieved?)
  • Product (is the product good?)

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:

  • Words are important
  • Without failure, there is no innovation. Think of “failure” as “the result of an experiment”.
Lunch at the HighLine was also a highlight! Photo: Susanne Staude

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.

Day 7 (Sunday, 6 October): Cornell Tech

EdExperts doing Design Thinking. Photo: Till Rückwart

(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:

  • There is a shift of responsibility for learning success from the students to the teachers and the institutions.
  • Digitalization has changed the importance of coverage (i.e. methods become more important and content less so).
  • There is a beginning mind shift from students as “a vessel to dump content into” towards students as “people on a journey”.
  • There is a change in epistemology from qualitative to quantitative because everything is becoming data-based

Dan Berrett also posed some very good questions regarding the data we use to describe or predict learning at our institutions:

  • You use what you can measure – but does that actually matter?
  • Should we look at data if we’re not thinking it is the right one?

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:

  • Use data to describe – long before you start using it to predict.
  • Letting students work on real problems in interdisciplinary teams is a very good way to get them to learn what they will need – also with respect to the digital turn. (This basically just confirms what I believe anyway, so that’s nice.)

And now: December is coming!

And then roof-top bar! Photo: Susanne Staude

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

Prof. Dr. Susanne Staude

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.

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