Wake up and smell the future

Wake up and smell the future

It is day two of the EAIE Conference and, after yesterday’s plenary and many sessions, you probably felt like you had already heard your fair share of novel ideas. That is, of course, until this morning’s exhilarating Wake-up Plenary with e-learning entrepreneur and future-enthusiast Donald Clark. Some of the innovations that are exciting international educators now, like flipped classrooms and digital learning, were extensively explored in his TEDx talk a good three years ago. Say hello to the real future!

Donald Clark has been involved in e-learning and other innovative forms of knowledge-sharing for over 30 years. He certainly has strong opinions about the existing higher education system whereby learning is done in the form of lectures and testing only occurs at the end of the semester. He would like to see a push for the inclusion of technology in higher education in the same way that technology has made its way into informal learning for students. Donald claims that “consumer technology isn’t something you have a choice about” and that students “already use it and they will continue to use it”. In order to teach this critical mass of hyper-connected internet users, higher education institutions have no choice but to start speaking their language.

The idea that acquiring information from free and open sources on the internet is not a legitimate form of learning is something our keynote speaker stands up against. He claims that “it’s absolutely absurd that anyone would tell students not to use Wikipedia” and that YouTube succeeds in teaching the masses precisely because it consists of short instructional videos. “The one lesson from learning psychology is that less is more”, he said. With this in mind, the standard practice of one and a half hour lectures at universities is essentially “morally bankrupt”.

“Rock solid research” on learning shows that we forget the majority of what we hear in lectures in a matter of hours. Donald Clark makes a strong case for questioning why lecturing is still the predominant model of learning. In absolute terms, ‘virtual learning’ is already fairly standard practice nowadays. “This is here folks, you’re already in the middle of it”, he exclaimed. Massive Open Online Courses, online degrees, recorded lectures, etc, are already rather prominent.

Virtual reality learning, however, is only now beginning to gain traction as one of the many possible futures of teaching. “This is going to be big in 2016”, Donald predicted. It’s every sci-fi lover’s dream and every technophobe’s nightmare. But Mr. Clark claims we have nothing to fear and a lot to gain from incorporating brand new technologies into the way we teach and learn. After all, “resistance is futile”.

If it’s good enough for Facebook

The Oculus Rift is a virtual reality device that allows users to experience any activity imaginable anytime, anywhere. Originally a Kickstarter-funded invention, the Oculus was recently purchased by no one other than Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg for a whopping 2.3 billion dollars. And while they are chunky goggles that are currently primarily used for gaming, don’t be fooled: today’s keynote speaker firmly believes that this kind of technology will change the way we teach theoretical concepts.

Virtual reality, Donald claims, “is not about mimicking the real world, it’s about doing things that are impossible in the real world”. Physics, history, biology, there is no field that couldn’t benefit from this kind of experience-oriented teaching. In order to educate our populations and promote true understanding and creative thinking that is not only aimed at passing that one course or that one exam, “we have no choice here but to embrace technology”.

Sustainable innovation

An important point made by Donald Clark is that the current educational system in the West is extremely expensive. Student debt is rising in developed nations and, although we want to provide access to education to individuals in developing countries, we cannot expect our model to succeed there. “We have a moral duty to educate these people but without technology, it won’t happen”. And by technology Donald does not mean “throwing iPads into little villages in Ethiopia with English content”. Rather than gadgets, investments should be made on building sustainable infrastructures and improving bandwidth. Access to technology will be key in responding to growing demand for higher education in the developing world and, if we are to make a difference, this should be our focus.

The rest of today

It is safe to say that the first ever Wake-up Plenary with Donald Clark’s exciting keynote address woke many of us up to a whole world of possibilities. As we move on to a full day of sessions addressing the most cutting-edge knowledge within the field of international higher education and a whole lot of networking – including the Goldfinger-themed EAIE Dance – this morning’s electrifying speech is likely to continue to incite much debate.