In this interview, President and CEO Tim Loudermilk discusses with AlvaEDU’s Editor, Michelle de Carion, the current trends in education technology and forecasts the future of online learning.
I think full immersion of tablets is really what’s happened. And it’s not something that’s been led by academia; it’s been led by students. If you think about 10 years ago, no one walked in with their own computer, or maybe they would have a heavy computer they would use. But whether or not we want to put education on tablets, every student is walking into class carrying one. So I think the popularity of the Nexus tablets from Google and the iPad is an enormous factor in education. But I don’t mean just using them as a browser. Sure, everybody can use them as a browser. That’s great. You can use your phone as a browser. We could do that 10 years ago. But today, their walking in and really embedding content on the iPad and using it like no other device. I think five or six years ago, everyone thought that Internet growth was the most powerful thing that was ever going to happen. Well, I don’t think you find today’s youth sitting in front of a computer. You find them with their tablet or with their smartphone out. In the world, I think this is going to have the biggest impact. So getting ready for that and taking advantage of it is really the next “big thing” in my opinion; and it’s happening right now.
What are some new technologies college students should anticipate using?
I think that they should expect more synchronous learning in the future because I think that the network strength is going to grow. At one point in time, everyone dialed in from AOL. Now there are enough wireless networks. So I think as the network speeds get bigger, having real-time sessions is going to be an important part of everyone’s future.
What should universities do to make their programs, in class or online, better?
I think that the days of just putting it on PowerPoints are gone because that’s really just an outline and a study aid if you will. If you want a full course, I think you have to engage the student with every type of media that’s available today. You have to engage them with some great pedagogical design on the iPad, but also you have to engage them with video, animation, simulations and scenarios where they can take part and create memorable experiences. I also see increasing experiential learning opportunities.
What do you think is “the next best thing” in education technology?
I think there is a huge amount of progress that is going to be made in learning management systems. The learning management systems that are out there have been embedded a little too long and are focused a lot on financial delivery—such as making sure you’ve registered and paid your bill, or you logged into your account to check your grades. I think that’s going to evolve. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded a project at the University of Illinois, and I think it’s really interesting because it turns LMS on its head completely and makes it a student-focused experience as opposed to a student-administrative experience. So learning management systems are going to change, so much so that they may not call them learning management systems. And we are going to be at the forefront of making certain our content integrates seamlessly with those new solutions.
Why should a student consider taking online courses? What are the benefits?
I think learning styles can be different. I think some students are visual learners, some students are listen and learn, and some people have to read to learn. Being online allows you to have all of those different experiences and learn the same content in multiple ways. I also think it’s a more custom experience for the student. I know when I sat in classes at Ohio State, I sat in a chemistry class, and if I had been able to even go through the material twice rather than once live, I would have done better. Maybe that’s why I’m not a chemist today. But I think that the fact that you can learn at your own pace, and you can repeat the content that’s important and speed through the content that you already command is a real advantage of online learning.
What are some of the challenges in education technology that you foresee? How will AlvaEDU help solve those problems?
I think that the early innovators in online education were dominantly corporations, and then you have the for-profit universities that spend a lot of their time and resources building online education. So I think the real challenge is to not create a generic course, but to create a course that actually conveys the professor’s teaching style. So at AlvaEDU, we’re focused on really capturing the professor and integrating their teaching style into their course. Then you can have a completely different experience if you take a computer science course from Vanderbilt, or if you take a nursing program from Vanderbilt, versus taking one from a for-profit online university. The “build one to deliver to so many” is not the trend that AlvaEDU is following. We’re building programs that give the students a real unique learning experience. And frankly, that’s why we’re working with such great universities.
How do you think online courses will change the education system in the next decade?
I do think that they help manage cost, and that doesn’t mean that the cost of education is going to go down in my opinion because you still have to have really high-quality faculty, and you still have to have high-quality research. But it will make managing the cost more effective for the university. So I think it gives you more opportunities to actually engage with students when a lot of your basics are delivered really well online. And that’s really what we are trying to achieve.
So I think it’s going to improve the quality of what’s delivered while keeping the cost within a managed level. I don’t think that the price of an education at a top-tier university is going to dramatically go down, but it won’t continue to rise as high as it has in the past either. But this is only important if we can deliver equal or superior education. Our goal is to deliver superior education.
How can education technology make universities’ programs better?
I think that the diversity of ways you can teach students is really the most important factor. The fact that you can have the best resources delivered to your students wherever they are is another important factor. If you have a faculty member who is just an incredible expert in one field, they’re somewhat limited to the number of students they can influence. There is a very accomplished media CEO who lectures in a program at Harvard every year—one class. And if you miss that class, you really don’t have the chance to go experience it again. So capturing those unique experiences wherever they are happening and putting them as a part of your online courses is really an important thing.
I think this would be a good time for you to talk about Thomas Edison because I’ve never heard you talk about him before.
I think Edison was brilliant. But, I also think that he subscribed to the same philosophy that I do: hire everyone around you that’s smarter than you. He was a good marketer, and he knew how to productize things, but he wasn’t the world’s top inventor. I’m not the top inventor either, but he had the world’s top inventors around him dedicated to the same task. I think there is an important lesson there. When you go into a situation and realize that you’re not the only one who is going to come up with a great creative idea, embrace those that happen and see how they fit into your world. Right now we are in discussions with a couple technology companies that I can’t name, but that are really incredible technology companies. One of which is in online learning but focused on a totally different thing than we’re doing. We got the “ah ha” moment together. Their engineers and ours said, “Wow if we do this together we could be further ahead faster”, so we’re talking about that. So I think rule number one is: don’t think you are the only person to invent something great, you weren’t, and rule number two, try to capitalize on existing knowledge around you to make certain that you can take what someone has done and make it better.