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June 13, 2013 Volume 34, No. 31

Celebration of Teaching speaker encourages balance between digital and classroom learning

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EDUCATION IN DIGITAL AGE Mark Milliron, chancellor of Western Governors University, an online education institution, lectured May 21 in Jesse Hall Auditorium on using digital technology in the learning experience. He cautioned that technological advances should not replace the interaction between student and teacher. Photo by Rachel Coward.


Digital tools can enhance the education experience, speaker said

Balancing digital and traditional instruction has been a challenge for 21st-century educators. Tilt education too much toward digital, and the human element is lost. Tilt toward classroom instruction, and lose out on the tremendous opportunities in digital learning.

In 2011–12, MU offered 66 online degrees and nearly 700 online courses. Many of the 9,155 online learners were also enrolled in on-campus courses. Given the growth potential of Mizzou Online and e-learning in general, MU’s Celebration of Teaching in May devoted a handful of sessions to online instruction. 

The two-day celebration was sponsored by the MU Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies, led by Jim Spain. Kicking it off was a presentation by a Texan named Mark Milliron, recently named chancellor of Western Governors University, an online institution based in Salt Lake City with 35,000 students across the United States. Milliron argued for a Goldilocks-like balance — not too much, not too little — of digital and traditional instruction.

“If you do this right, it is education at its best,” he told about 250 people in Jesse Hall Auditorium. 

Milliron cut his teeth in education at the well-regarded Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he led efforts to help teenagers from low-income families get accepted to college. He currently serves on the board of Civitas Learning, a Texas-based learning analytics company.

Dressed in an oversized tan suit, Milliron eschewed the MU-logoed podium to stand stage center with a large power-point screen behind him. He was at ease, funny and insightful as he spoke for more than two hours without notes about his family, professional background and higher education in a digital age.

Milliron acknowledged the saturation of digital media throughout all age demographics. As is well known, children, teenagers and young adults are awash in e-communication. But Milliron pointed out that Twitter is becoming more popular with 30- to 50-year-olds. The average age of digital gamers is 30. And studies show that more people over age 50 are embracing electronic media.

But using social media and playing an online video game are quite different than utilizing digital technology for degree programs in higher education. The best educators say the teacher–student connection is crucial, and that’s hard to establish when students are sitting in front of a glowing screen instead of in a classroom with an engaged instructor. 

Though a zealot for online education, Milliron said it doesn’t work too well when teaching squishy skills such as writing. Students rank writing second only to public speaking as something to be feared, he said. Teaching it online is problematic because critiques, which students can take personally, are devoid of the human touch. 

But Milliron may have found an alternative in an app that gives the writing instructor’s critique a voice. Literally. Students at a Texas college who tested the app loved hearing the instructor’s taped audio, he said. They felt the humanity of the critique through the instructor’s critical but encouraging words.

“It felt like you were talking over my shoulder the entire time,” a student said of his virtual instructor, according to Milliron.

During his lecture, Milliron invoked tales of his wired four children, ages 4 to 14, to bring home points. He spoke of the hours they devote and seriousness they bring to playing video games. How can educators harness that focus and commitment? Milliron said the answer is to make online learning as engaging as digital game playing. 

“Activity connects people to learning in affective ways,” he said. 

Finally, Milliron argued for shortening the feedback loop on the success or failure of online teaching and student study habits. He noted how Amazon bombards buyers with instantaneous recommendations for future purchases based on prior purchases. Similarly, faculty and students should know within a short window if they are on the right track to success.

It’s possible through analytics, Milliron said. For example, teachers can track study patterns of students and eliminate the digital materials not used by the best students. Students, meanwhile, can learn where they fall short in study habits when their analytics are compared to past successful students.

Feedback doesn’t need to wait till midterms or, worse, months or years till administrators and faculty committees sign off on a substantive scholastic change, Milliron said. Like Amazon recommendations, feedback can be nearly instantaneous and go directly to those who need it — the teachers and students. 

“We need a transformation of getting the data to the front line,” Milliron said.