RP Sanjiv Goenka Group

Transforming Digital Education

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In this edition of FirstVoice, Tij Nerurkar, Global Head of EdTech – Firstsource, hosts Dr. Susan Aldridge, a member of Firstsource’s EdTech Advisory Board and consultant to university presidents and ministers of education, regarding “Transforming Digital Education”

[00:00:00] Tij: Hi. Good morning, Susan. Welcome, everyone, to the FirstVoice, which is a thought leadership series on different topics related to innovation and business process management. My name is Tij Nerurkar. I look after the education technology business here at Firstsource. Along with me, I have today Dr. Susan Aldridge, who I’ve known for many years first as a customer, a client of ours when I was with Tata Group where she was the president of University of Maryland University College, and then at Drexel University. It’s so wonderful to see you again, Susan. Also really appreciate your support that you’re providing us at tech initiatives here at Firstsource. How are you doing today?

[00:00:51] Susan: I’m very well. Tij, it’s wonderful to see you. Also, it’s just been a professional opportunity to work with you over so many years, so it’s lovely to be with you today. Thank you.

[00:01:04] Tij: Fantastic. I remember after University of Maryland, you were with Drexel and we worked there briefly as well. It’s been a few years since you decided to take a break from the academic career and step down from that full-time position there to focus on some other personal initiatives. You’ve been in the space of digital education for such a long time. How’s that journey been in the last few years?

[00:01:32] Susan: It’s interesting because I’m consulting full-time now with university presidents and boards of trustees as well as ministers of education. Universities are looking for new business models now and so digital formats and digital technology-enhanced education is something that, as you said, I’ve been a part of for about 25 years. Really it’s about creating access for students and serving students in various sundry ways at a distance. It’s an exciting time.

The pandemic was so busy. I was busy full-time all through the pandemic working with these institutions. I’ve worked all over the Middle East and Asia, Europe and the US all during the pandemic and today. It’s really exciting to see how universities and countries are taking advantage of the new technologies to help students learn.

[00:02:31] Tij: That’s wonderful. Actually, I was wondering, after the pandemic, we’ve all seen the boom of digital education during those last two, two and a half years. In many parts, particularly I’ve seen in India that the pendulum is swinging back and very fiercely to a classroom-based model. From your vantage point, what do you think? Is this a short-term phenomena where things will go back to classroom, or there will be a new normal set with the technology that’s changing the way education is now delivered? What’s your take on virtual education now?

[00:03:06] Susan: It’s such an interesting question because while the education just recently published a survey where a number of the students were requesting more hybrid or more face-to-face, we really view that as an outcome of the pandemic where students felt so isolated and really wanted the connection with other students, other people. I think that pendulum will swing back a bit for some of these students because they’re going to need access to education in a convenient way. We’ll never completely swing to only online education, but at the same time, the data’s also telling us what’s happening with these students.

Scott Jeffe at RNL has done some excellent research about prospective students and what they’re looking for in online education. We know that in the last five years, face-to-face enrollments have dropped both undergraduate and graduate students in the United States. We also know that undergraduate and graduate programs have grown. The largest growth online has been in graduate programs, and we expect that to continue.

[00:04:25] Tij: It sounds to me like the digital education, the onslaught will continue in a sense. The amount of work that’s been produced digitally to transform the education space is going to continue. One of the questions that is always asked is the suppliers of digital education from a standpoint of providers of content, providers of education in this format, what are some of the things that they should be keeping in mind? What are the factors for success in a sustainable manner going forward from their standpoint?

[00:05:01] Susan: In the past when online learning was first started, there were a number of institutions I was fortunate to be part of, a few of them were traditional institutions like Troy University or University of Maryland Global Campus that had been serving military students and adult students around the world. Although they had traditional campuses, they were still very successful at serving adult students, and online education just became another format for creating access. Now students have access to education through hundreds of different institutions.

Unfortunately, a lot of institutions advertise that they have quality online, they have quality faculty. Now students need to know what that really means. In order to differentiate themselves in the future, universities are going to have to prove it and show it and demonstrate it in order to distinguish themselves. I’m envisioning that institutions will be creating short video clips on their websites about what their online courses really look like, the type of experience that the students will have in a cybersecurity program. For example, will they have remote labs? Will the students be working on current situations where they can utilize offensive defensive practices and practice in a safe environment?

How will they know when they see these new cyber attacks and what they’re going to look like? Universities will have to step up their game. They can’t just use their brand and access to education any longer in order to recruit students because the students now have options around the world for online courses, and they’re going to start asking very good questions about what this experience is going to look like. If it’s a read-only, chat-only Zoom room, the students are going to opt for another institution that gives them an opportunity to apply what they’re learning in real-world situations with really robust learning opportunities.

[00:07:12] Tij: I also remember that one of the moments that began catching up in a few years from today was the space of competency-based education. I think you had some very solid perspectives around whether this will take off. We’ve seen success from Western Governors University, we’ve seen others trying to get into that, but what is your point of view here? Do you think that competency-based education is the way to transform the current system which is credit-based? Is this the way forward from a skilling standpoint as well?

[00:07:49] Susan: I think competency-based education really made a point in higher education about the fact that in the past, we’ve had a lot of memorizing and test-taking formats that aren’t always the way for deep learning and understanding to occur, but there is a role for competency-based education. It’s not the only format, but it does work for many students, particularly students that have a lot of experience that they’re bringing to the classroom and to the university. I think demonstrating skill sets and knowledge is very beneficial.

In the past, I’ve been a little critical of the prior learning assessments which some traditional universities have used where students create a portfolio of what they’ve learned in the past in order to prove that they already have the knowledge and therefore, should not have to take a particular course. When students have to put together a massive portfolio and pay for a three-credit course in order to prove that they shouldn’t have to take other courses, I just thought that whole process was too cumbersome for the students and that there were some other alternatives that were more efficient to really determine the knowledge the students were bringing to the university.

I think competency-based education, particularly when it’s wrapped around students’ ability to progress at a pace that they’re comfortable with with flat prices per semester, I think it addresses the time-to-degree issue for students, the cost issue for students, as well as taking advantage of a lot of expertise that these students, particularly older students, bring to the university. I don’t think competency-based education is for every student or for every university, but I certainly think it’s been an exciting option.

[00:09:53] Tij: From a vendor perspective, for the providers of content or developers of content and the solutions that go around it, are there some insights or points that you might want to suggest that they should be keeping in mind? The reason for my asking this question was also because of the fact that the industry has seen several formats of digital education. One example was adaptive learning.

People talked about adaptive learning for some years. It’s not really kicked off the way they thought that it will. It’s there, but it’s not necessarily fully adapted, if you will. From a developer standpoint, from a creator of content, are there aspects that one needs to bear in mind when it comes to these deeper formats like competency-based education?

[00:10:44] Susan: I think TSU have been involved so much in some of these areas. The expertise that you and your teams have brought to my universities and to the quality that we’ve been able to deliver in our courses, I appreciate so much in the past. Let me give you some examples. Unfortunately, the pandemic created some warped perspectives, if you will, about online learning for individuals that don’t have experience in this space. They think it’s a talking head Zoom room and recorded lectures. That is not at all what we’re talking about when we talk about quality in education.

Let’s just take, for example, some of the work that you and your teams have done in the past where you’ve created really robust learning opportunities in an area. You designed for us the very first master’s degrees in cyber security. Those courses were world-class. I say that with every confidence, that they were absolutely world-class. We had opportunities for these students to use remote labs that they could access from around the world to practice. The courses were beautifully illustrated and designed, gave students the opportunity to really engage with the content.

These are smart people who were coming from NSA. They were coming from military environments. They already had expertise in cyber, so they were not going to remain in courses unless they were extremely robust, challenging, and had current information in them. It was a combination of working with your brilliant team on the design standpoint as well as faculty that were current in today’s market. It was also a flexible environment where, if there were new viruses or new hacking situations that had occurred around the world, we were able to bring those into the classroom within the same week, so it gave us tremendous flexibility.

Also, let me give another example of an area where you and your team really created an opportunity for us that we were able to use for marketing to demonstrate a differentiator for the experience that the students were going to receive in the classroom. That was in the forensic nursing course. My goodness. Your team designed a crime scene that students were able to actually go through. We were able to have pop-ups in the class if they missed something when they were evaluating this crime scene that was based upon a real crime.

The students could solve the crime at the end, but if they missed clues, if they were doing something in this simulation that could potentially lead to them not being able to solve a crime, we had all of these pop-ups and feedbacks for the students, timely feedback for the students. These are the kinds of really robust, brilliantly designed courses that allow students to apply their knowledge to real-world situations. I think that’s the robust experience students should demand and should really expect in the future from these online courses.

There’s another group called– Now their naming is escaping me, but they’re based in Florida. They have avatars that are smart avatars where nursing students can learn how to do a real assessment on a patient. The students ask the patient online, ask the patient questions while they’re conducting an assessment. They can prescribe tests that are listed down the side of the screen.

A faculty member then can go in later and look to see whether the student followed all the protocols that were available. It gives students an opportunity to practice, practice, practice. With this next generation of students that are gamers, they’ve learned these skills of being able to practice what they’ve learned until they get to the next skill set. Gamification as well as smart avatars gives them a chance to use those skills in an academic environment where they really perfect their skill set.

[00:15:22] Tij: Yes, I think the world of simulations and gaming is coming alive, especially with Metaverse and the virtualization platforms that are coming into play now. I think some of those things that people were talking about or experimenting about few years back seem to be possible now and maybe even affordable in a few years from now. It’s really an exciting space for the online education, especially from a content standpoint. It was wonderful to hear your comments about our work way back at the university when the two of us worked together. Thank you for those great comments.

Just to wrap up this conversation, Susan, again, coming back to the university institutions, what is that message that you may want to leave behind for other institutions, especially institutions which are looking at adopting technologies for the first time to transform their digital education, the landscape? Any message that you would like to help us consider or help them consider as they look at this journey?

[00:16:33] Susan: Obviously, universities need to do their homework in terms of the wonderful resources that are available. Even at Firstsource, I’m very proud to serve on a committee with experts from around the world at Firstsource. You’re utilizing AI and personalization. Hurix Digital has some beautifully designed courses and they’re using virtual reality, augmented reality in the classes. Many of the members of that team, we’ve worked with in the past, and they helped design some of our courses. I’m really excited about the work that Hurix Digital is doing.

Let me give you an example of another company called Yellowdig that is doing some wonderful work about student engagement. They have these collaboration sessions that Northwestern University, Babson College, and others are using where the students that are engaged in these classes also lead to students who actually graduate and continue on. I’d suggest taking a look at these collaboration sessions and student engagement through Yellowdig. Let me give you an example of how Berklee College of Music is using technology and their online learning in a way that’s helping students build professional portfolios.

Oftentimes, we don’t think about teaching music as something that could be done other than a one-on-one face-to-face environment with a mentor and a professional with a student. Berklee College of Music has a master’s degree in film scoring. These are music students that are writing musical scores for films, and they have teamed up with the Budapest Orchestra. After the students finish their project in the class, the Budapest Orchestra performs their film score so these students are actually able to see their work performed by a professional orchestra, but simultaneously they’re able to use that as part of an e-portfolio for their future job exploration.

I think universities really need to explore what quality is, really up their game in terms of student engagement and the quality of the design of the courses, and utilize some of the technical education companies that are out there to really differentiate the quality of our online programs for the future.

[00:19:08] Tij: That’s just awesome. I think those are some great examples that you’ve shared, Susan. It is tremendous to see some really, really creative ways of transforming the physical education space. That was Dr. Susan Aldrich talking about how do you transform digital education on FirstVoice. I hope you would have enjoyed this particular session. We look forward to interacting with Susan again on some other sessions, which we will launch in the next few weeks. Thank you again, Susan. It was wonderful seeing you, and you have a wonderful day.

[00:19:44] Susan: Thank you, Tij, very much. All the best to you and to the team at Firstsource.

[00:19:47] Tij: Thank you.

Stay tuned for our next edition of FirstVoice …

About FirstVoice – Firstsource’s Fireside Chat Series 2022

FirstVoice is a thought leadership series of fireside chats and informal discussions with some of the most fascinating visionaries, entrepreneurs and game-changers reimagining the leading edges of business process innovation and customer experience. These explorations – organic, unscripted and sometimes personal – are dedicated to inspiring new ways of simplifying complex business processes, nurturing richer customer engagement and creating powerful new sources of business value across sectors and industries.


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