Setting the Scene: The Future University Experience

Ubiquitous wireless connectivity now affords unprecedented opportunities to collect, organise, and analyse large repositories of information and resources where all forms of media are instantly accessible through any portable device. Using such devices, university students gain access to a rich array of resources that assist them to solve a problem, to earn a chosen qualification, or to resolve an administrative need. 24/7 personal information assistants that scan and locate resources held in libraries and repositories located anywhere in the world support students to assume ownership of his/her own learning pathways.

Simultaneously, electronic access to their institutional databases provide the convenience of updating student records, accessing assessment and progress reports, updating their ePortfolio, arranging appointments with counsellors and doctors, organising scholarships and applying for financial support, and paying fees for services as the need arises. The university environment in 2015 has been shaped by the need to seamlessly blend students’ learning experiences with student support and administration services so that resolving any aspect of their daily needs is achieved through a common, always available interface.

Advanced intelligent technologies deliver accurate voice recognition, ‘intelligent’ interactive video screens, and seamless learning resource portability and access capabilities. Online learning activities and instructions are fully interactive, time and place independent, and take full advantage of the available web technologies. Streaming videos display a live lecture presented in a traditional setting that is supplemented by an automatic computer generated response system that allows immediate online inquiry and provides constructive feedback. As they reorganise and manipulate the delivered teaching materials, students’ understanding of what they are learning is interactively enhanced. Once recorded, lectures are automatically hyperlinked, indexed, and stored as a set of reusable resources.

Online interactions between students and lecturers are considered essential for learning. Students have ready access to resource databases as they seek to answer questions while lecturers provide quality feedback and responses in real time. Students are permitted to try out strategically varied learning activities during which they are given immediate feedback on what they are doing. The convenience of ubiquitous connectivity permits just-in-time access to a diversity of resources that contain the views and work of ‘experts’ in every known field of inquiry. Sophisticated voice recognition software enables students to interact orally with stored resources.

The Web 3.0 (intelligent) online technologies have all but replaced the need to regularly meet in person. Individuals with similar interests can meet to discuss and share knowledge. This shared knowledge extends well beyond the individuals located within each campus. Online networked groups typically process knowledge as well as seek to discover and construct knowledge. Thus, group-based decision-making and problem solving are viewed as important element of achieving productive outcomes.

As a consequence, team-based learning (physical and virtual) is highly valued. Online teams see and hear each other in real-time in “virtual” classrooms that bring together heterogeneous groups, each with complementary yet diverse skills. All discussions are automatically recorded and transcribed into written text, thus freeing students to concentrate on discussions without the interruption of typing into a mobile device.

The design of all learning materials (learningware) extends beyond traditional textbooks in that it is supplemented with additional learning activities: interactive simulations that can be actively manipulated to provide engaging and challenging tasks, and supply instant feedback on performance. The learningware engages the full range of the human senses through multimedia technology (for example, visual examples of concepts, news clips, or conversations that can be reviewed as many times as desired), all of which interactively encourage students to make learning decisions and reflect on those decisions. The new learningware is designed to facilitate active, independent learning.

The accepted learning strategy is to accommodate individual learning preferences and deliver teaching solutions using all available modes. Learners interact with course content that adapts to their personal learning styles. All content used in degree courses and units are fully integrated and interactivity among all courses and programmes is organised to facilitate intuitive navigation.

Alongside the use of advanced learning materials, other learning opportunities on offer include discovery laboratories (in-class and web-based); team/group activities; individual and group review workshops (live and virtual); small-group study sessions; interactive videos; remedial / prerequisite / procedure training modules; access to contacts for study groups; oral and written presentations; group-based problem-solving assignments (graded by teaching assistants peers, or self-graded); and individual and group projects. Students can choose to conduct any of these activities on campus or online.

To achieve a specific learning objective, students may choose to hear and discuss an example raised during a lecture; view and read about a real world example in an annotated video presentation; locate and examine an example in a group problem-solving session, or generate an example through a group project. They may elect to practice working with a concept in an online data analysis workshop, in a tailored web-based activity, a facilitated study session or by explaining it to others in an informal review session. All the while, an artificial-intelligence program generates individualised assessments, study plans, and learning activities. Through sophisticated modelling of each student’s “knowledge state” the program focuses exactly on what each student is most ready to learn at a given moment.

Through an ongoing programme of research and evaluation of all students’ activities, the advantages of continuous assessment include an increase in the time that students spend on study, a higher level of familiarity with test materials, ease of comfort with the testing process, and provision of feedback on progress through the ability to instantly see the results of their efforts. All tests and assignments are now completed electronically, thus enabling the continual analysis of their progress and results using artificial intelligence software programs.

Assessing students’ understanding of concepts has become highly effective in detecting areas in which students are not grasping important concepts, thereby enabling corrective action to be administered in a timely manner, in turn preparing students for higher-level learning activities. Periodic mastery testing helps students to keep pace with readings and to recognise gaps in their understanding, and promotes effective understanding of the content. Threading assessment continuously throughout a course also obviates the risk of cheating.

Students have become comfortable with learning from one another. The ongoing research programme has shown that students working online take on the role of “teacher” more readily than students in traditional settings. This not only has obvious implications for the content design and mode of instruction, but also cultivates a model of learning communities that is invaluable once they enter the workplace. Knowledge-management software is employed to structure a scenario in which students are encouraged to contact other students who recently encountered and overcame similar problems.

Integration with Student Services

From a student services perspective, wirelessly connected learning environments provide enormous information capturing potential as every action performed by students and faculty members is recoverable and therefore useful for analysis. Standard sources of information include responses to online surveys of student satisfaction and perceptions, and tracking learner behaviour while online (for example, on what learning points do students spend the most time? What is the sequence and pattern of interest?). Transactional data on student registrations, withdrawals, and completions; and interaction and outcome data generated from baseline assessments, exercises, and exams have elicited greater interest by institutions in information tracking and reporting to gain deeper insights into organisational capabilities, operational effectiveness, as well as the quality of learning that is provided.

To promote commitment to follow-through and to enable efficient tracking of progress, students enter into an online “contract” that captures their choice of learning preferences and delivery modes at the beginning of each course of study. Each student is initially given a set of default study options generated by software to match their choices and demonstrated competencies. Each set of options can be updated at any time to accord with students’ changing needs. The completed contract provides a detailed listing of what is to be accomplished, how the learning objectives relate to the course outcomes, and when each assessment task must be handed in. Based on their experiences of the initial course and the feedback obtained from peers who have completed that course, students may decide to make changes in their contracts for subsequent courses.

Using technology to manage course administration and record keeping, monitor weekly progress, and diagnose and address learning deficiencies early has resulted in lower failure and withdrawal rates. Software monitoring programs analyse individual student’s progress and offer a variety of learning activities and tailored learning strategies. If a student shows a deficiency in a quiz activity, the software suggests an alternate approach to achieving the targeted objective. In one case, a student may be directed to a study session covering the topic involved. In a second instance, a student may be directed to an activity that was not included in the original assignment.

Students can now plan their work on a particular module to fit their daily schedules. Flexibility in learning is maximised as the course material matches their learning preferences and time commitments while providing sufficient structure to progress towards the required learning goals. Electronic timetables not only remind students of their scheduled classes, but also permit selection from a range of delivery options that may better accommodate unexpected changes in their needs.

Linking students to a defined learning plan with specific mastery components and milestones of achievement and creating early alert intervention systems have become critical components of university course design. Students who fall behind and feel compelled to withdraw have the option of undertaking additional learning activities to demonstrate the required proficiency and so avoid losing valuable credit points. Analysis of previous assessment data on withdrawals has shown that a reduction by ¼ of course repetitions has opened up an additional 200 student enrolments per year.

In monitoring the quality and effectiveness of academic programmes in relation to the strengths and weaknesses of the materials and services provided, analysis of student learning outcomes and student satisfaction on their experiences at the institution is continuously updated and reported. This information is highly valued by staff and students. Comprehensive details of students’ capabilities and competencies in course specified outcomes are automatically recorded and stored in personal electronic portfolios and simultaneously reported to staff to enable effective monitoring of student progress.

Each portfolio is private and student controlled to permit sharing of exemplary work or to deliver presentations that are created and customised by students. Personal files and resources are stored, organised, and readily accessed using wirelessly connected repositories. A work file can be linked to multiple student portfolios. Editing a file updates every portfolio that references the file, making portfolio upkeep less time consuming. These portfolios are commonly used to present assignment work and to prepare resumes.

New Learning Spaces

The combined effect of the hardware and software technologies available in 2015 on the process and quality of learning, and the management of institutional staff and students services is that both are now viewed as one and the same – an integral part everyday student work, life, and the university organisation that serves their needs.

The preceding pages describe how students and faculty may engage in learning practices that are leveraged by information and communications technologies (ICT), a scenario that requires either improving current practices or creating new ones. However, the underlying theme remains unchanged: cultivating learning practices consistent with learning theory that is aligned with the habits and expectations of students and staff who have known only ICT all their lives.

The scenarios suggest the importance of integrating all learning spaces, formal and informal. For most higher education institutions, the lecture room will not disappear; the challenge is reappraise the purpose and delivery of lectures, one that enables students and faculty to engage in enlivened, more interactive experiences. If the lecture theatre is integrated with other spaces—physically as well as virtually, participants will be able to sustain the momentum generated during a class session into other learning contexts or to the hallway, the courtyard, the grassed quadrangle, the train ride home, or even the virtual world. The goal is not to do away with the traditional classroom, but rather to reinvent and to integrate it with the other learning spaces, moving toward an unbounded, ubiquitous learning experience