Digital learning technologies enable students to become better rounded

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Higher education 20 years ago wouldn’t recognize itself today. MOOCs, digital badges, social media and other technologies are playing increasingly larger roles in colleges and universities across the country — and Penn State is no exception.

The rise of online learning and new digital technologies are forcing faculty to think about pedagogy in new and innovative ways — both in the virtual and on-campus classroom. Even the way students earn their degrees is being reconsidered from new perspectives.

“This is a pivotal point in the realm of higher education,” said Kyle Peck, co-director of the Center for Online Innovation in Learning (COIL) at Penn State. “Faculty are looking at what actually goes into earning a degree. Instead of looking at classes as a whole, we can start considering micro-credentialing and badges.”

Currently part of a pilot program at Penn State, digital badges are much like an online version of the iron-on badges earned in scout troops. They serve as proof of a skill learned.

For example, the Penn State University Libraries were ranked eighth among North American research libraries last fall. Students that go through training on library research methods could receive a badge to recognize that experience.

Once earned, badges can be listed on a student’s resume or social media profiles and would link to a list of what qualified the student for the badge and to portfolio samples that illustrate the skill.

Kyle Bowen, director of Education Technology Services, says digital badges can help capture the nuances of learning that can get lost when simply looking at a college transcript.

“Badges are evidence of something learned,” Bowen said. “If a student takes a chemistry course taught by a Nobel Prize winner, there’s an opportunity there for a unique learning experience. A badge could be a way to recognize that.”

Chris Gamrat, an instructional designer in the College of Information Science and Technologies (IST), is creating a proposal for a pilot for IST that will explore various uses of digital badges.

“We’re hoping that badges will eventually be a way to provide both professional development to alumni and be a way to give credit for accomplishments students aren’t currently receiving a grade for,” Gamrat said.

The massive open online course (MOOC) — also usually offered without course credit — is another technology trend trying to find its footing in higher education. Penn State released its first five last year on the popular platform Coursera, and additional MOOCs are being planned for the future.

One of them, being released by the College of the Liberal Arts and titled “Presumed Innocent? Social Science and Wrongful Conviction,” also will run on Coursera but will be the first to experiment with offering an optional track for earning college credit.

“We are interested in exploring the potential to deliver a high-quality academic experience on a large scale for students seeking credit, while simultaneously providing an open learning experience to a general audience,” explained Christopher Long, associate dean for graduate and undergraduate education.

The course, which will explore why and how wrongful convictions occur in the judicial system from a social scientist’s perspective, will be open to University students and the public with two track options. The free track will function much like Penn State’s previous MOOCs, while the for-credit portion will require a heavier workload and offer instructor and TA feedback and assessment on completed work in exchange for a fee less than that for an average college course.

The course’s students will have the opportunity to interact with the diverse audience that MOOCs attract, which bring together more varied backgrounds and points of view than courses catering to traditional students.

One common misconception about MOOCs is that the sheer number of students enrolled — more than 100,000 in some courses — make it impossible to form meaningful relationships between students and faculty, but Anna Divinsky says that isn’t true. Divinsky, lead faculty in the digital arts arts certificate program at Penn State, led a MOOC in May 2013 (Introduction to Art: Concepts & Techniques) that attracted approximately 60,000 students.

“I was pleasantly surprised by how close I felt to my MOOC students,” she said. “Many students were very outspoken, reaching out not just to each other but to me, as well.”

Divinsky says that students forged strong connections with each other, organizing into their own groups according to age, language, experience level and other demographics. But that doesn’t mean they only socialized within those groups.

“We had students from almost every age group,” Divinsky said. “We had everyone from adult learners to children as young as ten or eleven who took the class with their parents. Seeing the critiques exchanged between these age gaps was very interesting.”

Her students communicated in a variety of ways. They created discussions on the MOOC’s message boards, and also communicated with Divinsky and her teaching assistant via social media outlets like Facebook, Flickr and Twitter, transforming the way Divinsky thinks about connecting with her students.

“It seemed like social media gave the students an opportunity to create smaller, more intimate relationships within a course of about 60,000 people,” Divinsky said. “It inspired me to bring a social media aspect to my other, non-MOOC course.”

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