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Altered Culture: Digital Opportunities

By J. Elizabeth Clark, professor of English, LaGuardia Community College

“What is it that is still distinctive that colleges and universities do in a world where colleges and universities no longer have a monopoly on learning?” With this question, thinking about life in a digital age where information is often available at our fingertips, Randy Bass opened the panel “The Life of Signature Student Work in the Emerging Digital Learning Environment, as an inquiry into how higher education may change over the next fifteen to twenty years.

Bass focused on the changing definitions of the university, positing that by 2025 there will be two kinds of learning that universities will do well: mentored learning and an arc of learning.

Jennifer Ebbeler showed the importance of collaboratively designing learning experiences for signature work. For example, large online courses benefit from a team-based approach including a faculty lead, project managers, technologists, content creators, assessment specialists, and instructional designers. Ebbeler shared her work at University of Texas in a Classics course as she embraced this approach to collaborative course design. The idea of carefully crafting a course experience for students is a significant shift away from “my course” to shared learning with “our course.” These new learning experiences demand that faculty define their relationship to the classroom, to students, to other faculty, to staff at the university, and to course content in new ways. Faculty do not "deliver content"--they lead students through questions as they encounter the material. This leads students into self-regulated learning as they move through the content and frames the role of instructor as mentor.

Rebecca Frost Davis focused on the life cycle of signature student work and how this kind of learning needs to be scaffolded over time. Students need opportunities to begin to create signature work in the emerging digital learning ecosystem. Students need to practice how to learn in a new educational ecosystem. Students begin by practicing how to build learning networks, performing critical reading through social annotation, and using data. Then they contribute to existing digital learning resources. Later, they become content creators.

As part of this process, students need to practice how to learn and build digital resources, not just consume them. They need to practice and gain fluency with learning networks that they create over time as part of the global connected classroom. Students build signature work that integrates what they have learned from their coursework and other connected learning experiences.

To support this kind of work, the traditional academic structure of the course must change. Barriers for a “course” will dissolve and boundaries will blur. Students may work with faculty in ongoing learning projects or work with a community or intercampus partnership that extends the boundaries of the classroom. Learning won’t (and shouldn't) happen in one course alone. However, to get to this point, we need to model this kind of learning for students: both by scaffolding these learning experiences in our courses and by showing them what this kind of digitally informed general education will look like.

Randy Bass pulled this arc of learning together, focusing on what this new ecosystem looks like. The life cycle of signature student work uses high-impact practices to help students make learning visible. Signature work is not really about the work, per se--it’s about what it takes to make that work happen. Signature work embodies connection, empowerment, purpose, agency, and impact. This work is accompanied by careful learning design. Bass suggests that we should be focused on high-impact integrative curricula. All of this together--practicing self-authorship; working on unscripted problems; reflecting and making sense of their experiences; practicing social learning; connecting individual purpose to larger communities; and integrating, interpreting, and acting on individual learning analytic--is where we’re headed.