How Innovation and the ‘Reimagined’ Classroom Will Change Learning

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The field of higher education is undergoing a revolution. New technologies and new approaches to learning are altering the way educational programs are delivered and are changing the way we learn. But there’s no silver bullet. No single innovative teaching method has become widely promoted or adopted; the traditional lecture hall is still the norm.

In an effort to learn about new, innovative pedagogical approaches, the Wharton SEI Center for Advanced Studies in Management and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), a global provider of specialist higher education and career information and solutions, have partnered together to launch the “Reimagine Education” competition. This global competition is seeking submissions from educators around the world who are willing to describe how they are exploring new ways of teaching, learning and delivering educational content. The most innovative approaches will be considered for awards and monetary prizes.

Knowledge@Wharton sat down with Jerry Wind, director at the SEI Center, and Nunzio Quacquarelli, CEO of QS, to discuss their competition and how education is shifting from the traditional classroom approach to technology-driven methods that tailor learning to an individual’s needs.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

Knowledge@Wharton: For centuries, the traditional model of education focused on teaching. Now efforts are being made to focus on learning. Of all the initiatives going on in different parts of the world, which ones do you find most promising and why?

Jerry Wind: Learning is the essence of education. The increased interest in learning is highly desirable and overdue. We were motivated to launch our global program — “Reimagine Education” — to understand more about all the initiatives being taken around the world to help innovate pedagogical approaches, particularly in higher education. We want to understand what people are doing out there.

Changes in education are driven by huge advances in technology, the pressures related to the increased cost of higher education, and the opportunity that we finally have to customize pedagogical approaches to fit the learning styles of individuals. Generally, there is pressure in business to try to offer customers customized solutions, and this mindset is finally reaching the higher education arena. The world is waking up to the fact that education does not have to be a faculty member standing in front of a class. Instead, we can use technology to try to customize the learning experience and move toward personalized learning to suit different individual needs.

Also, education cannot be based on providing students with a chunk of educational period and then “good bye.” It has to be a continuing, life-long education. For example, the Wharton Fellows Program is essentially a life-long educational program for CEOs and other executive students.

“The world is waking up to the fact that education does not have to be a faculty member standing in front of a class.” –Jerry Wind

Back to your question: “What’s happening that’s exciting?” A lot of exciting things are happening, but they’re not in the typical places like research-based universities. We’re seeing interesting initiatives on the commercial side and within school districts. For example, many companies are popping up that are offering e-learning.

“Reimagine Education” is trying to find out what’s going on around the world in this exciting space [and] encourage others to experiment in education. We hope that through the mere presence of this competition — and our partnership with QS, the world’s leading university ranking service — we’ll be able to attract enough attention and have enough submissions that we will be able to get insight into what creative initiatives are working in the field of innovative education.

Nunzio Quacquarelli: Before I answer this question, let me provide some context about QS. Since 2003-2004, QS has been publishing the QS World University Rankings, which have become a leading ranking system for university performance. Roughly 17 million people view the results every year. These rankings look at four key missions of universities: research quality; employability of graduates; the internationalization of universities in an increasingly global marketplace; and teaching quality and teaching commitment.

We have created a recognized system for comparing university performance. But we at QS have long felt that we have less insight when it comes to teaching commitment and teaching quality. Our ranking system is simply not well adapted to measuring teaching quality. That is precisely why QS is partnering with Wharton to offer this competition, so we can provide greater insight into innovative pedagogies and shine a light on excellence in new methods of delivering higher education.

As an informed observer, I see that institutions around the world are creating very interesting blended models for delivering educational content. They are developing a massive variety of purely on-line educational courses. But I see very little innovation in the traditional classroom. Ultimately, I don’t feel qualified right now to pick out individual education providers that are breaking the mold. I’d rather answer that question after the competition, when we’ve been able to review the submissions and actually identify a short list of entrants who are making progress in various categories.

Knowledge@Wharton: Massive open on-line courses (MOOCs) have captured the imagination of educational institutions all around the world. Do you believe that MOOCs are a supplement or an alternative to traditional education?

Wind: They’re definitely not an alternative to education. Since MOOCs are either free or very close to being free, they can potentially meet the needs of people in remote parts of the world or people who cannot afford traditional higher education. For these people, MOOCs could be an alternative. But in general, MOOCs should be seen as just one more approach to providing education. Leading universities that are involved in MOOCs should be asking themselves, “Are there ways in which we can integrate some of the learning from these MOOCs into our traditional, pedagogical approaches, allowing us to devise new innovative approaches?”

Quacquarelli: There has been a huge debate around the role of MOOCs. At this point in time, they are providing a supplemental resource, both for students inside the higher education system and for candidates outside the system. MOOCs currently are not degree bearing; qualification is an essential part of the higher education promise and delivery. Therefore, I believe that as long as MOOCs are not degree bearing, they will continue to be supplemental.

“As technology improves and the experience improves, then the ability to charge for online education improves as well.” –Nunzio Quacquarelli

Knowledge@Wharton: On-line courses being offered for free from very prestigious educational institutions have very, very low completion rates. Why is this the case? What can be done to increase completion rates?

Wind: I was not surprised when I saw the statistics about low completion rates. You need to build more incentives and motivation into the operation to encourage people to learn. Some people may be very motivated, but many other people may sign up for the course, and then quickly drop it. You can’t expect that people will suddenly sit down and learn just because you offer these courses. Learning is not usually an individual experience; it’s a social, group experience. Educators have to get creative to increase MOOC completion rates. You have to create the right incentives, environment, context, assignments and experience. You have to turn the passive viewing experience into a situation [that is] engaging, motivating [and] encourages further learning.

I’m designing a MOOC course on the future of advertising. We’re spending a lot of time figuring out how to engage the audience. Our assignments will see people take what we’re discussing in class and apply it in the real world, and then come back to report on their work. This is one way to engage the audience.

We hope that through our competition, we’ll learn about other approaches that engage students and lead to higher completion rates.

Quacquarelli: From my perspective, we should ask: “Do we need to increase completion rates?” If you want to increase completion rates, you’d have to create some tests or barriers to entry for candidates to determine their level of commitment to completion. But I’m not sure that’s a desirable goal. If the purpose of a MOOC is to make higher education widely available, then so be it. Let it be available and let people determine themselves whether they will finish the course. I don’t necessarily think low completion rates indicate any kind of failure among MOOCs, since they tend to provide free supplementary education and broader access to higher education content.

Knowledge@Wharton: MOOCs also face challenges related to assessments and scalability. How do you ensure that a MOOC student is really the one who completes the assignments and takes the tests?

Wind: Scalability will depend on how attractive the sessions are and will rely on the audience’s interest in sharing it with others. Viral distribution will be key. In my new course, we’re designing it to have very small chunks of content that create “A-ha” experiences that will encourage the audience to share it with others. We hope that scalability will be driven by audience’s engagement and sharing. The more sharing and buzz we can generate, the more effective it could be.

We have developed the “RAVES Model of Engagement” for the course:

R: Content should be Relevant to our audience, and Respectful of their views.

A: People should be able to do something with the content. It should be Actionable.

V: The course should be Valuable, providing cognitive and emotional benefits to participants.

E: The course should create an Exceptional Experience. We want to make the experience interesting.

S: Stands for Surprising Story.

We’re trying to use these RAVES principles to design the course, which should encourage participants to share the course with others.

The second question on assessment is critical. In my case, I have opinions on assessment that are not shared by the vast majority of faculty around the world. I don’t believe in traditional assessment, which basically measures people’s ability to memorize but do not really measure their ability to understand and apply lessons. Therefore, I give take-home exams where people can review all the material they’ve studied and then demonstrate how they would solve a problem.

For the MOOCs I’m designing, participants will be evaluated through three lenses. Firstly, there will be peer evaluation. For example, students can select examples of advertising that are very effective and very ineffective, they can explain why they believe the ads are either effective or ineffective and then their commentary is posted on the discussion board for their peers to review. The evaluation by peers and the feedback will be very valuable.

Secondly, we want students to “go further.” Don’t just look at ads, create an ad.

Thirdly, we’ll have self evaluation. We’ll ask people to evaluate their work and discuss why it worked, or why it didn’t.

Quacquarelli: I think our competition will highlight interesting attempts at MOOC assessment strategies and scalability. Scalability is extremely important in our competition. The assessment issue is also going to be a significant constraint on the ability of MOOCs to offer degrees to participants because of concerns about fraud and plagiarism.

Knowledge@Wharton: Most MOOCs tend to be completely free. Meanwhile, there’s a cost to producing a MOOC but no cost to the student. Is there a revenue model for MOOCs that can make them financially viable?

Wind: The point you are raising is important. Providing free education is a socially responsible thing to do. But when people receive something for free, they don’t see the value in it. I believe it would be smart to charge a low fee for courses, which demonstrates that the courses have value. The people who cannot afford the small fees should receive fellowships to take the courses for free. But I think some sort of sacrifice should be involved to ensure participants appreciate the value of the courses.

“You have to create the right incentives, environment, context, assignments and experience. You have to turn the passive viewing experience into a situation [that is] engaging, motivating [and] encourages further learning.” –Jerry Wind

Quacquarelli: If the question is, “Can online education be paid for and be viable?” the answer is “yes.” The Internet can successfully deliver education. Improving technology is making the experience better for the students year after year. But there is no doubt that in the early phases of online education, the experience was pretty limited in terms of interaction, both for fellow students and for faculty. But that is changing. As technology improves and the experience improves, then the ability to charge for online education improves as well.

Having said that, I absolutely support classroom learning and blended learning, as a complement to online learning. I was a Wharton student and studied at Cambridge, so I’ve benefited from being surrounded by bright peers and interacting with super faculty. This helped me grow. I remain a supporter of the blended model, where some interaction with peers and faculty is incorporated into programs. However, we may see that technology really does, at some point in the future, replicate the bonding and intense inter-activity that face-to-face learning creates in the traditional world.

Knowledge@Wharton: Aside from MOOCs, many people are talking about the “flipped classroom”, which was popularized by the Khan Academy. The method requires people to watch videos at home, as a substitute for lectures. Then the classroom is used for discussion and problem solving. What potential do you see for this kind of educational model?

Wind: I love it. I think this is probably going to be a major trend. University lecturers could have the option to give students high-quality MOOC lectures to watch at home, and then the regular classroom can become a forum for discussion. I see great potential here. In fact, when I finalize my Future of Advertising MOOC, I definitely plan to use it in my classes.

Quacquarelli: I’d rather not comment on any specific learning models at this point since the competition is now open for submissions. I don’t want to show bias for a certain model.

Knowledge@Wharton: In terms of corporate learning initiatives, what models have you found that create the most engagement with executives and CEOs who are in learning environments?

Wind: I’ll start with my own experience. The Wharton Fellows Program is focused on life-long education and experiential learning. We don’t have any classrooms. Instead, our participants go into leading companies and hear from innovative CEOs and other top executives who discuss the business challenges they face and their strategies for dealing with these challenges. The Fellows who attend these sessions get to engage with management in discussions. This is essentially a live “case study.”

These visits allow our Fellows to understand corporate culture in different companies and observe company dynamics. It’s a totally different, engaging experience. At the end of every program, each participant has to present their plan of action for the company based on what they learned. We’re not giving tests. We’re asking participants to apply what they learned.

Also, I’ve seen companies offer effective education where they link learning to the job. I call it “Just in Time learning,” where companies provide strategies for workers who are in the midst of dealing with difficult business problems. When workers have a problem, they’ll be more receptive to learn and more motivated to sort through the issue. That’s what makes this educational strategy effective, and workers can apply their learning immediately. This can also involve creating corporate social networks, which allow people to interact among themselves and speak with experts, in order to solve problems.

Companies are generally more willing to experiment than universities, especially leading universities. Leading universities may offer MOOCs and tell the world they’re being innovative, but ultimately they just continue offering a traditional classroom experience. The corporate world is more willing to experiment with new ideas and teaching methods, in part, because they always need better knowledge and their businesses are increasingly based on smart ideas and employee engagement.

Quacquarelli: I think there is an extremely vibrant market in private sector e-learning around the world. If you’re looking for a business model for corporate e-learning solutions, it is proven. It is successful. It is profitable.

Knowledge@Wharton: Looking ahead by about 5 to 15 years, what are some of the major disruptions you expect to see in the field of education? What can companies and educational institutions do to prepare for those disruptions?

Wind: We’re living in a time of exponential change. For example, look at the IBM Watson supercomputer and think about how far we’ve come in terms of computing power. Soon, every person will have Watson in their iPhone. Think about the powerful combination of Watson and the human brain. Robotics, artificial intelligence and the ability to have Watson in your hand can really alter education. I believe technology will really change education.

Secondly, I hope technology will allow us to understand and cater to individual learning styles. In the future, I expect every individual will be able to customize their learning experience. For example, visual learners can work with visuals while people who like to work with graphs can work with graphs.

Meanwhile, the leading educational institutions of our time will have the least incentive to change their ways because of continuous student demand for prestigious university degrees. These top-tier universities will need exceptional, courageous leaders to lead the change. Otherwise, there’s the temptation to stick with the status quo since it’s worked so well in the past. But in the rest of the higher education space, I expect fundamental changes. Hopefully some leading research universities will move forward too.

“The corporate world is more willing to experiment with new ideas and teaching methods, in part, because they always need better knowledge….” –Jerry Wind

A good first step would involve abolishing theater-style classrooms with tiered seating. Prevent faculty from standing and lecturing in the traditional way. Create classrooms that are primarily ready for discussion. This will be difficult for universities, in part, because donors like to have their names on these large classrooms. You must have courageous leaders to change this. But whether it is 10 years, 15 years or 20 years away, I believe that education cannot continue the way it is now. It has to be revolutionized. That’s a key motivation behind our “Reimagine Education” project.

Quacquarelli: I think we could see some dramatic changes in the way education is delivered.

For example, leading faculty may start delivering parts of courses to multiple universities and work in teams to deliver courses to multiple universities. Over time, faculty members could gain more brand prestige than their universities. That is an extreme example of how technology could disrupt the marketplace.

But I don’t think powerful university brands will be toppled within my lifetime. The desire to be associated with top-tier universities is very strong and ingrained in our culture. That is what I see when I conduct my QS surveys of employers, academics and prospective students. All three groups are highly aware of, and value, top institutional brands.

So, I think disruption will happen in education. But I don’t think it will match the size, scale and scope that some people are suggesting.

Knowledge@Wharton: What do you both hope to accomplish by partnering together for this competition?

Wind: I was first motivated to look at this area because I was writing a paper on the education of the future. We have to prepare leaders en masse for the changing world and equip them with transformational leadership skills. How are we going to train these leaders? Most of the current higher educational institutions are incapable of doing this. They are not geared to developing leaders for the new world. The conclusion was obvious: current pedagogical approaches are the obstacle.

We created this global competition to try to pull on ‘the wisdom of the crowd’ to learn about different ways to creatively approach education. We’re not asking people to simply send their ideas. We’re not interested in just ideas. We’re interested in experiments and the results of experiments. But an experiment doesn’t have to be successful. If you experimented with a way of providing education and you learned it did not work and you learned why it didn’t work and how you can improve, you could be a winner in our competition. We’re interested in honoring people who are trying to reinvent the pedagogical approaches in higher education and report on their results. That’s my motivation.

We partnered with QS because of their global reach and intimate familiarity with universities around the world.

Quacquarelli:As I mentioned at the beginning, QS is looking to gain more information about institutions that are being innovative, creative and impactful in the delivery of quality teaching. Understanding more about quality teaching will help us identify world-class universities and higher education institutions in our rankings. The competition and the awards will help us with this. We also plan to publish information, not just about the award winners, but about the many institutions that judges will nominate for being interesting and innovative. This will be on a regional and global basis. We hope to shine a light on excellence in innovative teaching around the world.

Knowledge@Wharton: If you had the power and resources to reimagine education in a single instant, what is the first change you would make?

Wind: I would create a learning lab in a university that has space, resources and technology, where mini-Watsons are in the hands of each student and leading technology companies can play a role in the new learning environment. I would use a “flipped classroom” where students are not tested in the traditional way, but rather have to apply the material they learn in the real world. I think such a lab is feasible. Probably the best way to start such a lab is in executive MBA programs or dual-degree programs in management and technology, where the outcome is very tangible. I would start there. If this works, I would start expanding into other areas.

Quacquarelli: I believe educational institutions should draw on expertise from around the world, not just who happens to be sitting in the classroom at a certain point in time. There’s a real opportunity to use technology to draw together leading experts from around the world to contribute to a blended learning environment for post-graduate and research students. This isn’t limited to teaching and learning — it could be relevant for research projects as well. I think that’s truly interesting and pushes the envelope.

Secondly, I believe education should be accessed by anyone on merit, anywhere in the world, irrespective of their ability to pay. MOOCs are providing a great service in this respect. We can use MOOCs to encourage more participation in higher education courses. I think this is a good path that institutions are taking…. Ultimately, I think we’re on the right path. Now I leave it to others to come up with better answers to that question.

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