Schmidt lecturer predicts higher ed’s future: Lifelong, tech-based learning instead of 4 years

UT-Arlington’s Siemens says professors will track student engagement, students will take ‘learner profiles’ with them

From left, retired Navy Capt. Raymond P. Schmidt, Roberta R. Schmidt, Associate Chair for Computer Science Doug Schmidt and Learning Innovation and Networked Knowledge Research Lab Executive Director George Siemens. (Heidi Hall/Vanderbilt University)

We know about the clicker – a handheld device that lets professors pose a question and learn almost instantly how many students understand the material.

Education researcher and MOOC pioneer George Siemens knows what comes after the clicker.

He’s predicting a data-rich environment where students wear new devices – or simply the Fitbits and Apple Watches they already own – conveying information about whether they’re engaged, anxious or bored. Professors will use eye-tracking technology to know whether they’re looking at the screen up front or the smartphone in their laps.

Siemens, here Wednesday for the Schmidt Family Annual Educational Technologies Lectureship, is executive director of the Learning Innovation and Networked Knowledge Research Lab at the University of Texas, Arlington, but his grad students work in schools across the U.S.

With today’s technology, why shouldn’t they? Siemens contends.

“We have to do away with the idea of geographically combined research labs,” he told his audience at Vanderbilt University School of Engineering. “You’ll find this hard to believe, but not everybody wants to come to Texas.”

In a lecture titled The Future of Learning: Digital, Data-Driven, and Distributed that was by turns humorous and visionary, Siemens outlined a new kind of higher education where the 18-to-22-year-old student attending a university for four years is virtually nonexistent. Even now, only 50 percent of university students attend school full-time, and the average age for new students is rising.

“More students with more varied backgrounds are entering,” Siemens said. “At the same time, there is a massive reduction in state support of public education across the board, from 62 percent of costs in 2005 to 51 percent in 2014.

“If you don’t have an education, the doors of opportunity are getting smaller and smaller.”

Future students will travel in and out of educational systems their entire lives, reinventing themselves as the career market or their changing interests prompt them, he predicts.

A “learner profile” or “personal learning graph” will follow them throughout their working years, keeping track of knowledge and skills acquired both in classrooms and on the job. When they return to universities for more classes, admissions employees will personalize a course of study that gets them where they want to go quickly instead of issuing standardized schedules.

And students will learn in a combination of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and in person, depending on what they want and need.

He called for more use of big data and neuroscience to adapt curriculum to the way people learn, while warning that one size will never fit all when it comes to education, and not everything with the title “neuroscience” or “brain-based” slapped on it is meaningful.

“Have you heard that phrase ‘brain-based learning?’” he said. “You all are engaged in butt-based sitting right now.”

The lectureship’s focus is to explore advances in digital learning and how those apply in practice. Doug Schmidt, associate chair for computer science and professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and his parents, retired Navy Capt. Raymond P. Schmidt and Roberta R. Schmidt, created the lectureship.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
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