Professor Randall Bass Interview: Education, Technology, and Online Learning

By Angela Hart

On January 27, 2016, Randall Bass, Georgetown University Professor & Vice Provost for Education, sat down with second-year CCT graduate student Angela Hart to discuss education, technology, and online learning. Professor Randall Bass and his colleague Professor Bret Eynon recently completed their piece Open and Integrative: Designing Liberal Education for the New Digital Ecosystem. Professor Bass elaborated on their research and findings. 

In your piece, Open and Integrative, you coined the phrase “digital ecosystem.” Can you elaborate upon this for eM&P readers?

‘Digital Ecosystem’ and I don’t necessarily claim to be coined it, I’m sure other people have used it; we just have used this term ‘digital ecosystem’ to try to focus the conversation about the role of technology and education away from thinking about specific tools or specific platforms or applications. And, instead, to begin the conversation about how technology might influence education with just thinking about “What is this whole ecosystem that has changed our lives?” that, you know, whether it’s looking things up on your iPhone or communications or online communities or the data that you get from your FitBit. All of that is now flowing together in various kinds of ways and I can describe what I think are some of the cellular features of the ecosystem and I can tell you more about that in a minute. But I think the key idea of shifting to thinking about the digital ecosystem is to first understand that education and formal learning sits in a much larger ecosystem of how we learn. And, of course, that’s always been the case but it’s far more ubiquitous, far more fluid, the boundaries between formal education and formal education are more porous than ever so trying to understand the potentiality of school in the context of this larger digital ecosystem seems like the most important place to be in.

Why hasn’t the digital ecosystem had an impact on education up until this point?

Well, I think that’s a complex question. We make the assumption in our piece although this ecosystem has changed the way we learn outside of school, profoundly, I think, it has had less effect on formal education than it has on many other aspects of our lives. And I would say that there’s at least a couple of really cellular reasons for this: One is that higher education, for many good reasons, as well as some that are merely circumstantial, is highly resistant to rapid change – and I truly do not mean that as a critique. I think that that’s one of the profound strengths of higher education is that it understands itself to be a steward of the past as it’s understood in the present; it’s a steward of the disciplines, it’s a steward of great ideas, it’s a steward of profound questions. And it’s also a highly decentralized system of interdependencies. So it’s very difficult to change it from one central source; it’s not a company, it’s not a government, you can’t just make a decision when it comes top down. And, again, mostly to good effect but it also makes it very resistant to change. But, the other thing I think that the reason is that – at its best – there is something about the teaching-learning exchange that in an environment where it happens at its best – say in a face-to-face environment – feels like it can’t be hugely improved upon. You know, it’s like people have said, “No matter how good technology gets, it still takes as long to play a Beethoven quintet now as it did 150 years ago.” Right? Like all of the technology in the world including the technology that could mean you could build better instruments, won’t speed up the Beethoven quintet. So I think there’s a piece of ‘what education is’ is that it’s about something that feels so profoundly human and – I don’t want to say unimproveable – but there’s something that just can’t be automated, can’t be scaled, etc. So at its best we resist the impact that technology has had in lots of other places that you can speed things up, you can do it more efficiently, you can scale it, you can automate it, etc. So I think that’s why it hasn’t had – both of  those things is good reasons is why I think it hasn’t had a profound effect on the way we teach and learn because for technology to truly improve teaching and learning, we have to do it very thoughtfully; it has to be done very complexly.

Do you think that there is a difference between private and public in terms of education, whether it’s a private or public college or high school?

Oh, absolutely, and I think then that is what’s happening is that the scary thing is that so now what’s happening is that, you know, we’re seeing lots of uses of technology to scale and make more efficient, and automate whole areas of education and those are largely in the non-privileged environments like public spaces, etc. And I think one concern is that there’s tremendous opportunity there but if it’s done without this larger sense, one of the purposes of education, then it merely becomes about productivity. And one of the dangers, I think, is that technology can be used to scale and automate things; and, increasingly to do that in what people call ‘smart ways’ by using data and alga rhythms and so-called personalized and purchased learning – many of those are really great opportunities we can talk about those – but in terms of where the moneyed investment is, it’s far easier to monetize or to commodify certain narrower dimensions of technology and learning than others and, I think, in the end we believe, ultimately, in a kind of whole-person integrative approach to education that is what education is at its totality. Much of that – there’s not a lot of money in that – there’s not a lot of commoditizement to be made in that sphere – and it’s all to be made in this narrower sphere. Much of what goes on in this narrower sphere can be put in the service of this more integrative notion where they need to be connected and that’s very much where our argument is in the piece opening being integrated but, just by itself, I think there’s a real fear that merely scaling and automating will diminish what we think of as real learning. And so I think that’s also one of the reasons that there’s some resistance because the push for the use of technology has often been at levels that seem very in swift with what the most thoughtful teachers think is the essence of teaching.

Do you think there are any concerns about online learning, someone receiving a degree entirely online versus human interaction?

I think it depends what it is you’re claiming for the degree. I think, you know, there’s a lot of really high quality online degree programs out there. In terms of an entirely online bachelor’s degree, because we make a claim for the bachelor’s degree as having and signifying a certain full, I’ll use a kind of Jesuit term here, full-formational human being as well as you can do stuff; you can read, you can write, the quality of stuff, you know something about some major – I think because we make that claim for the bachelor’s degree, it seems hard to imagine that a hundred percent of that could be done online. I think many important pieces of it can be done online. I think online learning could enhance, actually, much of what happens learning face-to-face but it’s hard to imagine for me an entire bachelor’s degree that does that. But I know that there are old degrees that are out there and I think there are ways in which online learning helps a very diverse population complete a bachelor’s degree or make it possible to do that but I believe that there have to be some parts of that that are about community, about interaction, about working in really unscripted and uncertain situations and that to me is kind of the essence of what a liberal education is and it’s hard to imagine getting all the training and mentorship and experience around unscripted problems solely in an online environment…Well, and I think also, a part of it is, is that we have yet to really optimize our tools for a kind of online learning so, for example, there’s this new experimental university known as Minerva University, which you’ve probably heard of; one of the most important features of their whole educational model because their faculty do all their teaching in an online environment even though the students are living in a residential environment. They started with a platform that was absolutely created to simulate a seminar environment. So there are eighteen students in a class, twenty students, maybe, everybody’s in a window that’s visible at all times; there’s ways to raise your hand; the whole thing’s being recorded; the faculty member can go over each student’s individual in-class performance through re-watching segments of the course – I mean, I know some of this, maybe, it probably gets some people kind of creeped out...but it’s very thoughtful. And, but, they have a platform – they said, “If we were going to create a technology that was as close as possible and even had some additional advantages to people sitting around a seminar table, what would that look like?” And that’s really different from, you know, say, a learning-management system, you know, where, I don’t know what model that’s built out of but that paradigm is not a seminar of seven people sitting around.

Is it similar to Blackboard?

Right! So what we have, though, so just like yesterday, we were closed because of snow and we were conducting our class. We have a dozen students and we were conducting it in a program called Zoom, and myself, my co-instructor, who’s in Ohio, my two T.A.’s were online, and the older students serve as Peer Mentors, and then all the students. But I still couldn’t see every student at once. I could see like the people who were speaking. People who wanted to raise their hand, it was done somewhere else and, you know, it was challenging to get a really good exchange going. I mean we made good use of it; it was better than skipping class and we all connected – it’s early in the semester – but it was not there yet. So I think it’s also hard to pass total judgment on online learning really because our tools are in a very primitive state. I mean if you just imagine – they would be better in a hundred years – I think. They will be more different in a hundred years than our classrooms will look in a hundred years because our classrooms look pretty much look like they did a hundred years ago or at least many of them do.

In general, you and your colleague seem to take the stance that education needs to be ‘rebundled’ using networks and adaptive systems. Can you elaborate on this thought?

So we used the word rebundled not the most beautiful word but we use it, specifically, to kind of to speak back to the unbundlers so there’s this growing argument that technology will allow us to unbundle higher education the way it’s disrupted music and journalism, etc. And there’s also this notion that the unbundling of higher education is not only inevitable but that it actually is equitable; that it allows us to get education to a much larger reach of students, people can go to school anywhere, they can only take the things that help them get a targeted credential that allows them to get a well-paying job, that they don’t waste time taking a lot of requirements they don’t understand, they can create these streamlined pathways, they can take ownership of their education and go to different providers – so this is the unbundling argument and, thus far, it has been kind of a two-term argument. The unbundlers, on the one hand, in traditional universities who sort of stand for a broken model that’s stuck in some unchanging environment which is, of course, not true that universities change all the time. So we use rebundling as a way to essentially breach those two and to say really what we need to do is – we need to take the best of the technological capacities from the unbundling world. The ability to create modular-granular learning and analytics-driven adaptive programs; different kinds of analytic systems that help track people’s progress and let students see where they are in terms of degree; there’s all kinds of things that we would consider part of this disaggregative-modular world and put it in the service of a more integrative view. So we think of that as rebundling because, maybe, that every degree doesn’t have to be four years; every degree doesn’t have to look like it’s looked, maybe, all courses don’t need to be one-size fits all; it doesn’t have to be fifteen weeks, three-credit courses, that there’s alternative ways to get credit, etc. But the rebundling is essentially saying, “How can we take a more flexible model of education but have it be held together by a vision of learning that respects the development of a whole person and the kind of depth and sort of ethical inquiry that universities stand for?” so how can we put those two things together and that’s what we mean by rebundling.

I really like that approach. It takes the person’s desires into account and how the person will feel and interact. That approach is very thoughtful.

Well, and yet – so definitely it’s about what it is that the person needs – and this is especially true as you’ve pointed out with what is called the new majority of students, and students who have complicated lives, and often need to come catch up in their schooling, and sometimes have families, and jobs, and so trying to shape education around their complicated lives is very different than an 18-20 year old who has the privilege of coming to a place like Georgetown. On the other hand, part of what the obligation of education is, is to open up for people what we think is good for their development that they might not even know about. So, in some ways, it’s a back and forth between shaping to your needs than helping you understand horizons around your needs that you couldn’t possibly understand. So that’s part of our obligation is to figure it out – that – and then, I guess, the other piece of that is that I think part of this vision of education is an ethical vision of learning that it’s not just about individual skills and going out into the marketplace; what it means to be educated is to – as some people have put it – move into and through yourself to other people. To understand that as Don Howard, President of Mitsubishi, and national figure of idea of well being says, “Knowing always takes an object, knowing is always relational,” and really one of the most profound responsibilities of a university is helping individuals understand how knowledge is always about relating to other things and, especially, relating to other people. So it’s a balance between personalization of learning and understanding that what it means to really educate someone is to help them see a larger horizon than just themselves.

According to your piece, we have the opportunity to ‘recenter’ higher education. How would this best be achieved?

Well, I think, first of all, the same thing is true with rebundling; it will look different at every institution, right? It’ll look different at different types of institutions so how it’s going to look at Georgetown is going to look probably on the surface more like polishing, tweaking, incrementally revising the system; how it’s going to look at a community college or state university, etc., could look really different. And, then, each school in each of those categories will have their own sort of local variation so it’s going to look different in all those places. I think there’s a couple of things that are features of this rebundling and recentering: One is, I believe, people finding ways to create some closer connections between the curriculum and the co-curriculum or between classroom learning and learning that goes on outside the classroom. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be lots of classes that are just theoretical or actual between faculty and students, and it doesn’t mean that there isn’t some co-curriculum that should stay out of the co-curriculum. But there are some really key bridges that can be made much better – undergraduate research, study abroad, some kinds of internships, community-based research finding ways to connect students to faculty-led inquiry – so part of the recentering is trying to make the most of those connections. I think part of the recentering is also taking some of the large introductory courses – sometimes called the commodity courses – those 20% of courses that have 80% of the FTE’s mostly at the introductory level – and thinking about how to make them the best, most effective, introductions to inquiry and higher-order thinking they can be and to do that there is a lot of adaptive technologies that can be deployed in that depending on the field. So part of recentering means that if you’re teaching an introduction to something, that you’re doing it in a way that is most effective, most tied to the local university, has the highest impact on students, helps students get to higher-worth thinking as quickly as possible. And then I think the recentering also may be that people will start to think about how can students craft, have even more say in how they craft their own pathways through the institution. I don’t know what the future of majors and minors will be but I’m going to expect that the ability to customize your pathway and to be able to see more information to do that customization – ways to do that – will only be on the increase.

In your opening chapter, The Digital Challenge, you noted that the digital environment is characterized by an abundance of information and that this occurs when data and algorithms control searches. I thought this notion was reminiscent of Professor Matthew Hindman’s Googlearchy, which is the “rule of the most heavily linked.” Is it helping or is it hurting education?

Well, I think, this is one of those areas that is profoundly shaping our entire existence as it is learning. You know, people like Pariser talks about ‘filter bubbles’ and how increasingly our, which is partially, the whole Googlearchy increasing what we see is a version of the world that’s shaped by our movement through the world and so it’s a very egocentric in a kind of a valued neutral sense but, and for the most part, we love it! I mean if I’m doing a google search and the first three hits are exactly what I was looking for – yeah, you know, I’ll take that! But it also has many dangers in it; it means that in many ways that even though we have a global instantaneous access to information, in some ways our worlds are getting smaller and not bigger. So I think that the most important thing we can think about is just “How is this now almost a kind of rhetorical environment?” If you think about the history of a liberal education, a huge part of the tradition of what it means to be ‘liberally educated’ – what it meant to be a liberated individual through learning – was that you were free from false reasoning, you were free from single perspectives, you understood how to ask questions about assumptions and biases – that – you were free from your own ignorance. I think one additional dimension we need to take on in this current ecosystem is “How can we be free, how can we stand with some critical distance from the digital environment, which is informing us every day? Shouldn’t us understanding how alga rhythms work and the biases of alga rhythms, who has our data, how we can use data to better empower ourselves, shouldn’t that become part of what we now even mean by being really educated?” I think that we have an obligation to imagine even how you’re teaching to that directly in the university setting that that is now a new 21st Century layer of what it means to be liberated from the persuasive environment around us.

William Deresiewicz’s book “Excellent Sheep,” examines the lack of creativity instilled within students, creating a generation of students who are ingrained with what school boards believe is key information and key information alone. Do you think the integration of technology can help ease this concern?

Oh! Well, I don’t think technology alone can do all those things except to compute and calculate. Well, I think that trying to begin in a place where we ask anew – what we mean by certain integrative education, what we mean educating the whole person – serves both the issue that he’s addressing which is really focused at kind of the elite pipeline or the hyper achiever pipeline as well as I think a question of “How do you imagine a liberal education quite equitably in a very democratic sense?” all the way up that chain I think it helps me frame the conversation to say that what we are trying to create is a new way of imagining how to educate the whole personhow to educate for well being, how to educate for flourishing – a term that we’re using in our class – I remember actually taking this up as our central question which is the challenge of educating for sort of formation, well being, and what we’re calling, talking about, authenticity – how to help people learn to understand our own sense of worth, to think about a sense of purpose, to help restore purpose to the core of education, so I think that’s what we need to do. I think the course that we’re teaching is on wicked problems is important. 

What course is this?

It’s a course called The Future of the University as a Design Problem and this semester we’ve taken up this question of education as a wicked problem and, specifically, the question that we’re taking up is the challenge of educating for purpose, well being, and authenticity so it’s very much trying to speak to his concerns that we’ve emptied out the heart of education of its actual content. You know, I think it’s very – you know, it’s a wicked problem – because I think a lot of what he, some of what he is concerned about I think feels to us like an expansion of a liberal education: he talks about ideas like teaching people about creativity, and leadership, and service is all part of the kind of neoliberal symptoms of the decline of education whereas I would consider all three of those things as potentially very rich. I agree with him that if they’re emptied of content, if everything is about a box-to-be-checked, something to be put on a resume, chips to be collected by the privilege so they can have a better chance of getting into an elite school then I agree with him those are empty. I think that also to come back to our piece, Open and Integrative, the tension is whether you have a fundamentally disintegrated view of education or an integrative one. And, I think, even at the elite level, a part of William Deresiewicz’s concern is that everything is merely about aggregation and accumulation; it’s just more and more what someone else has called the ‘arms race of hyper-achievement’ as opposed to helping in every way students really focus on the essence of slowing down and asking questions and examining purpose. But, I think getting back to that, or getting to that place, is not a simple question.

One of the key principles that political scientists operate under is the fact that schools teach transferable skills. Do you think certain technological innovations can lend itself to all sort of courses such as civic education?

Oh, I think technology can play a huge role in all of that and I think it can play a huge role both in helping students develop certain kinds of skills but, also, in terms of civic education I think Mayor Gardner Campbell just published an article in an internet cause called Network Learning as Experiential Learning in which he argues both that network learning is a form of experiential learning but, also, in many ways network learning is becoming a foundation for almost all kinds of experiential learning like just understanding that how to be effective and get anything done in the world requires building networks and collaborations and understanding how to get information and to find the sources to connect sources and so on. So I think that technology can play a very profound role. I think the mistake is when we think technology – that the solution to anything that begins with technology – because there is almost nothing in which that is the case – almost nothing – and certainly that can’t possibly be the case with something so complex and developmental as education.

On your website, you had a blog article about “The Value of E-Portfolios,” can you elaborate upon their significance?

I worked on e-portfolios in a couple of different ways including as part of a very large national project called Connect-to-Learning where we worked with twenty-three institutions of all different kinds and looking at the impact of e-portfolios especially when well-deployed and thoughtful institutions in wide ways. So, at their best, e-portfolios can be a place where students can connect all the various parts of their learning together so they can bring together their experience courses with their experience outside the classroom, with internships, etc. They can use portfolios to create a narrative of who they see themselves as – as a learner, as someone in the world, and also where they’re going – how they want to present themselves in the world. So these highly-integrative spaces and they can also be very powerfully social spaces. One of the things we discovered in the initiative was that students who built and developed their e-portfolios with high levels of pure feedback and high levels of faculty feedback or where they saw they really had an audience for their portfolios – sometimes, it was their family; sometimes, it was other kinds of audiences. The impact of the portfolio and their learning was quite significant and this was across all ranges of schools including many community colleges and broad relatively open-access schools, where it especially had a profoundly effect on students’ sense of ownership of their learning and that the portfolio became a place where they actually presented themselves as a successful student. So, I think, at every level, portfolios can be a powerful place for connection and for helping people learn how to tell their story and to make sense of their education in the whole grade in the sum of the parts.

I really like how you refer to it as a narrative. That is a very different approach.

Well, I think that’s a really important shift because I think that the term ‘portfolio’ initially conjures for people merely a repository, that it’s just a place where you put stuff but many of the portfolio theorists and others emphasize that what’s core about a portfolio – it’s a combination of student artifacts of their learning plus reflection and then put together in a curated way – so it’s that curation that really gets to this narrative of how it is that you’re telling your story.

I did read one of your other articles and I did come across this chart, “The Pressures on Formal Curriculum” so I thought this was really fascinating. Could you just elaborate on this for people who don’t know what this is?

So this was back two or three years ago when I was thinking about what it is that we saw that was going on around the formal curriculum, that was putting pressure on the formal curriculum to transform itself; and this was a key part of the recentering and, in essence, I saw that there were pressure from the outside and presume from this inside. This was really before the explosion of mukes and all the bundlers so –

Are these lines closer together?

Well, you might have to add a Third Front of the unbundling online skill space but this was really trying to actually look at two pressures they had a tremendous amount in common. One was that on our own campuses, we now have this huge repository of data around known nationally as high-impact practices where students have very profound learning experiences in these boundary practices between curriculum and co-curriculum so some of them are things like I mentioned before; the undergraduate study abroad, community-based learning, internships, and some of them are anomalistic experiences in the form of curriculum – small seminars, writing-intensive courses, capstone courses, sometimes collaborative projects, are in that category. Some people think that e-portfolios are high-impact practice. But these are the practices that we have data on that show that students who do one or more of them are more likely to persist and that there’s a strong correlation between those – and students self-report on higher learning now because this is across millions of data points with national student engagement. So part of it would say even in our institutions, we have evidence that there are certain kinds of learning experiences, some in the classroom, some outside, that appear to have higher outcomes than other experiences.

On the other hand, we also have people’s experiences out on the web around what I was calling it ‘invoking in participatory cultures’ Henry Jenkins’ term – now there is another term that’s become quite popular, I didn’t know at the time, called ‘Connected Learning’ … but those are very similar Henry Jenkins and Abierto who just published a book on dissipatory culture. And that’s the profound experience that a lot of youth, especially, are having a very engaged learning in informal environments and the kind of engagement that’s going on in fan sites and different kinds of dissipatory cultures on the web. And when you look at the characteristics of those, you know, what Henry Jenkins would say what characterizes that kind of participatory culture is varies of entry, it’s a lot of peer learning, it’s self-driven learning, it’s people have a sense of shared purpose that people have an investment in what’s being created, there’s a strong sense of community – and, suddenly, when you look at what is it that we know makes high-impact practices in our campuses high impact? it’s where students invest time on tasks, it’s where they’re making judgments on its certainty, and it’s where they’re invested in the outcome, it’s where they’re giving and getting feedback from peers, their whole sense is that they’re authentic about what they’ve created – tremendous alignment here. And, so when I say pressure on the whole curriculum I think it just poses the question, “How much of our formal curriculum, which is where we spend most of our dollars, looks like either of these two environments? Of all the courses that you take, how many of them are places where you’re making something that you value? How many of them are functioning as communities in which people feel a collective investment in something that’s being created? How many of them are putting you in a position to make judgments in unscripted situations?” So not all courses can be like that and I recognize that lots of fields you just got to work lots and lots of stuff but, you know, there are lots of creative ways to learn lots of stuff while developing a kind of increased stance toward it.

So the point that I was trying to make there is to say, “The formal curriculum is now surrounded by examples of high-impact learning and part of what recentering means is to say, “How can we make the most amount of the formal curriculum possible, as high impact as possible, in the ways that we see it being effective in other settings?” And that is indeed one of the ways that technology can play a role, and so recentering so that the heart of our institutions is in a space where the most highest impact of the formal curriculum meet the most learning-intensive parts of the experiential curriculum; that to me is where the so-called value proposition will be in institutional higher education in the next twenty or thirty years.

You did say something that caught my attention right away, you said, “fan sites.” If you go on Tumblr there are these fandoms, where they post gifs, blogs, articles, and create their own episodes of sorts. On YouTube, they create fan trailers. That was really interesting when you said ‘fan sites’ because there was an article, recently, that references how a lot of literature is based on fandoms. Authors have been inspired to write fiction because they really enjoyed a particular book. For instance, Harry Potter inspired Carry On.

Well, that’s a huge part of what Henry Jenkins and Abierto in their separate research and together how they studied the whole fan cultures and one of those, gaming cultures, and other cultures, because these are places where people are investing incredible amounts of time. Out of Wisconsin, Constance Stryker, who studies games, you know, has a really fascinating project – where they study teenage men who could demonstrate much higher reading levels when they were reading in gaming sites than in school, right?...So we know from a lot of research that people who are self-motivated to be gamers can learn at very high levels so trying to understand that is the center of education where Connect-to-Learning can say the core of academic or engaged interests, your own interests, and peer culture, right? So academic and peer culture and sort of interest-driven learning, that’s the sweet spot, right? that’s what’s happening on fan sites – and that’s what’s happening when somebody’s writing a blog for their fantasy football team or that’s when somebody’s trying to level-up in a game and, so I think, you know, a lot of learning is hard and takes discipline but I think that what we mean when we talk about engagement is “How can we do as much as possible to create designs around that sweet spot?” Academic interest, personal interest-driven learning, connections to the world, connections to self, and peer support.