Call it a noble experiment: only a month to re-imagine institutions with centuries of tradition and, some might say, baggage. But that’s exactly what the University of Washington’s Master of Communication in Digital Media program pursued as it re-thought higher education in April.

Hanson Hosein

Hacking Edu wrapped up this week, and MCDM Director Hanson Hosein said it became obvious that “the fundamental challenge facing higher education today is one of access” through affordable options. But the promise is that “technology helps resolve this.”

Subtitled “from Tower to Town Square,” the four events kicked off in early April with a Q&A featuring Cheezburger CEO Ben Huh opining on where the educational system is breaking down, as well as on how entrepreneurs and formal education should intersect. It continued with a dinner roundtable discussion of higher education influencers, a Four Peaks TV taping in UW’s Red Square, and concluded this week with featured speaker Erika Wagner, executive director of the X Prize Foundation.

The upshot for tech’s piece of the puzzle?

“I think we’ll see an increase in ‘blended solutions’ for traditional higher ed institutions that want to tackle cost issues: in-person classes are for subject matter that require face-to-face interaction, and you can refer students to online resources for more settled subject mater (such as mathematics),” Hosein suggested.

And while noting the continuing digital divide, he added, “there’s obviously a role for digital devices in the learning process generally, making it a more immersive, engaging experience through smartphones and tablets.”

Technology itself was used extensively throughout the month. Not just social media tools for the public conversation, but a “multimedia dinner table” was constructed for the advisory board dinner and discussion. “We embedded four cameras and two microphones that gave us 360-degree coverage,” Hosein described. “”It was a great way to capture the evening, as participants quickly forgot they were being recorded. So we called it the ‘Table of Truth.'”

MCDM students plan to continue the future-of-higher-ed public inquiry over the next few months “through a documentary or reality series.” The program also has begun conversations with organizations chartered with a similar mission, such as Startup Weekend EDU.

Hosein said despite the certification that a college degree still provides employers, change is inevitable: “Not only am I surprised to see how fast this same disruption is headed our way (as a digital media degree program that ironically, does not engage in online learning), but how quickly it has become part of the national conversation.”

Previously: Cheezburger CEO Ben Huh on why we need to invest in education right now

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  • Jhadle

    Take any of the courses at Udacity  (very easy to sign up) and I think you will see that disruption is hurtling at a very fast speed indeed towards higher education. Here’s an interesting article by John Markoff (NYT) on the topic. Auletta, who recently wrote in The New Yorker about
    Stanford U, in an interview talked about Udacity and said Stanford’s president, John Hennessy,
    was so blown away by the fact its course on artificial intelligence
    had been taken by 160,000 students that he announced a short time
    later he was taking a four-month sabbatical to study distance

    • FrankCatalano

      I’ve also seen (and written/spoken about) the trend toward come-one-come-all online courses — not just Udacity, but MITx, Coursera and others — and it’s indeed impressive. But what’s been missing from similar efforts in the past is certification of course completion by an accredited body so the course means something to an employer or other credit-granting institution. 

      MITx is doing exactly that, for a fee, with its first course that’s now underway. And others will certainly follow suit.

      Then the next step will be finding a way for a learner-centric model to emerge where students pick and choose from a variety of different sources of education, formal and informal, and assemble a portfolio of certified results that can be used for a number of purposes. A startup called LearningJar, which won the LaunchEDU competition at SXSWedu, is one such effort. Another piece of the puzzle is the Mozilla Open Badges projects. 

      So it’s an exciting time, and the UW is wise to be actively looking into alternatives to its own programs and seeing how it can adapt.

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