How new media and next-generation instruction are democratizing higher ed

A confluence of trends is redefining the learning experience

Innovations in electronic textbooks, learning management systems, and new media are driving a rethinking of what it means to connect with students, with many professors saying the results benefit students and instructors alike.

Better books means better learning

Reggie Cobb, a biology professor at Nash Community College, was unsatisfied with the content in one of his courses' electronic textbooks. Instead of replacing it, he customized it, adding short videos of his own lectures next to key passages and linking to external resources where needed. He can even reorder pages and chapters.

Math problem? There's an app for that.

Cobb uses software from the company Cengage, just one of many new options in the burgeoning interactive textbook market. E-books from various providers can include drag-and-drop activities, quizzes, and graphics to reinforce lessons and provide feedback to students in real time.

With Pearson Higher Education's product, instructors also gain access to dashboards that track student performance and flag those who may need more help. They can not only customize the books with their own supplemental notes, as Cobb did, but also update the books to reflect current events.

For all this, e-texts still save students a lot of money over traditional textbooks—one company's e-books average only $65 dollars.

Early results show the books are helping students learn and engage more. Data show that students now spend more time studying on their own—around two hours for each hour in class. Anecdotally, professors using the books say they lead to more participation in class.

E-textbooks are also gaining ground in K-12 education. Companies such as Discovery Education are publishing math textbooks that feature the same interactivity and customization as their college counterparts. Teachers benefit too with access to professional development modules and data-based reporting.

Niche no longer

Beyond instruction, others see new media as an opportunity to engage students in areas of study they may not initially have an interest in. Philosophy professor Peter Adamson, writing for Inside Higher Ed, says that new media gives academics an unprecedented opportunity to connect with a broader audience.

He points to his own philosophy-themed podcast as an example of engaging with people who might not otherwise be able to learn about niche topics in academia. "My listeners are not just fellow academics and undergraduates. They are commuters, truck drivers, homemakers, retirees, high school students – as I say, anyone with an Internet connection and curiosity about the subject," he says.

Adamson argues that using new platforms not only attracts more students, but also has a "social 'impact'" by democratizing information and prompting to students to ask more of their education—now that much content is available for free online.

More savvy students

Together, these trends mean the student of the future is likely to have vastly different expectations of what it means to both discover and engage with learning content.

Adamson points out that some in academia may fear how technology will change the role of the professor and higher education generally—but he says that fear is misplaced.

Instead, Adamson encourages higher education leaders to embrace the new opportunities "for a democratic and open conversation in which knowledge is shared among many more people, not just those among the academic community" (Ashford, Community College Daily, 1/9; Hart, THE Journal, 1/08; Adamson, Inside Higher Ed, 1/13).

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