Teaching and Learning as a Team Sport – Interview with Adrian Sannier

Adrian Sannier

Learning technology can make a significant difference in academic education, according to Dr Adrian Sannier, Vice President of Product at Pearson eCollege. At the University of Alabama, for example, success rates in maths have skyrocketed since they introduced “MyMathLab”, a series of interactive online courses: Previously, half their students failed, whereas now the pass rate is above 70 percent. In his keynote speech at OEB, Adrian Sannier will illustrate ways of harnessing the potential of ICT in academic education. One of the key factors is the idea of teaching and learning as a team sport.

Before joining Pearson you made significant progress with Arizona State University’s technology strategy as their University Technology Officer. What was the greatest lesson you learned from that experience?


Dr Sannier: I learned a lot as CIO at ASU. For one thing, our point of view was that there was a time when the technology people used when they went to university was superior to any technology they had used before, as well as superior to technology they would use out in the workplace.


With the introduction of certain consumer technologies in the late 1990s, universities were seemingly beginning to not only fall behind, but the fall was accelerating. Information technology had essentially industrialised, and universities still had a cottage industry approach to deploying basic technology services; they were trying to provision and deploy those things themselves at their own pace, as they had in the past when they sort of invented them.


For example, in the early 1990s major corporations did not routinely distribute e-mail addresses but many universities did and they usually provisioned and distributed the e-mail addresses themselves. Within ten years, that flipped, and suddenly the kind of capabilities that you could buy at Internet scale from people like Google and Amazon started to emerge, and once somebody is providing a service at Internet scale your ability to provide it as a cottage industry just fades.


So we developed a strategy that said we wanted to climb the value chain with our technology services and begin to focus on what we called core things; things that actually changed the competitive landscape of the university relative to other institutions. Google Apps for Education is an example. We were their first adopter in the U.S., and in just two weeks we handed out e-mail addresses to 65,000 students, saving about a half a million dollars a year. It was controversial in the beginning, but over the past several years we have seen that strategy embraced by many universities and companies around the world.


What advice would you give someone who is striving to make their educational institution a technology leader?


Dr Sannier: To work on getting out of the direct provisioning of services and begin to use service providers instead so that you can focus your internal efforts on changing, teaching, and learning. Essentially, changing the things that are core to advancing the institution.


You have said before that the impact of information technology on education has been minimal compared to its impact on modern life. What are traditional learning institutions doing right now to bridge that gap? And how do you see Pearson being a part of the solution?


Dr Sannier: We have seen how the explosive power of technology has changed industries like manufacturing, banking, music, television, video and so on. Centuries of old ways of doing business have been overturned overnight. But in that process we see people getting more value.


In education, we have made some changes around the edges but, by and large, institutions have not really seen explosive change, just additions or substitutions to the way they have done business.


But some fundamental things can happen when technology is really brought to bear on a problem. For example, the University of Alabama is using a Pearson product called MyMath Lab, and they have changed their approach to mathematics instruction at the college algebra level. Using an emporium model that is then powered by the personalised practice that MyMath Lab enables, success rates have skyrocketed from half their students failing that course to more than 70 percent passing, and that happened over the course of just a year or two. That is the scale of improvement we must have.


I think we are just beginning to realise the team approach, the private-public partnership approach that we have got to take for technology to make a big difference in education.


It sounds like student outcomes and retention is paramount.


Dr Sannier: Yes. There is a focus on outcomes, on retention, on reaching students that we have not reached in other ways, and on making the entire experience more efficient so that students who can demonstrate mastery in a course in three or six weeks do not have to just endure a thirteen-week session because that is how long we take to teach it. To effect any of these changes we not only need technology, we need a change in approach, and that is a cultural challenge for some of our more traditional institutions.


The “for profit” model is the fastest growing education sector in the United States. What are you learning from that sector that could help the more traditional or “academic freedom”-oriented institutions around the world advance technologically?


Dr Sannier: For all of its potential faults and the criticism it is under, this sector in the United States has clearly provided something that students want. Students in large measures have voted with their dollars to choose the kinds of educational and more personalised experiences that the “for profits” are offering.


When we look at why that model is able to use technology more intensively, it is more cultural than anything else, and cultural changes are sometimes more challenging for a traditional “academic freedom” institution to embrace.


As far as what we are learning, a few things stand out: For one, course delivery tends to be individual instructor-driven at traditional institutions, so individual instructors may be given a set of technologies that they try their best to use in their course. We have found that this just does not produce very significant changes in teaching.


On the other hand, the idea of teaching and learning as a team sport is challenging to an academic freedom institution, but I think that it is absolutely critical to being able to harness learning technology at the level where it can make significant differences in teaching and learning.


Secondly, monitoring what is happening in the classroom, what is working and what is not working, and understanding the data that comes from the classroom is critical. Again, this is very challenging for the academic freedom-oriented model, not only because professors are not typically open to external classroom monitoring, but also because – given that every instructor teaches differently – the data that you would gather would not really tell you very much because the behaviour patterns just do not average out.


Lastly, we have learned that it is important to have a model that allows you to make decisions based on the data that you get back. This allows you to change your practice and refine it.


While it can be difficult for a traditional institution to make these kinds of decisions, the future is going to belong to the institutions who can maintain the benefits of an academic freedom culture, the collegiality, the ability to generate new knowledge, all of the things that have made universities great, but who are also able to make subtle changes in their pedagogical approach, to make it a team sport, make it possible to take meaningful data in an ongoing way, and then be able to act on the changes.


Thank you for your time. We look forward to seeing you in Berlin.


At OEB 2010, Dr Adrian Sannier will deliver his keynote speech on The Third Way in the Opening Plenary on Thursday, December 2nd, from 09:30 to 11:00.

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