Universities will Never Become Obsolete!

An interview with Prof. Dirk Ifenthaler, Professor for Instructional Design and Technology at the University of Mannheim, Germany, Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, Australia, and Affiliate Research Scholar at the University of Oklahoma, USA.

Since the beginning of this year, Professor Dr. Dirk Ifenthaler supports the Area Economic and Business Education of the University of Mannheim, Business School. The research focus of his professorship lies on instructional design and technology. A rather unfamiliar research field in Germany, it is already well-established in the US, with several universities offering specialized study programs. Instructional Design and Technology, put shortly, actually means the effort to support learning and teaching through digital technologies in any way possible. This can be done through software, but also with the help of an iPad. Professor Ifenthaler explains how technologies can be used in support of learning on many different levels – in school but also at universities and in advanced training and vocational education.

For a long time already, learning has not been limited to school and universities anymore but even after graduation it is important to keep studying. Life-long learning becomes an obligation. How does knowledge acquisition at universities differ from that of a continuing education?

Bachelor and Master programs are very organized and end with a degree. Students already join universities with this expectation. In contrast, continuing education is mostly voluntary in Germany. In my opinion, time is the key difference. Employees are oftentimes busy with their day-to-day work and continuing education is done during free time. Abroad, e.g. in Australia, it’s quite different: Further training is done right at the university. Many employees with full-time jobs go back to universities for further training because they’re looking for promotion possibilities or new opportunities.

The University of Mannheim, Business School is oriented towards these international standards. Especially the Mannheim Business School and its excellent MBAs demonstrate that there is a great demand for continuing education.

That was exactly my first impression of the University of Mannheim, Business School: Its focus is set on internationality. From my point of view, Mannheim is outstanding. The triple accreditation is especially a perfect example of its vivid internationality. I also value the quality of not only its research but its learning opportunities for students, as well. I would like to contribute to this through my research and am thinking about implementing international online Masters and Ph.D. courses with other partners. That would be unique in Germany.

Speaking of online courses: For a few years now, there has been a big trend in Massive Open Online Courses (short: MOOCs), online seminars that can partly be attended free of charge. The idea is of course very appealing: everything is accessible for free and flexible. How would you judge this development: Are universities going to be obsolete? Is this just a trend with which universities have to keep up?

No, not at all. The university as a physical location will never become obsolete. MOOCs are just another way of offering new learning elements and learning units. They surely enrich the field and opportunities of students. Even more: they can be a strong marketing instrument for universities, if for example they are being used to advertise for certain programs.

With MOOCs, the quality is crucial: many providers are oriented towards profits and only offer mere recordings of lectures. These are, from an educational psychology  point of view, not really useful: Studies have shown that the drop-out rates are as high as 90% if MOOCs are just recordings and therefore not engaging.

Of course, MOOCs have implications for continuing training. It’s a market that will certainly become established in the near future. Big companies can, for example, design their own MOOCs for their employees and a special purpose, the so called COOC (Company Open Online Course). I have just started a research project in which I am researching how MOOCs or COOCs can be used in companies and what requirements and demands have to be fulfilled by them.

Apart from online courses: How will learning change in the future and what new requirements will pupils, students and employees face in further training?

We have started to develop systems which actively mirror personalized learning environments and learning scaffolds to the students. Learning 3.0 will become smart and offer resources which can be used by students to develop certain competencies. Of course, this can also be applied to continuing education. As mentioned in the beginning, learning is a life-long process which can be supported by technology and intelligent systems. You don’t have to remain passive but you can take on an active attitude throughout your whole life. This can propel our information society in general.

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