Digital Content and Student Ownership: A Reckoning for Higher Ed
About 20 years ago, the launch of iTunes disrupted the music industry. Instead of purchasing entire albums, users could buy, share, and manage single songs in digital formats. This gave users greater ownership over their music, forcing the music industry to rethink how it distributed its products.
Today, higher education may be heading toward a similar tipping point. Like music 20 years ago, learning content and credentials are increasingly digital. So, how should higher education respond if this focus leads to a greater sense of student ownership?
This week’s Wake-Up Call offers insight into the steps institutions should take to prepare themselves.
The Digital Learning Ecosystem
Recently, initiatives such as the Comprehensive Learner Record, the Credential Transparency Description Language, the Shareable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM), and Open Badges have focused on ensuring that students, faculty, and staff can store and share digital items among technological solutions within teaching and learning ecosystems. As shown in Figure 1, these items fall into three broad categories:
- Learning objects: Any entity, digital or non-digital, that students, faculty, or staff use, re-use, or reference during technology-supported learning. This includes assessments, projects, textbooks, and videos.
- Credentials: A qualification, achievement, personal or organizational quality, or aspect of an identity typically used to indicate suitability, such as diplomas, badges, and licenses.
- Learner profile: Personal information about the learner, such as skills, competencies, and goals.
Figure 1. Digital Items in the Teaching and Learning Ecosystem
The core question, however, is not how students, faculty, and staff share these items technologically but how they exert agency and ownership. For example, Stanford University’s effort to explore how institutions have begun to chart new learning paths through this evolving environment identifies two significant shifts in student behavior:
- Changing paces: Recalibrating the time it takes to move through higher education, allowing for flexibility in when students start, stop, or revisit their educations.
- Changing spaces: Rethinking “where” and “how” learning happens to support different types of student learning.
Each of these themes impacts the question of student ownership of digital items. For example, students who prioritize flexibility as they progress through school may look to acquire and store digital items (stackable credentials, for example) along their paths. Likewise, students who seek to engage in lifelong learning across different spaces (institutions, bootcamps, etc.) may want the ability to collect and aggregate digital items regardless of where they have obtained them.
Taken together, these themes strongly suggest that user expectation is shifting, and call into question whether we should reconsider how we can support student ownership.
Supporting Student Ownership
For higher education leaders to prepare themselves for a world where students might see the entirety of learning objects, micro-credentials, credentials, and diplomas similar to the way we view digital downloads, they should keep in mind four considerations:
- Yield control over digital items. Often, institutions consider themselves the owners of student data and information. Preparing for student ownership of digital content and credentials requires that university leaders view themselves as data stewards rather than owners—responsible for managing availability, usability, integrity, and security.
- Provide unified authentication. One key usability issue in ecosystems that include numerous heterogeneous educational systems and tools is the challenge of providing seamless access to each of them. Learners require seamless access to the resources they are entitled to use—without needing separate usernames and passwords for each one.
- Connect the dots. It is not always clear to students how digital items relate to one another. For example, students may be unsure which competencies relate to a given credential. Because the relationship between these digital items is not always clear, students may not be aware of any gaps between them, preventing them from understanding what they will need to complete their journeys through higher education. University leaders wanting to support student ownership should connect the dots between these items.
- Accept the principal of shareability. Initiatives such as the Comprehensive Learner Record center upon the development of technical infrastructures that support interoperability and accessibility of learning content. Supporting student ownership, however, requires one additional principle: that everyone understands the meanings of the items students share. Institutional leaders who want to help student ownership should adopt consistent definitions of these objects.
The Bottom Line
At its core, embracing a greater sense of student ownership of learning content and credentials is more philosophical than technological. Institutional leaders need to accept that students see a world where they collect and share educational items across institutions, boot camps, and employers as they negotiate the pace and space of their journeys. Overlooking this view poses the same risk for higher education that the music industry faced less than two decades ago—and may result in competition from other educational approaches that do support student ownership. Instead, institutions should make this philosophical pivot before it is too late.
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