In the EduTrends podcast, hosted by José "Pepe" Escamilla, Steve Harmon, C21U executive director and GTPE associate dean for Research at Georgia Tech, talks about the futures of education: machine learning, alternative credentials, blockchain, virtual reality, lifelong learning, and the significance of developing non-academic skills.

Future of education and technology concept.

Podcast Transcription

José “Pepe” Escamilla (Host): Welcome to the EduTrends podcast and webcast brought to you by the Institute for the Future of Education. My name is José “Pepe” Escamilla. I'm associate director of the Institute for the Future of Education. Today’s guest is Steve Harmon. He is the executive director of the Center for the 21st Century Universities and also associate dean for research professional education at Georgia Tech.

Steve Harmon (Steve): Yeah, so I've been at Georgia Tech for six years now. Prior to that, I was 20 years at Georgia State. But Georgia Tech recruited me to work in the Center and really look at the future of higher education. So, we did a big report that we published in 2018 called "Creating the Next in Education, Deliberate Innovation and Lifetime Education." And so, I was brought in to really look at that and sort of do forecasting for where the future might go. And one of the things that became clear to us is that the future of education really has to lie within lifelong learning with higher education. We have reduced the number of 18-year-olds to younger people. We have increasing numbers of older people. The pace of technological change is increasing as well. We see a big jump in automation of work skills or augmentation of work skills. So, there's a need for continuous learning. And that's something we've been working very hard to. There are a lot of smaller futures, I think. But that's the big one. That's the one that we really are pushing.

Host: Okay, and what are those other futures? I'm interested in the features of education.

Steve: Yeah, so they're beyond the broad sorts of things. They're specific educational technology types of things. So, you know, the one everyone is talking about now is AI and the impacts AI may have. We have a national AI institute, with three of them at Georgia Tech, actually, and I'm a part of one of them that focuses on adult learning and online education. So, we're looking at how can we apply AI to adult learning and other education. The challenge is, and it's the challenge for every educational technology, people tend to use new technologies in old ways. So, we get something brand new, and we use it like something we're already good at doing. And so what we have to do is change our mindset and think about what are new ways to use the technology. What are things I can do with the technology that I can't do without it? And I think recently, with the OpenAI company and their Chat GPT or GPT-4, maybe by the time this comes out, we really have the potential to bring that technology into the hands of everyone.

Host: Exactly, we will come back to technology, but I want to go to the first thing that you say, the future of, the first feature, a big feature of the Center, as I understood universities and level of learning, become more a single thing. And I believe that universities have been focused mostly on higher ed, and all the continuing education activities, which are sort of live learning, have always been something of second class in the universities, no? And then, in the future, those things have to be more like a first-class and quick system and interchange more. What's the future that you foresee in this C21U center?

Steve: Yeah, so you're exactly right. And I think part of the future is if we focus on lifelong learning if we focus on the adult learners, they don't like to learn the same way as the young people. So, if you're 18 to 24 years old, you're an undergraduate, you say, "Okay, I'm going to take four years now and do only studying." But adults don't do that. Adults are working already. They have families; they have very complicated lives. So, we need to rethink the structure of how we provide training and education to these people. In the US, we use the Carnegie unit. I don't know if you use that here, but it's a credit. You see how we give credit for classes. And it was based on a retirement system. Andrew Carnegie created a retirement system for professors. But to qualify for the retirement, he had to say, how long have you worked as a professor? So, he created this system to measure professors’ retirement. It's the same system we use now to award credit to undergraduates. And it doesn't work for adults. It's not the same thing. Adults are very much skill-based. So, we need shorter courses; we need more focused courses and more options for all adults to do that. And that changes the way we think about it. We also have to change the mindset of the faculty because most faculty, and myself included, when I was a young professor, I wanted to work with the young people. I wanted to work with the 18-year-old, not the 55-year-old. And so that's been a big effort for us, is to get the faculty to see the importance of dealing with these older folks. And it also implies being more connected to the current needs of industry, business, and society to connect with what's really needed, no? It does, in multiple ways. So, on the one hand, industry call it; they think they know what they want. And they do know what they want for the immediate future. But part of what we do… We are a research university like you are. We are inventing the future. So, we see things coming that we want to prepare people for that aren't here yet. So one example is quantum computing. Quantum computing is evolving very rapidly. We're not yet really training people to be quantum computer scientists, but we need to start. So, because when quantum computing takes off, there will be a shortage in the workforce. So, we try to work with industry to say, not only what do you need now, here's what we think you will need in five years from now.

Host: So, it's a two-way, it's very much of a joint proposition.

Steve: Exactly. So here, one of the things that we have done here in the university last year is we created a new normative. I don't know how to say that in English that allows the university to grab micro-credentials for partial studies in the undergraduate degree and also on the graduate degree in the master's level. Our undergraduate degrees now are competitive-based because we have a model that is challenge-based and competitive-based. So, we can deliver partial credit for the students in the form of micro-credentials that are relevant for the world of employment. But also, our continuing education vice provost is developing programs that have micro-credentials. Right now, they are developing 20 different programs that deliver microcredentials that can be transferable toward undergraduate or graduate credit for students. So, we are starting to work in that area and giving the normativity that we need, the rules inside the university so that the faculty can start to work with that; program directors can work with that. And it's just, I think, a first step that would need a lot of things to happen to become really relevant in the future.

Host: Yeah, I think you're a little ahead of us in that sense.

Steve: So, we've come at it a slightly different way. We have programs called threads. And in the threads program, a student essentially weaves their own pathway through a discipline. So, it's more focused on individualized learning. But what we don't do very well, and you and I have worked on this, what we don't do very well is reflect that in their transcripts. So, the transcript may say, yes, you have a degree in theater science. But you have to really dig into that and look at the classes and look online to find out what was that class really about to get the small detail. So, you all don't know, but Monterey Tech and Georgia Tech are part of the Digital Credentials Consortium, which is a group of 12 universities who are working to create a new framework for micro-credentials. And I think it's -- I've been very excited about it.

Host: Yeah, me too. Why don't you tell our audience about that project?

Steve: Well, so part of what we've been doing, we're three years into it now, and the focus initially has been on building the structure for the digital credentials. And it goes beyond badges. Something we really want to have with this is a transferable structure that works across many domains, and many people can take part of it. But we also want the learner to have a lot of control over the credential. And in this world, it's called self-sovereignty. So, if you think about when you go to the store to buy wine, for example, and in the US, when you do that, you show them your driver's license so that they know you're old enough to buy wine. But you're also showing them where you live. You're showing them how much you weigh. You're showing them what your eyesight is. You're showing them if you are an organ donor. So, you're giving them far more information than they need for that. That happens a little bit in higher ed. We want to be able to have a much more fine-grained approach so we can reflect, "Oh, you know what? This person, yes, they took a look. Well, they have an MBA, but they were really good at leadership or communications and be able to show the finer skills they developed during that." we want employers or universities to be able to verify those skills. So, with what we've developed so far, a learner can, we can issue a credential to a learner. They then have it in a wallet that they keep on their phone. And when they go to apply for a job, they transfer that to an employer, and the employer is able to, with a click of a button, verify that, yes, Georgia Tech says they have this credential. So, we think it's a framework that's really going to allow a much fighter-grained capturing of credentials that are also verifiable.

Host: Yes, as you say, this granularity and also this that you can also graduate the privacy of your data is very important, and the ownership of this. For instance, we are right now using Blockcerts massively in the university. So, all higher education degrees that we have granted in the last, I think, four years, we also deliver a diploma on the blockchain. We should be migrating to this new approach of the digital sustainability reasons because it seemed like the blockchain was not very sustainable with that. I don't know if you've thought about that or what your thoughts are. We decided to use it because we were also prepared because the Mexican government did a law that all degrees have to be digital and in a centralized website. So, all parchments have on the back a QR code that takes you to a website in a computer and in a central computer of the Mexican government. So, we have all the information already. We say, let's put it on the blockchain and try to deliver to the students also the possibility of not only Mexico but, in other parts, certify what they have learned. And we have also experimented with some of, using block search for some of the competencies as you have done also in the pilot of the digital construction that you have done in Georgia Tech. But we are not on operation there. Have you implemented this massively?

Steve: We're still part of it. We've run maybe four or five pilots. Yes. I think we're excited. And I think one of the things that we are still lacking there is to think about live learning, not only four-degree education but also live learning. They will come. Well, and also for workforce development, it seems like. So, one of-- in the newest iteration, I don't know if you have even seen it yet, but the newest iteration of the DCC, it automatically puts your certificates on LinkedIn. So, you click the button, and now your LinkedIn profile has the verifiable credential that goes with everything else. So, what this begin allows is for companies to search. The companies can say, I need someone with this skill, this skill, this skill, this skill, and now they get a list of all the people who have verified credentials from that. So, from a hiring perspective, it's very valuable.

Host: Now that we're talking about technology with what the other part of the futures, you know, and you talk about artificial intelligence, what are the things that you're doing in Georgia Tech and the C21U? That's it.

Steve: So, I'll tell you two that I'm very interested in. One of them is, of course, learning analytics, so big data. At C21U, we get probably two terabytes of data every day from the many platforms that our students do. And that includes our online learners and our on-campus learners. So, we have several projects going on to figure out how can we use that data. One of them is looking at clickstream data, so as the learners click around in the online platform or even their Canvas or LMS platform. We record every one of those clicks. We are trying to use machine learning techniques to see how quickly can we tell the difference between an A-grade student and a B-grade student before they ever take a test. So, can we tell just by the way they look at things, how much time they spend on things, that this student is headed towards an A, this student is headed towards a B? And if so, can we then intervene quickly and move the B student closer to the A student? My previous university didn't do it this way, but Georgia State had a very well-known program for improving learners by looking at multiple factors of the learners. And every night, they run an analysis. I think they had 800 factors that they looked at, ran an analysis of the learners, and were able to identify those that were in trouble. And then, they automatically sent an email to an advisor who then contacted those students. So early intervention, just-in-time intervention, is one thing that we're excited about. Many, many programs with around big data. Another one that I'm excited about is in applications and admissions. So, in this case, we were looking at, we were a very fortunate university, and all of our students are at the top. 

If we make a mistake in admissions, we've admitted a student who's still at the top, just not at the very top, anyway that. But it's frustrating for the students because all the time, students say, "Well, look, I have a 4.0 grade point average. I have great test scores, but I didn't get in." And we have to explain all of the applicants have that. So, what makes you different than every other student that has the same credential? So, one of the things we're experimenting with are 21st-century skills. So, communications, collaborations, creativity, then there's what's the cognitive, critical thinking. That's very difficult to judge, though, from the application packet. It's hard to tell that. What we've kind of realized is from recommendation letters of the advisors, we can begin to get some insight of where the students fall on these 21st-century skills. That's very time-consuming. And we get so many applications. I think this year, we had 65,000 applications. And reading all of those recommendation letters for a very fine-grained analysis, we just can't do that. So, we've been using natural language processing and AI technologies to read those letters for us and then make a profile of each learner in 21st-century skills. And so, we include that as part of the admissions package. So, we say this person is very creative. This person is creative and has good communication skills but does not collaborate well. And we don't know if that's going to work yet. We do know it works. We do know we can use the profile. We're not sure how helpful it's going to be to the admissions coordinators, but it's an attempt to give them another piece of data to work with. Another point of data for admissions.

Host: So, what was the use of virtual reality in the university?

Steve:  It's not centralized at all. So, we do have a lot of people who are using it. - Okay. - The mechanical engineering group uses it a lot for 3D modeling types of things. We've got chemistry. I don't know; my wife is a chemist. But so, we have some of that. But we haven't yet to-- I think the same as you do here. We have setups in the library and places around campus where people can use it. We see that it's coming. We have not yet coordinated it. But I will say we are right now reviewing the campus master plan. And so, as a part of the new campus master plan, we are building in spaces, like you described, that are big, empty spaces that are safe to do VR types of activities because we know that we need that for students to be able to do. Yes. We have around 25,000 students that use some kind of virtual or augmented reality in one at least one learning activity of their course. We have a lot of momentum at this moment in the university. Some of the software is commercial, and some of it is developed, also some research on the findings of what students learned. It could be from, how you say, special skills for math, or it could be empathy in a virtual environment, or it could be anatomy for medical or health science students. I think that's the right way to go, but that's also where the danger is because with any new technology, as I said, people like to use it in old ways. What I think we will see in many cases is virtual reality because more widespread is virtual reality lectures. You're in the VR environment, and it's just a person nation to you. That's easy to do. People think they understand it, but is it beneficial? And so, what my job, and I'm sure their job, is pushing people beyond that and getting them to think about the new things you can do with it.

Host: One of the things that you can do with real people in an environment, an immersive and virtual environment, is to look at casual conversations or body gestures that is more, it could be more natural than a song to the screen, no?

Steve: And there are some exciting technologies coming out. I don't know if you've seen Google's Project Starline, but it apparently looks just like you and I are sitting here together, although we could be in different parts of the country. So, we don't have that yet, but I've been trying to get it.

Host: So, well, you've been working in education and innovation as a director of the C21U. What are your recommendations for other universities, leadership, or professors, or if you know how to advance and go to that, whatever future of education it is for them?

Steve: I think you have to give. You can't force it. I don't think. If you mandate that everyone will do this or that, you know faculty are very resistant to that, but you can encourage them to do it. So, one of the things we have done very successfully is had internal competitions to fund faculty to try new things for that. And I think if you can find the place where faculty are, and then you can guide them somewhat. And part of our role, I think, I say that we are a nexus of communications. We are a place where all of the communications come together because we have an eye toward the learning sciences and learning engineering, and all of the technologies are out there. Regular faculty, they don't have time to keep up with that. So, it's very important for us to be engaged with as broad a range of faculty as possible so we can go to them and say, "Oh, I see you're doing this. Here is something you might want to try that could really advance that." So, it's creating the conditions for a grassroots growth of technology. Sometimes we don't, sometimes we mandate, and we say, "Oh, we are using this learning management system." And over the years, faculty will come along and do that. But I think if we provide conditions for faculty where they can prosper in this, that it's much easier.

Host: You see, it reminds me of one of the initiatives that we have been doing for ten years now. It's called Novus. It started at the beginning. It was a pocket of money that people could apply to have technology and use it in the classroom. No, it could be a computer, a gadget, or whatever. And then, it evolved into something more with a background on pedagogy or education. So, you can ask for funding whatever educational innovation you want to do, even if the use of technology is marginal or you have a large use of technology. And then it evolved also to include more educational research on what you're doing, no matter what your field is, that implies also helping the professor from different disciplines to understand how to do research in education and then polish that research. Perfect. We found around 70 projects every year that last around 18 to 24 months, and each of the projects has an average of three to four professors, and it's around a pocket of $700,000 a year that we, and I think it's a good investment there. We recently published an article on the experience of that because it's not only what they developed that some of the things grow scale organically in the faculty or some of them scale top-down by the leadership decision but also what they learn and the skills they develop by doing that. Our faculty, they are growing their skill sets as educators, understanding not only the technologies or the innovations they do but also with the research part what learning outcomes or motivation of the students is.

Steve: Yeah, very similar, that very similar. So, we have a research team at C21U that does exactly what he said in terms of partnering with faculty to help them do educational research on whatever innovation they were trying. Because, generally, that's not their specialty. They don't know how to do that. So, we do that, and we're able to, for instance, if we pursue external funding, if we pursue grants with faculty, we don't have to ask for a part of that grant. We are funded internally. And we say, we will help you get the grant, we will help you do the research, it will help you publicize the results. And I had over time, as you know, you build a cadre of people who have this as an interest, and it's gone.

Host: And thanks for your answer. And I will take a look at that later to learn from you while you're doing the sharing between our teams. But I also would like to talk about the development of non-academic skills. It's something that you've been interested in the past. Why do you think this is important for your universities to encourage the development of this? First, what is the non-academic skill, and why?

Steve: So, I think you're referring to an article I wrote about this. And it was "How my hobbies, my non-academic skills helped me in academia." There's a man named Alan Kay who was one of the inventors of the mouse. And for Xerox PARC back in the 1980s, maybe the 1970s, he had a great quote that I've always loved, and he said, "Perspective is worth 80 IQ points." In other words, if you can change your perspective on something, it's like you're 80 per points smarter than you were before. And I think having non-academic skills really helps you take a look at things from a different way. Learning, for example, learning to program in a computer language. I was an English literature major, and when I learned my first coding language, it was a whole new way of thinking about something. Now, we think of that coding as academic, but for some people, it's not; it’s just fun. But I think any time you can change your viewpoint for something that helps, I like to do music. And sometimes, I can take sort of a musical approach to something. I like to do carpentry. And sometimes, you know, the skills I learned in carpentry can really help me approach a problem from a different way. Now, it makes you realize there are multiple solutions, and it brings you in contact with people that you may not normally be in contact with. I realized at one point in my career that I was spending all my time with other academics. But the world is not filled with other academics. There's a lot of different people. This is more work than we were. Yeah. And so, being able to get that multiple perspectives, I think for me that's the key thing about that.

Host: When I hear what you're saying, it really rings a bell or different bells, no? So, it reminds me that once I was in a conference in Canada, I don't remember exactly where, and I think it was an online learning conference, and there was a group of nurses talking about some experiences in a hospital in a very far away in Canada where family are far away from the hospital. So, when the patient is alone doesn't have the support of the family. So, they try to reconstruct that tissue for the patient in order that the patient can recuperate.

Steve: Yes. I was working in online learning at that time, and I say that's exactly what happened to an online student when he's at home, and people don't understand that when this was post-pandemic, and you know like 20 years ago, 25 years ago, they don't understand that this person is doing not wasting time on the computer. They are doing something and following a dream of doing a master's or whatever for some reason. Also, I developed the idea of creating a network of support based on a conference that I attended for some reason that I wasn't interested on that. So sometimes, when I go to a conference, I try to go to places where I'm not interested on this, and I get into the room to get new ideas from different perspectives. So that's maybe not exactly what you're saying, but it's a very similar. Yeah, very similar. And by the way, your notion of that network is something; it’s another project we're working on now. We call it the GT Atrium, like a building that has an atrium in it. And the point of it is to really-- the initial point, it's grown now. But the initial point was to provide for our online learners the kind of things you would get face to face, but you don't really get online. For example, the networking. So, you know, the five minutes before class or the five minutes after class face-to-face, you're talking with the fellow students, you're building relationships. The online learners don't get that as much. They're in the class, the class is over, and then they're out. Things, more career service types of things. A lot of that, so we are working on building co-learning spaces where, instead of going to Starbucks to do their online class, any learners in an area can come and do their class online. But together with other orders, we're doing the same thing. And so, if they don't have spaces at home, for example, where they have a quiet place where they could do their online class, or they have poor connectivity, we are trying to provide that in strategic locations around the world for that.

So, we're going to open the first one this semester, I hope. It will be a local one near Atlanta. This is our test bed. And then our second one, we're very close. As you know, working internationally, there are many hurdles, but probably in Taipei, Taipei, Taiwan for the second. We're looking at other ones in Medellin, for example, is one we've really considered in Paris and New York, Paris, big cities where you have a lot of online students. Where we have a lot of online students, but also alumni, because our alumni are very eager to get involved with our students. And that's been the driver so far is the local alumni, particularly international alumni, say, "We want to help the students who are in your online programs that live right here next to me, but I don't know them."