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Can Universities Nurture a New Generation of Problem Solvers?

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By Kyla Mandel

New technologies are revolutionising higher education, allowing learners across the world to collaborate on solutions to pressing issues.

"Be the hero! You have the ability to change the world." It sounds like a line from a summer blockbuster, perhaps said by Albert the butler to Batman. But it's actually taken from a recent lecture delivered to students in a Global Social Problems class at St. Edwards University, Texas.

Their mission? Research large-scale global social problems and act upon them at a local level, demonstrating truly 'heroic' characteristics such as perspective, empathy and cooperation. The lecturer's goal, according to a published brief, was to encourage students to "adopt a broader perspective: that of a hero who has the ability to change the world by how you think, what you say, and how you act."

The course drew upon gamification techniques - such as competition, against-the-clock challenges and rewards - to encourage problem-solving and group participation. Students earned superhero badges for improving their understanding of issues such as poverty, gender inequality, consumerism and water security. They were also asked to imagine potential solutions to these problems.

Social media participation was deemed an "essential" part of students' research. Using Facebook's non-profit pages, Twitter, Digg and Slideshare, they instigated debates on their chosen issue. Offline, they engaged in hands-on intervention with organisations such as Invisible Children, or attended demonstrations like Occupy Austin. In their final blog entries for the course, many students explained how they were challenged to view the world differently and change their preconceptions of a 'global problem'.

This is just one example of how universities are embracing new approaches to shape the minds of their students. It taps into two major trends that could influence a student's higher education choices in future. One is the demand for meaningful careers: Net Impact's 2012 Talent Report found that "the potential to contribute to society" and "a job that will make the world a better place" is very important to two-thirds (65%) of workers and students, with around one in four deeming this essential. The second trend is the way technology is transforming how people of all ages prefer to learn.

A global network of learners is now sharing, updating and creating information, rapidly expanding technology's ability to educate. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have recently tapped into this trend in a big way, opening up higher education to those previously unable to access it due to socioeconomic or geographic reasons. Students learn through videos, interactive quizzes that provide instant feedback and user forums. Each MOOC has the potential to host tens of thousands of students, meaning anyone with internet access can freely access Ivy-league quality teaching.

More than 5 million people around the world have taken a MOOC. An MIT introduction to circuits, the first course delivered by Harvard and MIT's joint MOOC platform, edX, attracted over 155,000 students between May 2012 and January 2013. No wonder The New York Times dubbed 2012 the 'Year of the MOOC'.

Some commentators have even suggested this is higher education's MP3 moment: with such a wealth of information available for free online, will students still be happy to pay the fees for a traditional university course?

Rachel Armstrong, Senior TED Fellow and Co-Director of Advanced Virtual and Technological Architectural Research at the University of Greenwich, believes universities still have much to contribute as curators of information and community builders, even as online learning gains in popularity. She sees the task of the modern university as teaching the skills needed to find meaning within the ever-expanding sea of information.

"We have a lot of data but not a lot of meaning", she says. "It's actually the meaning that I think is really at stake here, because meaning leads to action. Otherwise you simply have an idea."

In the learning landscape of the future, universities will need to focus on their primary role: fostering communities where there is mentorship and guidance, thus allowing students to mature and learn how to critically analyse data. In fact, as education continues to evolve with technology, active learning will become increasingly important, argues Anna Birney, Head of Systems Innovation lab at Forum for the Future. She believes that striking a balance between it and online education will allow students to "learn and innovate so we can start to create a different future".

The ability to forge a unique educational path for themselves is a valuable tool for this generation of students, whether they are selecting courses, learning models or simply satisfying their personal curiosity. As Birney says, technological innovations such as MOOCs and gamification "offer opportunities to people to become much more self-directed learners".

These digital natives face an unstable job market when they leave university. There is also widespread recognition that our banks, high streets, health, and food systems are in crisis. Kerren Dempsey, Director of Marketing at Udacity, Stanford University's MOOC platform, says the solutions to these challenges come from "knowing how to ask the right questions, and actively solving them by pulling in resources available to you". Udacity's role is to "bridge the gap between real-world skills, relevant education and employment" in order to "reinvent education for the 21st century".

So how does this translate into more effective learning? David A. Sousa, an international consultant in educational neuroscience and author of How the Brain Learns, suggests we're good at absorbing information through methods that engage all the senses and tap the emotional side of the brain, such as humour, storytelling, group activities and games - when we only use the logical, rational side of our brain we don't produce powerful memories. In addition, our ability to learn and recall new information is strengthened by how frequently we access it. The more we do so, the easier it becomes for our brain to pull it from our working memory.

This process, called fluency, is what Udacity aims to recreate through the student's online interaction with course content. Quizzes and exercises interspersed with short videos actively engage the senses, allowing for greater retention of information, and encouraging students to "learn, think, and do."

Crucial to the 'think' and 'do' elements are creative thinking and teamwork skills, argues Farnaz Ronaghi, co-founder and director of engineering at NovoEd, a new Standford MOOC platform. "As humans, [we] are not so smart alone," he says. "We reach our full potential when we work with others to solve problems."

Bouncing ideas around as a group and acting collectively rather than competitively can help digital natives find solutions to the uncertainty set before them. However, MOOCs are often criticised for providing very little personal interaction between student and teacher, or student-to-student collaboration - a fact that might contribute to the high drop-out rate (only 10% of students complete their course).

NovoEd aims to address this issue. Unlike other MOOC platforms, it focuses on team-based learning, providing opportunities for more creative, open-ended development. Courses are primarily centred on group-projects, which allows for a higher degree of social interaction, collaboration, and innovation. With greater peer-to-peer interaction, accountability is greater - as NovoEd's completion rates, which are 3% higher than for other MOOC platforms, demonstrate.

A MOOC can also add an international dimension to problem-solving and group work. Economic barriers such as plane tickets are removed in these online arenas, allowing students with similar goals to work together to create solutions to pressing issues, regardless of what country they live in. Coursera and Udacity are also crowdsoucing lecture subtitles to further improve the accessibility of their MOOCs, while Udacity plans to subtitle 5,000 of its videos in over 100 languages.

International online collaboration also provides new ways to access local knowledge and tie it into course material and discussions. As Parviz from Tajikistan, a student of Coursera's Introduction to Sustainability MOOC, wrote on its Facebook page: "The topics helped me [rethink] many issues. I hope that such efforts supported by millions of individuals around the world will lead to the sustainable future where traditional values and modern technologies will go hand in hand to create a better world."

Parviz and millions of other learners are clearly benefiting from MOOCs, but online courses are unlikely to spell the end of physical universities anytime soon. Unlike undergraduate degrees, MOOCs don't generally lead to formal qualifications. And despite being a "fantastic addition" to the classroom experience, Jane Wilkinson, Masters Course Director and Principle Sustainability Advisor at Forum for the Future, feels, the "group reflection and discussion and the coaching and support elements of learning still need to happen face-to-face."

Regardless of what form education takes in future, adapting and updating the way we learn will always be essential for developing the skills needed to tackle pressing social problems. "Students are not simply future workers but persons and global citizens who need to acquire certain intellectual habits, a cultural breadth and a predisposition to learn throughout life," writes John Blewitt in 'The Sustainable University: Progress and Prospects' (Routledge, 2013).

Or as Henry Ford, no stranger to innovation himself, once put it: "Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young."

Kyla Mandel is a freelance journalist specialising in sustainability issues.