The Future of Learning

Enrollment (Fall 2012)

  • Total full-time enrollment: 2307
  • Total part time enrollment: 280
  • Total full time undergraduate: 1618
  • Total part time undergraduate: 185
  • Total full time graduate: 689
  • Total part time graduate: 95
  • Resident students: 371
  • Average class size: 17
  • Student to faculty ratio: 14:1

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Lecture Hall
March 15, 2012

The future of learning magazine cover

Imagine it is 2025, 150 years after what became known as Medaille College was founded as Sisters of St. Joseph to train teachers.

And then imagine how professors will teach and students will learn.

"It will probably be in a classroom without walls," said Illana Lane, Ph.D., dean of Medaille’s School of Education. "I would assume that people would be carrying around small devices to communicate back and forth for instruction. Some of it probably would be done face-to-face, some would not necessarily be done face-to-face."

Dr. Lane envisions that the future of learning will be done online or on a virtual site.

"Or with avatars, which I’m sure will be old by that time," said Dr. Lane. "There will be something else new. When I say a wall without classrooms, I mean I could be taking a class in real time with students in another country, where we are engaging back and forth with something that we are doing."

Dr. Lane’s view of the future of learning is very similar to those of several other people associated with Medaille. And not everyone is going to be celebrating the future. 

"I have a fear of what it is going to look like," said Claudia Conway, clinical assistant professor and chair of the undergraduate education program. "I have a fear it is going all virtual. It is going to be all online. We are going to stop doing face-to-face learning and we’re going to move to almost all online."

Conway noted that Medaille already offers an extensive list of online options.

"I think there are some programs where that would be okay," she said. "But in my field, my students need to see me teach. They need to see me model what a teacher does and what a teacher sounds like. It is not something you can learn online. We can do some of that but not exclusively. That’s my fear. And that’s what I see as we become more and more dependent on technology. I see that happening."

Raymond Bailey ’06 teaches a psychology course at the College, and he sees education moving towards a more hands-on approach. He said the technology at Medaille has greatly improved in the last 10 years with the addition of SMART Boards and easy access to the Internet.

"It’s very easy to access video clips and create interactive presentations which really interest the students," said Bailey. "In regards to my psychology class, it’s one thing to try to discuss theories with students but to be able to interact with theories using technology makes more of an impact and it is fun for teachers to interact with students as well." 

Bridget Brace-MacDonald came to Medaille in August as the director of the Center for Community-Based Learning. She realizes that the College will be educating minds in the future in a very different way than she experienced in college almost a decade ago. 

"I think the college classroom of the future is not always going to be in a traditional classroom," said Brace-MacDonald. "I think there will be more experiential education opportunities out in the field, with professors delivering content in a classroom to some degree and then learning simultaneously taking place outside the classroom. There will be more diverse ideas of what a classroom can be."Things certainly have been revolutionized since 1875 when Medaille was founded as an educational institution training nuns to become educators. 

But one thing remains the same: an emphasis on the traditional three Rs - reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.

"The basic skill sets have not changed," said Dr. Lane. "You still need to read and write critically, effectively and grammatically correctly. But communication has clearly shifted in terms of how that is done."

"Everybody needs to be able to read and write," said Conway, who has been in education for more than 30 years. She noted that years ago skilled laborers could have a marketable trade and get by with minimal education to be competitive.

"It doesn’t matter what job you are doing now, you have to have more education to be a better reader," Conway added. "The job force requires educated, literate candidates."

This includes plumbers and auto mechanics.

"Probably even more so because everything is computerized," remarked 

Conway. "Everything has technical manuals. You have to be able to read and to make critical decisions."

Students also need to develop critical thinking skills, and that has become a problem area, said Brace-MacDonald.

"That’s one of the things employers are really having a difficult time with," she said. "One of the things that a liberal arts education like the one Medaille provides is critical thinking skills... It makes you a more agile and competitive job seeker. It gives you more options." 

Amber M. Dixon ’90, who became the interim superintendent of Buffalo Public Schools last summer, agrees that critical thinking skills are in decline.

"I think we spend a lot of time reducing complex situations into their most simple forms," said Dixon. "And the more we do that I think we have less faith in people understanding the complexity of what we do. Complexity is my favorite word because so much is not simple. With social media, with the press, with the infusion of other people’s thoughts into our daily world, it’s hard to make an informed decision... So critical thinking and thoughtful dialogue is going to keep us as a society to be proud of. Quick thoughts, quick answers and sound bites are not the way to go."

Brace-MacDonald believes connecting students to the community where they are learning is the way to go. 

"One of the core principles of an educational system is to hopefully graduate civic-minded students," said Brace-MacDonald. "A lot of colleges don’t necessarily act to ensure that this principle is carried out. Medaille is pretty incredible. We’re making sure that at multiple points undergraduate have access to some form of experiential learning so that they can connect with the local community and become more civically engaged."

Governmental policies and mandates like President Bush’s No Child Left Behind in 2001 and President Obama’s Race to the Top in 2009 have also influenced the way education has changed and will change.

"They have definitely influenced our practice in terms of training our students to become teachers," said Conway. "What the government has mandated for public schools influences how we prepare teachers. So certainly the government has had an impact."

Conway sees positives and negatives in the policies.

"I think we needed the reform," she said. "I’ve been a teacher since 1975 so I’ve gone from a time when there was little direction given to teachers. The practices we used were not research-based. They were what we always did and what we thought was right. The government’s influence has caused us to be more aware of current and appropriate and relevant research in helping kids become proficient. So I think its input has been good. But I also think there is a bad side because we have to be careful that they don’t dictate that, rather they guide."

Dr. Lane added there hasn’t been enough time to know whether the government policies have been helpful or not.

"What we try to do is make sure we are preparing our teachers well enough to go out in the field so they are aware of all of those changes," said Dr. Lane. 

Of course, the way students consume and are influenced by media has made educating them more complicated. Their reliance on and use of social networks like Facebook and Twitter can expand knowledge, but can also dramatically reduce attention spans and impact likelihood of student success. It can be helpful or hurtful.

"I think it is a combination of both," said Dr. Lane. "I think it is helpful because it is another medium and mode of communication. So it is a new way of engaging. You get information quickly, albeit not always correct information. Some of the negatives to it is putting it in perspective what is the best way to educate using those mediums. There is value in having enough time to digest information, reflect upon it, respond, have discussion and engage, dialogue versus being in an environment rooted in getting an immediate response all the time." 

Not surprisingly, a more recent graduate like Bailey sees the positives in social networks and considers Twitter and YouTube "as education giants."  

"You have news directly at your fingertips and for students who may not have access to television or newspapers, it’s a way to stay in the loop. I see social networking as a positive for learning. It’s a way to create new lesson plans with fresh up-to-date information. Even seeing what students at other colleges are working on using YouTube is a way to help students form their own opinions on topics covered in class. It also presents a challenge for educators as well to keep up with the ever-changing social media." 

Dixon said she isn’t sure yet whether the influence of social media is a positive or a negative. 

"It can be a force for good or a force for evil," said Dixon. "I don’t know if quick communication is always the way to go. If we reduce ourselves to sound bites, I don’t think it is the communication we need in this society. I think it can be a tool, but I don’t think it should be our primary tool."

Conway also sees the pluses and minuses.

"I think too much of anything is not good," she said. "It’s how you use it. The fact that information is so available to us is great because we have instant access to everything. What I think is negative is that it is distracting to us at times."

"I like the fact people are talking to each other but I don’t think it is the same kind of conversation that you can have face-to-face. Texting and these short little emails don’t have expression or the inflection or tone. Because of that, you lose the message."

Everyone agrees that the influence of technology on education is an important component now more than ever.

"We have to integrate technology into our classroom and I think Medaille has done a really good job of that," said Conway.

Dr. Lane said that there is current research that indicates that children’s brains are developing differently because of technology and teachers have to adapt. 

"They are wired differently because they’ve been consistently in a digitized world," she said. "So they don’t learn the same way we do. And they multi-task differently... They are multi-tasking on multiple forms of digital. And they are highly sensory. Children are waiting to be entertained.

"Everything is a little extra amplified. Sound effects, animation, loud noise. There actually are some children who can’t learn when it is too quiet. So it is a shift in that way."

That shift affects teachers.

"You are talking about individuals teaching in ways they were not taught when they were in school," said Dr. Lane. She added that in the past teachers thought the way they learned is the way students should continue to learn. That has changed.

"In essence we are training and preparing students for jobs, careers that haven’t been even invented yet because of how fast the needs are changing and how quickly," said Dr. Lane. "The mode we have to be in now, because we don’t technically know what is on the horizon, is to give everybody a skill set that is transitional."  

The job market certainly is in transition. 

"Twenty years ago, people generally stayed in one job," said Dr. Lane. "They stayed in one area. The skill sets they had they were able to use without it being an issue. Clearly, that has changed. People have multiple jobs. They don’t necessarily stay within a 5-10-15 mile radius of where they grew up. They need to have transferrable skills because there is not the same commitment either from employer or employee... So part of it is gearing up people so they are in the mode that it is important to have skill sets to be able to do multiple jobs."

In the past, Dr. Lane said someone who wanted to become a first grade teacher might be able to make that a lifelong career. Not anymore. "The odds you are able to teach the exact same grade are slim to none," said Dr. Lane.

She said that population changes and the changing needs of school districts may prevent teachers from staying in one job, which has led teachers to get multiple certifications.

"It is not a requirement, it is like a professional development stamp," said Dr. Lane. "You need it to be an effective instructor. To be a good teacher, you should have more than one certification."

Many of the teachers Medaille has trained since 1968 may have thought that was hard to imagine. But these days when it comes to the future of education, imaginations run wild.

- Alan Pergament

This content originally appeared in the winter 2011-12 issue of the Medaille Magazine.

color photo by Chris Ripley '12; background photo from the Medaille College archives

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