Research & Innovation

Distinguished Purdue Professor Visits Stevens to Talk STEM Education and Digital Learning

Stevens has been talking to experts nationwide as it looks to implement its strategic plan. One of those experts, Purdue University Professor Johannes Strobel, visited the Babbio Center on Feb. 11 and gave a detailed presentation on the alignments, challenges and opportunities facing STEM education in the context of digital technologies.

Stevens Provost George Korfiatis introduced Strobel, calling his expertise in education very relevant to what Stevens has been planning.

“Teaching and learning are critical components of our plan,” Korfiatis said.

Korfiatis said the strategic plan calls for Stevens to build a new digital learning laboratory. Korfiatis said Stevens will continue to meet with experts like Strobel to understand how best to build the lab.

“We're starting this series of seminars and activities around digital learning in order to shape our approach to this, so we don't end up with 5,000 square feet of a laboratory and we don't know what to do with it,” Korfiatis said. “It will take a couple of years to build a building, but we have to start the efforts of implementing that strategic plan now, and this is part of that implementation.”

Strobel, who serves as assistant professor of Engineering Education & Learning Design and Technology, and who directs Purdue's Institute for P-12 Engineering Research and Learning, began his presentation by reminding the audience how much the world is changing.

“Business as usual will not bring us very far, and education as usual will not bring us very far either,” he said. “We've seen changes that the world is flat, we've seen globalization hitting, and at the same time education as a system is very much under stress and very much under critique.”

Strobel then described the current higher education landscape. He said that universities still have a monopoly on credentialing, that governments are attaching more strings to funding, that tuition levels are nearing the limit of what students are willing to pay, and that outsiders perceive academic institutions as sluggish and outdated. Strobel said that schools sometimes lose focus of the “big four” of needing to increase access, raise quality, provide value and decrease cost.

As a result, online education is booming. Strobel cited statistics that found that more than 6 million students – a third of all students in higher education – took at least one online course in 2010, and that online enrollment grew by over 21 percent from the previous year, compared with just 2 percent for higher education overall.

Strobel explained that online classes offer students several incentives, including convenient access, flexible scheduling and lower costs. He said that students today are “digital natives” who grew up with technology and see learning online as natural.

However, Strobel highlighted three polarities that challenge digital learning. He said that students feel virtually connected and yet suffer from “location-deficit disorder” when understanding their own communities; that computing is ubiquitous and yet education lags in adopting it; and that student digital natives study under professors who are only digital immigrants in contrast.

Strobel further sketched the existing framework for STEM education and digital technologies. He said that while students can follow some industry standards and transferable applications, they waste time having to learn procedures for software rather than the concepts the software teach.

“Research tells us that the more we give students an opportunity to learn in a structured environment that is very sophisticated and situated, the less they're able to transfer, because they learn in a very particular context,” he said. “If you want them to transfer you need to keep some level of abstraction.”

Strobel also said that students are experimenting with digital technologies such as blogs, wikis and social media, and are re-purposing them for educational use. But what these digital natives find natural might not fit in a classroom setting.

“The intended use was not educational, so there is a clash when you bring them to a classroom,” Strobel said.

After explaining the current framework and challenges to it, Strobel presented his suggestions for new ways to understand and improve student opportunities to learn digitally.

Strobel called for universities and industries to collaborate to better prepare students for their future careers. He cited MIT's work with the defense industry as an example.

“This could be really similar in universities, joining research and development and digital learning, and really targeting lateral architecture spanning the life cycle of students, so when students leave they actually know enterprise systems that they might encounter in industry,” Strobel said.

Strobel said he encourages professors treat their classrooms the same way they value their research.

“If you think of a classroom as more of an engineering problem, we might get more of that mindset where we bring real research into the classroom,” he said.

Strobel also said universities should focus on preparing students for a lifetime of learning.

“We seem to be extremely focused on these four years when kids are in undergraduate,” he said. “The worst we can do is have a graduation ceremony. We're communicating to them that their learning life is over. This is not the right message. We should understand how we can connect with systems integrated with the lifespan of students well after they're gone.”