There’s an App for That

From a proliferation of mobile applications to online distance learning, technology is rapidly changing the world around us, and higher education is no exception.

In addition to making education more accessible to those who may not be able to attain it otherwise (through online courses and distance-learning curricula), technology contributes to a more global education, as universities increase their presence overseas and classrooms—albeit virtual—include more international perspectives.

Particularly with those who are choosing to further their education after entering the workforce, the ability to take courses online is an attractive option.

Kevin Cottrell Jr., 30, a researcher for NBA-TV (National Basketball Association television), decided to pursue a master’s degree in sports management after last season’s NBA lockout threatened his job security. Cottrell, who went the traditional brick-and-mortar route to earn his bachelor’s degree at Clark Atlanta University, says that the opportunity to pursue his education online rather than taking time off from work was instrumental in his decision to enroll in Drexel University’s sports management master’s degree program.

“In this era where money matters, people can’t afford to take two years off from working to pursue an education, so technology is helping the general public by allowing us … to work such unconventional hours and still pursue a degree from a reputable university,” Cottrell says.

Eugene Fields, 39, was 35 when he decided to finish his education. He had earned about two years of credits from a community college, but Fields, who was working two jobs at the time, could not stop working to return to school full time and did not want to drag out the process of obtaining a degree.

“The circumstances of life kept me from finishing my college education in the traditional method,” Fields says, adding he chose the University of Phoenix because of the flexibility to complete his education while managing the demands of life outside academia.

Fields, who earned his associate’s degree from the University of Phoenix in 2010, a bachelor’s in February of this year, and is currently enrolled in a master’s program with the institution, says he decided it was time to return to school because it became necessary to move forward with his career.

“I had 15 years of working experience in my chosen field, but I lacked a degree, which kept me from being promoted and earning a higher wage,” he says. Thanks to the convenience of modern technology, Fields says he was able to fill in those gaps.

“I think the role of technology in this landscape is key,” Cottrell says. “A lot of our curriculum is based on how technology affects our industry. From social networking to mobile devices to the Web, it’s at the forefront of every industry and it’s how we generate revenue across the board. So not only are we using technology in our learning, but we are still learning about technology and its advances as it pertains to our industry.”

The Portable Classroom

And then there’s the convenience factor.

Thanks to mobile education apps and the convenience of being able to sign in from anywhere on most any device, students can take their classwork anywhere with them.

“I was at a hockey game once and I realized I wasn’t going to be done with the game in time to fulfill my [class] participation requirement,” Fields says. “So I logged in on my tablet that I had with me, [and] during a break [in the] game, I was able to spend 30 minutes” answering the posted discussion question.

But while the benefits are countless, there are also potential drawbacks to implementing technology as a central part of the higher education experience.

For example, longstanding processes like consideration for tenure and promotions may need to be reconsidered to account for faculty’s willingness to adopt new technologies. In addition, other potential disruptions, including increased plagiarism, cheating and lack of focus may also be attributable to easy access to mobile devices.

“To me the only benefit is the ability to work at my own pace. I’d much rather be in a class face-to-face with a professor participating with [classmates], but I’m old-school,” Cottrell says. “This is the new wave of education, and it will allow more people to continue their education. I use my iPad to read things such as books and articles but I still need my computer to complete projects [and] research papers.”

Plugged In

Thanks to the ease of communication via email and social networks and the ability to log on to classes from anywhere around the world, technology has made education more globally accessible and the exchange of information and ideas more instantaneous.

International collaboration on research and class projects is no longer restricted by geographic location. Those who are unable to physically sit in a room together can use social media and email to work cooperatively toward a shared goal, enabling students to enjoy perspectives outside their natural frame of reference.

“Global education aims to prepare students to understand and engage in the world both locally and globally,” says Dr. Merry Merryfield, social studies and global education professor emeritus at Ohio State University. “Many teachers connect their classrooms to people and organizations in other countries to learn about issues and ideas and develop intercultural skills.”

Wendell Marsh, a 25-year-old doctoral student at Columbia University, has traveled extensively throughout the course of his study and acknowledges the importance of technology to his continued research into languages and cultures of the Middle East and Africa.

Presently spending the summer studying in Morocco, not only have social media, Skype and email helped Marsh to stay in contact with friends and family at home, they have introduced him to people abroad who assist in his educational pursuits.

“Whether pursuing new educational opportunities, conducting research on primary and secondary sources, or finding contacts to add a human dimension to my work, technology has helped me create and maintain a global network of people and information,” he says.

A student of languages, Marsh has been able to converse with people across the globe in their native tongues, strengthening not only his network of professionals, but his grasp of multiple languages.

“I am studying Arabic in a technologically-rich learning environment,” he says. “Classroom time, host family interactions, combined with iPad-based flashcards to learn vocabulary and Aktub, an Internet-based Arabic typing program,” have been especially helpful in his study of the language, he says.

Videoconferencing technologies such as Skype, often thought of as a means for young adults to confer with each other over things as trivial as what to wear to the movies, have become increasingly more present in classrooms across the country, as guest lecturers from around the world are able to instruct classes anywhere across the globe with the help of a webcam and projector screen.

Groups like the Africa Education Initiative have launched Skype lecture series, which feature lectures, and, in the case of the African Education Initiative, a mentoring component to help students with their graduate studies.

“E-learning and global education support each other as the Web and electronic communication are global in nature and allow students to learn from people around the planet and engage with them in learning and problem solving,” Merryfield says.