President Crow: American Research Universities Must Lead Our Emergence from the Stone Age

During the past few years many of us may have confronted the disturbing realization that the standard operating procedures of our contemporary culture often fall short of the mark or even produce entirely unintended consequences.

Transformative pedagogy: Meeting the needs of the digital generation

By Ben Miller Traditional higher education pedagogy, or the approach to instructional design, must now come to terms with the boundless, yet challenging, opportunities made possible through information technology.  Education faces a transformative period in which characteristics of traditional in-person pedagogy interact with those of internet-based, digital learning.  The necessity of this transformation stems from the widening discrepancy between how students prefer to gather information and the pace at which information can be collected outside of traditional classrooms and the satisfaction endemic to the traditional pedagogical approach (Johnson 2005; Tapscott, 2008).  This discussion provides an overview of key characteristics of the contemporary college student, presents suggestions towards optimizing digital pedagogy design, and introduces a financial justification for shifting from traditional pedagogy to online instructional modeling.

The financial benefit of online instructional modeling is one pathway towards long-term survival in the broader discussion of sustainability at institutions of higher education.  As operational costs continue rising, small solutions, including the selective implementation of Course Management Systems (CMS), can realistically defray the financial burden on colleges and universities.  CMS allows academic units to reach more students while mitigating per-student costs.  CMS employment is a small part of the financial sustainability discussion, but this paper argues towards more integration of these systems and the positive tradeoffs of such an initiative against the contemporary higher education landscape, which is characterized by significant demands on enrollment and the high costs of technological integration (Johnstone, 1998).

Duderstadt (2002) suggests the key difference between older generations of students and "the Digital Generation" developed during childhood as "[contemporary] students have spent their early lives immersed in robust, visual, electronic media" and, from this significant formative influence, "today’s students expect – indeed demand – interaction" (p. 61).  In addition to several unique and somewhat misunderstood cognitive development aspects, this early interactive immersion also influences a shift in communicative, informational, and educational preferences.  "Today’s students like to do several things at once – they ‘multitask’…[and] although their attention span appears short…they appear to learn just as effectively as earlier generations" (Duderstadt, 2002, p. 61).  These common contemporary characteristics indicate that students are capable of and accustomed to absorbing relatively massive and diverse quantities of information – a capability that is a potent asset, rather than an inhibiting deficiency (Tapscott, 2008).  Duderstadt (2002) relates these key qualities to current instructional practice asserting that "[digital generation students] learn by experimentation and participation…they embrace interactivity [and] the right to shape and participate in their learning" (p. 62).  From these assertions, it is apparent that the passive nature of traditional pedagogy is increasingly unsatisfying for people engrossed in active knowledge consumption at a constant, daily rate beginning during childhood.

Smith, Salaway, and Caruso (2009) conducted research on undergraduate technology usage in a comprehensive study for the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (pp. 59-80).  These findings elucidate the complex nature of the preferences of the digital generation, describing them as diverse trends that indicate an overriding preference for integrating more technology in pedagogy.  A summary of critical findings from Smith, et al. (2009), follows:

  • In a sample of 30,262 students, 79 percent prefer gathering information through internet searches, a substantially greater percentage than those reporting alternate preferences (p. 61).
  • Preference for internet-based research increases concurrently with self-described levels of skill in employing technology: according to this report 90.2 percent of "very skilled" students prefer using internet searches, while 75.3 percent of "fairly skilled" populations and 60.9 percent of "not at all skilled" populations prefer using internet searches (p. 63).
  • From 2006 to 2009, the percentage of students reporting experience with CMS increased from 79.7 percent to 91.0 percent (p. 69).
  • From 2006 to 2009, the percentage of students reporting a "positive" or "very positive" experience with CMS decreased from 76.1 percent to 63.4 percent while those reporting a "neutral" experience increased from 19.4 percent to 31.7 percent with "negative" experiences reporting within a consistent range of 4.2 percent to 5.8 percent over the same three year period (p. 69).
  • In a sample of 30,324 students, 64.7 percent of students either "strongly disagree" or "disagree" that they prefer to skip in-person meetings if lecture material is available online (p. 72).

A preference for gathering information using internet-based resources is the most compelling finding of this study and is consistent with social research on the cognitive development and preferences of the digital generation (Duderstadt 2002; Tapscott 2008).  Moreover, even a clear majority of students that do not consider themselves skilled in internet-based research prefer this avenue over alternatives.  CMS clearly dominates the online component of contemporary pedagogy.  Ninety-one percent of students have experience with this technology and approximately ninety-five percent of respondents described a non-negative experience with CMS (Smith, et al., 2009, pp. 63-72).  The interplay between simultaneously reported preferences for technology and in-person instruction illustrates the hybrid nature of transformative pedagogy meeting the needs of the digital generation.  The phenomenon of decreasing satisfaction with CMS may be attributable to inflated satisfaction associated with the initial novelty (circa 2006) of integrating technological components into traditional pedagogy.  Although most respondents in this study prefer technologically-integrated pedagogy, it is important to include both in-person and internet-based elements when designing curricula aligned with the needs and preferences of the digital generation.

Creating the infrastructure, interest, and funds necessary for this fundamental shift in pedagogical design is a cultural transformation not easily realized.  The United States Department of Education (2008) compares this transformation to that faced by the business sector during the late 1990s.  As in higher education, major business firms invested in emerging technologies but did not immediately tap into the power of these technologies.  Over the following decade, businesses reaped the benefits of implementing efficient technological systems by redesigning their operational models to take advantage of their investment (p. 2).  Similarly, institutions of higher education must also adopt this approach.  The immediate challenge is to produce measurable outcomes.  The United States Department of Education (2008) claims "the large public investments in educational technology (exceeding 18 billion dollars in the last decade) have not yet produced in the education sector corresponding increases in productivity as measured by academic achievement" (p. 2).  While it is clear that "measures of productivity" must be considered as indicative of productivity resulting from technological integration, it is equally clear the frontier of possibilities is only now being broached.

The University of Alabama (UA)’s Mathematics Technology Learning Center (MTLC) provides a revealing example of the positive impact that transformative, non-traditional pedagogy can have on reducing administrative costs and facilitating measurable learning outcomes.  Moreover, the digital generation students participating in this academic experiment responded more favorably and learned with greater effectiveness than their counterparts, who were subjected to traditional higher education pedagogy.

Initially, the redesign of instructional pedagogy for five undergraduate mathematics courses at UA entirely eliminated in-person lectures in favor of computer-based learning and assessment.  The CMS, known as MyMathLab, allows students to elect using an online text or video instruction, provides automated grading of assessments (for which students are allowed limitless chances to master material before attempting computer-based quizzes), and monitors student participation automatically (Witkowski, 2008, p. 34).  This individualized and flexible pedagogy substantially increased productivity (as measured by student learning outputs).  Moreover, quantifying productivity gains in mathematics is relatively easy considering the finite nature of relevant subject matter.  Witkowski (2008) describes an increase in student success (achieving a C- average, or higher) of 40.4 percent to 59.8 percent from 2000 to 2007: a direct result of employing the MyMathLab CMS.  This percentage peaked at 73.8 percent in 2006 (p. 35).  Since then, UA re-integrated mandatory in-person lectures to supplement the MyMathLab system and many other departments adopted similar strategies to integrate CMS.

The UA-MTLC story contradicts the perception that institutions of higher education have not yet effectively shifted into the technology-based-pedagogy paradigm.  This cogent example of hybrid instructional modeling reflects the pace and informational format preferred by the digital generation.  This initiative corroborates Smith, et al. (2009)’s observation that a majority of students have non-negative experiences with CMS (p. 69).  Further, based on first-hand testimony provided by Witkowski (2008), the student experience with MyMathLab technology was overwhelmingly positive as productivity, measured by passing rates, increased notably (pp. 34-35).  This method of mathematics instruction, enhanced by the simultaneous influences of in-person lectures coupled with CMS technology, illustrates how transformative pedagogy can not only meet the needs of contemporary students, but also provide measurable indicators of productivity necessary to justify the prerequisite financial investment towards refined course design in the future.

Duderstadt (2002) describes the "digital age" as one in which "literacy [in] digital technologies is rapidly becoming an essential skill in a knowledge-driven society" (p. 64).  From this, the role of digital age higher education becomes clear: to hone and foster the abilities of students to employ digital resources in the pursuit of knowledge and interdisciplinary collaboration.  The UA example illustrates the effective use of technology, but more discussion is needed relative to individual student learning styles and preferences.

Adams, Devaney, and Sawyer (2009) offer Adam’s (2007) Recursive Model for Knowledge Development in Virtual Environments to further explain the relationship between pedagogical inputs and learning outputs.  This model relies on three axis of understanding: Knowledge Authority, Teaching Approach, and Knowledge Approach.  The Teaching Approach axis is most relevant to developing CMS in the digital age, as this part of the model "refers to the teaching strategies employed to develop skill sets and foster engagement and creative use of the knowledge" (p. 7).  Within the CMS paradigm, these strategies relate to pedagogy format (i.e. how the information is packaged and transmitted), the pace at which information becomes available to students (an instructor may initially elect to release only foundational concepts, for example), and selection of appropriate assessment tools.  The model argues that knowledge construction is greatly enhanced through refined pedagogy design aimed at establishing contextual relevance for digital generation students.  Smith, et al. (2009) assert that a majority of students prefer to construct knowledge through internet searches, but other formats are also effective and can be more easily integrated into transformative digital age pedagogy (p.61).

The active nature of digital age learning does not mean that one definitive pedagogical design is superior to alternatives.  Digital generation students are not solely described by technological skill levels and preferences.  Learning styles are still diverse as are the categorical areas in which students construct relevance.  Keirsey (1998 and 2001), from Kwan and Fong (eds.) (2005), modeled four student typologies: Artisan, Idealist, Guardian, and Rational.  These relate to knowledge-construction preference respective to each temperament:

  • Artisans prefer "hands-on experience, exploring, experimenting [and] are action-oriented in their learning approaches" (p. 194).
  • Idealists prefer "brainstorming, listening, speaking, interacting with others [and] are people-oriented in their learning approaches" (p. 194).
  • Guardians prefer "manipulating materials, following directions, building on given tasks [and] are details-and facts- oriented in their learning approaches" (p. 194).
  • Rationals prefer "logic, analysis, classifying, and drawing conclusions.  They are concepts-oriented in their learning approaches" (p. 194).

Awareness of these four typologies is critical to developing Teaching Approaches for virtual learning, and CMS is flexible enough to accommodate these learning styles.  For some of the typologies, creating relevance through pedagogical design is straightforward, while meeting the needs of others will require more creativity.  The interactive nature of idealists, for example, can be nurtured through dialogue-based pedagogy.  Current technological tools suited to idealist preferences include discussion boards, real-time chat rooms within virtual classrooms, and video communications.  Guardians are likely to be satisfied with objective systems like the MyMathLab CMS, which provide concept-based learning (through online text and/or video lectures) and remote assessment.  Rationals may prefer learning through slide presentations, podcasts, or text-based conceptual descriptions.  Artisans are the most likely to prefer laboratory-based, in-person instruction in which tactile experience facilitates knowledge construction.  Pedagogical design must evolve to include these different typology-based approaches, as well as combinations of specific typological preferences to increase effectiveness: any lesser effort needlessly disservices digital generation students.  And they are, as described by Duderstadt (2002) "active learners, since they will increasingly demand responsibility for their own learning experiences and outcomes…students will seek less to ‘know about’ and more to ‘know how’" (p. 64).  The transformative pedagogy of the digital age will continue to incorporate a hybrid design, but not out of cost or resource necessity.  It will do so because CMS’s largely untapped potential can satisfy the typological preferences of contemporary students through an evolution in Teacher Approach and technology-enriched course design.

Thus far, this discussion has focused largely on the philosophical factors of transformative pedagogy.  However, the associated costs of computer-based pedagogy represent a factor of significant interest to those involved with CMS planning and expansion.  Abell (2006) describes digital age pedagogy as employing "complex algorithms to cull appropriate student specific content…through synchronization of curricula presented using portable handheld devices…offer[ing] extensive customization and intelligent learning features" (p. 11).  Clearly, a substantial investment in technological development and integration will be required to implement the system described here, but real examples of long-term savings help justify the initial costs.  Witkowski (2008) noted that UA per-student costs in its MATH 100 course decreased by 28 percent when the university began employing MyMathLab CMS in 2001 (p. 37).  In this instance, CMS employment enhanced the financial sustainability of the University of Alabama Mathematics Department through a significant reduction in operational costs.  It is unclear, however, whether these savings can be replicated in more advanced courses requiring specially-skilled instructors.  As introductory courses are generally characterized by high enrollments, savings can be magnified when CMS is applied to these types of courses.  This is a sustainable strategy as reduced costs (even if localized only in introductory course offerings) potentially offset the initial costs of developing and implementing CMS.  Meanwhile, many students will likely discover a more personalized education aligned with their preferences for format, pace, and information consumption.

Bartley and Golek (2004) describe the significance of return on investment (ROI) in justifying the advantages of technology-based learning over traditional instructional models.  ROI is established by determining the positive or negative differential between the costs and benefits of an investment (p. 172).  When benefits (both financial and indirect) exceed costs, institutions gain a more financially sustainable and advantageous position.  CMS technology investments may prove to be immense, encompassing not only purchasing rights to technology and infrastructure development, but also the human resources training needed to make the technology functional and effective.  These costs, however, are easier to quantify than the indirect benefits of transformative pedagogy.  While long-term cost savings in course delivery (as in the UA example) are direct benefits, the indirect benefits of increased student satisfaction, learning, and professional exploration—all common goals of institutions of higher education—must also be considered.  ROI analysis based on realistic assessment of financial inputs versus both tangible and intangible outcomes will determine the speed and extent at which institutions and educators adopt transformative, technology-based pedagogy.

In conclusion, pedagogy design in higher education currently exhibits a hybrid personality in which traditional practices interact with technology on a regular basis for the majority of students.  The highly personalized redesign of digital age pedagogy can unlock the potential of technology for a new digital generation of students and build a foundation for the future.  Moreover, employing CMS is potentially one of the most effective strategies towards the incremental reduction of costs and financial sustainability for institutions of higher education.


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Bartley, S. J., & Golek, J. H. (2004). Evaluating the cost effectiveness of online and face-to-face instruction. Educational Technology & Society, 7(4), 167-175.

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Johnstone, D. B. (1998). The financing and management of higher education: A status report on worldwide reforms (World Bank report). Retrieved from World Bank website:

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Smith, S. D., Salaway, G., & Caruso, J. B. (2009). The ECAR study of undergraduate students and information technology, 2009. (Volume 6). Retrieved from EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research website:

Tapscott, Don. (2008). Grown up digital: How the net generation is changing your world. New York: McGraw-Hill

U. S. Department of Education. (2008). Harnessing innovation to support student success: Using technology to personalize education. Retrieved from:

Witkowski, K. (2008). Increasing learning and decreasing costs through technology: The University of Alabama story. Change, March/April (2008), 32-37.

Contributor's Biography:

Ben Miller is currently working towards a Master's Degree in Higher and Post-secondary Education at Arizona State University after completing a Bachelor's Degree in Sports Management from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 2008.  He resides permanently in North Attleboro, Massachusetts and commenced graduate studies in Spring 2009.  His research interests include the effects of technology on students, American social traditions, and modern military studies.  He will pursue a career in institutional learning and development and/or continue research at the doctoral level with the objective of joining a university faculty.