Saturday, November 4, 2023

Generation AI and Humans in the Loop of Learning

This year’s edition of eCampusOntario’s Technology and Education Seminar and Showcase -- #TESS2023 – was another huge success. It is at TESS that we convene the postsecondary education sector and all its stakeholders to focus on the co-creation of the province’s digital learning ecosystem.

We were grateful to once again have Elder Whabagoon provide our conference with a moving context for opening and closing the discussions.

At the outset of TESS2023 we heard from OntarioTech University president and eCampusOntario Board co-chair Steven Murphy, who asked that we think about digital and learning as essential experiences in a global context. President of Humber College and eCampusOntario Board co-chair Ann Marie Vaughan reminded us that we are the change makers, and that this requires us to lead with innovation and care. 

This year we explored the digitally empowered learner and how technology can open new doors to the knowledge and skills learners need to achieve the future they imagine. 

In supporting the digitally empowered learner, we are collectively creating not just the future of learning but the future of work. This is also the future of social interaction and the future of civic engagement. 

Supporting the digitally empowered learner is about so much more than online learning; it is about all the technologies we all use in almost every aspect of our lives. And importantly, it means ensuring that humans are at the centre of the design of technology. 

The Honourable Jill Dunlop, Ontario’s Minister of Colleges and Universities provided an inspiring message about the essential nature of digital learning, and what it means to supporting an innovative and competitive Ontario. As Minister Dunlop said, the Government sees digital learning as a key player – not a supporting character – in postsecondary education. 

Minister Dunlop is a tireless advocate for the value of postsecondary education, providing leadership and support for digital learning as an essential part of our world leading postsecondary education system. She outlined some of the ways the third round of the Virtual Learning Strategy (VLS) is continuing to support our institutions with a focus on priority areas and continuing to have a positive impact – building hybrid learning capacity. 

I think of this as sticking the landing. The historic investment of $70M in the VLS continues to have a significant impact. We conducted an economic impact analysis of the Government’s investment in digital learning. The results are clear:

For every dollar invested in virtual learning, our members receive $5 in value through our platforms and programs. This equals $650,000 annually.

Our member institutions directly benefit from eCampusOntario programs that supplement or replace activities the members either could not provide or would have to fund independently.

And learners receive over $15M in value, through services that help faculty teach and learners learn – helping Ontario compete globally. 

As Minister Dunlop mentioned, eCampusOntario is currently focused on increasing Accessibility and our collective readiness to meet the AODA. More Open Education and wider interoperability of the Open Library. And support for our Francophone learners and teachers. 

Minister Dunlop also mentioned the new Microcredentials Challenge Fund set to be launched that will enable Ontario to continue to lead in this space. I invite you to check out the latest development of the Micro-Credentials Portal. We have been working closely with the Future Skills Centre and the Conference Board of Canada to mobilize labour market information and occupation-specific data to enable smart scaffolding for learners. This means they can input their current or desired job title, and find the skills and competencies required for it, and links to programs that offer these. 

We also heard about the importance of partnerships and collaboration. This is one of the six dimensions of Digital Transformation that we are supporting. Increasing the porosity of our institutions for more public-private partnerships is resulting in more learners having access to programs, bridging to careers, while helping businesses across the province to innovate.

The opening panel featured Mary Butler, President and CEO of New Brunswick Community College (NBCC), Tricia Williams, Director of Research, Evidence and Knowledge Mobilization, Future Skills Centre and Patrick MacKenzie, CEO, Immigrant Employment Council of BC Discussing Facilitating Access to Skilled Talent: Improving Employment Outcomes for Canadian Newcomers, a program that takes a human-centred design approach to supporting labour market integration for newcomers. 

We heard from Nicole Johnson Executive Director, Canadian Digital Learning Research Association reviewed Current Digital Learning Trends – this is always a highlight as it provides us with up to date data as to the current state of digital by design learning. And Val Walker CEO, Business + Higher Education Roundtable (BHER), provided guidance on Navigating an AI-Powered Future: Perspectives from Employers and Postsecondary Leaders.

eCampusOntario team members provided insight on our many platform and programs, as well as foresight informing Artifacts in the Futures of Postsecondary Education. Our francophone team members outlined the many ways we have expanded our support for Ontario’s learners.

TESS2023 encouraged us to ask some important questions: 

  • How do we prepare our learners to be literate in the use of today’s technologies and those yet to come? 
  • How do we ensure that people have the necessary digital fluency to thrive in their careers and in society?

And perhaps more fundamentally: 

  • What is digital empowerment? 
  • What does this mean for our learners? Our institutions? 

Let’s consider artificial intelligence. Our keynote speaker on day two – Dr Bonnie Stewart, focused on preserving participatory learning experiences as a counterpoint to automated outputs. 

This is an important point. Humans – experiences and engagement – are at the centre of learning. 

Generative AI has given rise to Generation AI. Generation Alpha may include those born between 2010 and 2024, but those of us from prior generations – X, Y, Z – are also part of Generation AI: the current generation of people growing up with the use of AI.

But all of us are the humans in the loop that can and should be directing the use of AI, to ensure that the experience of learning is much more than mere access to content. 

AI is just the latest, most current and seemingly most disruptive new technology. There are many more technologies on the horizon that will continue to challenge us. Technological change has always been a fact. It is the pace of this change that is new, and accelerating. And dealing with these changes productively is why digital fluency – and digital empowerment – are so important. 

In many respects, digital fluency is the lingua franca of learning. This is about learning how to learn, and how to learn with and through any media. About learning how to learn with other people. This is empowering.

Technology is certainly useful in many situations, but we need people and engagement to support digital empowerment.

Talking and engaging with others at events like this is essential for sharing ideas and learning what works, what doesn’t, and how we can leverage our collective insights to benefit learners. 

At TESS this year we discussed learner empowerment, work integrated learning, about using AR and VR, about learning with Open Educational Resources, Artificial Intelligence and other digital learning trends. 

Throughout these discussions we kept a consistent focus on how we can promote digital fluency and digital empowerment. A focus on how we can work together to ensure that people can learn and work with any technology, that they can use any media to be an engaged learner and productive citizen. 

A focus on how we can enhance the human in the loop of learning

With a special thanks to our sponsors for this year’s TESS: CDP Communications, Crowdmark, Wooclap, Koru Coaching and Education, and VoiceEd Radio (live podcasting in the vendor showcase!). And a special thanks the Ministry of Colleges and Universities, our main funder for the event. Thank you all for your support.

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