By James J. Barney
Associate Professor of Legal Studies, School of Security and Global Studies, American Public University
Note: The opinions and comments stated in the following article do not necessarily represent the views of American Public University, American Public University System, its management or employees. This blog article, written by a licensed lawyer, is intended solely for educational purposes, not to provide any legal advice or to solicit clients in any U.S. or foreign jurisdiction. This article should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state or locality.
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Recently, the noted business commentator Maria Bartiromo hosted a compelling documentary on the potential widespread impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on various occupations. Other commentators have predicted that the adoption of AI will radically transform all levels of education.
These trends will affect online higher education over the next few decades as the line between online and brick-and-mortar education will blur further.
AI Is a Tool Rather than a Replacement
AI tools will likely gain widespread use over the next few decades. However, creative online instructors at institutions of higher learning will maintain a decisive edge over AI machines for the foreseeable future due to experiential learning methods inside and outside the online classroom.
Admittedly, AI can assist online instructors in myriad ways. For example, they can use AI to monitor student activity in the online classroom. Additionally, AI tools might effectively conduct and analyze student performance and retention data. Similarly, instructors can use AI to grade assignments that test rote memorization skills. That will free up time so professors can engage in other activities.
AI-powered instructional devices will serve many purposes, but they will not soon replace instructors whose online classrooms feature content-rich peer-to-peer and instructor-to-peer experiential learning experiences. Moreover, AI-powered tools will not soon displace online professors who take the time to mentor their students, provide them with rich in-person experiences, and help build a sense of community on the virtual campus.
Rather than despair of or fear AI, online instructors must take AI as both a motivation to improve their online classrooms and as an opportunity to experiment with new methods of instruction. Furthermore, AI should act as an incentive for instructors to become more actively involved in creating robust student-to-student interactions and instructor-to-student bonds. These cannot be easily duplicated by AI instructional tools.
Low-Tech Experiential Learning Methods inside the Online Classroom
As described by Vanderbilt University professor of education practice Janet Eyler, the power of experiential education involves many different practices that ask the student to learn by doing. Advocates of experimental learning argue that students learn best not by rote memorization, but by the application of knowing how to do something.
In the online environment, experiential education can take many forms ranging from games, debates and role-playing to assignments that ask students to apply knowledge to complete a task.
While AI may eventually develop creativity, the human instructor at this point can use his or her experience, subject matter knowledge, and pedagogical training to create assessments and tasks not easily duplicated, graded, or moderated by AI. Furthermore, online instructors can use forums and discussion boards to cultivate rich peer-to-peer and instructor-to-student interaction that AI tools will not likely match.
Universities Are Often Reluctant to Adopt New Methods of Instruction
Universities are often reluctant to adopt new methods of instruction, fearful of development costs as well as students’ adverse reaction to change. But the adoption of experiential learning methods in the online classroom does not necessarily require new technologies.
Instead, many experiential learning methods can work effectively with the many learning management systems (LMS) available in the education marketplace. For example, an online instructor can create a simple role-playing game or a structured debate – just two of the many possible low-tech experiential methods – using the forum or discussion boards offered by any LMS.
Additionally, fears of student resistance to change are overstated. Students, while often initially resistant to change, will embrace the modified methods once they recognize that experiential methods have real-world applicability and if instructors are patient with students during the first weeks of an online course.
Experiential learning methods – like games, structured debates, case study analysis and other techniques – give students a small taste of a given subject. Thus, while an occasional student may voice opposition to the methods of instruction, assessment, and evaluation spawned by experiential learning, most students eagerly welcome the opportunity to apply the knowledge they’ve learned via readings and study.
Moving Ideas from Theory into Practice
In the summer of 2018, I engaged in a class revision of a Homeland Security Law course. I developed a forum-centric class based on experiential principles, using LMS technology and sources available via the school’s online library.
I eliminated the previous assessments that included two exams and a 10- to 15-page research paper. In their place, I created a series of shorter assignments in the online forums. In my revisions, I experimented with various experiential methods in the discussion board of the online classroom, including the use of the case model method popularized by Harvard Business School, structured debates, and scaffolded paper assignments.
Each week, I asked students to read a carefully curated list of open-source readings and then engage in a task that asked them to apply the readings to complete various assignments. For example, I asked students to make a legal argument in a short paper. They had to defend their position in the face of strong Socratic questioning in the forums/discussion boards during a structured debate. Or, they could submit various parts of their short written assignments in the forums.
I asked the students to engage in role-playing. I assigned them roles to play as a decision-maker, governmental official, member of an advocacy group or a citizen. Some students initially balked at defending legal positions that they did not personally agree with.
But role-playing forces students to see how a person’s perspective affects how they view the world and legal issues. Most importantly, at various stages in the class I asked students to respectfully critique and evaluate the work of their peers, including the paper writing process, and to serve as judges during the debate weeks.
Challenges in the Development and Delivery of an Experiential Online Course
Admittedly, there are several challenges in the development and delivery of an experiential online course. First, an experiential online course is not an easy class to teach. It requires a highly engaged and creative instructor trained in the art of delivering such a course.
Also, the course requires additional and different work than students are used to. Thus, it takes time for students to adjust to an experiential course where they are in command of their learning. Finally, the development of an experiential course requires the support of an institution willing to embrace experimentation with new methods of instruction.
Despite the barriers to successfully delivering an experiential course, students seem to enjoy the challenges the barriers posed. In addition, the class achieved the objectives I established when I made the revisions.
Student feedback in multiple sections of the revised class showed that most students left the course with a deeper sense of the legal issues that homeland security professionals confront and how they operate in a system that must comport with constitutional law. Also, most students seemed to take ownership of their learning as they rapidly adapted to new and different assignments and tasks.
Experiential methods like those used in the revision of the Homeland Security Law class have widespread applicability. For example, the Department of Emergency and Disaster and Fire Service Program at APUS has developed a series of robust games and simulations to enhance the classes.
Online Institutions Can Use Experiential Learning Experiences outside the Classroom
Online universities can also utilize many experiential learning experiences outside the classroom. In an increasingly competitive education market, students are demanding personal attention, rich peer-to-peer experiences, and individualized professor-to-student interactions.
Students in today’s increasingly competitive educational marketplace are also seeking institutions that provide them with the opportunity to engage in a wide variety of experiences. These opportunities range from internships and study-abroad trips to student groups competing in a mock trial or a National Model United Nations convention.
As the line between online education and brick-and-mortar learning continues to dissolve, online educators will find themselves increasingly in face-to-face interaction with their students, from mentoring individual students to acting as advisors to student groups.
APUS students and instructors have the opportunity to engage in numerous student organizations, clubs, and professional organizations via the Department of Student Affairs.
While an AI bot can quickly grade a multiple-choice exam and free up an instructor’s time for student interactions, it is unlikely that students would accept an AI tool as a student group advisor, chaperone a field trip, arrange an internship, or serve as a mentor during a career search or the admissions process.
Students Will Benefit from Blurred Lines between Online and Brick-and-Mortar Schools
Over the past decade or more, many brick-and-mortar institutions have started offering online degrees. Additionally, law schools that long expressed reluctance to adopt online education have started to venture cautiously into that world.
Educational partnerships between forward-looking online universities and the late-entries to the online educational space will benefit online students by giving them access to a host of additional opportunities. For example, a domestic exchange program between an online university and a small and mid-size brick-and-mortar university could give online students the opportunity to take classes not offered by the online university or participate in a study abroad program. Such an exchange program might also give online students preferential treatment in admission to programs not provided by the online university.
Creative Human Instructors Will Retain the Edge over AI for the Foreseeable Future
Over the next several decades, AI will transform many industries, including online education, in ways both foreseeable and unforeseeable. However, human online instructors will not meet the same fate as the dodo. Unlike those doomed, flightless birds, human instructors possess the ability to adapt to changes in their environment.
Computers can do many things, but they cannot care for students or provide the type of human support that students need to succeed academically, emotionally, and socially. Most importantly, computers lack any real-world experience to share with students.
Experiential learning, skillfully employed inside and outside the online classroom, is only one of the many ways that human online instructors and institutions will thrive in the new world ushered in by AI. Ultimately, online students will be the beneficiaries of the changes in the educational landscape.
About the Author
James Barney is an Associate Professor of Legal Studies in the School of Security and Global Studies. In addition to possessing a J.D., James possesses several master’s degrees, including in American foreign policy. He is currently completing his Ph.D. in History. James serves as one of the faculty advisors of the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity as well as the Model United Nations Club and acts as the pre-law advisor at APU. Currently, he is working on a year-long research project that focuses on Justice Kavanaugh’s impact on the Supreme Court.