Michael Sankey is the Director of Learning Futures and Lead Education Architect at Charles Darwin University. He is also the President of the Australasian Council on Open, Distance and eLearning. As a highly experienced leader, coach and mentor in the field of technology-enhanced learning in higher education, he set out to create a comprehensive edited volume on the virtual university, together with Henk Huijser and Rachel Fitzgerald.
The publication “Technology-Enhanced Learning and the Virtual University” discusses recent issues and noteworthy advancements that hold significance for administrators, instructional designers, public officials, and various other stakeholders and decision-makers. It extensively examines the ongoing discourse surrounding the choice between virtual and traditional brick-and-mortar approaches in higher education. With a global perspective, the book chapters offer practical insights and solutions that can be applied by higher education institutions worldwide. The book covers the nitty gritty aspects of running and maintaining a university infrastructure, reflects on the impact of globalization and internationalization on delivery and demand of higher education, comments on the commoditization of research, and discusses the changing paradigms of teaching and learning.
In the interview for AACE Review Michael shares his lessons learned from the publication process, his thoughts on virtual vs. in-person learning, the role of learning management systems (LMS), and his perspective on changes brought on by generative AI.
Stefanie Panke: As an author, it was a pleasure to contribute to “Technology-Enhanced Learning and the Virtual University”. Who is this book for? And why should people read it?
Michael Sankey: The book is for a range of people. It’s for those who are interested in becoming more involved in the notion of a virtual university or a university that leverages online technologies to help their students. This includes administrators and teachers. Additionally, it’s for governance bodies within institutions. The book provides a detailed process by which an institution can benchmark itself against current practices and suggests ways to enhance their processes using the recommendations in the book.
Affordances of Virtual Learning
Stefanie Panke: We all have a pretty good sense of what a university looks like when it’s campus-based. Do we have the same strong notion of what a university is in a digital space?
Michael Sankey: Since Covid, we’ve gained a clearer idea of what a virtual university might resemble. However, we haven’t fully realized it yet. Our rapid response to Covid meant that everything was put online swiftly. A virtual university, to mirror a traditional one, needs a different approach than just uploading lectures. Different pedagogies are required for what would normally be face-to-face. The emergence of technologies like Microsoft Teams, Slack, and the newer Learning Management Systems provide more tools for this purpose. While the Learning Management System was central in higher education for many years, we now have various tools linking to it through LTI and APIs. This allows for alternative methods to what we do face-to-face, making the concept of a virtual university more tangible.
Stefanie Panke: Often we talk about virtual universities and online learning from a deficit perspective. Are there aspects of the digital environment that make you genuinely excited about being online and teaching online?
Michael Sankey: Absolutely. When I first entered academia, I was at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, primarily a distance education institution. A large majority of its students only came to the campus for events like graduation. I began teaching online back in 2001, so I’ve been in this space for over two decades. There was literature before the online era that indicated distance education didn’t disadvantage students; in fact, it offered certain benefits, especially for different demographic groups. This perspective has since transitioned into the realm of online education. People opt for online education for various personal reasons, often driven by their unique motivations, different from those who go directly from school to face-to-face higher education.
What’s intriguing is how Covid began blurring the lines. It necessitated a shift online for everyone, regardless of their initial preference, tying in with economic shifts. In Australia, many students now juggle work and study, often clocking in more than 25 hours a week at their jobs. This leads to an inclination towards blending distance and online courses, resulting in physical classrooms having fewer attendees, but course enrollments remain stable. This trend was gradually emerging pre-Covid, but the pandemic fast-tracked it. Contrary to expectations, there hasn’t been a massive shift back to face-to-face learning in regions like Australia and New Zealand post-Covid. With low unemployment rates in Australia, many people can find jobs, leading them to favor work and part-time study over full-time education. This makes the idea of a virtual or distance education university quite appealing and efficient for many.
LMS or Productivity Tools?
Stefanie Panke: You’ve been in distance education and online education for decades and you’ve had experiences with many different technologies. From your perspective, what developments have really made a difference?
Michael Sankey: Over the years, there’s been a recurring dialogue that the Learning Management System (LMS) might become obsolete. Indeed, I discuss the future of the LMS in one of my book chapters. What’s noteworthy is the proliferation of tools that now complement or integrate with the LMS. AI and productivity tools have been game-changers.
In Australia and New Zealand, even K-12 students are now familiar with tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack. When they step into the professional world, they continue using these productivity tools for collaboration, communication, and interacting with colleagues and clients. Yet, there’s an odd hiatus during university years where the primary tool is an LMS, which isn’t as prevalent before or after their tertiary education.
With tools like Microsoft Teams becoming more integrated into LMS platforms like Blackboard, Moodle, and Canvas, there’s a push towards using these tools for collaborative education. For instance, instead of using a traditional discussion forum within an LMS, which can often be restrictive, students can collaborate more dynamically in a platform designed for productivity, like Teams. This shift isn’t just about technological preferences; it’s about preparing students for real-world collaboration and interactions.
Many students today enter higher education with work experience and practical insights. It’s crucial for educators to harness these experiences and facilitate peer sharing and learning. The idea is to shift away from viewing students as mere recipients of knowledge. Instead, we should consider them as contributors, and collaborators, capable of being productive from the get-go. Most people, when they get out into the workforce, are working with other people. And so we need to, as educators, train our students to work with other people.
Traditional group work in academia has often been criticized. However, it’s not just about group assignments; it’s about fostering genuine collaboration, where students work together to understand concepts and create new knowledge. The emergence of AI tools, like Microsoft’s Co-pilot, places a plethora of information at students’ fingertips. They no longer need to exclusively rely on libraries or databases. With this readily available foundational knowledge, they can focus on building upon it and generating new insights. This is the transformative potential of technology-enhanced learning.
Social Media and AI
Stefanie Panke: What are your thoughts on AI in terms of its influence on student learning, communication, and engagement? And more broadly, on society at large? I remember initially viewing social media very positively, especially during the web 2.0 trend where user-generated content was expected to bring people together in a global village. However, at least from my perspective, this hasn’t panned out as I’d hoped across various platforms. Especially recently, social media doesn’t seem to be a very positive space. So, with AI, do you see dystopian or utopian futures?
Michael Sankey: It’s interesting. First, my comment on the social media side of things: I’ve been using Twitter for years, since around 2013. More and more, I grew sick of it and deleted my account. Now, I mainly communicate my ideas on LinkedIn, as it’s more of a professional community. I align my social media use with professional communities of practice. I am a strong proponent of the portfolio as a mechanism by which I portray myself as an academic and as a researcher. I have what I refer to as a “cloud of influence,” centered around my portfolio and linked to other platforms like YouTube, WordPress, LinkedIn, and SlideShare. The mix of that that cloud is irrelevant, because each person will have their own preferences
With the rise of AI, control dynamics are changing. Previously, I had control over the information I shared, and people would find me based on what I posted. Now, they can use AI tools, some of which excel in research, to locate information. Many of the newer tools do deep research and provide real references, and there are new ones every week.
I utilize ChatGPT for productivity—it provides a foundation to build upon, it isn’t truth. I rely on my decades of experience in higher education to discern and interpret the information. It’s crucial for students to learn this skill as well. Blackboard, for instance, recently launched an AI tool for creating courses. I’ve used it to structure a course on micro-credentials, adapting the content it suggested. While I leverage AI, I ensure that I steer its direction.
I mentioned the notion of productivity and how we use base-level information to build and extend information, thereby broadening the reach of education. So, I don’t have a problem with AI. My issue lies with some of the ethical implications of AI and the sources it draws upon for its information, which are, in many cases, biased and have ethical underpinnings that are not solid. Always to make sure the output is what you’re expecting. You are still the knowledge expert, and you need to be responsible.
Stefanie Panke: Thank you very much. My very last question. Looking back at this journey of editing a book, shepherding so many contributors through this process, working with so many reviewers, and collaborating with the publisher, what were your best moments? What were your worst moments? What are some lessons learned? Would you recommend doing it? What is the value of edited volumes such as this?
Michael Sankey: The quality of an edited volume is its breadth. Unlike a special issue in a journal which might have 10-12 articles, this volume has 31 chapters. It provides an opportunity to explore a breadth of understanding. I see this particular case as almost a handbook for administrators and educators. It allows university administrators to take a deep dive into the different elements associated with maintaining quality practice within online education.
As you indicated, managing it is not a light undertaking; there are many people to negotiate with and guide through the process. It doesn’t come without its challenges—problems, concerns, contributors pulling out, timing issues, and more. I’ve been in education for a long time and have faced similar challenges as a contributor, so I understand life can get in the way sometimes.
It was a pleasure working with Hank and Rachel, the other two editors. Starting this process alone was overwhelming, but collaborating with two experienced editors was beneficial. We were able to bounce ideas off each other, divide tasks, and progress effectively. My suggestion is, don’t try to do it alone. While being an editor brings credibility, writing the chapters offers more fulfillment. I co-authored two chapters with the other editors and I have a couple of chapters with another colleague who I have been writing with for many years.
Sharing our ideas is truly rewarding. Seeing the book published is exhilarating. We’ve released chapters as open content along the way, which felt great. It’s always nice to receive appreciation on platforms like LinkedIn. Yet, being able to hold up the print edition and get a photo with the book which we will do soon after its publication on October 20th, is really nice. The three of us editors plan to celebrate in Brisbane.
Watch the full interview recording.
Professor Michael Sankey is from Charles Darwin University in Australia, where he is the Director Learning Futures and Lead Education Architect. In addition to this role, Michael is President of the Australasian Council on Open, Distance and e-Learning (ACODE). He specialises in emerging technologies, technology enhanced learning, curriculum renewal, eLearning quality, multimodal design, digital, visual and multiliteracies. Michael has worked in Higher Education for 30+ years, at 5 Universities and is particularly interested in how constructively aligned and aesthetically enhanced learning environments can better transmit concepts to students, particularly those from diverse backgrounds and those who study at a distance.