2 min read October 2021 — Dean and Professor Laura Kohn-Wood of the University of Miami’s School of Education and Human Development spoke with Invest: about the various challenges K-12 schools and the university faced, and the positive lessons learned over the last year. She also discussed the vulnerabilities and disparities institutions of higher learning have been grappling with, while also addressing the incorporation of AI technology into education.
What positive lessons emerged over the past year?
Here in South Florida our schools were able to quickly and effectively mobilize. Miami Dade County Public Schools provided hotspots and devices for students and were able to roll out meals for families who were suffering from unemployment and the like. Similarly, at the University of Miami, the administration, staff and faculty suddenly adapted to teaching remotely and using technology in new ways. Overall, education delivery took giant steps forward. In several instances, people rose to the challenge, managing in ways that were previously considered impossible or too difficult to execute.
What is necessary to address the gaps and vulnerabilities in higher education?
Given the sudden infusion of technology in classrooms, we need to shift toward thinking about how technology can be used to personalize and differentiate students’ learning. I believe that is one of the ways in which we can try to close the gaps and get students to a more equitable playing field. We must also pay attention to the effects of the pandemic on students and their learning. When students are experiencing a range of feelings, they’re going to bring that into the classroom. Highlighting the social and emotional needs of students, addressing it with the same seriousness and programmatic approach we would with any sort of academic subject is important. You’re addressing basic emotional needs first, which comes with a significant learning gap that we’re continuing to work through.
How is artificial intelligence affecting your faculty and how is AI being used in your field?
As educators in the field of education, we must be clear on what artificial intelligence is and how it can be infused into a pedagogical technique. We have faculty members who are interested in this area, like Dr. Nam Ju Kim who has developed an AI-based assessment tool. It quickly determines what students say, what they write, what’s turned in and what’s late. Rather than attempting to scaffold student learning across a course based on limited observations, AI techniques like those Dr. Kim has developed provide a constant flow of information. It allows you to figure out where students are with regard to the material, and how you need to differentiate what they’re learning to optimize their education.
What is the importance of digital literacy as it relates to higher education?
We are all facing a technology-driven future. You must be technologically literate to participate in that future. It’s critical to begin developing better approaches for students now so that they can be successful. It’s what will allow us to reduce inequities, disparities and have a whole community of kids who can participate in the future of the technologically informed. I believe it’s something we all need to heed.
What is necessary to overcome the student debt obstacle in education?
The first is recognizing that we’ve reached the end of the model where tuition is raised continuously to provide higher education for students. We must be more thoughtful and strategic in how we fund our operation. The University of Miami has joined a number of institutions to provide 100% need-based aid for students. We don’t want a barrier to prevent students from attending our school.
The second item is admitting how student debt has crippled social mobility. Leaving school with debts creates a negative space in the realms of building wealth, equity and career decisions. We’re experiencing critical shortages in areas like teaching. Without good teachers, students won’t be prepared to attend college or engage in post-secondary educational experiences, affecting the size and skills of the workforce pool.
Philanthropy is the final necessary item to overcome this obstacle. I’ve been in awe of our amazing alumni and friends who provide scholarships so students can attend the university. It enables us to have students successfully participate in higher education and to graduate without crippling debt, as has been a trend that, hopefully, will end.
What strategies is your faculty implementing to reduce disparities?
We’ve developed a strategic plan that has four priorities to address the disparities in higher education: interdisciplinary inquiry, the science of learning, community-based and engaged research, and educational equity. It’s important to incorporate different departmental expertise in a range of educational settings. From kinesiology to psychological studies to teaching and learning, which are the three departments in our School, we have programs that can help address the various needs of a student while remaining related and interconnected. We have a large span of disciplinary expertise. Our secret sauce is leveraging interdisciplinary expertise to solve problems. As we solve problems, we adopt new modes of learning, moving away from the high stakes testing movement, which failed in addressing disparities. Engaging in community-based research and working together with community-based organizations can create relevancy not only for the students but also to break down the barriers that have kept them at arm’s length. This can lead to educational equity, which is being intentional in how we close these gaps that have been persistent in education.
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