Interview with Dr. Stephen Harmon, GTPE's Associate Dean of Research

November 28, 2016 | By Gordana Goudie

Dr. Stephen Harmon joined the Georgia Institute of Technology to serve three units: Georgia Tech Professional Education (GTPE) as associate dean of research, the Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U) as director of educational innovation, and the College of Design as professor. At GTPE and C21U, he is tasked with leading the invention, prototyping, and validation efforts associated with educational innovation and with managing facilities available to all Georgia Tech researchers and faculty members.

Q:        You are the first associate dean of research at GTPE. How will your work benefit our learners?

A:         My goal is to make sure that GTPE learners have access to the most appropriate, state of the art, technology enhanced instruction. My hope is that our efforts will ensure that our learners continually benefit from the most current, most effective, and most efficient advances in educational technology without being exposed to ideas and techniques that may sound good, but have not stood up to the rigors of scientific inquiry.

Q:        What compels you to work in this field?

A:         First and foremost it is curiosity. I am a naturally curious person and while I have a lot of passions, my number one passion is learning. I really enjoy learning and am not too discriminating about what I learn. Over time, that passion for learning fed my curiosity about learning itself. Secondly, I am an optimist. I think continuing advances in the cognitive, neuro and learning sciences, coupled with advances in technology, give us the potential to greatly improve the human condition through education. The more we can make these advances accessible and affordable, the better the chance that we can activate the positive interdependencies technology affords humans, and de-activate the negative interdependencies.

Q:        While the Institute serves the traditional student, GTPE’s role is distinctive in that we focus on the professional education needs of the adult learner. How do you see your role at GTPE serving adult learners?

A:         I’ve spent the last several years focusing on how technology is changing society and how it can also help higher education adapt to meet those changes. The rapid pace of technological change seems to indicate that most people will not just be having four or five jobs in their lifetimes, but four or five entire careers. This means that continuous personal improvement will have to become the norm rather than the exception. The traditional model, in which a four-year college degree will get someone through a 40-year working career, will no longer suffice. GTPE is ideally situated to be the leader in shaping what it means to be a comprehensive higher education institution for 21st century learners. GTPE focuses on the whole learner and learning for life. The traditional 18-to-24-year-old residential college student is just at the beginning of what we hope will become a lifelong Georgia Tech experience. My intent is to help GTPE use research to make data-driven decisions about the best ways to use technology to meet the needs of our learners, not just on campus, or in Georgia, but around the world.

Q:        Can you describe one of the first projects you’re taking on at GTPE?

A: One of the ways in which GTPE is helping make higher education a lifelong process that is both accessible and affordable is by taking advantage of instructional technologies to deliver a high quality education to a large number of people. You may have heard of one example of this with some of our work with massive open online courses (MOOCs). These courses generate an enormous amount of data about an enormous number of learners. We are trying to capture and analyze this data in order to create and discover new strategies and techniques to further enhance the learning experience and ensure that our learners achieve at the highest levels. Because we are dealing with so many learners, even modest gains in performance have potentially large impacts.

Q:        You’re in a unique position at the Institute in that you serve several units. Can you explain how your roles at GTPE and C21U complement one another?

A:         C21U and GTPE together form a design-research cycle that allows us to find and implement the next generation of effective learning technologies both in the classroom and in online environments. GTPE is a vehicle for implementing and scaling the very best in learning technologies beyond the Atlanta campus. C21U is a think-tank that experiments with technologies and practices that are at the leading edge of educational innovation. Not all of these will pan out, but for those that do, we will then look to employ them at scale in GTPE. 

Often in educational research, new strategies that work with five or ten learners in a pilot program end up not working so well with 50 or 100 learners in a real classroom. Our expert designers in GTPE can take ideas that showed promise in the lab and figure out how to make them work in the field. C21U then takes what we learn from our large-scale efforts at GTPE and figures out how to implement the most appropriate parts for our traditional on-campus learners. One simple example of this is taking the “flipped classroom” technique that we use in our MOOCs in GTPE and applying it to our on-campus courses to make the most of the time the students and professors have together.

We take a systemic perspective, so we are not just looking at pedagogies and technologies, but also at structures and cultures that affect an innovative learning environment. This cycle should ultimately not only move the Institute forward, but also help guide higher education as a whole. Both units are working with the Commission on Creating the Next in Education to position the Institute to be the thought and practice leader in higher education.

Q:        What excites you the most about your work at Georgia Tech? 

A:         I am inspired to be working with such an interdisciplinary group of extremely smart people, who are all focused on improving society through lifelong learning. The entrepreneurial spirit and creativity that permeate the Institute are contagious and make it seem like any idea is within our grasp. Ten years from now, higher education will have made significant advances, and I’m confident that Georgia Tech will have had a prominent role to play in this progress.

See Dr. Harmon’s full biography or read GTPE’s news release about Dr. Stephen Harmon.