Monthly Archives: May 2015

Reflections on the Theory and Practice of Distributed Learning

As I reflect back over the past semester, I don’t think my personal theories about learning have changed much as a result of the things I’ve learned; however, I am more aware of the practical limitations of some of the things I believe when it comes to teaching in an online environment. Although the online environment seems like an ideal format for students who are motivated to take control over their own learning and therefore well-suited to a learner-centric, constructivist theory of learning, many of the people who find their way to online courses do so out of convenience or because it is the only option open to them. These students are often unprepared for that type of environment and need a great deal of teacher support to make it in an online course. Additionally, many online instructors are not yet ready to let go of their “sage on the stage” mentality. For some this may be due to a fear that online learning threatens their existence, and that if students can learn without them, they will find themselves out of a job. For others, it may just reflect a lack of adequate training on what it means to facilitate learning, or what good online facilitation looks like. For the most part, technology has caught up to allow courses to be designed from a constructivist perspective, but some learning management systems place limitations on what is possible, and often the possible is limited by the instructor’s or designer’s training on the system. Until we bridge the gap between under-prepared learners, reluctant instructors, and inadequate technology, social constructivist learning will be limited to a few online courses.

I have, unfortunately, yet to narrow my research interests. My mentor tells me this is the curse of the gifted; I am interested in everything. In my work time, when I’m not doing research for a grade, I tend to expend my energies on the faculty. I guess I figure that if I am going to be a change agent, I need to affect the people who can make that change happen, and I believe in education that is the faculty. I conduct needs assessments, plan, create, and hold professional development sessions, bring in external solutions, and evaluate the effectiveness of what I’m doing. My major research interest surrounding the faculty right now relates to the effect that Quality Matters training has on a faculty member’s perspectives concerning standards for online learning. I’m not sure how that fits into my personal learning theories, except that I do believe that online learning needs to be well designed to be effective, and that there should be a set of minimum quality standards adopted by every institution informing design best-practices. If an instructor posts a list of course readings in no particular order without a schedule of when the readings are to be read, and just expects the student to be prepared, that is not a quality design.

As far as student interests, I am interested in student engagement and interaction with the course, the instructor, and other students. I have done a little work with Community of Inquiry and a bit of research with an intervention a faculty member dubbed “Simulated Student Interaction”, where she engaged with students in the discussion board as a student using an alias to model the kinds of postings she wanted and to stimulate their interactions. I am also interested in student cognitive load and attention, especially in the areas of synchronous web conferencing. In both these cases, these are techniques that are more prominent in a social constructivist environment, and so I think they lend themselves to my personal learning theories.

I predict online learning becoming more mobile with the increase of phone and tablet use. I think the new tablet laptop combos will replace our existing laptop computers and we will soon see desktop computers be replaced by tablet docking stations. Phones are getting larger, lighter, and more powerful, so I think people will carry their phone and their tablet and we’ll see the end of the traditional computer altogether. As a result, online courses will need to become more responsive. Videos will need to be able to stream quickly. Content will need to be easy to read and adjust to narrow screen widths. We may see PDFs become a thing of the past, and instead we may see more pod-casting, allowing students to listen to lectures on the go. Discussions may become verbal rather than typed, or a combination of the two, similar to what you can do with Voice Thread. Synchronous Web Meeting platforms will improve their apps to allow those connecting from mobile devices the same affordances as those connecting from computers. Test security from mobile devices will have to be increased to provide a more secure experience with less likelihood of cheating.

Part of what I learned this year was learned out of frustration as an online learner when my instructor became ill. Left to my own devices within the course, many of the assignments did not go as originally planned. There was little support except from other learners and no clear instruction on what to do. In this case, learning really did fall under social constructivism. We had to figure things out on our own; use the assigned readings and videos and our own experiences to determine how to handle an assignment or what to write about in our blog on a given week. While we worried about a favorite teacher and struggled along on our own, somehow we made it through most of the tail end of the semester with very little guidance and one another for support. While it was neither fun nor easy, it was a reinforcement of the belief that sufficiently prepared and motivated learners can learn in a social-constructivist environment. Doing so becomes all the easier with a well-trained faculty member facilitating the course, as our instructor usually does. I look forward to having him back this summer, hopefully in good health.

Technology Trends in eLearning: MOOCs and Mobile Learning

A few months ago, I would have predicted that MOOCs were a thing of the past, no longer of much interest to anyone. They had a good run, but from all the most recent research that had been published, there was not enough engagement in the courses to call them a success on just about any level, and there didn’t seem to be an accepted means for measuring student success.

But now the news is buzzing about MOOCs again. It seems that Arizona State made the earth-shattering announcement that they were offering MOOCs for credit (Butler, 2015). Students successfully completing certain courses as MOOCs can pay to convert the courses into regular transfer credit at Arizona State, up to enough credit to cover their entire freshman year. The cost of the transfer credits is only $200 per credit hour, which is less than half the cost of the same courses taken via traditional methods. The courses will be indistinguishable from regular courses on the students’ transcripts. Students not interested in credit can still take the MOOC for free, and of course, there is no risk to the student seeking credit until they have already passed the course.

Mobile learning, on the other hand, is not something I feel to be a fad. I do not think this one has any chance of going away but only of growing. On the tiny campus of 1700 students where I work, I gather statistics about the mobile usage of our learning management system. It is surprising to me to discover that over a third of our students, more than 600 unique logins, access Blackboard via a mobile device of one kind or another each semester. I should not find this so surprising, however. I myself prefer to do much of my browsing on my iPad. I usually check my email on my phone. If I need to look something up, Google’s voice search is typically my first choice. The computer is still my first choice for homework, but only because typing on the iPad is so clunky and the phone’s screen is too small. If I had a Surface Pro or another tablet with a detachable keyboard, I might find that my tablet computer became my only computer.

The 2015 New Media Consortium Horizon Report identifies Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) as one of the top two trends to watch for in the next one to two years (Johnson, Adams Becker, Estrada, & Freeman, 2015). As more students and faculty bring their own devices to the classroom, we will see a greater increase in mobile learning. Courses will need to become more responsive to work on all devices. Flash will be replaced with HTML5, and Java dependent programs will fall out of favor. Media servers will become intelligent, and just like YouTube, be able to determine the users’ device and stream video in the right format and at the right speed to accommodate the needs of the learner.

I don’t know if these changes will cause a backlash or not, but I do believe them to be an essential part of the forward path of technology and education. Information is omnipresent. Pick any career, and professionals in that field are already using mobile devices to access information just in time. My husband is a Federal Express courier. His pad tracks his packages, plans his route, and can even alert him when he takes too long to get from one stop to another. My doctor consults a mobile device to determine medicines and dosages. The Home Depot delivery driver had me sign his pad to confirm receipt of my order. The Square register turns any smart phone into a point-of-sale device, enabling a person to accept credit cards anywhere. My neighbor’s bracelet-making business goes professional just like that. If education wants to prepare students for this decade much less the next one, it needs to keep up by providing classes where the students already are, and many are already on their devices. It certainly needs to provide students with a glimpse of how industry is done, and to a greater and greater extent, that is becoming mobile. Businesses have already been warned that more than half of all online traffic now comes from mobile devices (Hessinger, 2014), and that more than three quarters of all searches are mobile (Sterling, 2014). Education now needs to take up the charge and do what needs to be done to ensure students are prepared to function in this new mobile world.

References

Butler, S. M. (2015). New Arizona State-edX MOOC: Another blow to traditional college. Retrieved May 6, 2015, from http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/techtank/posts/2015/05/4-asu-moocs-butler

Hessinger, S. (2014). Online Traffic Report States 60 Percent Now From Mobile. Retrieved May 6, 2015, from http://smallbiztrends.com/2014/07/online-traffic-report-mobile.html

Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., & Freeman, A. (2015). NMC Horizon Report: 2015 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas. Retrieved from http://cdn.nmc.org/media/2015-nmc-horizon-report-HE-EN.pdf

Sterling, G. (2014). Study: 78 Percent Of Local-Mobile Searches Result In Offline Purchases. Retrieved May 6, 2015, from http://cdn.nmc.org/media/2015-nmc-horizon-report-HE-EN.pdf