So, with digital delivery, it is less about the characteristics of the medium and more about how we are using the medium in our teaching practice. Organization and structure are key; how we present information is equally as important as what we choose to convey! G. Conole describes Web 2.0 tools as transforming information delivery sources into interactive knowledge construction platforms which reflect sound pedagogical principles. Of course, in order for the interaction to take place, a community of users – or learners, as is my preference – is required and at critical mass proportions. What might an authentic example of this look like? Let me give you one example…
In my efforts to learn outside of a formal degree program curriculum; to broaden my perspectives regarding online education; and to build a social professional network of educators, researchers, designers, and administrators; I began attending MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses over the summer. A MOOC is unlike any formal learning experience. The MOOC has been described as a learning buffet – it is open learning, it is accessible 24 hours a day, and it is constantly providing a fresh supply of new material from a variety of topic areas by way of diverse participants – but each participant decides what they want to put on their plate and how much of it to consume. There are no requirements for expertise levels or content contributions and even lurkers are welcome. This is what our Web 2.0 tools can create. My question is do we have the tools and systems in place to support and sustain those creations?
This link will take you to an open learning experience in artificial intelligence being offered by two professors at Stanford University. Though it has not been titled as a MOOC, this course meets the criteria that have been loosely established thus far. When the project was announced, over 100,000 users registered their interest in participating. Yes, that is 100,000 people all participating in the same free and open online course (sans formal credit) facilitated by two of the top experts in this field. No, I did not sign up for this, but over 20,000 (I am unsure how far over) learners have now formally registered as either basic or advanced participants. Apparently interest is not an issue when the names behind the instruction carry a lot of weight ;-)
With far fewer participants, we hit major technology glitches in #eduMOOC, #CMC11, and #change11! From choking Google groups due to a high volume of simultaneous user registrations to crashing servers due to exceeding capacity for users during synchronous presentations, technology has apparently yet to catch up with education on this scale. Even on a small-scale, though, there are difficulties. Peers in my adult education program have reported challenges with a handful of users on Skype. Personally, I get a headache just thinking about my own traumatic experiences with class projects on Google Docs! Where technology is concerned, perhaps it is best to stay flexible and keep an open mind, but that’s a tough pill to swallow for a student with a deadline when the Internet fails, the power goes out, or ANGEL closes for maintenance every morning from 4am to 6am! Like I said before…work in progress!
Recent discussions have predominantly focused on learner characteristics and how they fit together with the distance delivery method. It has generally been agreed upon that adult online learners are motivated and involved because we appreciate the opportunity to pursue higher education when we might otherwise not have access whether due to geographic location, available time, or other factors. Distance education affords the opportunity for the learner to decide where and when to study and how to find the right balance between education and existing obligations. Adult online learners take seriously the responsibility, not only for our own learning, but also for contributing constructively to the learning experiences of our peers.
Here are the characteristics and how they interact as I interpret them from the ongoing discussion –
LEARNER DISTANCE EDUCATION INTERACTION
independent FOCUS ON THE INDIVIDUAL learner autonomy
ongoing commitments FLEXIBILITY/CONTROL manageable
nomadic lifestyle NO PHYSICAL CLASSROOM mobility
In reflecting on these discussions, do you think that online learners have no choice for how to pursue higher education? Does online learning merely work out to be the best choice for each of them? How do we then reconcile our successful experiences studying online with the research (particularly at the community college level – see below) that indicates the challenging nature of retaining online learners? Learning online seems to be working for us, but perhaps not the same for everyone. I think that we need to be cautious about how we generalize our online learning experiences as the online learning experiences typical for everyone. In rereading recent comments, a single statement that I made stood out – “still a work in progress.” :-)
Before a mid-life return to college, my use of new technology generally followed vocational requirements. At home, our first computer was primarily intended for use by the kids, but the reality is that it ended up being a very expensive IBM game console. My first experience with social networks involved my kids making me a myspace, but the only constructive thing I found to do with it was to keep an eye on my kids’ myspaces! At that time, I did not see the need to spend much time in front of the computer. Well all of that changed when I became an online student. Somewhere along the line I developed a real enthusiasm for learning…and for new technology. Frankly, I am dreaming of all the wonderful things that I could do with a tablet PC as I write this blog!
Learning online has transformed me from a laggard into an early adopter! That first myspace was long ago replaced by Linked in, Google +, and facebook where I can successfully connect to others through networks and circles, newsfeeds and lists. Skype not only allows me to communicate with a group of peers using both audio and video, but it also helps me to stay in touch with the kids while they are away at college. Embracing new technologies – well, technologies new to me – has led to opportunities and ideas that probably would not have presented themselves otherwise and has helped to extend my reach around the world.
I am grateful to be able to easily interact with my peers no matter their geographic location and to study apart from a physical campus. Now I am investigating even more open and creative methods for learning online with the MOOC or Massive Open Online Course, a less formal learning experience involving a large group of diverse participants with similar interests. #CMC11 on Creativity & Multicultural Communication and #change11 on Change: Education, Learning, and Technology have both just begun and I hope to turn the lurking from my first eduMOOC experience over the summer into some real authentic participation this time around.
As much as I appreciate the benefits and capabilities offered, using technology is not without its challenges. If you are an online learner, you undoubtedly already know this to be the case. Those of us studying distance education are routinely reminded to keep technology in its place – a step or two behind instructional goals and student characteristics. I was recently reminded of the importance of this message when I tried to view a podcast for one of my courses. The picture was bright and the voice was clear. Yes, all was well as long as I did not want to pause, stop, or replay any portion of the message. Suffice it to say that was a very long hour indeed. Then again, another instructor’s recordings work flawlessly; you just can’t hear what she is saying over the constant static. Sure, I may now be enamored with new technologies, but my experiences as an online learner will serve as a constant reminder to carefully consider the most appropriate technology for any educational use.
I don’t care who you are or where you are, the life of the adult student is packed solid with kids and spouses and jobs and family and friends and pets and community and anything and everything else, but somehow we find a way to get it done. Granted, it doesn’t all always get done all the time. There are sacrifices. For me, one of those sacrifices is pausing for reflection and reevaluation – contemplating things like where I have been; how I got here; where I want to be; and how to get there from here. These are critical questions; don’t get me wrong, but when you are juggling seven rings on fire, taking your eye off the movement for even a split second can equal disaster. Instead, I find myself relying on the good decisions that I hope I have previously made. Then, at the start of every new semester, I welcome a gift of sorts.
The start of every new semester undoubtedly brings about enthusiasm, anxiety, and a flurry of activity to get organized and oriented. For online learners like me, getting acclimated to a new set of courses brings with it challenges that the student in the classroom probably never faces. When our classes open up, locating all of the materials, instructions, programs, and resources can be somewhat like assembling a puzzle after you have misplaced the box with the picture – you sort of remember what it is supposed to look like and you hope it indeed looks like that after all the pieces have been found and put together. Fortunately for me and the other learners studying through Penn State’s World Campus, significant efforts are made to facilitate learner orientation by adequately preparing students and effectively organizing their learning spaces.
That is why, at the start of every semester for the preceding three years or so, I have found myself running through a similar set of orientation activities for each and every new course. On my C drive, I have saved a generic document labeled “practice” which I submit to every instructor. I used to have a template for a personal webpage that I simply reposted for every new class, but we stopped using them. I have read and agreed to the same academic integrity statement many times over, as it should be. Then I get to the place where I am supposed to introduce myself in a discussion post and I pause. Hey, I am on a roll here, I think to myself, let me just put whatever I put last semester. Then I look back on my previous introduction and I never end up reusing it.
You see, when I read that prior introduction – which may be from as few as five months earlier – it just doesn’t really sound like me…not anymore. It is in revisiting that old introduction and writing a new version that I gain the invaluable opportunity to reflect on past successes and challenges, on current perspectives, and on dreams of the future. It was in an introductory discussion post that I first admitted my deep desire to pursue a graduate degree to myself and to my classmates. My introductions seem to get longer (and more personal) as the semesters pass by and I discover new insights about myself; as I use what I have learned to continually redefine my focus and refine my areas of interest. My classmates may be stuck reading a few paragraphs, but they get a view of the authentic me. With our goal of building a community of learners, I can only hope that we are both the better for it.
Thanks for reading :-)