With the number of totally cool tools that Schools can use, why are we still waiting for online education to move past blackboard and other systems that are essentially static, unfriendly to social connections, and in general, just unfriendly. The online educational experience can be cold, disjointed and sterile, but it does not have to be.
This is an issue that is of deep concern to educators and to colleges. Colleges should be asking themselves how they can create the same kind of environment in the online course space as you would within an in person space. The barriers between the online and the off line in person world are easily broken down by using systems like WebEx, podcasts, video tutorials. But the joy of online classes is that they are asynchronous, you are not tied to space, time, and location. This is where video and podcasting can come in handy when dealing with remote students. It also caters to the different ways that students learn audio, video and text. We have all these in an in person class with the instructor standing in front of the class, lecturing, and sharing web sites or content via paper. There is no reason that the online environment can not have the same thing.
The problem realistically is the problem of logistics, copyright and development. It could also be a matter of adoption and adaptation on the part of institutions and instructors to realize the potential of podcasts and video when the online environment to date has been text oriented. We all know that items sell better if there is a picture to go along with the item on Amazon or Ebay. There is no reason to believe that the online classroom should be any different. If we look at Logistics, development of podcasts even if a lecture is done in one shot is a tedious process. The instructor is often sitting in front of their computer, speaking into a microphone without the benefit of interaction with a class. The instructor is reading from the book, reading the instructor guide, and otherwise developing something equally sterile as the modern online classroom. Video suffers the same issues unless the instructor is doing something, like demonstrating a technique in developing software.
Another issue is copyright, the internet is built for sharing, but keeping content buried behind school systems can often make it impossible to share. Systems like Academic Earth rely on sharing, and are often used at a variety of institutions. But some institutions have a very hard time with sharing, there is a lot of money involved in creating content, it is proprietary to the class at the time it is recorded. Sharing seems a dilution of the in class experience, in that it will dilute the reason for students to want to pay to take the class. The point is well taken and well understood, but missing the bigger picture. Sharing also allows students and parents to see the quality of the education that they will potentially get. By recording and sharing, people get a preview of what to expect, and can develop their own reasons for wanting to take classes at a particular college. This is a hard issue for colleges, with both benefits and liabilities. Colleges overall have not worked this one out yet, nor are they sure of the approaches to take because there are no truly successful models in place yet for a college to emulate.
Development requires that instructors as well as educational managers use the tools to create high quality content. An instructor in accounting is not going to be comfortable sitting in front of a computer recording a podcast, or making a video. Even some technology instructors are not going to be comfortable doing the same thing. Rather some colleges have developed studios that are run by student assistants or professionals that allow the instructor to interact, do multiple takes, and the product can be professionally edited and recorded in multiple takes. This is a hard cost for a college to justify if they cannot work out the copyright issues and the logistics issues.
Another issue that people are loath to talk about is social networking. We all realize the potential of social networking, but much like businesses colleges spend a lot of money controlling their image and the message from the college. Social networking means that a college will lose control of the message, but engage with a variety of consumers who are going to tell the college how it is. Many of the instructors I have worked with are worried that social networking will lower the barrier between students and instructors by eroding the authority that the instructor has in the classroom. Another worry that instructors have voiced is the student that is displeased with their experience and takes it to the internet. Students are a vocal lot no matter what, either in person, in e-mail or on social networks. The systems that flourish like Rate My Professor are all based on student feedback, which colleges should be listening to.
Adapting the new technology to the current online environment is going to require a huge change in how colleges approach content. Paper content is easier to protect than digital content, many colleges are loath to do away with paper because paper is convenient, familiar, and comfortable. Podcasting, video and many of the other technologies available are not so familiar and not so comfortable. Social networking can be uncomfortable for those that are unfamiliar with it or fear it for whatever reason. The changes that will have to take place are going to be huge for colleges, and it is going to cost money. Money that colleges could put to use that has a more immediate pay off than the time it will take to show that new tools enhance the classroom experience. Instructors and college management will have to champion the projects to bring new media into the classroom or it will not work the way that innovative people envision it to work. This is the hard part, and like any other project requires the commitment of the organization to make these changes happen. What remains to be seen is how social tools will infiltrate an organization by early adopters and what they are able to do with them while showing value to the students and to the institutions.
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(Cross-posted @ TechWag)