Sunday, October 17, 2010

trends in online education

A group of friends of mine, the webheads, are international online educators. Every week they use Adobe Connect or Elluminate to create an online learning environment and discuss one topic or the other, in the process becoming more familiar with online learning environments, where groups of educators can hear each other, see each other, share a chat venue on the side, use a mutual whiteboard feature, or even use the centrally-shared middle section to surf the web together and see what is out there.

Now many of these people are online educators anyway, and if you are in the business of havign online classes with people thousands of miles away, this is what you do, and you get used to it, I'm sure. The trend I'd like to address involves people like me, who don't use this stuff in their everyday classes, but nevertheless find that these online venues offer an attractive feature: the ability to really relate to anyone regardless of geography. If I really become used to the idea that I or my students could talk to anyone at any time, then I would steadily match my students up with experts in any number of fields and hold class discussions. Wouldn't I?

The other trend is going in the opposite direction. Educators at my state university are being pressured to put more and more of their course materials online. If you run a class in, say, sociology, why not just make the material available online, so that the class could be pitched and sold to 260 million or more people who could then enroll at our university without necessarily bothering to move to our makes a certain amount of sense, financially, especially in a place where the dorms and the smallness of the town were not high selling points of the university in general. But the faculty here as elsewhere is showing resistance. For one thing, it may seem like they are being asked to provide something for nothing, although maybe the university is thinking of paying them for it, I'm not sure. for another, a new set of skills is clearly required: not only using and finding ways to communicate online, but also passing and grading papers online, managing tools like Elluminate and Adobe Connect, etc. Teachers have a universal instinct to not use anything in their class that they haven't themselves first mastered. And that instinct is kicking in.

The interesting thing is that the trends, though opposite, will actually converge. Some mainstream teachers will master the tools and lead others down the path to using them. Universities will stop trying to get something for nothing and will employ those people who use the tools successfully to lead the way with others. A final trend that we see, that I haven't mentioned, is that the reputation of online education as somewhat fly-by-night, cheaper than thou, will probably slowly but surely move to the mainstream also. I think we academics hear about degrees from University of Phoenix or some such place that we just saw advertised on an online site, and a kind of prejudice kicks in. I'm not sure if this is shared worldwide, nationwide, or just regionally; my guess is that it's a fairly widespread prejudice. My question is whether this prejudice is lifting or easing up over time, so that, essentially, all education could be moved online and thus free parents of the odious prospect of sending their children off to some alcohol-drenched dorm at the ripe age of 18, when their judgment does not match their enthusiasm for socializing. Of course, it's kind of a rite of passage in our culture, to leave home, move to a dorm, find a new town and area to live in. But it's an increasingly expensive rite of passage, and technology has made the thousands-per-month outlay unnecessary for people who are basically looking at four years of dependence, or at the very least being unable to work full time or truly support themselves. A more reasonable balance between being able to work and being able to slowly increase one's education and qualifications would be and ideal way to fix a system where basically, things have been unbalanced for a little too long.

I don't know my point here: whether I still advocate that all teachers learn to use Elluminate and Adobe connect (your grandchildren's classrooms, as one article pointed out); whether it is the solution to SIUC's ongoing recruitment/retention debate; whether it is the solution to society's growing impatience with the alcohol-drenched 18-year-old rite of passage; or finally, whether it is just huge megatrends, going somewhere like tanker ships in a crowded bay, with nobody in charge and no likely outcome until years to come when the dust will presumably settle on a new configuration, for public education or at least college education. Numbers and statistics will show what people are doing and where they are going for their educations; I no longer collect these statistics. Nevertheless, the writing is on the wall (the whiteboard) so to speak.

Those who stand idly on the banks of change, will ultimately be swept off with the rest, when the river rises around them, and they see that resisting the trends will take too much work, kind of like refusing to have a phone, or a cell phone. It may become too hard to buck the trend.


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