The 32 presentations at this year’s Think-In offered a glimpse into the future of online learning, specifically the ways technology might be used to improve distance education (DE). The showcase, presented by the Office of Academic Outreach, featured presentations in the areas of course development, teaching methodology, and support and service. Presentations ranged from “Bringing Poetry Alive in a Wired Classroom” to “Blackboard Boot Camp,” but the real eye opener was the incorporation of popular online technologies such as YouTube, iTunes, and Second Life into online courses.
YouTube, iTunes, and Second Life are three immensely popular entertainment-themed Web applications. Each is unique, but they are similar in that they share two traits—accessibility and adaptability—that make them increasingly attractive to DE educators.
Accessibility means that these Web-based applications are readily available, easy to use, and familiar. Adaptability means that educators are able use the built-in functionality of each application to teach rather than entertain. Together they allow educators to bypass hurdles commonly faced by DE educators by building their courses around free “software.” Software can be a problem for DE. Dedicated DE software can be expensive, there can be compatibility issues, and use can be limited to a specific course.
At the Think-In it was clear that more and more DE educators are finding it better to adapt the course to match the software, rather than find the perfect software to teach the course.
Since the “software” is free and nearly everyone can use it, educators are realizing the value of using multiple Web applications in their classes. The varying technologies offer students of all learning styles equal opportunities to learn. The standard practice for most distance learning is to read course material in the form of posted lectures and threaded discussions. Now students will have a choice in the way they learn.
The Virtual Campus
The future of ECU’s distance learning program is likely to include online virtual reality, or OVR. Some popular social networking sites utilize OVR to allow better interaction between their clients. The same technology that allows two people from opposite sides of planet to meet “face to face” in a virtual world and discuss a recent episode of American Idol, can also be translated to higher education.
“I’m using a product called Second Life, which allows students to develop avatars and interact with my avatar in a virtual office space,” said Dr. Abbie Brown, professor of instructional technology.
Second Life, which describes itself as “a 3D online digital world imagined and created by its residents,” is currently being used to explore the educational capabilities of OVR. Second Life is allowing researchers to experiment with OVR without the immense strain of developing the technology.
“The upside [of Second Life] is that students are experimenting with what is considered very cutting edge technology. The downside is that we are waiting for the technology to catch up to our aspirations for using it,” said Brown. “In some cases we are still waiting to see what Second Life will allow us to do, and in some cases we are very pleased with what Second Life is allowing us to do.”
Because of higher user technology requirements—Second Life requires a broadband Internet connection and powerful computers—Brown has only allowed students to volunteer to use Second Life; he hasn’t required its use. He is pleased with the concept of OVR, but he realizes that Second Life probably is not the ideal platform for a university curriculum.
“This is a commercial product. Right now Second Life is used by a lot of people who are enjoying themselves online as if it were a game,” said Brown. “[In the future we may be] using a tool that we own completely or that we participate in with other universities or learning institutions that is not such a public thing.”
iPods have revolutionized the way the world listens to music, and similarly, podcasting has changed the way the online students listen to lectures. DE educators have previously made recordings of lectures available on Web pages, but that method required a student to sit in front of his or her computer in order to hear them. Now podcasts of lectures can be uploaded to iTunes where students can be subscribe to them and download them onto iPods. They can then listen to them at their convenience, whether it be in their car as they drive to work, while they relax at the beach, or while they cook a meal or clean the house.
Dr. Gregg Hecimovich, professor of Victorian literature at ECU, has found that students enjoy the flexibility of podcasts, but he admits that it’s not as easy for the teachers.
“Nobody is going to listen to a 20-minute lecture compulsory if they’re not in a classroom,” he said. “They have to be extremely well prepared and they have to be lively.”
In addition to audio podcasts, software programs can compress videos of lectures into video podcasts, or vodcasts, that students can watch at their convenience. Dr. Elizabeth Hodge, professor in the Department of Business, Career, and Technical Education, is impressed with the different ways students can access the video tutorials she creates for her DE courses.
“[Students] can watch them on their computer, they can watch them on their iPod, or they can even watch them on their cell phones,” she said.
Even the Internet sensation YouTube is making a case for its value to higher education. YouTube allows DE students to create and distribute presentations and projects that previously could only be done in a classroom. In his Victorian English class, Hecimovich asks his students to use YouTube to create presentations.
“They produced these astonishingly impressive visual engagements,” he said.
Hecimovich finds that allowing students to use their creativity is the best way to teach students the historical context of the settings of works of Victorian literature. “It’s the hardest stuff to teach with literature,” he said. “The books will speak for themselves—they are lively, that’s why they’ve lasted for hundreds of years. But with that background, it doesn’t always work.”
YouTube has helped online students in the same way in-class presentations, in the form of skits or plays, helped his traditional students. “You give students a creative assignment and give them some latitude to express themselves and be creative—that’s what education is all about—and they’ll just do amazing things,” he said.
For all the buzz and excitement surrounding the technologies that are being used in DE courses, they are really just extensions of two of the most rudimentary teaching tools—the blackboard and piece of chalk. Teachers do not change their methods when teaching online, just the tools they use.
“It’s not all technical gadgetry,” said Hecimovich.