Thursday, June 30, 2011

First eduMOOC live panel

I wanted to get my thoughts on the live panel down as soon as possible.

Every time I attend an online panel or conference I'm reminded of a lecture in grad school (education degree) where the speaker mentioned "mature technologies". A toaster, he said, is a mature technology. Computers and the Internet are not. About a week later, my toaster died an untimely death. Personally, I think a chair is a mature technology (though maybe not my desk chair). You don't need that much familiarity with one to use it, they generally work, and breakage usually has to do with the quality of the materials, not the quality of the design. Online conferencing is definitely not a mature technology. I'm not sure it's in kindergarten yet. This was an interesting setup --a live screencast of a virtual conference system (Elluminate?) such that we were watching a video of someone's screen and hearing the panel discussion, with a Twitter widget for back channel and questions. Unfortunately the Twitter display wasn't picking up the hashtag, and there weren't many slides (which was actually a good thing, in the end) so I think most of us ended up following the Twitter feed on some other system and just listening to the audio. All and all, that was fine, but not quite what was planned, I think. Ah, technology.

For content, the panel consisted of a number of administrators of various online programs across the country. (You can see the list on the eduMOOC week one page.) (One comment via Twitter was that we needed more international coverage.) They spent some time at the beginning introducing themselves and relating how they got to their current positions in online learning. I did miss a few minutes at the beginning, so I'll have to go back and listen to the recording, but I would have been more interested in hearing why they were chosen for the panel. What difference in perspective does someone from a community college system bring as compared to someone who directs a regional system of online programs or who someone who works with continuing education programs. They didn't seem to have many philosophical differences (they agreed with each other a lot.)

The Twitter backchannel (once I got somewhere I could see it) was most interesting in what we picked up on. "The access war has been won" brought some disagreement (I'm not sure I agree with that myself, though I think I would agree that the tide of battle has finally turned), but also brought up accessibility--not only for physical disabilities but also learning disabilities and learning styles. We also touched on evaluation and assessment, and how the models for f2f classes don't usually fit online or hybrid. (Related note--I attended an online conference recently where the evaluation survey asked, after asking whether I had attended online or in person, how I had liked the lunch. And it was a required question to finish the survey.)

I'm wondering how much of the online vs. "traditional" (whatever that means) education debate is really about a shift in education, especially higher education, from a select population to general. It used to be that education was essentially self selecting--if you learned well in schools, you progressed; if you didn't, you found something else, like a trade, an apprenticeship, factory work. There were other things to do. Now it seems that it's impossible to get a good job without a reasonable amount of education, and that's happened at the same time that online education has become feasible. So we (educators) are having to learn to use a new medium at the same time that our learner population is changing. We (and I'm speaking mostly about higher ed now) no longer have the luxury of only teaching those who had already figured out how to learn.

I've read that the reason that SAT scores have "declined" is not that the student body has gotten dumber, but that those students who might not have done well (because of flaws in the tests or in their educational backgrounds) didn't take the tests. Or why it's so hard to tell if autism is really more prevalent--most of it wasn't reported before. It's hard to know what the real issue is if your baseline measurements have changed--you no longer have anything to compare current conditions to.

Basically, I'm not convinced that, as some people in the panel asserted, that online or at least blended learning is better than f2f. I think any learning where both the instructor and the student are forced to think about what is actually happening will be better. It's so easy to think you know what you're doing in f2f, both as an instructor and as a student. We've all done it before. The challenges of dealing with unfamiliar technologies, especially with non-mature ones, bring all the issues up front. Why are we doing it this way? This isn't working for me. Why did we spend 15 minutes of valuable synchronous learning time on introductions that I could have read?

But there are still the same issues--having the misfunctioning Twitter widget distracted me in a way that reminds me of a professor who always played with a neon green plastic keychain while lecturing. It was completely useless, but really hard to ignore. So today, I stared at Twitterfall; back then, I stared at the my notebook. And is it better to spend class time, synchronous time, in explanation, in demonstration, in elaboration, in discussion, than in merely presenting information? If so, isn't that true f2f and online? If learning styles (or preferences) do affect ease of learning, wouldn't that be true in any medium? Could it just be that it's easier to translate a digital text to an audible one, for instance, and so it's easier to accommodate both aural and verbal/visual learners online? (I'm a kinesthetic, according to most AVK tests, so I have a different perspective on that anyway.)

I'm really looking forward to the Research next week!



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