The “C-Word”

Moore and Kearsley (2005) state that “Distance education is about change”. A simple statement; a lot of impact. For as much as we pride ourselves on innovation and the evolution of society and technology, society isn’t all that keen on innovation or evolution. And it’s very suspicious of technology. For these are either agents or effects of change.

Whereas change once represented the onslaught of nuisances such as a de-regulated phone industry, property taxes, and the cessation of home deliveries by the milkman, the change ushered in by contemporary technology is truly frightening to those who are merely comfortable in their routines as well as the honest-to-goodness Luddites in our midst.

It’s because the technological changes span our world and dig deep into our personal lives. The ubiquitous PC allows all of us to be producers of information. And even as consumers, many of us have discontinued our subscriptions to the Sunday paper in favor of our RSS feeds and beloved blogs.

And with so many sources of information, the shelf life of news, data, and other forms of information has shortened dramatically. Likewise, innovation has sped up. Computer memory doubles while our personal memory shrinks in response to the cognitive barrage we face daily. And in many other instances, we cannot keep up with the pace of innovation.

This causes problems and provides opportunities for distance learning. On one hand, we must develop systems for well beyond the horizon instead of just around the corner. And the artifacts from today’s lessons must be developed so to remain useful in the future. Teaching strategies, learning theories, and other elements that shape our instructional efforts must evolve for use in new systems or face obsolescence.

On he other hand, increases in bandwidth efficiency, memory capacity, and resource accessibility will continue to increase the possibilities for presenting meaningful educational experiences and activities to a greater variety of learners. While the traditional classroom may not vanish, it will open up to more distributed forms of education. Hybrid courses—with face-to-face meetings supported by online resources and tools—will become more of the standard. In drawing from more remote resources we will become more familiar with different societies and cultures.

To do this more effectively, we will need to conduct research that establishes delivery systems, teaching strategies, and theories on learning that span, and include, the diversity of cultures that we will be drawn increasingly closer to. Research will also need to focus on the applicability and effectiveness of emerging technologies so to best implement them within educational settings.

Most important is our need to change—to realize we must constantly let go of worn-out or broken practices, beliefs, and attitudes so that we can make use of innovations. But, we must also continue to cast a critical eye towards each element of modernization. For new does not always mean better.

Moore, M. and Kearsley, G. (2005). Distance Education A Systems View,
Belmont, CA: Thomson.


Research: the differences between media and technology

In 1983 Richard Clark stated that “studies clearly suggest that media do not influence learning under any conditions”. And I agree with that. It has been shown that we can swap out one medium for another and still get the same results or, at least, results that show “no significant difference” from the original delivery system

But, what happens when we study technology instead of just media? Semantics, you say? Not really. For technology is more than just the media appliances used to deliver content. Technology also includes the pedagogy guiding that use of the media; it includes the teaching strategies driven by stated objectives; it drives toward desired outcomes, using a healthy mix of experiences, activities, and tasks. It mingles collaboration with reflection. Technology is not the buffet where you can pick and choose; it is the entire seven-course meal. You may not polish off every course; but you’d better get a good sample from each. If you wish to research the effectiveness of a technology, you must consider more than just the efficacy of the hardware.

This is not to say that one must examine every factor present, every issue involved. Such a study would include assessments of cultural impact, administration concerns, faculty development, learning styles, and student attitudes. It would encompass everything from initial instructional design to post-test results. Pedagogy, return on investment, the allocation of resources, and the economies of scale. And more. Too much information, I say.

But, to truly gauge student satisfaction or achievement, the relevant internal elements and external forces must be drawn into the study. In effect, we must examine the issues surrounding and impacting the focus of our study, before we can focus on our study.

We must find the relationships or correlations between different elements. Comparing social networking to collaborative PBL is of limited value; examining which approach is more effective for different learning styles tells us something that we can use to improve specific areas and expand out to the more general learner populations.

By continuously studying different systems, we can assess what works and what doesn’t in given situations; then compare those results to related studies with somewhat different conditions. In time, we can capture significant elements in the “statistical crossfire” that results from this multitude of related research. We must move away from the head-to-head studies of one medium against another, or our knowledge will always reflect the insight of the blind men describing the elephant.

The Changing Role of the Instructor

With the popular acceptance of each new learning theory, with the rolling out of the latest standardized testing system, with the acceptance of the latest pedagogical application, the role of the teacher has changed. This change has never been so great as that experienced in the last twenty years.

Computer use in the classroom has become more widespread. Moving beyond the convenience afforded by productivity software, the opening of classrooms to the worldwide web has introduced a host of resources and experiences. Now, in recent years, increased use of distance and distributed learning systems has introduced the most profound changes.

First, is the teacher and the technology. Many instructors still do not feel “at home” with computers—even with basic word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software. Add search engines, social networking, desktop sharing, and virtual environments, and you will place many of today’s teachers in an alien environment.

Next is the teacher and the environment. A majority of teachers are familiar with the same time, same place, F2F classroom experiences. The synchronous chats of distance learning, the asynchronous discussions of distributed learning, and the other activities that are also employed in these systems take some getting use to. Unfortunately, most school districts and institutions fail to provide teachers with adequate professional development opportunities. Imagine having to learn how to rebuild an engine on your own. Now imagine having to do it with the engine still running. And with a bunch a highly critical students watching your every move. No one is going to undertake such a task if they can avoid it.

Then there is the teacher and the content. Whereas being knowledgeable in one’s field was once what was most required from teachers, it is now much less important. They can no longer hide behind content. Instead, they must create an environment where students make a connection with that content.  And, no longer being at the center of the action, they must accomplish this engagement from the sidelines, or at least the backfield.

Finally, there is the teacher and the process. On top of everything else, teachers are no longer the clients of the technology, the ones who use the computer or the classroom. They are now the servers. They initiate the discussions, send out the topics and tasks. They guide student development rather than shape it; and, at times, do it remotely.

Today’s teachers must interact constructively with learners. The ability to communicate individually and with the group, the necessity for engaging students who one cannot see, and the demand that, somehow, the teacher gather the broad range of learners into a community of interest makes for a pretty demanding job.

In the World of the Have Nots, It all ADDIEs Up

I live in the have-not world of instructional design. I have for over 30 years. So, I wince when I read articles on ID that talk about the duties of the subject matter expert, the scriptwriter, the producer, the production crew members, etc.

The closest I ever came to having all of this was my first job out of school. I was the Instructional Television Producer/Director (also the scriptwriter and editor). I had an Engineer who handled all technical matters (and sometimes served as camera operator or lighting director), a graphic artist (another camera operator), an office secretary who evolved into a camera operator and, eventually, a fine assistant director (also a script editor and camera operator). And 2-3 Work Study students rounded out the crew. Instructors served as content experts and either did the research or made sure it got done. Even with most people serving double duty, we had a pretty good little operation.

It went downhill from there. Since then, the best I’ve been able to muster up is a content expert/researcher and, occasionally, another technical/production person. Often it’s me and the content provider. Or just me.

The good thing about this is that you learn a lot. Quickly. You have to. Not an easy task for my brain cells, who were old before their time. Which is why I really appreciate things like ADDIE, the acronym that reminds those with little time to accomplish the task and no time to think about process.

Early on, I had to review the explanations of the Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation stages. And I will occasionally glance at them. The important thing is that when time is precious and I am the human resource, I can focus on the task, not the process.

There are other acronymmed design systems that I’ve used (ASSURE comes to mind) that work well. Again, they free the mind from the process to focus on the task. I guess this is an extension of my love for “how-to” books, guides, and articles.

Moore and Kearsley’s Distance Education offers a great section (Chapter 5) on designing web pages, study guides, and other instructional ancillary items and activities. While not compacted into an acronym, resources such as this come in handy for those of us who design in the world of the have-nots.

Taking the Digital Test Drive

In the last few weeks I’ve had the experience of “test driving” several online learning & social environments: Tapped in, Vyew, Ning, Second Life, to name a few. I have to admit my initial reactions were not very positive. Too many hands on the wheel, too many voices talking at the same time, no road map, and no known destination. But, having reflected on the situation, I now see that my early dissatisfaction was not really with the site but with the circumstances.

With over a dozen other “test drivers” participating, it was pretty chaotic–much like having a van-load of back-seat drivers, each with something to say and somewhere they wanted to go. But, upon separating the initial experience from the environment in which it took place. I have come to appreciate these types of sites and what they represent.

They are forms (forums?) of communication. And anything that facilitates dialog between two or more people cannot be all bad. And studies have shown that even in purely social environments that classmates belong to, the conversation often centers on school-related topics. Reflection, collaboration, meaning-making, and more come together in a form of back-door constructivism that the developers didn’t plan on and the students may not even notice.

So, if we can see that social environments are being used for learning, can we design for that without ruining the experience or the environment? Of course we can! But how?

Test-driving these environments allowed me to enter worlds where the “student drivers” were more familiar with the routes and roadways. I was the old man wanting to drive 35 MPH in the fast lane-I wanted to get where I wanted to go without getting lost or crashing. But, in coming to appreciate the ins-and-outs of the environments, I also started thinking about why today’s learners are attracted to them.

First of all is the connection. Not only can a student contact their friends; they can make new friends. The shyness, awkwardness, bad breath, etc. of F2F interaction is easily overcome. The user can carefully craft her or his words before sending them forth.

Next is the trappings. Whether using social sites like Facebook or MySpace, collaborative sites like Ning or Vyew, or virtual worlds like Second Life, today’s learners gravitate towards sites that meet their needs. Sure, there is an element of trendiness. But sites that catch on do so because they offer something beyond mere communication: areas for posting pictures, “walls” for leaving comments, room for favorite songs or links to favorite sites. Students choose an online “home” where they can feel comfortable and where they can be themselves… or be a representation of what they want themselves to be seen as.

Finally, there is hanging out. Just being there. And not having to “be there” constantly, offering your undivided attention to the other(s) in the conversation. Users can engage in other activities, carry on in several sites simultaneously, talk on the phone, go make a sandwich, without appearing rude. In F2F conversations, we wouldn’t tolerate someone just standing there mute, waiting for several minutes to respond to our comment or question. But online this happens routinely. Everyone understands that the other person(s) may have multiple things going on. And, users readily switch from delayed interaction to synchronous chatting.

So, how do we make use of this? It all boils down to pedagogy/andragogy, i.e. designing instruction to incorporate what these sites can provide. Generally speaking, this means less emphasis on formal assessment and high-stakes testing; more emphasis on public reflection and sharing of views. Fewer worksheets, more discussions. Less drilling and more modeling/simulating/experiencing. Less memorization and more application and personal meaning making. Looser schedules and more hanging out.

Admittedly, this can be like trying to shape Jello without using a mold. But, if we focus on the strengths of these sites and develop teaching strategies that parallel how students use them, we can make them our own without ruining the student experience.

Hey, we might even become the “cool” teacher.

Designing for Today’s Learners

Two of the many conveniences of the “good ol’ days” was that it was easier to define learners and the then-popular cognitive theories were easier to apply to designing for the learners.

While some people truly practiced life-long learning, the formal structures we have today were not in place in the past. Life-long learning was an individiual effort for the most part. While community colleges had started in the first decade of the 20th Century, it was not until the ’60s–when the number doubled to more than 900 (AAAC figures, NavigationMenu/AboutCommunityColleges/HistoricalInformation/ CCGrowth/ CC_Growth_1961-1970.htm)–that the possibility for organized lifelong learning became a reality.

Before then, learners were K-16; an overwhelming majority were K-12; and a strong percentage were K-10 or less. They were college prep (bright), business (smart) or vo-tech (average).

Behaviorist theory centered on concrete, defineable outcomes with assessment based upon observation. Without having to contend with multiple intelligences, social constructivism, and other inconvenient theories, the tightly-defined concept of “learners” was easy to design for.

Nowadays, we have an expanded and increasingly diverse learner population, whose definitions are shaped by cognitive theories, learning strategies, distributive cognition,cultural influences and language barriers. All of this is in addition to a wider range of ages, ADA accomodations, and the need for career-enhancing and career-changing skills, to name a few factors.

Not only has the learner population grown in terms of both size and scope, but the resources–and the requirements–to successfully design for these learners has expanded. No one system, approach, theory, or strategy can possibly fit all situations. It will be up to responsible and focused educational research to supply us with answers to a multitude of very specific questions. And it will be up to a cadre of very flexible designers to provide effective treatments that will not only bring fundamental knowledge to the diverse masses, but will also be able to satisfy the needs of many demographic sub-groups within our society.

My Newfound Respect for Second Life

I’ll admit, my early experiences with, and impressions of, Second Life were not very positive. There’s an appreciable learning curve, more options than I’ll ever use (or remember). And, when you finally leave Orientation Island, what happens?

Me & my cohorts stood around–pretty close to where we “beamed down”. No exploration, no meaning-making, no discovery. Just chat. And texting at that!

I bought a headset/microphone so that I could talk online. Lord knows my speaking skills are much better than my keyboarding. But my attempts at conversation were met with silence… except for the clicking sound SL makes as the avatars typed in their next text message.

And with over a dozen people texting…. well, you can imagine just how linear those dialogues were 😦

Working & studying take up my time; once I get my degree, once I retire, I might spend more time in SL. But right now, I’m there at the appropriate meeting time and place, ready to do whatever we’ve said we’re gonna do, then I’m off to finish some other assignment or work-related task. I don’t have a lot of “dawdle time” right now.

So, when a recent class session included time to explore, my initial reaction was “@*&%?+~, what a waste of my oh-so-precious time!” But, the only thing worse than wasting time is to have to report back to the class that I didn’t waste it effectively! So I went exploring.

And what I found was pretty cool. museum sites, resources, links to places beyond SL. I began to see the possibilities that SL held for learning. For K-5 (or -6, -7, -8?) students, SL could serve as a very effective learning environment. True, building it would take more time (and money) than doing so in Moodle or Blackboard. But, for the younger learner, the environment would be much more enticing.

As students got older, the environment would have to offer more than just a creative way to archive links and resources. But the possibilities are there.

And, the creation of a totally virtual classroom, with simulations, demos, etc. available no longer seems as quite the stretch I viewed it as, just one week ago. By properly applying a supportive pedagogy that embraced the fluid, distributed environment, instructional designers could create effective learning experiences.

Parts of me is glad that I don’t have to become SL-proficent in order to participate in my classes. But, having been fairly well bruised and battered by behaviorist teaching strategies, New Math, and the earlier years of standardized testing, another part of me wishes I’d been born 40-50 years later. So that I would now be at a point in time, and in my life, where exploration was an integral part of eduction, resources were readily, and almost randomly, available, and I could fly to class.