Distance Edu Tech

Distance Edu Tech

An interesting discussion of online distance education offerings by Johns Hopkins President, William R. Brody. In sum: students really like the online components of classrooms. The focus of this short article is mainly asynchronous applications, which apparently are wildly popular. I’m not entirely certain which forms of asynchronous communication Johns Hopkins are employing, but it’s nice to see an article praising them.

He notes:

Other interesting developments have followed the creation of an online [Master of Public Health] curriculum. First, pedagogy in the classroom has improved. Evidently, in order to develop an online course, you must invest more time and creativity in developing pedagogical tools to facilitate asynchronous (non-real time, noninteractive) learning. Some of these tools enhance the classroom courses taught synchronously as well. The result is that the quality of instruction rises in the classroom as well as on the Internet. The two feed each other symbiotically.

I’m so thrilled to see that in print. Distance education is that added element that forces everyone to re-think of education from a different angle, and allows for some real creative thought about the process. The elements that make an online course work could easily be added to a traditional classroom to enhance and improve communication among all participants. For me this is all about venues; because distance education provides new venues for student input and interaction, we end up with those same new venues to supplement the classroom. Some people don’t think we need new venues for students in a traditional learning environment; I’d say those people are wrong.

So, after years of watching and helping out with distance ed courses, with some background in ideas around information literacy and technology, what sorts of applications would make the best distance classroom?

It would depend on the kind of course, obviously. But I think distance education needs a blend of synchronous and asynchronous applications. Job #1 is to create the classroom environment itself. It needs to be the walls and the desks, the paper and pens, the eyes and the ears of the students. Good instructional technology for distance education needs to be community-building software.

First and most obvious: the distance classroom needs weblogs with an aggregated “class” page, much like the “friends” page on livejournal. When I was a graduate student (the first time), we were often required to hand in “reflection papers” every week, where we consider the week’s readings and come up with some questions. One of my profs asked us to choose a quote from the week’s readings and talk about how that quote is representative, challenging, or interesting in light of the topic. Students at a distance need every venue possible to interact with their assignments, the instructor, and each other; weekly posts should be required.

One of the best parts of weblogs in instruction is the comment function; it would be great to get students regularly commenting on each other’s posts. It might be worth it to arrange loose groupings of students for the purpose of commenting. That would mean each student might have four or five other students on their list to comment on weekly, meaning everyone would get a handful of comments for everything they post.

I’m sort of conflicted about whether it’s best to use a wiki to discuss specific readings or a blog. Say you attached the week’s readings to a wiki, and allowed students to add their comments directly to the page as marginalia or as endnote reactions. The difference here is in whether you’re trying to produce a document surrounded by people, or individuals surrounded by documents. I think there’s something (rather important) to be said about giving students a space of their own to record their thoughts, where the connection to the document is more temporal than spatial. The subtle and important difference between these two applications is something the instructor would need to consider in light of her curriculum; there may be a time and a place for one over the other, or a time and a place to use both concurrently.

Possibly this is a problem we can solve when we get around to building our edublog system. [Yes, Jason. This is a note to you.] Can we create a system that arranges posts with a document anchor as well as in the traditional blog format? Best of both worlds?

What I think could also be an interesting addition to a distance classroom is a podcast. Yes Catspaw, there really is a podcast. We’ve been batting this idea back and forth, my friends and I, and we agree that podcasting is sort of lame. I mean, podcasting without a clear purpose is sort of lame, it won’t be lame when we do it. (And yes, will we be doing it. Look for our first collaborative podcast sometime this summer.) But bear with me here: what if, in lieu of a lecture, instructors recorded a short (maybe 20 minutes) talk about the topic at hand. I don’t know how many instructors would be comfortable with this, but what if they just wrote up a few notes for themselves, and recorded themselves elaborating on the topic as a mini-lecture recorded directly to mp3, and then posted it weekly for download? Possibly rather than a lecture, the instructor and a TA could record a dialogue about the readings and the topic. That way students could do their reading, listen to a mini-lecture or dialogue, and then respond to it all on their own blogs. Heck, students could post podcast responses if they wanted. Why not?

So far everything I have detailed is asynchronous, to a point; I believe in the value of asynchronicity in a distance classroom only as far as it allows students to arrange their own week. I feel strongly that distance students should not be treated any differently than students in a traditional classroom in that something is expected of them weekly. Traditional students just do their reading (maybe) and show up to class; the distance student can’t be allowed to fake it or leave it all to the end. This is not a good way to learn. Students can do the reading when it suits them, listen to the lecture when they have the time, and add their comments in the middle of the night, but they need to be committed enough to the course to allow for weekly participation. For asynchronous communication to create a dynamic community while allowing everyone to work on their own schedule, it needs temporal bookends.

Synchronicity: where does it fit in? With all of these asynchronous elements, our distance classroom has a lot of content, a lot of interaction, and hopefully some sense of connection to the instructor and to the students. What’s missing is the real-time factor. While we’ve given students a chance to absorb information and a venue to respond to it, we need a venue for instructors to respond as well. Instructors can of course respond individually to students, but what about that over-all response to what students are finding and thinking about this week? . This is where a synchronous chat environment (like MOO) comes in. Gathering students together once a week allows the instructor to talk to everyone at once, ask for more details or clarification from students with interesting ideas in the presence of the entire class, and to respond to common questions. A synchronous group chat could act as a kind of weekly debrief, office hours, and casual discussion. A MOO space as a classroom could be used by students at any time for collaboration, group work projects, or party planning. The official chat might not need more than 30-45 minutes a week.

As of right now, there’s my ideal set of distance education tools. A really great edublog system, a wiki system, podcasts, and a MOO-based virtual classroom. Synchronous and asynchronous, distance students require and deserve an environment as challenging and demanding as the regular classroom ought to be.

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