Notes from the International Online Conference 2011

I’m having a lovely, slow paced morning here in sunny yet brisk Oakland, drinking coffee, puttering around on my course discussion boards, and listening to sessions from the International Online Conference 2011.  This is the first time I have had the opportunity to participate, and it’s nice seeing a member of my colleagues from my various institutions participating in chat and discussion.

The theme for this year’s conference is mobile learning, or m- learning.  As far as I’m concerned this event cannot be more timely.  This has been the hot topic of conversation in the online and distance learning world for quite some time, and I think it’s pretty clear from what I’m hearing at this conference already that there are myriad ways to approach this topic.  One of the thoughts I’ve had so far, is that as online and distance learning specialists, we’re already becoming more aware of the fact that online professors need to come to terms with the communication and learning styles of digital natives.  In some cases, we, too, fit that definition, but for many professors making the transition to online learning, new learning styles challenge their notions of education and classroom authority.  Therefore, what we need to do is understand how technology is changing the way in which people process information, and simply adapt.  While formerly, in a face to face classroom environment I might have delivered a 20 to 40 minute lecture, online students really only want to see about 3 to 5 minutes.  It doesn’t matter what we think about that, that’s really what the format requires, so we need to understand how people learn, and tailor effective strategies to new learning realities.

So how far ahead of the curve do we end up being as educators?  I hear a number of discussants today talking about trying to anticipate how people will use technology so that we can deliver educational content more creatively.  I see two problems with that :  first we don’t really know how people will use devices, and so if we put a lot of money into developing educational content that doesn’t match the user experience, we’ve wasted a lot of time and money.  I think dedicating resources to help us learn what people want and what they will enjoy will serve us much better in the long run.  I mean, do we even know how young people will learn best five years from now?

Also, in online and mobile learning, I always see people getting really excited about using technology in novel ways to create learning communities and to develop and deliver content.  Now, I’m not exactly a stick in the mud about these sorts of things, but we really need to consider the relationship between innovation and accessibility in our course design. I keep hammering on about this, but I just don’t see it addressed as much as it needs to be.  While online learning it may be the growing trend for younger students, we don’t want to assume that everyone interested in distance learning is a 20 year old with a smart phone.  Right now the majority of my students are actually much older.  A number of my students don’t even know how to initiate an e-mail to me.  Also, I have a lot of students who are quite low income, and possibly well behind on the technology curve.  I think we need to use technology to develop a number of different types of learning modalities, but we need to make sure that we are not leaving students behind with our creativity and innovation.  Also, we need to think internationally about educational needs for developing markets.  I know there are people on that, and I’d like to hear more from them.

Having said all that, I’m really excited about a number of possibilities for mobile education. Honestly, I see a lot of potential in apps for phones that use game strategy. Students do love playing games on their phones, and if we have low risk games and quizzes that support our curricula, students will play them and will learn.  I am also very excited about content that can be used with Kindle and e-book programs.  I would be thrilled to see our academic libraries and publications much more integrated with mobile devices.  I know my students are highly interactive and if they can scribble on texts, cut and paste and bookmark content that is meaningful to them, it will help shape their individual learning journeys.

And I think we also need to start asking questions about the role of learning communities and mobility as well. For as much as I like the idea of using mobile devices to encourage collaboration, I plan to approach this cautiously. Many of my students really still like the solo and asynchronous nature of online courses. I love the idea that perhaps they can use their phones to, say, upload recorded commentary onto the discussion board, but I still fear that at this stage forcing people into real time collaboration for assessments may leave a bad taste in some people’s mouths, and for some (like many of my military students), it’s simply impossible.

What I don’t see enough in discussions about mobile learning, though, is how this stuff really integrates with the pedagogy of online learning. Do mobile learning strategies work best primarily for educational support, or can we build assessments around them that students will really enjoy and that they can all access and participate in? As always, I think we need to balance novelty with understanding the needs and realities of our students.  It may be that we online learning specialists will have to accommodate a range of students in one space with different types of assessments based on what gadgets our students have and enjoy.

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Online Educational Specialist