Wednesday, November 19, 2008

About Online Learning Systems - Part II

How well does collaborative learning work in an online environment?

While there is extensive research on collaborative learning, there is less research available on its use in an online environment. What I have been able to review, while generally favorable, is more equivocal and conditional. Two barriers to success that I see forthe Grande U. program, in which I participated briefly, are its instructional design and the effectiveness of the technology, or lack thereof, which supports teaching and learning online.

With respect to instructional design, I've already commented on the apparent disconnect between the admission policy and the assumptions on which the GU instructional design is based. A second concern is the feasibility of delivering an effective program of college level studies, for example a 16-week course in macroeconomics, in the compressed time frame of six weeks to students who may also be working, who may have family responsibilities, who may never have taken a post-secondary course, who may have little or no experience working collaboratively, even at a minimal level, or who may lack skill and comfort in the use of technology, or even all of the aforementioned.

I can imagine this working in a full time, semester-long, face-to-face program, because that's what I did for ten years and loved it; however, I spent an immense amount of time cajoling and counseling students, teaching communication and social skills, group facilitation, and mediation, as well as the contents of a college level course. A truly collaborative program is more effective than it is efficient. It's a long reach for me to believe that the quality of the outcome from a 6-week program, even with more hours per week spent online than is typical of a face-to-face classroom, will approach that of a 16-week class. To be effective, a program needs to include time for introspection and reflection, as well as discourse, some-trial-and-error learning, and even a bit of direct instruction.

This brings me to my third concern, the kind of technology available to support collaborative teaching and learning. I have two issues with the use of technology.

The first issue is: To what degree does the technology provide the staff and students with appropriate tools to facilitate collaborative learning on line? The second issue is: Does the use of the technology encourage or inhibit collaborative learning online?

After I retired the first time in 2000 at age 65, as my wife will tell you, I failed retirement miserably. I first became involved in creating a program to reduce the digital divide by collecting old computers and training high school students to refurbish or recycle them. The recycled computers, with training and a free year of internet access, were given to families with school-age children who did not have a computer in the home. The problem of internet and email access was eliminated. The new problem that emerged was the inability and/or unwillingness of teachers, even those who were enthusiastic about the new potential of universal Internet access by students, to integrate the use of technology into their instruction. To assume that it is sufficient to provide technology without the recipients ability to use it effectively is a grievous error. Teaching online requires a new skill set well beyond the ability to use email and do posts on a bulletin board, wiki, or blog. The ability to design of instruction specifically for eLearning becomes critical.

That experience was followed by working with a network of rural charter schools in three states, to which I was now able to deliver a computer for every needy family because of my previous work. An immediate need of the rural schools was to find a way to share educational resources at a distance; for example, an advanced math teacher in one school teaching Calculus for students in all 17 schools, and to increase access to professional development for rural teachers unable afford or take time to travel to conferences and workshops. The obvious answer was through distance learning, but the harder question to answer was, how do we do it do it effectively on a very limited budget?

Our conclusion was that an effective online learning system (OLS) must have five characteristics: (1) support both synchronous and asynchronous access to a media rich online classroom; (2) a user-friendly graphic interface similar to the ones used on the home computers (Macintosh or Windows); (3) be cross-platform compatible; (4) be equally accessible to users with both low- and high-speed connections without detectable differences in access speed; and, (5) require no installation of software or added costs for users.

Watch for my next post for our solution! As always, comments and questions are welcome

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