Friday, November 21, 2008

About Online Learning Systems - Part III

Finding an effective online learning systems (OLS)

In my last post, Part II, I concluded 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.

When originally developed in 2003, these design criteria severely limited our options; however, one system was clearly superior to others then available, Elluminate Live! (http://www.elluminate.com). The program supports synchronous teaching and learning in a virtual classroom with a live whiteboard, two-way multi-party, voice and video, polling, graphing and math functions, multiple-choice questions and quizzes, text messaging, downloads and uploads to and from students, plus other bells and whistles, and all online activities can be captured digitally and archived for asynchronous access. As you might guess, an OLS meeting these criteria would be expensive for the sponsoring host, but since Elluminate Live! is a web-based application, it is far less expensive, easier to maintain, and more durable than hosting it on your own server and having to maintain an IT staff to support it. Better yet, costs can be controlled by keeping the number of seats licensed small, and the program included training, in both synchronous and asynchronous modes, for our faculty.

A new feature, since I last used Elluminate Live!, is a vRoom?. According to the Elluminate web site (http://www.elluminate.com/vroom/), vRoom is a free, 3-person version of Elluminate Live! (in which you can) "...Enjoy real-time collaboration with up to three participants using interactive features such as: Two-way audio; Interactive whiteboard; Direct messaging; Application sharing; File transfer; Synchronized web tour; Live webcam; (and), Breakout Rooms."

Using the vRoom? is a low-tech application by current standards. All that is required are 20 MB free disk space, a sound card with speakers and a microphone (or headset); and a minimum 28.8 kbps Internet connection. I can imagine the use of multiple vRooms for teams of three students engaged in a collaborative project, or teachers holding private conferences or mentoring sessions for students needing extra help, all at no cost and with no technical staff needed. With the free training available, a motivated average computer user would need a few hours a week for 2 to 3 weeks to become sufficiently prepared to deliver online instruction.

By contrast, the program at Grande U. is asynchronous text-only using a threaded discussion bulletin board format. It includes internal links to materials, many of which are available as PDF files, and other university resources in digital format, and can be linked to Microsoft Outlook Express for distribution and monitoring of posts. In addition to text, a post can include external links, but no embedded graphic images, voice or video files. To include an external link, a text document with hyperlinks must be created and formatted offline in MS Word, then cut-and-pasted into the bulletin board post. Text created online can be edited and spell-checked and it will accept attachments, which can be viewed or downloaded. There are no whiteboard or chat functions. Files created within the system can be archived. The user interface is a plain-vanilla, two-color version with minimal interactivity; the cut-and-paste function requires the use of Ctrl-X and Ctrl-V key combination, when used with a Firefox browser. I'm scared to think what would happen if used with Google's Chrome or the Flock browser.

In the late 1980's, I was running a freeware BBS with many of these same features to support teachers doing summer internships in industry. It was useful then for sharing information and responding to questions in an asynch mode, but I also had the advantage of being able to meet the teacher interns at their workplace, where most of the substantive communication and mentoring occurred. Now, twenty years later, it hard for me to accept the premise that a simple BBS is adequate to support high quality collaborative learning in a time compressed environment.

My answer to the first issue, then -- To what degree does the technology provide you with tools to facilitate collaborative learning on line? -- must be that the technology deployed at Grande U. falls far short of the OLS gold standard, Collaborative learning occurs, as Gerlach says,"... through the talk." Can text be considered talk? It delivers content, but text-only online messages lack the visual cues and emotional content helpful for interpretation and understanding. A Smiley is not the answer. By allowing faculty and students to use free tools, such as vRoom, to enhance its proprietary OLS, Grand U's efforts to facilitate collaborative learning online could be improved very significantly at little or no cost.

Does the technology itself encourage or inhibit learning online? Younger students, having been exposed to instant multimedia communication and 3-D multi-party gaming tend to be highly knowledgeable about technology and to have high expectations about its use. It seems likely that they might view the media-limited capabilities of an asynchronous, text-only system as more of an inhibitor to learning than as an accelerator, placing Grande U. at risk of a declining enrollment. It is probably financially unrealistic for Grande U. to replace its current system, but much could be done, as noted above, by using third-party applications to make the system more appealing to Tech-savvy users, as well as more flexible and powerful pedagogically.

Systems similar to Elluminate Live!, with their greater array of synchronous and asynchronous communication tools, are much more likely to be successful in providing the kind of environment needed to fully benefit from a collaborative approach to teaching and learning online. The learning curve is nearly flat, no new equipment or software is needed, and teaching materials and media already in digital format can be easily repurposed for use in an eClassroom.

In my next post, I will be writing about the future of virtual learning environments. In the meantime, questions and comments are welcome.

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