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! ( 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 (, 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.

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

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

About Online Learning Systems


I recently had the opportunity to participate in online training for certification as a faculty member at major provider of university coursework and credit; let’s call it Grande U.. I withdrew from participation at the end of the first week. I didn’t give an explanation other than to say that I had concluded that ‘”it was not a good fit for me.” Why did I decide an apparently highly successful program of adult education was not a good fit for me?

My hypothetical Grande U’s’s program is a program for adult learners in which “adult” is defined by the learners age, 23 or older; recently, the age restriction was lowered, and then eliminated. Instruction is delivered through a proprietary online system, about which I will say more later. Courses are, typically of five to six weeks duration, covering the equivalent of 14 to 16 weeks of traditional college course content.

Design of Instruction

The choice of the instructional design, collaborative learning, is based primarily upon the concepts and assumptions of Malcolm Knowles, who introduced the term andragogy to describe the teaching of adults, in contrast to pedagogy for children. His definition of “adult” is significant. Knowles “…assumes that the point at which an individual achieves a self-concept of essential self-direction is the point at which he psychologically becomes adult.”

ATHERTON J S (2005) Learning and Teaching: Knowles' andragogy: an angle on adult learning [On-line] UK: Available:

For those of you who may not be familiar with the term collaborative learning, one definition can be found at the National Institute for Science Education web site:

Collaborative learning is an educational approach to teaching and learning that involves groups of students working together to solve a problem, complete a task, or create a product. According to Gerlach, "Collaborative learning is based on the idea that learning is a naturally social act in which the participants talk among themselves (Gerlach, 1994). It is through the talk that learning occurs."

Gerlach, J. M. (1994). "Is this collaboration?" In Bosworth, K. and Hamilton, S. J. (Eds.), Collaborative Learning: Underlying Processes and Effective Techniques, New Directions for Teaching and Learning No. 59.

There is a substantial body of research that supports the use of collaborative learning, service learning, experiential education and other similar hands-on, constructivist approaches in a face-to-face mode. The experiential urban studies program, in which I was involved, followed Knowles assumptions about adult learning with considerable success, combining direct experience from internships, with aspects of service and collaborative learning.

The program functioned seven days a week for sixteen weeks, during which I had face-to-face contact with 12 to 14 students for a minimum of 10 hours a week, plus on-the-job observation and three-way meetings with students and their internship mentors at least three times for each student, and as many as 20 hours with individuals who needed help -- 3:00 AM phone calls from the police station were not my favorite form of communication from “adults” whose self-directedness led them to make poor choices.

While collaborative learning may be an appropriate model for instruction, a disconnect between Grande U.’s age-based policy and Knowles psychologically-based definition of an “adult” is evident. The problem with a disconnect between an age-based admission policy and an instructional design on Knowles assumptions about adult learners, as I see it, is that attainment of “a self-concept of essential self-direction” may only be weakly correlated to a learner’s age. We all know numerous examples of childish adults and grown-up children. If this is true, limiting instruction solely to collaborative learning intended for Knowlesian adults may not be the most effective model of learning for an increasingly diverse student population, when no indicators of an applicant’s capacity for self-direction are available.

In my next post, I will be looking at the appropriateness of an OLS based on collaborative learning.

Comments and questions are welcome.