Future of Online Learning and Final Thoughts

I had a great opportunity to enroll in the course, Designing and Developing Online Distance Learning at the University of Minnesota, taught/facilitated by Angel Pazurk, this fall 2013 semester, and couldn’t be more excited to continue pursuing my interest in online learning. As the semester comes to a close, I wanted to capture some final thoughts on my learning experiences in this online course. Below are three takeaways the capture those final thoughts. 

1. Student-centered learning is integral to the future of education. As educators, we must continue to focus everything on the student, and how he/she learns, and adjust the design and development of the course, module, or system, to fit each individual student.

2. Technology will continue to evolve very quickly and change education. There are still numerous arguments for and against the integration of technology into learning environments, even today, when technology for most of us (but certainly not all of us) is a HUGE part of our lives. It’s important that researchers, practitioners, and educators continue to use technology that enhances the entire learning process and allows students to EXPERIENCE learning (per Stephen Brookfield [2006]) better. 

3. Online learning and the future of education. The future of education is moving more and more towards more online learning opportunities, BUT, there are still key components of face to face (f2f) interactions that provide learners an opportunity to connect and learn from each other. As people continue to build online environments and courses, they must be creative and thoughtful in how to create those f2f experiences online.

There are many more interesting things I gained from my experiences with this online course, and I hope to take everything I learned and apply them to my role in the development of customized training opportunities for practitioners in the Minnesota, and to my future opportunities in education and online learning.  


AECT Conference — Proceedings Review

For this weeks blog post, I’d like to reflect on my experiences in contacting several professionals and presenters from the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT) 2013 International Conference. The assignment asked us to contact two individuals that presented at the conference and request their presentation proceedings. I contacted Prof. Brad Hokanson, from the University of Minnesota, and Jenny Wakefield and Scott Warren from the University of North Texas. Brad was very responsive to my original request. It took a few days to receive a response from Jenny. She was a great source of information, though, and was receptive to me after I told her I was pursuing my M.Ed. degree at the University of Minnesota. I also think Brad was more receptive to me after he learned about my educational goals. I plan to meet with Brad in a few weeks to further discuss his work (I’ll discuss more below). 

With my interest in massive open online courses (MOOCs), I went ahead and contacted Prof. Brad Hokanson, PhD, University of Minnesota, on his presentation, “SMOOCH: The development of an internally targeted massive online course in creativity.” The project concept includes developing an online MOOC-like course (Semi-MOOC, hence the “S”) for incoming freshman to learn about creativity and problem-solving. Prof. Hokanson proposes about 1000 incoming freshman will enroll in the course, with the first cohort moving through next summer, 2014.  If the course proves to be successful, the number of incoming freshman that enroll, could potentially increase significantly. The course will also not be a “traditional” lecture style course; it will be an active learning environment with a focus on problem-solving that requires students to be engaged actively online. Creativity seems like a difficult concept to teach online; but Hokanson notes the course will be structured with a series of challenges and problems to be solved, allowing creativity to be developed through the online interactions and collaborations. Students will also be peer reviewed and asked to participate in online discussions with other learners.

In my review of the proceedings, this course seems to align well with the online learning strategies and goals we’ve learned in CI5325. It will be interesting to see the design of the course online and how well it meets the needs of the learners. I plan to meet with Prof. Hokanson in the near future to discuss this course and his ideas to build a stronger undergraduate student experience and “teach” them to become more creative. 

I also received a proceedings paper from Jenny Wakefield and Scott Warren from the University of North Texas on their work, “Learning and Teaching as Communicative Actions: Applications of the Theory to Mobile Learning.” The goal of their paper was to introduce learning and teaching as communicative actions theory as one theoretical support for using mobile devices and applications to support learning. Their theory of learning focuses on the communication affordances of mobile learning, and provides learners with meaningful, real world contexts. Learning and teaching as communicative actions theory (LTCA) is one such avenue that can be used to support the notion that mobile learning is a communication affordance to us. LTCA can be used as a model to see how we learn from mobile devices and may be the future “go to” theory in mobile learning. The paper was very interesting to read especially with my personal interest in mobile learning. Jenny also recommended a book for me, Handbook of Mobile Education, 2013. The book includes their paper, which I discussed above. This book provides a huge source of research and information related to the future of mobile technologies. 

Overall, my communications with the presenters from AECT was very comfortable and well worth the couple of minutes I spent writing my emails. I plan to reach out to additional presenters from the conference in the future to learn more about some specific topics of interest to me. 




Building Trust in Online Learning Environments

Trust is a HUGE component in online learning environments.  Nancy Ortner (2010) say it all so well; collaborative work requires 90% people and 10% technology. As we’ve learned in this course, technology is a huge component to effective online learning environments, but if there is any lack of trust between the course instructors and his/her students, technology can’t help save the course from crashing. As Ortner, 2010 notes, trust is considered the “superglue” in holding an online learning environment together. Ortner, 2010 notes several trust strategies developed by Coopola (2005) that are integral to building an online learning environment and community. Of those mentioned, I am particularly interested in establishing early communication, developing a positive social atmosphere, reinforcing predictable patterns of communication and actions, and involving team members in tasks in my online course. I believe following these strategies will help your students build not only trust with you as an instructor, but trust with other students in the course. Trust is only built AFTER some learning and interaction has taken place. As we build our online learning environments, it’s important to think about to build interaction into the course so students find opportunities to connect with each other and the instructor. Because, then, trust will be built. 

It’s interesting to note that creating predictable patterns of communication and actions increased engagement and collaboration within a course. Students need patterns and consistency, as we learned from Spiegel’s article a few weeks ago, to effectively engage within an online learning environment. Conrad discussed the importance of creating good content that allows for good interaction and that the instructor presence is not the most important factor for engagement.

So, as I continue to build my final module and online learning environment for this course, I need to continue to remind myself to build assets into my course that will help build trust not only between my students and myself, but among the students themselves. 


Building Patterns and Anticipation: Online Course Development

This week, I spent time reflecting on the topics of building patterns and anticipation in designing my own online course. As I’ve learned over the past 6 weeks, there are many things that need to be taken into account when designing and developing an online course. As learned this week, patterns are very important to an effective course. Patterns provide students with consistencies week to week, and help to reduce anxiety in the course. Patterns are a part of the design of the course, and for many non-traditional online instructors, isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Effective design can support the ability to build engagement and collaboration within a course. 

I’ve been given an opportunity to teach a freshman level course for science and engineering students through the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota. This is my second year teaching the course, and while it’s a face to face course, I’ve attempted to integrate a more hybrid approach to teaching the course. I will note, though, that I am now done teaching the course, as my role was only for the first seven weeks. We used Moodle as the CMS for the course, which is required. Going back to my CMS matrix, Moodle was one of the CMS’s that I analyzed, and there are some difficulties in applying color to the Moodle environment. As Cheri Spiegel notes in her Universal Design paper, color should be used in online course design to attract attention. I’m not sure if color would have made any difference with my students. I’d have to take a survey to see if there is any data that supports this one way or another. But, another key thing that Spiegel notes, is the need for consistency when designing an online course. I unfortunately did not do a great job of this in my f2f class. I would upload various assignments and material on Moodle, but it was very inconsistent from week to week. Most of the direction for the course came from higher-level administration in CSE, with many of those folks unable to understand the importance of how to effectively use Moodle in a f2f course. In the future, I will definitely change this, as I’ve learned the importance of building patterns in an online course. I’d like to also do a better job of building community within the course, both in the classroom, and online. 

Dianne Conrad’s paper, “Engagement, Excitement, Anxiety, and Fear: Learners’ Experiences of Starting an Online Course,” was a great paper and provided some much needed information to better design and develop an online course. Two things stuck out to me: 1) It’s important to provide students early access to your course and 2) students do not feel that instructors are a large part of the engagement for the course. Early access to the course makes complete sense to me, but it was harder for me to understand why students in online environment don’t really have much connection to the instructors. This paper did focus on adult learners, and so this does make more sense for an older student. But, those younger students, it doesn’t seem to be true. I also think Conrad’s ideas can easily be applied to f2f learning as well. 


Building Community into Online Learning Environments

I really enjoyed reading the three articles for this week’s module. They included Building Sense of Community at a Distance (Rovai, 2002), Technology in Support of Collaborative Learning (Resta & Laferriere, 2007) and Representing Authentic Learning Designs Supporting the Development of Online Communities of Learners (Oliver, Herrington, Herrington, & Reeves, 2007). 
As Rovai 2002 notes, a sense of a learning community may be viewed as consisting of four related dimensions: spirit, trust, interaction, and commonality of learning expectations and goals. Rovai 2002 discusses a strategy that enhances these four dimensions should result in stronger feelings of community. Rovai 2002 further notes that a review of literature suggests instructors teaching at a distance may promote sense of community by attending to seven factors: a) transactional distance, b) social presence, c) social equality, d) small group activities, e) group facilitation, f) teaching style and learning stage, and g) community size. If we can design and deliver courses at a distance that build and sustain community by drawing on these factors, perhaps our actions will help promote satisfaction and retention in e-learning programs. Community equals a feeling of being connected to someone or something.
As I continue to read about the importance of building community in online courses, it makes me think about the effectiveness of Massive Online Open Courses, also called MOOCs. MOOCs tend to have a large number of participants, sometimes up to 100K enrollees. Rovai 2002 talks about creating a community within a certain class size or number of students. His argument is that smaller class size promotes a sense of community. Then, does this mean that MOOCs do not have any community built into them, and lack the effectiveness of integrating interaction and collaboration? How can MOOCs provide more interaction and collaboration between students and the instructor?
For another example, at the University of Minnesota, some undergraduate courses have up to 200 students. For example, introductory physics, chemistry, math, and psychology to name a few. These courses also lack the ability to create an effective community of students, including social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence, also known as the community of inquiry (Garrison). Can technology be integrated effectively into an online course to help build community? YES! Technology, simple as the mobile phone, can help build a relationship between an instructor and student in a large lecture style course at the University of Minnesota. I attended a Teaching and Learning conference at the University of Minnesota this past Friday, and one of the presentations described a math professor using his text messaging as a communication medium to interact with his students. Students used the text application to ask questions in and outside of the classroom. The math instructor felt more connected to his students by using text as a communication tool. Success!
I had several good takeaways from the authentic learning article as well. As Oliver, Herrington, Herrington, & Reeves, 2007 notes, effective learning communities need to be designed around activities based on deliberate learning designs that have been shown to be able to deliver learning outcomes. Successful learning design must include meaningful contexts that include collaboration, enables good interaction and communication, and provides effective moderation or facilitation by the course instructor.
I also wanted to mention an article (http://www.startribune.com/local/226611161.html) posted in the Star Tribune on Sunday, October 5 titled, Where’s the Teacher, Online College debuts self-paced courses. The article discusses a new competency-based approach to learning called FlexPath being utilized by Capella University.  It doesn’t matter how a student learns the course material; all they need to do is a pass a series of assessments that show they understand the material. A quote in the article that really caught my eye was,  “There’s not a lot of interaction, and quite honestly I like it that way,” she added. “I can just get in there [and] get my work done.” Does this mean that interaction is not needed in an online course? I disagree, and point back to the community of inquiry and the need for social presence in online courses to make them effective. Even though the FlexPath courses do have facilitators or coaches that help guide students through the course, there is a complete disregard for the use of interaction and collaboration in these courses, and I don’t feel students are becoming “smarter” or better learners through the process. It will be interesting to see what research unfolds from this new approach. The University of Minnesota was interviewed for the article, and there is much skepticism so far from them.  It will be interesting to see the future of FlexPath. Like any new disruption in higher education, it’s difficult to predict its future.
As I noted in my podcast ( http://picosong.com/yiSB/), there are several key components needed to successfully build community into an online learning environment.  These include:
Build an extensive introduction (using Flipgrid)
-Incorporate surveys (build community by learning about each student — what is working, how is the class, etc.)
-Incorporate chat (Twitter or other social media tools) and discussions (require students to respond to another student); if course involves group work, assign groups and require them to discuss relevant topics among the group throughout the course – help build collaboration)
-Video engagement (instructor posts videos each week to discuss material, things I learned from previous class)
-Technologies (I mentioned some of them, but Flipgrid, and Twitter can be used to create community in my course. I’d also use podcasting as a tool to provide students an opportunity to express themselves using audio.)
-Self-learning/Constructivist Approach (I’d like to provide opportunities for students to use their experiences and apply them to the learning community, and become facilitator’s of the community further along the course schedule. Create meaning for the students.)

Online Learning and Undergraduate Education

This week I spent some time thinking more deeply about online learning and its integration into higher education with a focus on communication. I work at the University of Minnesota (in the Center for Transportation Studies), and also teach a f2 freshman level course in the College of Science and Engineering. I’ve been integrating various technologies into the course to allow for out of class collaboration (so attempting to make it a hybrid course). I’m interested in learning more about how my students interact and collaborate outside of class. The tools I’ve been using include Twitter, Flipgrid (wonderfully created by the LT Lab), and PollEverywhere. The CMS that I’m using is Moodle (as it’s the standard for U of M courses). Moodle is a good tool (I am assessing it for our assignment), but in order to create an effective Moodle site, the instructor needs to spend the time developing and designing a good site with a focus on content and interaction, among other things. Ironically, I’m taking this course at the same time of my teaching duties, which gives me an opportunity to apply what I’m learning in this class to my freshman teaching duties. So, this leads me to “Communication.” Communication is KEY to building a community with your students, both inside and outside of the class. I made it very clear during our first class that I was going to be integrating some additional tools into the course to help us build a community. The students so far have been very responsive in using Twitter (to an extent) and Flipgrid. My use of Flipgrid is entire post in itself, but so far, through week four, the students have taken a liking to the tool, and understand why I decided to integrate it into the class. I plan to evaluate the effectiveness of these tools (specifically Twitter and Flipgrid) later in the semester. I’d like to also explore further the opportunities to turn this f2f course into a hybrid course for students, and possibly an online course. 



Content Management System or Course Management System? Good Question

As I started researching ideas for my CMS Matrix, I noticed there was a distinct difference between a “content” management system and a “course” management system. Through some discussion on Ning, it was determined it made more sense for us to review course management systems (CMS) to determine what system would be best for to use to deliver our final online course.  As I think about the features that are important to me for an online learning environment, several things come to mind. I’d like to provide a list of features that are important to me. These are initial brainstormed ideas. 1) Strong communication capabilities between the instructor and student 2) Ease of accessibility 3) Collaboration Integration 4) Ease of social media integration (ie. twitter feeds) 5) Social Learning Integration 6) Customization Options 7) Ease of grading assignments 8) Flexibility for the Instructor (and student) 9) Overall Functionality 10) Synchronous and Asychronous 11) Ability to Motivate Students

I am somewhat new to the various learning theories as they relate to online learning, but feel there is certainly a blend of constructivist, connectivism, and transformative learning that can be integrated into an online learning environment. As I review and compare several course management systems, I will think about learning theory, in addition to the features I included above (I may include additional features in my final comparison). Choosing a course management system might also depend on what learner you focus on. There are differences between an adult learner and a high school student, and theses should be taken into account when determining what CMS to use as well. 

I’m about half through my matrix review, and will hopefully be able to make a final determination between three different CMS’s in the coming weeks. It’s definitely a good exercise, as there are many CMS’s out there, and it’s difficult to determine the best one for my needs without doing an in-depth review.