Sophisticated Technology Offers Higher Education Options

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What’s in aname? Although “dot-com” and “Web site” are shoo-ins for the next edition ofWebster’s Dictionary, the term “distance learning” may be headed forextinction. Ironically, the use of traditional terminology associated withdistance learning is diminishing at a time when the use of technology isgaining ground. According to the Department of Education, distance education programs increased by 72percent between 1995 and 1998. In 1998, institutions offered a total of 54,000online education courses, with 1.6 million students enrolled. In 1995, therewere only 53,000 students and 26,000 coursesoffered. Many sources predict the involvement of over 2,000,000 learnersby 2002.

Meanwhile, the lines are blurring between distance educationand traditional classroom learning. The tendency to define online and offlineinstruction as two separate (and sometimes warring) entities is an outmodedparadigm. Today’s educators are asking themselves not whether to usetechnology, but how to use technology. How can I use technology to enrich theclassroom-learning environment? How can I become a more skilled coach ormanager of a learning environment? How can I combine activities based in technologyto best support student learning? How can I help my students takeresponsibility for their own learning? How can I measure outcomes in this bravenew academic world?

Educators are demanding a more blended and flexibleapproach, and industry suppliers are responding. The marketplace is movingtoward providing hybrid solutions: combining the use of the Internet with avariety of other options for the delivery of good instruction.

The content and structure of educational software anddelivery platforms are becoming collaborative works-in-process: faculty userssuggest changes, then industry suppliers go back to the drawing board on acontinuous-improvement basis. Desired learning outcomes, as well as instructorpreferences, are driving the choice of course content and delivery. At the endof the day, some courseware and platform options will be exclusively deliveredin a distance education format. On the other hand, some instructors will usethe same products to post their syllabi and list homework assignments online.

Monitoring Students’Progress

The mid-1990s was the leading-edge eraof Web-delivered distance education. Early adopters, such as the Dallas CountyCommunity College District (DCCCD), tended to develop their own softwareplatforms, and even use programmers to work with course content. There simplyweren’t any off-the-shelf products to do the sophisticated job of providingremote instruction in a large district with 12,000 or more students per year.Only the hardiest of faculty were willing to try to develop and deliverfirst-rate courses.

Now, as the technology speeds rapidly ahead, commercialproducts have become easier to use. Instructors and administrators who weren’tinterested in online offerings in the past are reconsidering. Many who want totry Web-enabled teaching do not want to offer an entire online course. Theywant the online offering to complement and supplement the primary method beingused to deliver their existing courses. For example, instructors want access tosoftware and Web-enabled technology that streamlines grading and assessmenttasks and frees up time for meaningful interaction with students.

Faculty can also use automated assessment tools to createindividualized learning plans for their students. While the instructor lecturesto one group, other members of the class can work independently on skilldeficits that are personally challenging to them. With today’s state-of-the-artmediated learning software, a built-in management component can measure eachperson’s work in detail. In addition to holding students accountable for theirown learning, it enables instructors to diagnose weaknesses and to knowimmediately when a particular student is falling behind.

 

Mix and Match

At many campuses, the move toward integrating small piecesof curriculum into existing courses is well underway. Rather than receiving anentire instructional packet, instructors have access to a set of buildingblocks. It’s a technical solution, but one that clearly puts the classroomdecision-making where it belongs: in the hands of the instructor.

This mixing and matching approach escalates the need forprofessional training and anytime-anywhere technical support. Industry leadersare responding with on-site, regional and online workshops, which traineducators to integrate Web-based teaching and learning tools, strategies andmodels into their classrooms. Technical help is also available for students andfaculty 24/7 via the Internet. This eliminates the need for expensivecampus-based server equipment and systems support.

 

Student Assistance via E-mail

E-mail is already used in 53.4 percentof college courses, according to the 1999 Campus Computing Survey.Private-sector companies have developed sophisticated software products thatenable instructors to hold regular chats, provide interactive forums, andorganize e-mail messages more efficiently. Using these products, instructorscan e-mail their students frequently, respond to messages promptly, and remindstudents when test and projects are due. Stymied students mail their jottingsto the instructor, who can then see who responds accordingly. Faculty users arebecoming more sophisticated in managing “virtual” conversations, oftengenerating FAQs to control the traffic.

 

Simplifying the Authoring Tools

Today’s faculty-authored sites very often have electronicrepresentations of the same content they used to distribute on paper. While acourse site might include lecture notes and a few presentation slides online,the course elements do not tap into the full power of Web-based interactive,multimedia content. Limited offerings rarely suffice, even when the site isdesigned to be a minor form of content delivery. Today’s Net-savvy students areimpatient and will click through if they are bored or frustrated. The medium,as well as the message, must engage them.

To help time-strapped faculty members create compelling,user-friendly sites, the industry has simplified the Web authoring process.Nowadays it d'esn’t take extensive html programming knowledge to customizeeducational courseware for classroom use. Templates and libraries of learningmodules automate the task for novice authors.

 

Licensing Programs for Faculty

The trend in the industry is to take the modularizedapproach a step further. For example, Academic Systems, the leading provider ofinteractive, multimedia instructional programs for college students, islicensing content from educators and instructors who can provide multimedia,discipline-specific course supplements for inclusion in the ActiveContentonline library.

This new licensing program and others like it leveragefaculty knowledge of a particular discipline with Web-building expertise amongcolleagues throughout the country. These flexible, faculty-authored modulesprovide course supplements for instructors in a broad variety of fields,including entry-level mathematics and writing and higher-level courses incomputers and information systems, natural and social sciences, literature, andbusiness management.

Today’s online learning technology is really about choice.Instructors can combine online content and activities with other types ofcourse delivery. Students can journey from where they are to where they need tobe: on the road to lifelong learning, with a large repertoire of learningstrategies to go the distance.

 

By Jacquelyn Barker Tulloch, Ed.D. Vice President forAcademic Services, Academic Systems Corporation, and Former Executive Dean,Distance Education and College Services, Dallas County Community CollegeDistrict

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.

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