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Changing Designs of Online Learning: The Evolution of Digital Learning Systems Through Customization

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The changes and challenges that new technology has brought to teaching and learning are well documented. New technology has changed how people receive, understand, and apply new information and ultimately has changed student expectations and thinking skills. Educators often refer to 21st Century thinking skills, technology skills, and knowledge skills to describe both the current changes and future changes resulting from new and immediate technology-rich or mediated learning environments.

21stcenturyskills.org in a 2007 publication has emerged with a "Framework for 21st Century Learning." The partnership has titled it, "...a vision for 21st century student success in the new global economy." While core subjects are still in the framework, what those comprise is changing as is the necessity for global relevance both in learning and application; the latter being described as "Life and Career," "Learning and Innovation," and "Information, Media, and Technology Skills."

In order to attain these outcomes, there is a need, according to the framework, for a combination of standards and assessment, curriculum and instruction, professional development, and learning environments, all facilitating the learning process within which the desired skills are to be developed. While these skills do reflect changes in learner needs that have been both as an evolved result of technology generally in society and a result of its increasing use specifically within instruction, the framework reflects changes in method and delivery of learning that also must take place. For example, students are more likely now to require relevant applications to their learning simply because the global implications are no longer marginalized but very much front and center in the minds of students. The problem is, however, that while the wider uses of technology have increased student awareness of what is possible, within teaching and learning technology use often remains quite stagnant and out of date based on notions of what good teaching looks like and how standards must drive the process rather than the process itself. This is most clearly seen in current course delivery software platforms, which remain supportive of teacher-driven instructional design and content production and delivery. Also, they most commonly reflect a linear progression and limited student choice and customization in the learning process. Central to this discussion, then, is the tension that now exists between the potential for individual customization that threatens the very essence of conventional wisdom in course design and delivery. This tension does not exist by chance but is a direct result of the tension between the potential of the technology itself and the demands of the users.

The Impact of Blended Delivery
Societal and economic needs have always been closely linked to educational changes. That is, preparing students for realistic life goals and employment success have challenged educators for many years. Conversely, however, those external changes have also imposed external control of educational goals and particular delivery design.

Distance education has been around for many years and has had some form of technology mediation as part of the process. From ink to type, from recorded audio to multimedia, from correspondence to Internet-delivered: Each of these has brought new designs of instruction and delivery, but all have been developed mainly as a result of student life changes and pressures within a changing society. The Internet, of course, has maximized learning flexibility and increased the potential for instructional design changes as well as delivery changes like no other technology before. Often, however, Internet-delivered and mediated courses can be among the most boring and ineffective for students.

The delivery of course content was the initial fascination with the Internet's capabilities to deliver education and training; however, it began to become apparent that the technology itself had a wider appeal--the capabilities of the Internet could transform the actual process of teaching and learning. Along with the delivery of content, the Internet could now be used as an instructional tool to mediate the learning process; maximize interaction, communication, and application for learning; and empower students through immediate production and visible innovation.

Therefore, the effect of the technology on the learning process itself meant that more instructors began to experiment with the technology to augment existing conventional face-to-face courses. This meant that students had a more blended experience partly online using Internet tools and partly face-to-face in more conventional settings. The result of this has been that increasing numbers of conventional courses are being supported, augmented, and expanded through the use of online tools, and, in fact, blended delivery is becoming the norm in course delivery at every level of schooling.

While whole school boards may not have officially recognized this as the regular form of course delivery, increasing numbers of school teachers are opting to extend class discussions, expand class projects and group work, and increase communication through the use of online tools. Certainly, at the college level and in higher education in general, online tools are quite regular in most courses of study.

The result is that students and teachers benefit from two different learning environments and draw strength from each for different reasons. Further, while the delivery capability of the Internet has changed course format options and provided time and place flexibility, the instructional capabilities of the Internet have changed actual student learning and social "spaces" within courses. This has been partly owing to the technology itself and partly to how it has been used socially and instructionally in general. Therefore, as blended course delivery has become more regular, so have the combined delivery and instructional mediation using technology. The result has been richer and more collaborative learning environments.

This combination of delivery and instructional diversity has evolved into a more integrated approach to instructional design, social and academic connectivity, and dialog within the expanded context of the blended course. Therefore, while we now have increasing expectations for blended instruction, we continue to evolve as teachers and learners and will, necessarily, demand more from the technology itself and the software developers who develop the systems and programs we use. That is, future systems of course management will necessarily be flexible enough to support existing course delivery and creative enough to provide options for students and teachers in communication, collaboration, knowledge building and knowledge production.

Van Wiegal (2005) discusses the necessity to move away from a behaviorist design of course management toward not only a constructivist design but an environment that is driven by skill development and supported by technology. In other words, a learning environment is designed within which technology mediates and supports a dynamic process of learning that develops desired and evolving skills in learners, rather than merely delivering course content. Therefore, what classroom and online brought together in blended/hybrid instruction, integrated skill and knowledge development will bring to learning in general. Learning spaces will be created that support learner needs and individualized learning goals within the larger framework of a community of learners that is socially and academically networked and collaborative.

Wiegal states:

Looking ahead, with the future development of fiber optic networks, digital paper, near-flawless voice recognition, holographic imaging, and virtual reality technologies, the potential for implementing discovery-based learning within a 360 degree environments and constructing knowledge assets through a teach-to-learn pedagogy will grow by several orders of magnitude. It is time to eschew the minimalist pedagogical vision of the CMS and to envision a more promising future. (p.66)

While the technology itself will continue to evolve, so will the social and academic needs of students. Users will evolve with the technology and blend both their life and learning into an integrated whole. The experiential learning that Dewy (1964) envisioned will become a dynamic flow between life and learning facilitated and applied with technology.

Open Source Development
Another great influence in current changes in learning environments is the notion of customization of design and delivery which has come of age through open sourcing. Most Internet programming is now designed with change in mind. No longer are systems closed and packaged; they are changeable and modifiable based on the users' needs and goals. This truly supports the idea of individualized learning incredibly. In my experience as an instructional technologist, I have found that working with faculty and students in the use of Internet technology requires a lot of patience, but it also produces an immediate response. That is, once users experience the immediacy of the technology itself, the desire is expressed to customize the space to better suit how they teach or how they learn. Without exaggeration, that has been the most commonly asked question I have encountered with new users of Internet technology.

Most course management platforms boast their learning curve estimations from introduction to implementation. My experience has been that as soon as faculty/teachers know what a system can do, they immediately want to know what else it can do, and these questions are based on their teaching methodology. Similarly, students learn in individual ways and clearly like the idea that they can make an environment suit their style and produce some demonstration of their learning within that style as well.

Open sourcing is influencing the design of instruction as well as the sourcing of instruction and supports a more collaborative and distributed evolution of content and flow. This, in turn, changes the expectations of students and teachers. Additionally, and more importantly, the technology becomes reflective of intention and use and loses the prescriptive elements of instruction in favor of more dynamic environments of learning.

Integration of Tools
Course management systems basically look and feel very similar and, as has already been stated, lean towards an objectivist approach to learning. Open sourcing has introduced a level of customization that defies the prescriptive elements of current CMS design; however, what has also been happening for some time is the integration of external software tools to augment the system. In other words, along with the apparent linear flow of instruction has been the introduction of tools to encourage more student interaction, knowledge building, and other forms of interaction and collaboration, such as discussion boards, chat, blogs, and wikis. Sometimes the system has absorbed these external programs and integrated them into the existing system. The problem with that is that the basic system remains the same and flows precisely in the same prescriptive manner as before. Now, however, with social networking tools and mobile technology, systems themselves are being opened up to not only integrate the tools but to accommodate the affects in the actual design of the instruction. New systems of course management will have to not only integrate the tools but allow the use of the tools to customize the entire environment for the students.

Therefore, blended delivery and open sourcing have changed teaching and learning expectations of CMSes, but they have evolved as a result of technological capability. While this tension between potential and demand continues, the focus of future development must necessarily be integration of uses leading to specific skill development that is based in global demands rather than in abstract learning standards. Using the Internet for instruction will necessarily involve the actual instruction itself--not just the delivery of a course. Students will have more control over the environment and be able to infuse their own learning style, choice of learning resource, and production of new knowledge based on their individuals needs and goals. Skill development will be front and center of the process--global learning skills and more marketable social and collaborative working skills. Knowledge itself will be redefined to become open sourced and evolving based on the participation of the course participants and will change according to the application of that learning.

References

Dewey, J. (1964) Democracy and Education: an introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: Macmillan.

McGee, P. Jafari, J. Carmean, C. (2005) (Eds). Course Management Systems for Learning: Beyond Accidental Pedagogy. Idea Group Inc. www.idea-group.com. Chapter by Van Wiegal, "From Course Management to Curricular Capabilities: A Capabilities Approach for the Next Generation." (pp55-67).

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About the author: Ruth Reynard is the director of faculty for Career Education Corp. She can be reached at rreynard@careered.com.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

Ruth Reynard, Ph.D., is the executive director of academic programs and faculty at Daymar Colleges Group and an education consultant. She can be reached at ruthreynard@gmail.com.

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