I've been a part of the real-time collaboration segment of the online learning world for over 10 years. Early on, educators used to say, "Cool demo of that online collaboration stuff. But why do I need to use this again? I'm a teacher." And in the industry press, the broad adoption of real-time collaboration in education always seemed to be "5 years away." Recently I've noticed that perspectives are changing on that point.
Let's examine the conversation about real-time teaching over the Internet as if it were the first conversation I had about my digital camera with
my grandmother eight years ago. She understood cameras and was able to see the pictures on the screen. However, at the end of the day she didn't comprehend key concepts and values that the digital camera provided. She only thought of it like a film camera. My grandmother actually asked me, "You take so many pictures! How can afford your film bills?" She wasn't ready to change her vision of family photos; she just wanted to see her grandkids! Despite early conversations like this, the digital camera and accompanying services now dominate the market.
The online culture has matured to the point where most students and many instructors are comfortable with real-time Internet interactions. These now common interactions are precursors to real-time education over the Internet. The general population's willingness to search for and act on information, as well as interact with others in authentic ways--regardless of location--has begun to carry over to real-time collaboration and online learning. This widespread comfort is drawn from people's experiences with technologies like the latest PC and Mac operating systems, the Internet and mobile infrastructure, iPods, instant messaging, VoIP, Flickr, newsgroups, Youtube and the like.
Further strengthening the foundations for real-time instruction over the Internet are the increasing "trust" of online transactions, the omnipresent use of PowerPoint (for better or worse), and the dominant use of asynchronous course management systems for brick and mortar courses at most colleges. With these foundations from other contexts in place, it is natural that teachers and students demand the same level of online experience for education that they get from daily interactions in other online contexts.
According to a November 2007 Ambient Insight revised forecast, the US eLearning market is growing at 22%, with buyers demanding new types of technology*. These market dynamics are likely driven in part by the demand on educators to emphasize quality instruction, professional development, extensive access to varied curricula, accountability and a desire for cost reduction. These educational demands are closely aligned with new solutions online learning is finally ready to deliver.
Educational administrators are well warned to inform themselves about the possibilities of real-time collaboration, teaching, and professional development over the Internet. They should be actively concerned about the impact that online learning plays in the attraction and retention of students and staff, as well as the use of new tools to deliver a quality educational experience.
Students seek enrollment in the institution that can meet their needs, regardless of location. Through the use of online learning technologies, schools across the country need to acknowledge more competition for alternate delivery of quality instruction. If schools are not offering the latest tools for online classes, or using online learning to enrich the mix of curricula they are offering, they are officially behind the curve.
That message was driven home to me when listening to a recent episode of NPR's Morning Edition. The segment focused on a student of the University of Illinois Springfield, who was being interviewed over the Internet from his home in California using the same Internet technology he used to attend classes. The student spoke to the advantages that online learning has provided him, including the ability to take classes anywhere in the world and the capability of interacting with his classmates from his remote location.
This acceptance and utilization of online learning isn't just at the college level. Organizations such as the Virtual High School of Massachusetts offer advanced placement classes online and the Center Advancing Partnerships in Education of Pennsylvania offers Chinese and Russian language courses to high school students over the Internet. The Flat Classroom project, run at the grass-roots level by secondary school teachers in Georgia and Qatar can connect students around the world in real-time. And the National Science Teachers Association offers professional development seminars for teachers online in real time.
Your organization has options to enrich its offerings and drive quality instruction and professional development. Each organization needs to make the best decisions in terms of eLearning, real-time education and professional development for their students, instructors and communities. Just don't wait five years to see if these tools are legitimate and worthwhile. Someone else will step up and offer them instead of you, and you'll be left selling film.
<em>*The US Market for Self-paced eLearning Products and Services: 2007-2012 Forecast and Analysis, Ambient Insights.</em>
<b><em>Gary Dietz is a product manager for Elluminate.</em></b>