I'VE BEEN PART OF THE REAL-TIME collaboration segment of the online learning world for more than 10 years as a vendor and consultant. Educators used to say, "Cool demo of that online collaboration stuff. But why do I need to use this? I'm a teacher." In the industry press, the broad adoption of real-time collaboration in education always seemed to be "five years away."
Recently, I've noticed that perspectives are changing. Let's compare the debate about real-time teaching over the internet to the first conversation I had about my digital camera with my grandmother eight years ago. She understood how cameras functioned. She was able to see the pictures on the screen. However, she didn't fully understand the advantages the digital camera provided.
My grandmother merely thought of it as a film camera. She actually said, "You take so many pictures! How can you afford so much film?" She wasn't ready to change her vision of family photos; she simply wanted pictures of her great-grandkids. Now digital cameras dominate the market.
Similarly, real-time e-learning, a form of teaching conducted over the internet, is coming into its own. Why this recent, broader acceptance? First, a pervasive comfort comes from ease of use; second, there's an increasing openness to accept nontraditional solutions to challenging educational problems.
The online culture has matured to the point where most students and many instructors are comfortable with real-time internet interactions, which are precursors to real-time education. There's a willingness to search for and act on information, as well as interact with others in authentic ways--regardless of location-that has begun to carry over to real-time collaboration and online learning.
This widespread comfort is drawn from people using the latest computer operating systems, the internet and mobile infrastructure, iPods, instant messaging, VoIP, Flickr, newsgroups, and YouTube. With these factors, it's 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 2007 report on the U.S. market for e-learning products and services from Ambient Insight (www.ambientinsight.com), the U.S. e-learning market is growing at a five-year compound annual growth rate of 34.5 percent-market dynamics likely driven in part by the demand on educators to emphasize quality instruction, professional development, extensive access to varied curricula, accountability, and cost reduction. These educational demands are closely aligned with new solutions that online learning is finally ready to deliver.
Administrators must inform themselves about the possibilities of real-time collaboration, teaching, and professional development over the internet-and be actively concerned about the impact of online learning on the attraction and retention of students and staff, as well as the use of new tools to deliver a quality educational experience. Institutions across the country need to acknowledge that there's more competition for alternate delivery of quality online instruction. Schools not offering the latest tools for online classes or using online learning to enrich the mix of curricula are officially behind the curve.
That message was driven home for me when I listened to a recent episode of NPR's Morning Edition. A segment involved a University of Illinois at Springfield student being interviewed over the internet from his California home, with the same technology he uses to attend classes. He spoke of the advantages online learning has given him, including the ability to take classes from anywhere while still interacting with classmates.
Every institution has options for enriching its offerings and driving quality instruction and professional development. Decide what's best for students, instructors, and communities in terms of e-learning, realtime education, and professional development. Don't wait five years to see if these tools are legitimate and worthwhile. By then, someone else will step up and offer them-and you'll be left selling film.
Gary Dietz has assisted in bringing new e-learning technologies to the education market since 1997. As part of his product marketing manager role at Elluminate (www.elluminate.com), a provider of real-time online learning and collaboration solutions, Dietz interacts daily with educators in K-12 and higher education about their e-learning requirements.