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Merlot Conference Presentations Show Impact, Growth of Online Learning

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I have attended some fantastic, informative presentations at the 2007 Merlot International Conference this week.

Merlot, which stands for Multimedia Education Resource for Learning and Online Teaching, allows faculty and staff in higher education throughout the world to share technological resources. This year’s annual conference, “Jazzing It Up With Merlot,” is in New Orleans, one of the greatest cities in the world.

Professor David Wicks gave a compelling presentation, “Sharing Open Content Through iTunes U.” Wicks showed how this Apple effort, based on the concept of free, shared content, has opened educational opportunities for people throughout the world. Under this program, universities can place classroom and other educational material, such as mp3 and video files, on the iTunes site so people can freely access the material.

Wicks, from Seattle Pacific University, talked about how students and others could set up feeds from the iTunes U site to get automatic, updated content.

Liz Johnson, a project manager for Advanced Learning Technologies in the University System of Georgia, gave an engaging presentation on the latest plagiarism detection technologies. Johnson talked about costs and legal concerns over services, such as Turnitin.com. Her presentation, “Plagarism Detection: Is Technology the Answer?,” contained interesting survey data that raises questions about the Internet and plagiarism.

In another session, Michelle Pilati, a faculty member in the Division of Social Sciences at California Virtual Campus, and Edward Perry, professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Memphis, spoke about the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. (Check it out.) Jolt is the premier, peer-reviewed publication for online education, and a part of the Merlot organization.

Pilati and Perry showed how the journal has grown in recent years. They also went through the submission and review process.

There is much talk at the conference about the new generation of learners arriving at our universities these days. This is a tech-savvy generation that will push technology forward, but this generation also poses new challenges for higher education. Bruce Chaloux, director of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), spoke about these issues and others in the morning’s plenary presentation. His talk was titled “The Coming of Age of Online Learning—Now What?”

Where is online education heading? What types of classes and how many will need to be offered in the coming years? Online education has become mainstream in recent years, but what does that mean in pragmatic and philosophical terms?

The New Architects of Knowledge: Empowering College Students To Create Online Content, Part Two

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(I am attending the 2007 Merlot International Conference in New Orleans this week. Merlot, which stands for Multimedia Education Resource for Learning and Online Teaching, allows faculty and staff in higher education throughout the world to share technological resources. The presentation I am giving at the conference, “The New Architects of Knowledge: Empowering College Students To Create Online Content,” argues for a constructivist model of learning in the online college classroom. I will post an abbreviated version of the presentation here on Okie Funk in segments throughout the week. Also, be sure to click on the house on the right for other multimedia aspects of my presentation. I plan to blog about other presentations at the conference as well.)

Consequently, here are two preliminary questions, among many others, the academy should discuss today in terms of online education: (1) Should online courses privilege constructivist models of education? (2) Are online educators changing the definition of “instructor” and “professor” in what some might call a major paradigm change now facing the university system?

The answer to both questions, I would argue, is a decisive “yes,” though online classes do and can present classical classroom material, such as lectures and objective tests. But formalism in the online classroom is already logically displaced by lack of face-to-face contact between student and instructor and by course management systems and multimedia tasks, which require students to apply process and trial-and-error skills in order to navigate through their courses.

The first question, though, ultimately raises the important issue of multimedia content in online education. We need more classroom content in multimedia forms on the Internet, and we must begin to accept the idea that the technology is actually the knowledge. The technology is the knowledge. The computer and the Internet are the way we know and discover at this juncture in the twenty-first century. It is itself. By that I mean, simply, we now construct knowledge in interconnected electronic forms, and it dictates the patterns in which we think and how we create new forms and structures in all academic fields. The shared knowledge system, Wikipedia, of course, and the Google search engine are the main examples we can use to illustrate this fundamental argument.

Research into how the Internet has changed our patterns of thinking is in its infancy. Yet we can all agree the steady growth of new material on the Internet can be viewed as a fluid example of constructivist activity. Anytime a student places material on the Internet, under the guidance of an instructor, becomes an instance of constructivist knowledge. Online instructors and their students build databases and audio files and Web sites, and the process of collecting the information and presenting it is just as important as any single piece of information.

Consequently, the continued growth of the Internet makes it natural that online education would adopt constructivist models of education. Under this rubric, students, individually and in groups, create course content and add to the existing body of knowledge on any given subject. Students learn and present subject content through multimedia processes. The culture directly benefits because the created material can be accessed online. Future students build on this material, offering refinements and using new technologies.

According to Brooks, “A lot of people try to look at constructivism as a program, or a methodology, or as a series of techniques. But it's really a life view. It's really a philosophy, it's an epistemology, it's a way of looking at teaching and learning, it's a way of looking at how people construct understandings of our world.”

The second question I pose is less problematic. By almost any measure, online educators are changing the once static definition of college instructors and professors. Under the static definition, professors stand behind podiums and profess during limited, prescribed periods of time. Some allow questions. Some do not. By contrast, online professors structure their courses on fluid models dictated primarily by the course material. They engage individual students with email, in chatrooms, and on discussion boards. They task students with creating Web sites and multimedia projects. They can teach their courses anywhere and, within certain cultural constraints, anytime. Concepts such as an instructor’s office hours have been replaced with chatroom and email availability. An article, for example, in The Chronicle of Education described it like this, “Although critics of distance education have worried that virtual classrooms mean less contact between professors and students, many professors say the opposite is true. To compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction, institutions or professors often promise students a quick response to personal correspondence by e-mail -- with some pledging to answer all student e-mail messages within 24 hours.”

Online professors also create content that can be both learning-based and/or research-oriented, which has thrown a huge wrench into the standard ways the academy determines scholarship. Is an academic Web site that receives thousands of hits on a monthly basis worth as much or more as a short, university press book that sells a few hundred copies at best?

This paradigm change has been resisted by some traditionalists in the academy, but it is impossible to turn our backs on technology advancements. Online educators are some of the brightest members of the academy, combining thorough subject content knowledge with new technologies. These educators, sometimes under appreciated and always underfunded, are changing the academy and, in the process, may well be protecting tenure systems and free speech issues.

The New Architects of Knowledge: Empowering Students to Create Online Content, Part One

Image of Main House

(I will be attending the 2007 Merlot International Conference in New Orleans this week. Merlot, which stands for Multimedia Education Resource for Learning and Online Teaching, allows faculty and staff in higher education throughout the world to share technological resources. The presentation I am giving at the conference, “The New Architects of Knowledge: Empowering College Students To Create Online Content,” argues for a constructivist model of learning in the online college classroom. I will post an abbreviated version of the presentation here on Okie Funk in segments throughout the week. Also, be sure to click on the house on the right for other multimedia aspects of my presentation. I plan to blog about other presentations at the conference as well.)

“The initial stage of that developing experience which is called thinking is experience. This remark may sound like a silly truism. It ought to be one; but unfortunately it is not. On the contrary, thinking is often regarded both in philosophical theory and in educational practice as something cut off from experience, and capable of being cultivated in isolation.”—John Dewey, Democracy and Education

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?—W.B. Yeats, “Among Schoolchildren”

The ideas of constructivist knowledge first emerge in the Socratic method in ancient Greece. This method places the teacher or mentor in the role of a non-authoritarian guide. The student is tasked with creating her own knowledge through answering questions and solving problems. The knowledge created by the student becomes her subjective reality, and the process used to create it—logic, previous knowledge, personal experience—can be refined and used over and over.

As John Dewey writes in Democracy and Education, “The essentials of method are therefore identical with the essentials of reflection. They are first that the pupil have a genuine situation of experience -- that there be a continuous activity in which he is interested for its own sake; secondly, that a genuine problem develop within this situation as a stimulus to thought; third, that he possess the information and make the observations needed to deal with it; fourth, that suggested solutions occur to him which he shall be responsible for developing in an orderly way; fifth, that he have opportunity and occasion to test his ideas by application, to make their meaning clear and to discover for himself their validity.”

Supporters of the constructivist paradigm include Dewey and Jean Piaget, two well-known scholars. More recent scholars include Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, David Ausubel, John D. Bransford, Ernst von Glasersfeld, Eleanor Duckworth, George Forman, Roger Schank, Jacqueline Grennon Brooks, and Martin G. Brooks

For our purposes here, we can assume constructivist educators engage students in a process in which they find answers to problems and create their own knowledge base. This is different from the teacher-to-student model in which students are given a set of ideas and facts and made to memorize them for tests and various political assessments dictated by contemporary culture. Many, if not most, college educators use some type of constructivist techniques in the classroom as they engage students, but an emphasis on rote memory and teaching-to-the-test remain academic traditions, stubbornly supported by the corporate model of education, which privileges collective assessment over individuality. The debate between constructivist and formal ideas about education persist in our culture under the rubric of what many see as oppressive political programs, such as No Child Left Behind, which privileges widespread testing, rote memory skills, and uniformity in thought.

In a recent interview, educational theorist Brooks defined constructivist knowledge in this way: “Constructing knowledge talks about how we as the learners are reformulating, refiltering, relooking at constantly the way that we see our world, that the teacher can't give away explanations, the teacher can't give away knowledge, the student can't receive it passively from the teacher. The learning and teaching dynamic is a process of negotiation in which the people come to the table, try to make sense of the world, and in any one particular instance try to make sense of the concept at hand.”

Obviously, the advent of online and technology-enhanced courses over the past decade raises theoretical issues within the classical debate between constructivism and formalism among American educators. This is an important issue. As Sarah Chin and Jeremy Williams argued in a 2006 JOLT article, “Online delivery of education can no longer be regarded as a fad or confined to the realm of the nerd. The point of departure in this paper is that, after centuries of very little change in educational methods, we are now on the brink of a major paradigm shift in which a key factor is the ‘disruptive technology’ of eLearning (Hart & Christensen, 2002). This development is to be welcomed because of the vast opportunities it presents to people who are currently poorly served or not served at all by educational institutions.”

(Next segment: Questions for the academy about online teaching and professors.)

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