Are We There Yet?

Since my 1999 predictions for distance education, subtle shifts in teaching and learning patterns have emerged.

Many of you may remember that in June of 1999 I shared a number of teaching and learning predictions for 2007 with Syllabus readers (“21st Century Teaching and Learning Patterns”). Now, here it is five years later and—armed with the realities and perspectives of 2004—I have the opportunity to revisit many of those predictions with Campus Technology readers, to find out how close to the mark I came. What has happened in the realm of distance education since those prognostications? How has technology changed the way we deliver teaching and encourage learning?

Predictions vs. Reality

1—Students will be savvy consumers of educational services. To examine the outcome of this prophesy, I needed to focus on the impact on students, faculty, content, and environments.

One unexpected twist on this “consumer” perspective is that students’ expectations for faculty interaction with and support for online courses actually increased dramatically. The 24/7 environment of the Internet pumped up those expectations, rather than decreasing them. As for faculty and institutions, more and more, institutions are acknowledging that online courses cannot survive and thrive with only a “Lone Ranger” faculty member at the helm; they require a team for effective design, development, and delivery. More courses are now supported by an instructional team with a lead faculty, a course mentor or assistant, library liaison, and often 24/7 technical support.

The first wave of online faculty was often very committed and dedicated. Those pioneers tried diligently to accommodate expectations; they even felt guilty about not responding to student e-mail on weekends. Not surprisingly, the more recent response from many faculty has been, “Wait a minute—I have a life and many responsibilities outside of this course!” Faculty now routinely make clear to students when they are available and which types of questions it makes sense to pose to them; which to direct to others.

Yet another twist has been the learning response from students. Distance education students are now more engaged than they were previously. Emerging brain science research emphasizes the need for student engagement in learning (indeed, that is about the only time learning d'es occur), and students are maturing in their roles as learners, embracing the new technologies and the new philosophies that support their ability to personalize and customize their learning. Moreover, they often see themselves as resources for other students—a finding consistent with another growing expectation, that of students becoming part of “learning communities.”

From the vantage point of 2004, I now suggest a revised prediction: “Students won’t just be savvy consumers of educational services, they’ll be savvy participants in those services.”

2—Faculty work and roles will make a dramatic shift to specialization. It’s probably safe to say that the Academy is in turmoil and new economic models are needed. A recent colloquy, “Faculty compensation for creating and teaching online courses” (September 6, 2004, The Chronicle of Higher Education; focused on the question of how and whether to compensate faculty for creating and teaching online courses. Some discussion participants argued that creating and teaching online courses is indeed the responsibility of faculty, and that “extra” compensation d'es not make good management or fiscal sense. On the other side were faculty who had created and taught online courses and who felt that the amount of work usually needed to create quality online courses was outside the realm of “usual faculty responsibilities.” Other concerns included the dangers of taking time away from research with potentially negative consequences on promotion and tenure.

Yet, there is no question that faculty specialization is here, and the positions expressed in the colloquy bring some of the effects of this shift into focus. The specialization, in fact, has been underway for some time. New cadres of professionals are working in corporate universities, for for-profit institutions, teaching online only, developing online materials only, or being part-time mentors and tutors. Duke University (NC) has taken the bold step of supporting the growth of a group of faculty who are full-time “professors of the practice.” These faculty focus on teaching and are on renewable contracts. A recent study (American Council on Education, 2002 analyzed the state of the growing ranks of nontraditional faculty, noting that only 38 percent of all instructional faculty nationally are full-time and in a tenured or tenure-track position. What is less visible currently is the emergence of “teaching and learning superstars or personalities” that was occasionally forecasted.

Was my predicted shift to specialization on target? On the one hand, yes: We now acknowledge the need for greater efficiencies in teaching and learning. On the other hand, the path to that goal—retaining faculty leadership in knowledge creation and growth in learners—is definitely unclear. The shift toward specialization appears to include a related cadre of professionals: instructional designers and multimedia/Web developers who are creating online resources like coursepacks that complement existing textbooks. In the framework of a course, this means that faculty and institutions can “purchase” a larger percentage of course resources (à la the textbook model, but in the newer formats). Depending on the scenario, this holds the potential for reducing the time and talent needed for preparing for the delivery of online courses.

3—The link between courses and content for courses will be broken. One barrier to offering online courses is the time and talent required to create online courses. This prediction about the link being broken between courses and content for courses (captured in the phrase, “one book equals one course”) assumed that as content became mostly digital, the usefulness of the book model would go away. This didn’t happen—or else it’s happening very slowly, at a glacial speed. The Web enables the building of large databases of content that might be used by a cluster of discipline courses. However, the creation of content databases to serve many courses is contrary to the publisher’s economic model of charging for content “by the course.”

Over the last five years, however, there have been a number of national open content initiatives—the OpenCourseWare Initiative at MIT and the Merlot ( community initiative, for instance—with the goal of making more content and often specific “learning objects” easily available on a global basis. But again, we see the economics of content access and availability influencing these developments. Databases require maintenance, support, and motivations/rewards for the faculty and developers who make their objects available.

With the first and second generation of Web-thinking, we often thought in terms of the Web making possible huge national and even international libraries, databases, and the like. However, the development of powerful, efficient search engines—and the ubiquity of the Web—means that content and databases can be globally stored and distributed. Another content variable links us back to the new learning research, pushing us into models of increasingly personalized and customized learning. These models argue for a high degree of flexibility in course content, beyond the core content. So, while the large content or large learning object databases are emerging, other forces and trends are making them less relevant than we originally thought.

4—About 60 percent of higher education institutions will have teaching and learning management software systems linked to their back-office administrative systems. This prediction is a good reason why pundits generally avoid specific numbers. Growth in institutions’ use of course management systems (CMS) slowed dramatically between 2002 and 2003, probably due to cost issues. CMS—as stand-alone applications could be purchased initially within college units’ budgets—suddenly became campuswide ERP/enterprise “mission-critical” applications. Understandably, many institutions responded by saying, “Whoa! Let’s think about this.”

What is surprising about this development? One is a cautionary reminder: Cost is an issue in innovation and transformations. Another surprise was the rapid deployment and acceptance of wireless communications, coming in under the radar via cell-phone technologies and services. Why is this important? This prediction about CMS needs to be refocused on the entire teaching and learning environments experienced by faculty and students. Over the next five to seven years, virtually all higher ed institutions will develop “comprehensive digital infrastructures” that mirror their current physical campus infrastructures. Virtually 100 percent of courses will be blended or hybrid courses, combining online/on-campus components and synchronous/ asynchronous experiences.

New Predictions

The next five to seven years will be a time of tremendous transformation, with new technologies creating more types of dialogues and learning experiences available anywhere and any time. (An example: one byproduct of the ubiquitous cell-phone-with-camera is a new way for creative students to peek over shoulders during exams, or surreptitiously pass notes.) Then too, as campuses are building virtual teaching and learning environments, each of us is building our own communications bubble as well. Have you designed yours?

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