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Watch These Pilots

eLearining - Watch These Pilots!
Forging change via comfortable transitions, these two campus pilot projects are ideal eLearning models.
ONE OF MY FAVORITE innovation adages is, “Projects lead the infrastructure.” The reasoning behind this adage is simple: Pilot projects are a means of introducing change that is less threatening, yet still challenging. Most of us are comforted and distracted by being assured that “This is only a test,” yet pilots are harbingers of mainstream changes—changes that we generally want to anticipate and plan for.
Pilot to Watch: Duquesne University

Having said that much about the general value of pilot projects, in particular, some that have caught my eye of late focus on ever-smaller mobile and wireless personal appliances—PDAs, iPods, and cell phones that fit into our pockets and pocketbooks.

Download and learn. One of these projects is Learning-on-the-Go from the School of Leadership and Professional Advancement at Duquesne University (PA). The purpose of the project—developed as a result of student suggestions—is to reach out to working professionals and help them make better use of their commuting and exercise time. The first implementation of Learning- on-the-Go provided students with course audio content that they could download from course Web sites to PDAs and MP3 players, or simply to computers, to burn CDs. As this project has continued to evolve, it supports downloading and synchronization of content from Blackboard ( course Web sites onto PDAs for students, including troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Infrastructure requirements. Building and supporting this capability challenged the infrastructure, but is resulting in increased flexibility and convenience for all students. According to Boris Vilic, director of Technology for the School of Leadership and Professional Advancement, one of the project needs was to build faculty awareness; faculty needed to learn ways of ensuring that their course content planned as audio downloads actually worked well in that mode. Students often adjusted to multimedia content by listening to the audio and then supplementing it with a look at the visual content, while connected online. Media-rich offerings such as streaming are still part of course content, but the audio content has definitely been a hit with students.

Another infrastructure requirement for the Learning-on-the- Go project relates to designing for troops in remote, technology- unfriendly areas. Vilic noted that the number of hours that access to the Internet can be assumed for the student troops is just one hour a week; yet, this works. Being able to download and synchronize with course content means that students can participate in discussion boards and other interactive projects, retaining the power of feeling connected to the class, no matter where they are…almost.

Providing the “download and synchronize” capability for course Web sites required creating a new building block for Blackboard. Then, due to concern about non-standard components in a production environment, the decision was made to host these courses in an incubator environment. These same constraints mean that Web sites need flatter structures to minimize the number of clicks to access needed content. The multiple ways of accessing content and working with course Web sites also means that the help desk staff needs to be alert to the context, tools, and environments that students are likely to be using when calling for help.

This pilot project—like so many others—is multidimensional in its impact on infrastructure elements, the tools, and the people supporting and using the tools. In fact, the project has succeeded so well that the Department of Defense recently sent out letters to many institutions asking for more courses with this “on-the-go” capability.

Pilot to Watch: Duke

Another pilot project I (along with the rest of the world) have been watching is the iPod First Year Experience project at Duke University (NC), launched in August 2004 when more than 1,600 iPods were distributed to first-year students. The project focused on the iPod (generally perceived as an entertainment device), using its capabilities to enhance learning experiences. The project planners envisioned that faculty and students would find the iPod’s capabilities for recording, storing, and archiving audio course content to be most useful in supporting student access and use of content. Some of its uses, as originally envisioned, were properly exploited, as when students recorded or downloaded lectures from a large economics class (Econ 51) and when German, Spanish, and Turkish language instructors designed-in the use of iPods for language auditory practice and production.

Impacts—and surprises. As with most technologies suddenly thrust into the hands of users, there were also surprises. Many of the unexpected results might be categorized under Students Taking Control of Course Content. As it turned out, students used the iPods not just for access to and use of planned course content, but for creating course content to suit their learning interests and course projects. Students collected and created primary source materials of cultural settings, conducted interviews of experts, and produced podcasts and audioblogs that were linked and downloadable from course Web sites. In other words, the iPods supported students doing and leading their own learning. The iPods also supported the course design category, Student- to-Student Dialogue and Interaction. Students in a radio class, for instance, wrote and recorded their own dramas; students in a BodyWorks class created audioblogs combining audio clips and written comments; and students in a New Testament class recorded peer evaluations of projects for revision and review.

What about infrastructure impacts and the always-unexpected technology gaps identified with pilot projects? The most significant challenges identified in the iPod experience, as highlighted in the June 2005 evaluation report (, were the need for more system integration for content storage, access, sharing, and distribution, and the absence of systems for bulk purchasing of audio content for academic use.

Was the project successful enough to be continued? Yes, but it is evolving. At the opening keynote session at Syllabus2005 (, Tracey Futhey, Duke’s VP of Information Technology and CIO, said that the larger Duke Digital Initiative, would include digital video and collaboration technologies, in addition to the iPod digital audio capabilities.

The Pilot as Oracle

From formal to on-the-fly settings. Do these projects offer any clues for the future of eLearning and eLearning infrastructures? Without a doubt. They serve to confirm the shift of eLearning from formal settings to settings that are mobile, convenient, anywhere, anytime, and anywhile, while still providing access to course management systems and a learning community. Students are taking charge and helping to create and support changes in their learning experiences; today, isolated and passive students are the anomaly. The Learning-on-the-Go project reinforces the types of change impacts we can anticipate on the infrastructure elements of faculty training, help desk support, and enterprise system modifications. The iPod project at Duke supports mass customization of eLearning by engaging students directly in the creation of course content and processes, and by involving students directly in encouraging learning innovation and experimentation. Both the iPod project and the Learning-on-the-Go project highlight the need for increased sophistication of enterprise systems to support mobile, wireless pocket appliances.

Copyright issues. Still, wherever there is ease of use in recording, storing, archiving, and content creation, there are copyright issues as well. Duke, for example, chose to simply pay for the rights for its students to download and use the top 10 songs in Spain for a few weeks. Community-wide infrastructure solutions for copyright and intellectual property concerns will continue to be needed and to evolve for the foreseeable future.

Systems and infrastructures. What do these changes in learning tools and student creation of content mean for eLearning systems and infrastructures? The need for integrated systems that meet students’ need for flexibility wherever they might be in a global environment is now clear—as is the need for systems that can accommodate active and creative students who participate in eLearning content creation and distribution. As we look back over the past five years, it d'es seem as though we have been on an eLearning plateau of sorts; these projects suggest that a new wave of transformation is just ahead!

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