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Have We Arrived?

When it comes to remote collaboration in eLearning, it's all about where we are now vs. where we are going.

Have We Arrived? FOR YEARS WE'VE been struggling with how to "make up for" the lack of synchronous face-to-face contact with students. The wonder is that we have reached the point of near "face-to-face" equivalency. While we still can't really reach out and touch someone, we can teach and learn in remote collaboration environments in natural ways, seeing and hearing each other in real time and in asynchronous time shifts.

New technology from Elluminate, for instance, makes it possible for up to six people to see one another and converse-- a boon for small team meetings and course presentations. Tools within the Wimba Collaboration Suite support audio communications for almost any need including instant messaging; audio feedback on audio assignments; and natural queues for questions and meetings, reducing time and distance barriers. And Adobe Connect captures instructors in action, with the resulting content ready for discussion and annotation in real time. Even with cell phones alone, myriad free and easily accessible applications now make remote collaboration instantaneous, synchronous, and mobile.

This means that the age-old questions from online faculty-- "But, how will I lecture? How will I hold class discussions?" and "How will I assess learning when I can't see my students?" -- have mostly been answered. And guess what? We are now wondering, "Are lectures really that great?" Indicative of our growing understanding of learning, today we are asking, "What processes really make a difference for nurturing individual and collective learning?"

A 1999 innovation model presented by R.S. Rosenbloom (Harvard Business School Press) describes three stages of development for any new technology: imitation, incremental improvement, and transformation. Mapping these stages onto the current state of development in remote collaboration tools suggests that we have definitely accomplished the "imitation" stage (wherein the online classroom and the campus classroom are virtually equivalent), and we are now in the midst of innovations expanding the usefulness of these environments. One of those innovations includes capturing pre-service teachers as they teach. This enables both the preservice teachers and their instructors to review, analyze, and discuss the subtleties of the teaching experience as they have not been able to in the past.

Tools for Transformational Processes

Transformational processes for remote collaboration seem to be sprouting all around us and, in some cases, are already blooming. There are now literally thousands of Web 2.0 applications in the Web 2.0 Directory, many supporting remote collaboration of various forms. Of course, having thousands of tools to choose from doesn't simply our lives!

Two transformational shifts are becoming clear: One, a deepening focus on process rather than product, in learning. Two, expanding the concept of the 'learner.'

The good news, however, is that most of these tools are small, free, and quite feature-rich, and will probably be finding their way to faculty desktops, and into other integrated services. An important question facing us is, "How will we use these tools to transform our teaching and learning processes?" We also might want to query our learners and faculty about just what they want transformed. We do know from the research of K.N. Hayles that learners are particularly engaged when they experience feelings of "autonomy, competence, and relatedness" (see "Socializing the CMS," CT July 2008). So a more precise question might be, "What transformational tools supporting remote collaboration help develop such feelings among learners and, dare we add, also support these feelings among faculty?"

Two Transformational Shifts

Two transformational shifts in teaching and learning (largely due to remote collaboration tools) now appear almost clear. One is a deepening focus on process rather than product, in learning. This means that learning processes are becoming visible; the new-age equivalent of "showing your work." The second shift is that of expanding the concept of the learner. This means expanding the "learner-centered" focus of the 190s to today's "learner-within-a-community." This second shift increases the importance of the contexts of learning, including the influence of societal and global happenings. Let's take a closer look at each of these shifts.

1) Shift to Processes of Learning

Traditional assessment strategies focused on products as ways of determining the development of skills, attitudes, and knowledge. In many respects, we have been focusing on the products (exams, papers, reports, presentations) because that is what we could see and evaluate. We did not have the tools to capture the individual learning processes of students, or the individual contributions of students. A defining characteristic of the newer Web 2.0 tools is that they now enable the capturing of the learning process in real time. Transformational remote collaboration tools open up the black box of the learning process.

We can now "see" learning happening via blogs, wikis, Twittering, and discussion postings, including live classroom archives and audio capture tools. These tools, as well as the new "personal informatics" tools such as Mycrocosm (which enables the sharing of "snippets of information" in the form of graphs) and Daytum (a service for collecting and communicating daily data) have the potential to capture the minutiae of learning processes. Rather than counting or sharing favorite movies or books or food, the new personal informatics learning applications might help to capture the connections, analogies, and insights developed during the learning processes.

In fact, these tools might help answer the intriguing and marvelous question: "Which pieces of data all had to come together in your mind for that insight to happen?" Increasingly, the processes-- the creative acts, the learning acts-- will move to center stage.

One of the five themes of the How People Learn project (How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School; The National Academies Press, 19) was a focus on learners' developing knowledge of their own metacognitive processes. The new tools enable just that, as students a) capture what they know and think at the beginning of a course, in addition to b) capturing the ways their thinking expands, rebalances, and resettles with new information and ideas while collaborating with others. As detectives so often observe, "That one piece of data changes everything!"

2) Shift to 'Learner-Within-a-Community'

The shift to the "learner-within-a-community" is surfacing as remote collaboration tools become integrated components of online courses. Learners are creating learning diaries with blogs that are open to their fellow learners, inviting comments and contributions. Writing faculty, in particular, are finding that blogs combine the power of making students' pre-writing thinking processes visible, with the power of an audience (and thus a feedback loop) as students' ideas are still forming. This reinforces the importance of process over the final product while the learner benefits from the collective intelligence of the learner community. Wiki tools also support the shift to learner-within-a-community. Learners can team up on projects using the many audio and video collaborative communication tools, while creating a collective product such as a wiki.

As learning gets more complex, the tools for remote collaboration will reflect that complexity. The new collaboration tools make team projects and problem-solving learning and skill development more authentic. Learners become co-learners and co-teachers assuming responsibility for others learning well within a learning community. In the process, students develop metacognitive awareness of their own learning processes attaining autonomy; they develop competence while reviewing and contributing to others' work processes and products; and they develop a sense of relatedness within a community.

Now the question becomes, "Which teaching and learning processes can be transformed and what should the effects of that transformation be?"

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