By Shannon J. Field
Shannon Field is a college instructor and online program designer for Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona, where she has taught for the past six years. With a background in corporate software training, Shannon incorporates real-world experience into her business and computer courses. She is currently completing a Master’s in Education with an emphasis in Online Teaching and Learning through California State University-Hayward.
What if your brother-in-law had an idea for the perfect product, but his platform and delivery model were based on technology that was over 20 years old? You agree that the product is ingenious, but you know from what you’ve been reading and hearing that he’s going to be behind the curve because he’s not preparing for future advances in technology, which will drastically affect the way his product is used and incorporated? What would be your advice? What if I told you that the scenario is very real to all of us in online education, and the time is right now?
According to Dr. William Daggett, President of the International Center for Leadership in Education, computer and Web-based education is rooted in 20-year-old technology. Educators who are designing educational curriculum and programs based on that technology will be left in the dust as the next wave of innovation hits the market. “People,” Dr. Daggett said to an audience of Arizona educators at the Association for Career And Technical Education of Arizona Conference in Tucson, “you are about to witness a technological revolution; you are about to witness the end of the Web as you know it. Are you prepared for that? Are your students prepared for the skills that will be required for these new advances in technology?” (ACTE).
Many experts agree with Dr. Daggett’s premise. George F Colony, former CEO of Forrester Research is predicting the death of the World Wide Web, with a new application-based Internet taking its place: “ [. . .] an ‘executable Internet,’ or X Internet, for short” (Colony). Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the WWW, URIs, HTTP, and HTML, is working on a system called the Semantic Web (Palmer), while developers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are working on a project called Oxygen, which they say will create human-centered computation and “ [. . .] enable us to work together with other people through space and time” (MIT).
As online architects, we must be cognizant of the impact of impending technological changes on the delivery platforms of our course management systems. If the Internet is about to undergo a drastic overhaul, what are the implications for the systems we’ve worked so hard to develop? How will the changes impact educational pedagogy, facilitation, roles and community building in online environments? These are questions we must ask ourselves in order to realize an informed, progressive vision for online education.
In addition, it is important to keep in mind that our business is about preparing students for life in the real world. In our areas of expertise, are we cutting-edge enough to prepare our students for the next wave of technology? Do we want to be caught, as many of our old-guard colleagues have been, behind the ball, complaining about “new” technology and how it doesn’t fit our educational structure, a structure we built on old technological models?
I propose that online educators must add two considerations to their repertoire when designing coursework and programs for the future:
1. The emerging Internet technology comprising the platform for distance education delivery;
2. The computers students and educators will be using to access online educational programs.
Numerous technology journals and professionals are painting a picture of the Internet landscape that is evolving. As educational designers, it is incumbent upon us to stay abreast of new technology, seeking out the patterns that will affect the educational environment. For example, Jakob Nielsen, the “king of usability”, tells us that Web sites will simplify their design with surviving Web sites being those that “ [. . .] are good at following usability guidelines.” He also joins other Internet visionaries in predicting that computing will become more and more mobile, with devices “ [. . .] the size of a deck of cards [. . . .] operated by a combination of touch, handwriting recognition, and speech recognition” (The Future is Bright).
These are trends educators can easily prepare for, ensuring course management systems are simple, easy to use, and will accommodate smaller mobile user screens. Recognizing the implications of an increasingly mobile computing society will help us prepare for a new paradigm in online educational communities:
[. . .] participants in online communities will remain in continuous contact over multiple platforms on desktops and in mobile devices, and will be used to coordinate group activities in the geographic world, thus blending affinity-based and local-acquaintance-based social communication. (Rheingold)
Students in “continuous contact” offer a new dimension to the concept of online communities, as well as increasing expectations for instant instructor feedback. Will mobile computing add new demand for synchronous communication? If so, have we built that capability into our course design? How will increased bandwidth and audio/video capabilities impact communication in the online classroom? Are we prepared to capitalize on improved multimedia resources? Will discussion boards be overrun with posts from students who have opportunity to access their online class during bus rides, short breaks, and meal times? Will commuters take advantage of computer systems in their cars to answer email or post to the discussion board via voice recognition technology? Sound far-fetched for the average student? Computer equipped automobiles are already a reality. Consider the growing number of people who regularly use cell phones. Rheingold reminds us that more and more cell phone users are already accustomed to telephone billing that piggybacks additional services onto monthly bills. As cell phones and PDA’s merge into affordable multi-purpose mobile computing devices, as predicted, will our online course designs and pedagogical strategies reflect and enhance the learning environments of our mobile students, as well as the more traditional online student who accesses the classroom from a desktop at home?
Other exciting technological innovations that will affect online education include sophisticated language translators from IBM and technologies for those with disabilities, such as input devices that capture your thoughts (The Future PC). Imagine the scenario in which a global student interacts in an online classroom in a manner that does not require typing or reading in a foreign language, but rather interacting in one’s own language, with translations applied instantly as part of the classroom experience? Or a student with a disability who is able to participate in an online classroom simply by thinking, with the computer translating those thoughts into a discussion board. Personal connectivity and collaboration around the globe could well be the rewards gleaned from these new technologies, if we’re prepared to incorporate them into the online experience as they become available.
As we work toward developing educationally-sound curriculum to be delivered in this brave new technological age, I predict that the interactive capabilities built into the new computing models will be a perfect fit for the facilitative nature of the online instructor, and second nature to the generation of young minds who have been raised in a world of interactive games and multimedia simulations. I also predict online education will inherit students who are at ease in an interactive online environment, and find nothing strange or unnatural in online communities. One day we will look back at our attempts to develop social networks out of stale read/write discussion areas, garbled voice applications, and slow downloading video attempts, and smile at how naive and unsophisticated we were; all part of our natural evolution as educators.
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