Sunday, July 31, 2011

Free Online Course Critique

My assignment this week was to look at a free online course and critique it. So, while perusing which has so great links to all kinds of free things, I noticed that some of the courses that were offered were from Harvard. I quickly skimmed down to math and selected a math course that was offered at Harvard, MATH E-222 Abstract Algebra. I know what you are thinking, “she must be so smart!” You would be correct in that assumption, but just not as smart as the kid with the lowest grade in this class (at least when it comes to abstract algebra, a topic I know next to nothing about).

Now I understand this is a FREE course, so I know there was not an instructional designer slaving away turning an advanced math class into something palatable for the online student. but this is Harvard we are talking about and I guess I had foolishly high standards for the ivy league school. Let me start by saying aside from the fact that I could get videos of the lectures online, along with a laundry list of PDF files with hand scribbled notes on them and another PDF list titled problems sets that simply listed the page in the textbook to turn to and which problems to work on, were the only offerings that in any way shape or form resembled an online course.

This Harvard math class is guilty of doing one of the worst distance learning practices of “dumping” face to face course offerings onto the web (Simonson, 2009). This course was simply filmed and put on line. The film was not edited at all. When he was standing in the way of the problem or had written something illegibly there was no graphic added or a later image shot and edited into the film so the distance learner can see what the professor was actually talking about. In fact, the camera lagged behind the work, and would go back to the problem when it was in view but far after the steps had been given.  There were also no activities designed for the distance learner at all. If they didn’t have the textbook they could not even do the problem sets that were assigned to the face to face class. The design of this class would make it almost impossible to be successful while learning at a distance.

Another issue was the lack of an actual course management system (CMS) at all. A CMS is a virtual learning environment that has “become the de facto standard by which the vast majority of asynchronous distance education courses are delivered” (Simonson, 2009). Unless, you consider a webpage with links to all of the above stated elements and a very skimpy syllabus a CMS. There is no form of communications, project space or assessments for the distance learner. From the looks of things what was being offered as a free extension class was really just a compilation of the class artifacts placed on line for the face to face attendees to use as needed. In one of the lectures that I watched Professor Gross did announce that when speaking about the extension course he should look into the camera. But that appeared to be the only concession made for the distance learners.
There were some positives I would like to highlight, but I must honestly say they really do not compensate for the poor and almost nonexistent design of the online version of this class. I did really like that each lecture was offered in 3 different forms for downloading; Quicktime, Flash and as an MP3. This ensures an ease of use for the technology, and even allowed people with slow bandwidth to download MP3s so they could still participate. Professor Gross kept a very conversational tone throughout his lectures and seemed to really enjoy teaching the subject matter. He also acknowledged that he used too much jargon and asked that students stop and get clarification from him. All of the materials are available at all times, aside from the textbook which is probably due to copyright issues.  The final positive is that the course is asynchronous, so students can work at their own pace to fully grasp the intricate math problems.

All in all I would rate this course as a complete flop. Though, I highly doubt anyone at Harvard is worried about what I have to say, or what the nonpaying distance learners are not receiving from their ever so generous (please note the sarcasm) free classes. But, honestly, in this day and age everything that goes onto the internet with your name on it should be worth having the label. It would have taking an ID student less than a month to retool the class and actually make it worth taking. It is a reflection of the old school belief system that many highly esteemed schools still carry. My warning for them is that if they start looking towards future technologies their schools will be a thing of the past.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Blackboard Collaborate

My professor asked us to look at a scenario and figure out what type of distance learning technology we would use to remedy the problem. The scenario is as follows:

A high school history teacher, located on the west coast of the United States, wants to showcase to her students new exhibits being held at two prominent New York City museums. The teacher wants her students to take a "tour" of the museums and be able to interact with the museum curators, as well as see the art work on display. Afterward, the teacher would like to choose two pieces of artwork from each exhibit and have the students participate in a group critique of the individual work of art. As a novice of distance learning and distance learning technologies, the teacher turned to the school district’s instructional designer for assistance. In the role of the instructional designer, what distance learning technologies would you suggest the teacher use to provide the best learning experience for her students?
I began to peruse my textbook looking for a new idea to remedy this situation. Now as a first grade teacher in a low income area I have no real working knowledge of distance learning technologies, but I love to Skype and video chat with my family that is scattered all over the country. When I came to the section on desktop two-way audio/video I knew I had come across my answer.  But the first sentence talked about this technology being costly and cumbersome (Simonson, 2009), which was hard to believe having used Skype for free a million times. But as I started hunting I came across Blackboard Collaborate.
The website explains that it is a combination of Wimba and Elluminate. If I just sounded like I was speaking some foreign language, have no fear, I am going to keep it simple!

These programs offer users the abilities to have more engaging collaborations by using web, video and audio conferencing, instant messaging and a host of other options. The main focus for my assignment was the web and video conferencing.
Their video conferencing used a bevy of wonderful additions to my basic idea of video chats. Blackboard Collaborate offers not just teleconferencing, but also the ability to use 6 simultaneous cameras, live chat, use log ins with profiles, and an interactive whiteboard space. You can look at this link to see a video on how this technology works at, Introduction to Blackboard Collaborate Web Conferencing. But as educators in this day and age we must always remember that the key to success in the classroom “is not which technologies are used, but how they car used and what information is communicated using the technologies” (Simonson, 2009).
I felt like the teacher in the scenario could use the Blackboard Collaborate program with the museum curators to create the tour and then hold a lecture. The teacher could work together with the museum staff to create a whiteboard presentation on the exhibits. On the day of the “tour” the experts would join in with the class via teleconferencing. They would be visible on the Audio and Video panel. Each student could log in to the site for a live chat with the presenter, and the teacher could even have a microphone set up for a question answer session. This program offers a wealth of options for how to construct a distance learning experience, and that paired with a great lesson plan and a partnership with experienced professionals will lead to a very interesting and educational experience for the students.

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (4th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson

If you are interested and want to know EVEN more about Blackboard Collaborate check out this video:

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Distance Learning in my Eye

            Before I began this journey to becoming an Instructional Designer I had a very small idea of what distance learning actually was. Not so much because I was unlearned in the theories and concepts of distance learning, but because I had really never thought about it. Then I went from having no real concern for it to plunging into becoming a distance learner, who is now currently learning about distance learning.  Now that this knot is woven I will explain this a little bit more. I used to think distance learning was getting on a computer or tuning into a tv show and learning something. I felt like a distance learner when I was on learning how to change my bike tire, or reading about the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism, even watching how to cook like Paula Dean on the Food Network. But as I began to learning more about this topic from a more professional standpoint it became clear that I was off the mark. Many of the things I considered to fall under the umbrella of distance learning were really self study.

            Distance learning is defined, in Teaching and Learning as a Distance as “institution based, formal education where the learning group is separated and where interactive telecommunications systems are used to connect learners, resources , and instructors” (Simonson, 2009).  So if I use this definition it is clear just how unclear I was about distance learning.

            First, it states that distance learning is tied to an institution (Simonson, 2009). So, even though is available in most homes, on multiple phones, used by teachers to show all kinds of information to their students, it is not an institution, nor is the Food Network, much to the chagrin of my best friend. Universities, schools, corporations and such are considered to be “institutions” in this matter. So even though thanks to Paula Dean I can now make a banana pudding that brings a tear to the eye, and I learned about it years after she demonstrated how to make said pudding in a city about a thousand miles from where I downloaded the recipe, and it is an education that has made me famous at my church, this was not and will never be considered distance learning but instead simply self study.

            This pudding example personifies the main point of distance learning. Yes, this kitchen master and I were separated by distance and time, and I had to use the internet (interactive communication) to find the recipe. But the main reason that makes this example one of self study is that distance learning must connect “learners, resources and instructors” (Simonson, 2009).  And no matter how emotional I get about this delectable dessert, Paula Dean has no connection to me and my kitchen explorations. “The definition of distance education included these four components. If one or more are missing, then the event is something different if only slightly, than distance education” (Simonson, 2009).

            Distance learning has been around for well over a hundred years. In the past the “interactive community” (Simonson, 2009) was letters and assignments mailed back and forth between teacher and student. But the popularization of the world wide web made learning at a distance an easy and affordable option in the United States of America (Simonson, n.d.).  In the span of a year the amount of students enrolled in a distance learning program went from 1.5 million to 6 million, which leads experts to believe that numbers will continue to increase dramatically in the next few year (Simonson, n.d.).  I personally feel there is a long way to go before it is received by all as a regular option for education. Home schooling and online degrees are still looked at by many as a less that standard education. But as the internet grows and becomes even more entrenched in our daily lives, people will accept distance based educations as a viable option, not a replacement of universities (Simonson, n.d.), but an option none the less.

            Now as I look at my personal definition of distance learning, I would have to say that it embodies much of what I have learned from these educational sources I was given in my online class. It is an education from a large institution that takes place at different times and locations for several people, and there has to be a shared relationship on some level between the teacher and learner.

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (4th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.

Simonson, M. (n.d.). Distance education the next generation. Retrieved from on July 2, 2011. 

** The awesome banana pudding recipe can be found at: not your mama's banana pudding