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Report from #ALN14: Online Ed’s Incubator

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November 6, 2014 by admin

The Online Learning Consortium or, a la Prince, the organization formerly known as Sloan-C, can arguably make the claim to be a primary incubator for online education as we currently know it. It publishes scholarly research, provides high quality training, issues guidelines and scorecards, and hosts a vibrant conference. The conference provides actionable insight into the direction of the field. Based on this year’s conference, if you are interested in where online education is going, the answer is this: Everywhere. It’s like the Big Bang. Online is expanding in all directions at once—professional development, K-12, undergraduate education, professional Masters degrees, MOOCs and on and on. But as impressive as the growth over the last couple of years has been, the evolution has just begun.

Logo of the OLC International Conference

The Online Learning Consortium has served as an important incubator for online learning.

Here are a handful of key takeaways for people who missed the conference (you can also look at the Twitter feed at #ALN14). For those of you who were there, let me know what I missed in the comments box on the bottom. Or tweet me @elliotkingphd or message me on LinkedIn.

  1. My favorite contradictory vectors are these: Online education will either lead to very prescriptive education—show us what you can do and we will certify you—or the opposite, or both. Here is how this contradiction played out. Lots of folks at the conference were there to argue that online delivery will be a great foundation for competency-based education. Rather than just punching the clock for four years at some dreary bricks-and-mortar institution, as they paint it, students will be able to demonstrate what they learned and link digital badges or other visual representations back to specific examples of what they have mastered. Everything will be great. Employers will be assured that graduates actually know something useful and students will be able to prove that they have learned something. This argument annoyed me a bit as I thought grades (and GPAs) showed mastery of something worthwhile and important, but to the competency crowd, grades don’t apparently amount to much.  But just as I was getting aggravated (even though I actually think online is great for teaching specific skills, digital badges have huge potential, and we are experimenting with them in our own program), the Friday keynote speaker Dave Cormier argued that moving online will let teachers throw away their syllabi and free their students to take a magical mystery tour of learning. You start with a learning contract with students and then kick them out into a process of discovery. He calls the approach rhizomatic learning (terrible name IMHO) that I believe takes us far away from the ethos underlying competency-based education. Of course, Cormier has a tough row to hoe. He argued that nobody can really accurately measure “learning.” Uh oh. That idea certainly is not going to fly with the growth within the cult of assessment. Nevertheless, I think his vision of the impact online education can make in higher education is pretty exciting.
  1. Very few institutions really know what they are doing as they increase their
    Press release announcing Emory is creating MOOCs

    Emory University’s chief academic officer is pushing the development of MOOCs

    online offerings, and fewer still seem to have thought about the long-term impact of moving online. For example, apparently Emory University, at this point, allows faculty in their undergraduate programs to move courses online and offline at the discretion of the instructor. Also, at the encouragement of the provost, Emory is investing heavily in developing MOOCs. It does not seem clear exactly what the end game of either of those initiatives is intended to be. Those initiatives may not be bad, but they signal that even tier-one research institutions have pretty big learning curves to traverse. At one of the state universities in Arizona, I didn’t catch which one, a representative said that online students will get the exact same degree as the residential students. Maybe the degree may be the same, but the experience won’t. I am not saying that the online experience will be better or worse than a face-to-face experience, but it won’t be the same. Universities will ultimately have to address those differences.

  1. Issuing digital badges is sexy and on the surface seems like a great way to reward learning. But when you dig past the surface, since so many different organizations are issuing so many digital badges for so many different reasons, nobody really knows what badges mean and what they should mean. Like so much of online education, digital badges have great potential
    A digital badge that is part of Loyola University Maryland's M.A. program

    Loyola University Maryland’s M.A. in Emerging Media is experimenting with digital badges.

    but there is a long way to go before they have a social currency like, let’s say, a grade from a traditional university. Badges are technically very easy to create and distribute. That is both a strength—many people can experiment with them—and a weakness for the same reason.

  1. Much of the enthusiasm for online education in higher education has been generated by the prospect for greater access, particularly for what people are calling “non-traditional” students – I thought that term outlived its useful life. But some online universities, such as University of Maryland University College and Southern New Hampshire University are basically open-enrollment institutions. When the City University of New York went to an open enrollment policy in the 1970s, it was widely ridiculed and its reputation plummeted. Will that be the fate of other universities hungry for online students? And even if universities keep some enrollment standards in place for online students, is the day of paying attention to building a diverse student body to foster a rich learning community coming to an end? Finally, how will even the big state schools ramp up if they offer places to anybody in the whole country who meets their GPA and standardized testing requirements? According to its business plan, the University of Florida Online should have 25,000 students within a decade (and they will not be allowed to take any on-campus courses.) How is UofF Online going to select and prepare for those students?
  1. Leadership represents one of the most interesting issues facing online education on campus. In a fascinating talk, April Bellafiore, Dean of eLearning at Bristol Community College, pointed out that very little research has been conducted to understand the qualities a good leader for online education should have. In fact, basic questions like whether a director of online learning should have subject-matter expertise have not really been addressed. On many campuses, online learning is championed by a specialized office that reports to both academic administrative leadership and the technology leadership. That may not be the most appropriate model as online classes play a larger role in the life of the university.
  1. For all the questions, challenges and unknowns associated with the growth of online education, the community of people engaged in the process are smart, well-meaning, and by and large very thoughtful. They approach the issues from different perspectives although the instructional design community seemed to be the most heavily represented. But as is still generally the case, the faculty voice is absent. Not one of the three keynote addresses was delivered by a faculty member. That is very troubling.

If you look at the growth of the OLC conference over the past 20 years, you will see that it has taken a long time for online education, or distance learning as it was once called, to become an overnight sensation. Every school is going to have to come up with its own answers to address the potential of online learning. But the questions may be the same for all of us.

– Elliot King, Ph.D.

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1 comment »

  1. […] of education, higher education or online education takes place. I have been to some myself both in person and online, and in most cases, I have found a lot of thoughtful people who are thinking deeply […]

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