Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Online Learning: K12 and Higher Ed Collaborations

I attended the @One Online Teaching Conference at San Diego City College last week.  This is the fourth year that I've attended the conference and this year it had a new flavor...which I really enjoyed.  @One is an organization funded through a grant from the California Community College's Chancellor's Office.  I am currently working for @One, to be transparent about my personal interests in supporting their endeavors, but long before I began my working relationship for @One, I benefited from their terrific training opportunities:  I learned how to podcast from Donna Eyestone and I attended many of their free desktop seminars that showcase new ideas and national presenters in one hour synchronous (and always archived) sessions using Elluminate (actually branded as CCC Confer via the CA community college systemwide license).

The Online Teaching Conference (OTC) has become a tradition for many California community college instructors to network with colleagues, understand how other campuses are dealing with challenges and opportunities around online teaching, and pick up some hands-on experience using emerging technologies.  But this year @One joined forces with CUE (Computer Using Educators) which is primarily a K-12 national organization that has many of the same focuses of @One.  The results were quite compelling.

Allison Powell, Vice President of iNACOL (a non-profit organization of 3,100 members, focused on advocacy, support and professional development for online learning), presented the keynote on Thursday.  The keynote was refreshingly different.  For the first time, I had the pleasure of listening to students from K-12 and higher education reflect on their experiences as online students.  Wow. Why is it that hearing a student request more student interaction and instructor feedback in their online learning experiences resonates on such a more profound level than reading it in a journal?  I loved the panel and I loved hearing how focused and driven the students are to drive their own learning.  Most of them noted a frustration with slow instructor feedback, explaining that asynchronous questions usually had resolved themselves by the time the instructor got back to them with an answer.  They also sounded enthralled and motivated by learning experiences that allowed them opportunity to share thoughts, reflections and debate with other students.  Again, not surprising but so much more powerful when spoken in a student voice.

After the panel, I attended a concurrent session presented by Powell which showcased a perspective of online learning at a global level.  What did I learn?  That the US is lagging behind most all other nations in leveraging the potential of online learning to break down barriers to education, provide a reliable option for educational continuity in the face of impending disasters, engage our digital native students, and produce skills relevant to a 21st century global economy.  Why are we lagging?  Sadly, our policies and regulations are disabling our ability to collaborate.  Powell, for example, shared that 100% of teachers in Singapore are trained to teach online.  The nation has implemented a one-week per year "learn online" experience for all teachers and students, to ensure teachers continue to teach online and are prepared for dealing with disasters that could interrupt off-line learning (a new term I'm proposing in contrast to "face-to-face" learning which, I'm convinced, denigrates the personalized nature of an "online" learning experience).  Also noteworthy is the use of online learning India to education a 70% rural population that speaks 23 different languages!  Powell noted an extreme need, here in the US, to integrate online learning training into pre-service teacher curriculum to ensure our educational system is prepared to meet the continued growth in K12 online learning...which is inevitable.  27% states currently have state "virtual schools" and this number reflects a 30% growth each year since 2000.  And 75% of K12 districts use online learning for AP classes.

Effective online learning is anchored in student-centered learning with instructor-guided interaction between peers.  Imagine the potential this has to transform our nation's educational system if it becomes embedded in the foundation of our teachers' professional development.  An online classroom has no walls and invites opportunities for global collaboration, introducing paths into learning about different cultures and unique perspectives about a particular topic (or image or video).

I see online learning in K12 continuing to grow steadily with the support of national advocacy to transform our educational system and, as a result, this will have even more profound implications for higher education than the surge in online demand that we've seen in past years.  In California community colleges alone from 2007 to 2008, "off line" enrollments dropped nearly 10%  while distance education headcount grew 23%.  We cannot deny these trends and we need to be examining the shrinking enrollments in our "offline" classes, as we stress the growth in online (this conveys a different message).  With the move to online learning in K12, the "off line" college lecture classroom will need to be transformed or it will contain empty seats and one lonely professor.  It will be irrelevant to students who have been born into a digital society and educated through personalized online learning environments.  While the higher education landscape has been impacted deeply by growth in online enrollments, our pedagogical foundations haven't seen sweeping changes.  That, I believe, will the difference as we move forward.

I felt moments of energy and excitement as I saw K12 and higher education come together at this conference.  Collaboration is essential, across the board, to resolve the tensions that exist around us today as we've moved from an industrial to a global, digital society.
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