Monday, October 8, 2012

Online Learning: The Future of Faculty Development?

"When we think of where people turn for information, we usually think of databases, the Internet, intranets and portals, or more traditional repositories such as file cabinets or manuals. What we may not think of is one of the most crucial sources of all: other people."
Rob Cross, Andrew Parker, 
Laurence Prusak, Stephen Borgatti

It's time that all higher ed stakeholders value technology as a vehicle to connect people, share ideas, foster relationships, break down the silos, reduce the redundancy in our work processes, and collaboratively solve the problems that so many institutions and individual faculty are grappling with across our nation.  This is a new way of framing technology which is still viewed as a barrier in the eyes of many individuals, particularly those who resist the notion that online learning can be relevant, inspirational, empowering, and life changing which, I have learned, it can when an instructor is trained and supported effectively.

How Google Hangouts Are Rocking My World

I've been reflecting recently on how Google+ Hangouts have affected my learning and thinking about how free, easy-to-use, social, synchronous video-based learning environments will reshape organizational faculty development programs in the future.  The future is looking much more faculty-centered to me, provided that faculty participate, build their personal learning networks, and engage in online informal learning.

So many people have asked me, "What makes Hangouts so different, really?"  Well, in some ways nothing but in other ways, everything.  Really, they deliver many of the same technological features that Skype delivers -- synchronous voice, text, and video communications -- but Hangouts support video conversations in groups up to 10 for free.  Further, the simple fact that a Hangout is "baked into" a social network that I use to cultivate my own personal collection of humans from who'd I'd like learn and with whom I'd like to share sets it apart.  Simultaneously, this is still the greatest drawback to most faculty, as well, as relatively few are using Google+. 

Hangouts come in two flavors: the standard "Hangout" and "Hangout On Air." The "On Air" feature allows you to simultaneously stream your video conversation to the web (not always appropriate, no, but it can be quite valuable for certain applications).  The stream appears automatically on your YouTube Channel (which you manually connect to Hangouts one time) and on your Google+ Profile page.  When you launch the Hangout On Air, you also are provided with embed code that you may copy and paste into any html web page (like your course management system, a blog, a wiki, etc.) and point your audience there ahead of time. When the Hangout On Air is over, the stream is archived in video on your YouTube Channel (which you can adjust to either public, unlisted, or private). 

For the past year, I have been holding a monthly office hour session for VoiceThread in my role as their Higher Ed Learning Consultant.  This is an opportunity for any educator using VoiceThread to ask me questions, share ideas about how they're using VoiceThread, and work through questions or problems they have.  Before August I was holding the sessions in a web conferencing system that required advanced registration.  There were several months when nobody showed up.  In August, my first Hangout On Air month, I had a dynamic group of between 4-7 people join me and last month Amanda, my colleague from VoiceThread, and I were joined by three educators.  The experience is just more fluid, more natural.  And so is the conversation -- at least after I have gotten over my initial stage fright! Anyone who says presenting in front of a webcam is NOT nerve racking like public speaking has never done it.

Learning from Other Faculty: Without Walls

But the really compelling idea that I'm left with is probably the most simple. It's about how faculty are learning today on college campuses.  As I reflect on my experiences with teaching, the greatest "Ah ha" moments I've had are those that have come about through the informal learning moments I've had interacting with other faculty members.  I have not worked on a physical campus since 2009; yet, my "Ah ha" moments have not dwindled.  They continue to flourish -- through the faculty development classes I teach (our VoiceThread discussions), the webinars I present and attend; the interactions I have on Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and my blog with my PLN; and now my Google Hangouts.  

Over the past decade, as state budgets have dwindled higher ed faculty have become increasingly more part-time and more frequently work for multiple institutions. Earlier this month, I Skyped with a colleague of mine who is now teaching for FOUR colleges.  The point here is that web-based social technologies allow faculty to engage in formal learning while immersed in personalized video conversations at a distance.  The boundaries of our campuses are no longer obstacles that keep us from learning from faculty at other campuses.  We really are one big learning community ... if we just participate.

On college campuses, faculty development programs continue to be cut along with the budget, leaving the minimally staffed departments (if there is even one!) to be managing responsibilities that reach far outside of their original domain and leaving no time to stay current on emerging technologies.  Exploring, questioning, examining and experimenting with how to teach effectively with social technologies is perhaps the factor that will keep college learning moving forward.  These are the questions that will empower us to recraft a college learning experience that prepares our students for life in a digital, mobile, interconnected, global society -- one in which employers expect new employees to demonstrate their ability to have fostered relationships at a distance (through Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, etc.) and be able to effectively present and converse asynchronous and synchronously through a webcam (for starters).

There are a mess of issues that faculty deal with on a daily basis.  How do we navigate the overwhelming world of new technologies? Where do we start? How do we teach with new tools and manage accessibility regulations?  How do I navigate my students' privacy effectively in the open web? How do we balance life and work?  How do we foster active learning with large class sizes?  What LMS should my insitution change to? What conferences are worth attending? We all have the same questions!  Let's ask them together! 

From my experiences, technology is so often viewed as a barrier in higher education. It is seen as as an obstacle that comes between humans and undermines our genuine ability to interact and engage with each other.  I've never viewed technology that way. To me, it's technology's dazzling capability to bring humans together regardless of their physical location that excite me. 

Faculty Development Hangouts?

I would like to start arranging Google Hangouts for faculty to discuss hot topics, share ideas, and just converse with one another.  Do you think this is a good idea? Would you attend or be interested in watching an archive of a Hangout On Air?  If so, add me to your Circles and leave a comment here on my blog with your thoughts or ideas for Hangout topics.  If you have questions that you'd like answered, please leave them here in the form of a blog comment and I'd be happy to answer them.




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