Edu Blogger Contest Entry: Online Learning Tools

Online College Edu Blogger Scholarship ContestAfter some gentle encouragement from Karine, I figured I better get my entry for the Edu Blogger Contest done. If I’m lucky enough to win any of the awards, I’m going to use the funds to open a cloud computing consultancy geared towards higher education.

Please click on that banner or this link to see the contest home page so I get a few votes. I appreciate it.

On my drive back from Hershey last week, I had some time to think about online education and especially the tools that are available for online learning.

I remember when I was an intern at an advertising agency during college and when I was a student worker in the new media lab at Duquesne, we authored CDRoms with Macromedia’s Authorware and Director. Those programs were great at allowing users to proceed at their own pace and allowed developers to incorporate audio, photos, videos and more into their CDs. For the most part, the discs had low systems requirements allowing many different types of computers to use them.

While they were beneficial for the student, CDs were a challenge for developers. Learning Authorware was a challenge. Well learning how to do it well was a challenge. Unlike today, there was a steep hardware requirement to produce video and audio and not everyone had CD burners in their labs. The first one we had in our new media lab required a disc to be put in a tray then put into the burner. We lost those trays regularly.

And unlike web-based projects, if you had to make a change or update to your CD learning program, it required authoring, pressing and distributing a whole new disc. That was inefficient in both time, money and effort.

webct.smallguy.jpgIn the mid-90’s, online learning systems began to emerge. At Duquesne, we were one of the beta test schools for a new system called WebCT. I remember helping to install the software and trying it out from both a student and teacher account to get a feel for how it would be to learn as well as prepare content for that area.

Of course, looking at the LMS’s we have today, WebCT beta and pre 1.0 releases were downright archaic, but it succeeded in its simplicity. Students were entered into a class, they logged in and could access course content, work in groups, discuss, share work and take quizzes and tests. That’s it. No bookstore, e-portfolios, no web 2.0 stuff, just a focus on the class and its virtual classroom.

For online learning at the time, it was a definite tipping point. Students were having to to look at learning in a new way and adapt to it. Faculty were facing many questions as well – how do I prepare my class materials for this new medium? Will my time spent preparing these materials be compensated? What kind of time commitments will I have to make outside of the regular course meetings times, in order to facilitate discussions, and so on. Actually, I think we’re still trying to find answers for those questions.

When I began to work full-time for Duquesne, I was charged with managing that WebCT installation for a time. One of the first programs to really jump onboard was the Pharmacy school. They ran a PharmD program in WebCT, and had students spread around the country. Working with the Pharmacy faculty was great, but remember this was 1998-99 so not a lot of people had broadband yet. On nights there were tests, I’d work late and stay in the office to serve as tech support for students (and their poor quality dial-up connections). You’ve never heard such a harried group of people as distance learning students who can’t get online to take their tests. Luckily, we quickly fixed most of the issues.

I even attended the first WebCT Conference in 1999 in Vancouver, BC. That was fun and like most conferences, it was great to share ideas, tips and tricks with other people who also managing these installations.

Now, there are a multitude of tools to help institutions such as online universities facilitate online learning. Blackboard has emerged as the major for-profit player, buying up many of the other smaller systems, including WebCT (indirectly, but still). Angel is another player in this space.

There are blogs, wikis and now at my current institution, we have a professor using Ning for his classes, which is great.

I’m also excited that there are several open source learning management systems in very active development, including Moodle and Sakai. Both of these tools have strong communities and support and will be developed for a long time to come.

Online learning is much different then it was in its infancy, and the tools have grown and adapted quickly. It’s exciting to see where the future will take us and how these tools will grow, change and shape the next generation of learners.