Let’s Get it On!

Let’s end online segregation. Let’s continue to bring online tools—from e-mail to websites to mobile phones to ipods—fully into the mainstream and stop thinking of them as “new” or “innovative.” It’s time we simply welcome them into the family of options for teaching and reaching students in the modern era.

Yes, online education used to be considered innovative. Along with e-mail, the idea of getting online to retrieve resources was a first step to a teaching-with-technology craze in the 1990s. It was followed by the idea of taking an entire course online. This was a traumatic step for some, and the quality police came raging. While they rarely held in-class courses to the same standards that they expected online courses to match, they were quick to pronounce online-course taking DOA because of the lack of academic rigor.

Once online educators jumped the course hurdle, they looked to online degrees. Places like University of Phoenix (which, contrary to most people’s preconceptions, is still a predominantly on-ground university), Rio Salado College, and Western Governors University stepped into the breach and proved it could happen—with quality and accreditation. Creative projects like the Florida Virtual School pushed the envelope and helped bring online education into High Schools. You should really take the time to attend the Virtual School Symposium put on by the North American Council of Online Learning if you want to see just how much online action is emerging in public schools.

Still, most of this work remained segregated. In many educators’ minds, there was the online world and then there was the “real” education world. The online courses had to be specially marked in the catalog, if they were allowed in at all. Often, the online program resided in the continuing education department. Tenure-track faculty that dared to support this work had their promotions held up (see the early material from Randy Bass and the Crossroads Project) and administrators searched to find a “lower friction” location for this innovative learning model.

Then came the rise of hybrids, or blended learning. Truthfully, it wasn’t really we educators that pushed this envelope, it was the students. First, studies began to show that “distance” education—which many folks positioned online education as—actually was predominantly serving students within 30 miles of the campus. Online education, it seems, was much more about students being able to take a course at more convenient times, places, and paces. Second, students began doing both traditional and online education at the same time. It became commonplace to find that most students taking online courses were taking two or more traditional courses. At one point, the largest cohort of students in Michigan Virtual University was made up of students living in the University of Michigan dorms!

The next natural step has now been taken. University of Phoenix launched its FlexNet service last year, which quickly became its fastest growing segment. FlexNet is basically a blend of online and in-class instruction. Community Colleges and Universities are launching their hybrid programs, or at least putting their toe in the water. The Florida Virtual School is showing that hybrid resources for High School Students are powerful tools to keep engagement with a new generation of students that fully expect online tools to be comfortably woven into their learning experiences. You see, the rising student block doesn’t get all the fuss.

We’re finally here. We’re at a place were we can begin fully integrating online tools into how we teach and reach students—mainstream them, if you will. And as you know, I will never say that online education and outreach tools are “better” than face-to-face methods. In my college days, I sat through too many lectures where I wanted to stab my eyes out with my pencil, and since have seen class PowerPoint presentations that had neither power nor a point, and online course mazes that lead to nowhere (particularly learning). I don’t have any illusions about one method being better than another. It’s all about how the tools are used—and usually it’s the teacher and reacher that have greatest impact in the direction the tools take and the difference they make.

To really make move online into the mainstream, however, we have to continue pushing through the sticking points and keep a dialog going. We have to have thoughtful conversations about when online tools are appropriate, when face to face interaction is essential, and when moderated and mobile tools might help. The list of topics is long. But the conversation is vital if integration is to reach it potential.

This is one of the reasons I’m such a fan of NACOL (mentioned earlier) for the K-12 level, and the Sloan-C consortium at the higher education level. Sloan-C was founded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to help drive what their Program Director Frank Mayadas calls “Asynchronous Learning.” Frank and Burkes Oakley (you have to check out his work at University of Illinois) are two of the leading idea champions behind Sloan-C, and have been at the forefront of this movement to the mainstream from the beginning. Sloan-C has a great catalog of online degrees and resources, a rowdy listserv, and great conferences. Both NACOL and Sloan-C both help create communities of practice and share solid resources for interested educators. Check them out if you want to end the online segregation at your institution. Check them out if you want to get the conversation off the on-line vs. on-ground debate. When it comes to the kinds of conversations we should be focusing on, I say, “let’s get it on!” On whatever works to improve and expand learning.

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