New Technology Takes the Distance Out of Distance Learning

The array of new tools cropping up for use in online and distance courses is dizzying. New learning technologies are buzzing around like busy little bees, pollenating the online learning landscape with nuances and, as some might consider them, nuisances. Despite some of the initial frustrations some instructors encounter with learning them, these new technologies are making education at a distance more engaging, exciting, and malleable…not to mention, fun.

Working as an instructional technologist, as well as teaching both online and face-to-face courses has given me a unique perspective on the technologies available for online learning; and in my opinion, they are worth taking the time to learn and use.

Let’s focus, for a moment, on the communication tools that are now available to online learners. Students can contact instructors and classmates through email, text messaging, and discussion threads. Or, they are increasingly gaining options to communicate in real-time through chat or instant messaging, web conferencing, and audio and video response options, most of which are available within the course, or can be integrated within the course. So, essentially, face-to-face, ear-to-ear, and eye-to-eye communication is readily available to the online learners of today. Actually, there might be more ways to communicate with instructors and classmates online than there are in face-to-face classes. This could be classified as a nuisance to some, but for those who crave connection with instructors and peers in online classes, the communication options are very fulfilling.

Even social media can be used in an academic fashion to supplement communication and engage learners. I have created Facebook pages specific to courses I teach. A Facebook page can be created separate from a personal profile, and it can be accessed by those who do not have a Facebook account by simply providing them the link to the page. I have used the pages to share supplemental content information, anecdotal evidence to support concepts, and they are a place where I can “push” notifications, praises, announcements, inspirations, and content to students where they are already living—on Facebook! Many students don’t regularly check their email, nor do they check the inbox in the learning management system as regularly as they check Facebook. So, if I can meet students in their own worlds I can connect with them at greater levels. Often, I find my course Facebook pages continue “buzzing” after class has ended; students want to stay connected to me and to one another. Embrace social media, and use it to empower students to communicate and learn.

One useful web application that is being introduced in online courses is Polleverywhere. An online polling system, it allows for questions to be posed to an audience, and audience members can respond immediately in real time, or as long as the poll is left open. It is similar to clicker technology used in classroom environments. Polleverywhere allows for anonymous polling, as well as registered polling, so instructors can choose to track participation or not. Participants can respond via text message or by visiting the poll’s individual response webpage. Response types include multiple choice and open-ended responses, and a simple web link provides students all they need to respond to the poll. Instructors can use online polls to survey student knowledge or opinions that can, in turn, inform teaching strategies. Students can benefit from polls by seeing the opinions of classmates anonymously which increase transparency and honesty in their responses. Polls are great for starting or stimulating an interactive and thought-provoking online discussion.

Web-conferencing for student collaboration is another technology that is being used more frequently in distance education. Google Hangouts is especially interesting because it is a free web-conferencing and collaborating tool where up to 10 people can interact at once, while working simultaneously on a document, form or spreadsheet in Google Drive. Also, they can do this while sharing their computer screens and browsing webpages or YouTube videos, all while recording the entire session via Hangouts on Air. Imagine the possibilities for students in small groups working on projects, for student study groups, or for instructor office hours. I can’t think of a better use of the web than this. It is much more than multitasking; I call it “multi-onlearnacting” (which I’ve defined as, “multiple ways of learning and interacting online”) at its best.

A new technology, that hasn’t been used a lot in online education yet, but has great future potential for all educational delivery methods, is Google Glass. Glass is classified as a wearable technology that allows users to share their experiences, from the first-hand perspective, with others. Glass wearers can record videos, take pictures, navigate, and search the web while wearing the streamlined, modern Glass on their brow line just like a pair of glasses.

As a user of Google Glass, I have seen the magnitude of impact this wearable technology has for educators and for individuals with disabilities. It seems ideal for demonstrating physical actions from the user viewpoint for learners. For example, I can envision a golf instructor wearing Glass to demonstrate key golf swing mechanics for students, or a surgeon demonstrating a steady hand during a critical procedure. As a public speaking instructor, demonstrating the impact of relating to and actually making eye contact with your audience, while employing gestures and effective body positioning, during a public speech would likely make a strong lasting impression on students, and it would reinforce key content. Visiting the far corners of the Earth, or outer space for that matter, from the first-person Glass perspective can be none other than awe-inspiring. A person with disabilities can potentially use Glass, nearly hands-free, with voice commands, to navigate around a city and take pictures. All of these types of experiences are made possible with the wearable technology of today and the future.

As one of my colleagues, Cody Connor, has always said: perhaps we have misnamed “distance education” because the “distance” between learner and teacher has never been closer than it is now with online education. There is only the touch of a button separating the learner from the instructor, not to mention a world of knowledge that awaits online. So shouldn’t this type of education instead be named, “Connected Education?” Any way you slice it or dice it, technological improvements are enhancing online learning, and will likely be creating a communication and connection buzz well into the future.

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Discussion

  • Megan

    Wow, what a great article. I just learned several new things. I have participated in a Google Hangouts page before, but I didn’t know about Polleverywhere. Google Glass likewise seems amazing, especially for people with disabilities. You are reflecting the upside of technology – the education prospects of it. Thanks for the read.

  • Patrick

    Athena, I like the progressive material / analysis of your article. Have you reviewed CSU’s ‘Blackboard Course Technology’? I am taking my first course using it as an Online Plus student and it sure could use some TLC / upgrades.

    • Colorado State University Onli

      Patrick, good point about Blackboard–and in fact, CSU is upgrading to a new learning management system in the Fall called Canvas.

  • Abel Journeyman

    Just wish to say your article is great, and timely too. The clarity in your post
    really shows your expertise on use of technology in remote education.

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    forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please carry on the gratifying work.