By Jim Shimabukuro
As we teeter on the brink of the new year, we’re left with more questions than answers. In a way, that’s a good thing, considering the makeshift nature of technology in higher education. As we sidle into 2012, the same old questions will greet us. They’re about a world that’s rapidly changing and about our ability or inability to change with it. Let’s face it. The cat’s out of the bag, but some of us are still trying to lure it back in.
Issue #1: Can current leaders take higher education into the 21st century?
Most indications are no. They’re good at preserving the 20th century model and eager to add some technology glitz to make their brick and mortar campuses look modern. But it will be business as usual, with technology applied to brighten up the old way of doing things. Cost effectiveness will be the public mantra, but savings will be offset by the huge piles of money thrown at the makeover. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of today’s leaders have been formed and rewarded by the brick and mortar learning environment. They define themselves and what they do in terms of campuses, buildings, and offices. For them, technology is something to be brought into and added to their domain even if it means severely restricting and crippling its full potential.
Make no mistake. Change will come, but it will come from new leaders who realize that the paradigm for learning environments has shifted from the ground to the virtual. They realize that educational technology is no longer a single innovation or a group of innovations but a sea change based on the awareness that face-to-face (F2F) pedagogy is a subset of the virtual learning environment — and not the other way around. For these leaders, online is the world’s largest learning environment, and brick and mortar facilities are a shrinking part that’s becoming increasingly irrelevant.
The traditional campus-based college won’t disappear, and it will remain the environment of choice for those who can afford the nostalgia, the privilege of dormitories and ivy-covered lecture halls. But in the wake of the first wave of the digital tsunami, their foundations are eroding. The second wave is building just beyond the horizon, and when it strikes it will further undermine land-locked institutions. The select few on high ground will survive, but the vast majority on lower ground will be forced to migrate to the virtual world.
Issue #2: Are we past Web 2.0 yet?
I think we are. The web has never shut down for maintenance. Not for a moment. It’s continually evolving, changing by the day if not by the hour. Social networking is its hallmark, but that’s slipping into the past. We’ve seen countless definitions of Web 3.0, but they all add up to one thing — the web has changed not only the way we interface with information and interact with one another and the world, but it has changed us. Thus Web 3.0 is no longer about the web per se but about the way it has combined with other technology to alter or extend what it means to be human. To get a sense of the immensity of this e-volution, imagine life without the internet, broadband, Wi-Fi, iPhones, iPads, high-definition digital TV, open courseware, blogs, microblogs, YouTube, Facebook, Netflix, Google, wikis, email, ejournals, enews, and ebooks. I rest my case.
Issue #3. Is the F2F vs. online debate over?
For those who answer yes, the fact that all learning today is blended to some degree means that the issue is dead. For those who answer no, the assumption is that blended and completely online learning are fundamentally different. It boils down to this: All blended courses require in-person attendance in one or more classes or locations at specified times; online courses don’t. For the latter, this single distinction removes the geographical and time boundaries that used to define student and instructor populations as well as pedagogy. One of the obvious implications is that completely online classes don’t require campuses, classrooms, and offices. Until educators acknowledge this anytime-anywhere difference and how it redefines learning and teaching, the debate will continue.
Issue #4. Is multimedia better than text?
Much of our effort in course development is based on the assumption that multimedia is superior to text-only approaches and the path to best practice is paved in video, audio, and animation. The old saw is that a picture is worth a thousand words, that learning is much easier and a lot more fun in multimedia. This is true — to an extent.
The fact is that text is faster, which translates to easier, cheaper, and more efficient. Multimedia takes time, effort, and bandwidth. Furthermore, the cost for equipment, resources, space, software, staff, and expertise to produce it can be outrageous. The point is, when you can kill a bird with a stone, why use a cruise missile. Or put another way, more can be less.
So, is multimedia better? Yes, in cases when showing something is easier than trying to explain it in words, e.g., an exotic new plant or butterfly, a dress, a person’s appearance, a building, a painting, a football play, a procedure for drawing blood, instructions on how to assemble a carburetor. However, this answer has to be weighed against cost effectiveness. If it is ineffective or takes too much effort and costs too much for the desired outcome, then the answer is no. Also, the choice isn’t always either-or. There are times when a simple photo or crude diagram is just as effective as a sophisticarted video.
Issue #5. Is synchronous better than asynchronous?
This issue goes hand in hand with #4 above. In course development, we often assume that synchronous is better. Thus, a huge amount of effort, resources, and expense is devoted to producing and facilitating live video and audio events. Live text chat is also viewed as more dynamic. The problem is that the cost to effectiveness ratio for synchronous is exhorbitant in comparison to asynchronous. When weighed against the anytime advantages of asynchronous communications, synchronicity loses some of its appeal.
Issues 4 and 5, above, are important because they color our definition of best practice. The superiority or necessity of multimedia and synchronicity isn’t clear-cut. In some or even most cases, text and asynchronous may be the better choice. When we consider cost effectiveness and simplicity, they look even better.
Issue #6. Is “net generation” a misnomer for today’s students?
Some say yes when they find that students have difficulty functioning in the college’s CMS or using technology in ways they deem important. The argument is, “If they can’t use technology I select in the way that I expect them to, then they’re technologically ignorant.”
Obviously, facility in learning how to use technology is part of the definition of a netgen, but it may not be the most important. Perhaps more significant is their expectation. Those born or growing up in the last twenty to thirty years are different from previous generations. The mobile web is their primary medium for information and communication, and they expect to participate at anytime from anywhere. If it’s not and they can’t, they’ll wonder why.
Thus, it’s not a matter of how well they use the technology we’ve selected but what they expect in terms of content and pedagogy. Given a genuine choice between traditional and online, they’ll choose online options every time.
These are only six issues that I think will stay with us into 2012. There are many more, and I’d like to invite you to share others as well as your thoughts on the ones I’ve chosen. For me, questions are far more important than answers because if we don’t ask the right ones, even the best answers will be wrong.
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