15th Annual Sloan-C Conference – A Review

John SenerBy John Sener

Disclaimer: I am both uniquely qualified and perhaps ill-suited to write a review of this conference. Uniquely qualified as Director of Special Initiatives for Sloan-C and as one of a handful of people who have attended all 15 Sloan-C conferences; ill-suited because of the possibility of “bias” but also because, frankly, I spent most of my time there as usual talking with colleagues rather than attending conference events. So this will be a more impressionistic review of the conference rather than a comprehensive one. In reality, the conference has gotten so big that it’s not possible for a single individual to provide a complete review.

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Up front, one new development is worth noting in particular: tweeting. I started tweeting at conferences earlier this year, but this was the first time for me to do so at a Sloan-C conference, and I did so throughout. The evolution of the tweetosphere even over the past few months is remarkable. People were coming up to me afterwards and thanking/complimenting me for my tweets; I found myself scanning session rooms to find fellow tweeters posting on the same presentation; I was able to get tweeted summaries of other presentations without attending them or being burdened to find print handouts; and I even met someone new because I mistook them for a fellow tweeter — so it’s becoming a notable social undercurrent at many conferences. Oh, and tweets make great notes for preparing articles like this one . . .

Frank MayadasThe person primarily responsible for bringing the Sloan-C conference into existence, Dr. Frank Mayadas, was the keynote speaker. Frank offered a three-part view of the current state of online education: retrospective, current, and future. The retrospective piece was of course gratifying for us “old-timers” who always appreciate the opportunity to reflect on just how far we and the field have come. How in the early days (in my case, pre-World Wide Web) we cobbled together makeshift or relatively primitive products (e.g., Lotus Notes, First Class, Web Course in a Box, Allaire Forums) to create online courses, while remembering the first Sloan-C conference where everyone knew everyone else (95 participants) and there were two presentations for each concurrent session.

Fast forward to the current conference with almost 1400 attendees total, including ~170 virtual attendees, and 40-50 presentations per concurrent session. Online higher education has entered the mainstream and continues to grow at a brisk clip thanks to the development of a lively practitioner community capable of rapid response, along with the growth of a healthy vendor community which has provided tools to fuel online education’s growth. But what about its future? Dr. Mayadas called for online education to reach truly full scale (as also reported in this Chronicle of Higher Education article), which would likely involve additional changes to the current landscape, such as more targeted government support and greater attention to making online education attractive to a much larger proportion of faculty.

Unlike many conferences which are struggling with conference attendance due to budget crises and constraints, this conference actually grew in size relative to last year, with a 5% growth for onsite attendance and 20% overall growth for the conference including virtual attendees. On Thursday morning, I “convened” the plenary session for the virtual attendees, which meant I monitored the computer feed (messages and questions), responded to any transmission issues as well as I could, and relayed any questions or comments to the speaker during the Q&A period. Although it was difficult to know from the messages, it appeared that many if not all of the virtual attendees were finding value in this presentation at least; and as one virtual attendee noted, virtual attendance was good not only for his budget but also for his waistline, as he was eating a lot less food than if he were attending the conference in person. ;-)

Andrew KeenThe speaker, Andrew Keen, has attained some fame due to his book The Cult of the Amateur, and his self-professed aim as a “polemicist” was to provoke thought and discussion through expounding his contrarian positions, for instance:

  • The Internet poses a danger precisely because it makes education too inexpensive (cheap/free).
  • Educators’ authority is based on the authority conferred by their hard-won wisdom and must be maintained; kids don’t really know anything of value (i.e., wisdom).
  • The Internet’s real-time speed prevents thoughtfulness, which is another challenge to educators.

Needless to say, Keen’s talk provoked a fairly lively Q&A session (and evoked strongly contrasting reactions from attendees afterwards). It would have been nice if he had understood his audience a little better; at one point, his speech was proceeding under the assumption that most of his audience were tenured faculty, so he seemed a bit surprised when he actually polled his audience to find that very few (<10%) were in fact tenured faculty. All in all, however, Keen succeeded in his goal to provoke thought and discussion about the issue, even if IMO he missed a golden opportunity to have a more nuanced discussion of the issues with an audience that was more sophisticated about the issues than what I suspect he customarily faces. Then again, perhaps his aim was more on target: over the past several years the Sloan-C conference has evolved into a conference which attracts a large proportion of first-timers, and this year was no exception, with perhaps as many as 50% of the attendees being first-timers (based on a show of hands at a plenary session).

I also attended several concurrent sessions which reinforced for me that online education continues to evolve, expand, even backtrack in a myriad of directions. One of them had a “back-to-the-future” feel for me, as the presenter was advocating a return to modularized learning management systems as an alternative to the current crop of LMSs and their relative inflexibility and drive toward being enterprise-level solutions. The discussion at another session on learning objects reminded me that we were well past the days of attendees looking for wisdom from pioneer presenters; instead, the audience is often at least as knowledgeable as the presenter(s). That session generated a side conversation with an attendee about a particular learning object repository solution her institution was using, so I did that in lieu of attending additional sessions that afternoon.

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During the panel, I had an epiphany of sorts, realizing the extent to which online education has provided an opening for private sector companies to become more deeply involved in higher education.

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The next morning, I served on a panel discussing the issue of relationships between higher education and the corporate sector, specifically vendors serving the online higher education market. During the panel, I had an epiphany of sorts, realizing the extent to which online education has provided an opening for private sector companies to become more deeply involved in higher education. Some may react to this insight with a “duh!”, and to some extent I also wondered why it took me so long to realize this. I’d been more focused on the other unanticipated effects of online education on higher education, such as the creation of higher, more concrete standards and expectations for course quality and instructor involvement.

Later that morning, I attended a session which described research showing how the Quality Matters project has positively impacted its users several years later. After the session, I got involved in yet another extended  “shop talk” discussion. No doubt I missed lots of good conference sessions, and indeed that’s now unavoidable. But for me the great value of this conference has been, and continues to be, the quality of interaction with long-time colleagues and meeting new ones. In other words, for me the conference is a non-stop schmoozefest.

Some would say this is a highly ironic observation to make about an online education conference. I would say that an in-person conference is an excellent form of tribal gathering to touch base with those numerous colleagues with whom the primary relationship is an online one. Virtual conferences are on the rise, they already have some advantages, and they will only get better. In-person conferences may be attended less frequently, but they are not going away anytime soon — at least if they maintain the quality provided by events such as the Sloan-C conference.

Quality in Distance Education: Stakeholders’ Perspectives – Part I

greenberg80By Gary Greenberg
Staff Writer
22 November 2008

Introduction

The large number of students in the U.S. taking one or more courses online in 2006—nearly 3.5 million—reflects another trend: more faculty members are teaching online than ever before (Allen & Seaman, 2007). As they gear up for their first course taught at a distance, faculty must balance their drive to be innovative teachers with their institution’s demands for online course quality.

At the 2008 University of Wisconsin Distance Teaching and Learning Conference, I conducted a discussion with seven conference-goers on the topic of innovation and quality.

Discussion

Gary Greenberg: Some observers of distance education, including Curtis Bonk, who was here at the conference, and Kurt Squire, who is here at the greenberg04University of Wisconsin, have charged that innovation in the creation of online courses has stalled out. I wonder if any of you share this concern about lack of innovation going on in distance courses.

Robert Bulik: I think it’s not necessarily innovation, but I think it’s getting away from the basic theory of education. If we think that online learning should be as good as, better, or equivalent to face-to-face classroom learning then we need to consider what goes on in the classroom, which includes interactivity and learner control. And if we give that background away when we go into an online environment then we’ll just have page turning virtually on the screen versus in the book. That gets away from the basic tenets—theory —of education, and I think that’s a different issue than innovation. (Bulik, MD, is an associate professor for the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and is currently developing case-based instruction and software for the education of medical students.)

Kay Shattuck: I think what’s happening with the comment that distance education or e-learning has stalled because the innovators aren’t there—I think some of that comes from the sheer numbers of . . . people who are told, in many cases, they have to put something online from their institution.

My other perspective on innovation is: Who’s the innovation for? Is it because an instructor wants to use a new toy? Or has the instructor really been looking for a way to improve a piece of the course and has, through her investigation, shattuck11discovered a really nice toy? I think we’re sometimes led by toys. (Shattuck is director of research for Quality Matters™ [MarylandOnline, 2006], an organization offering a faculty-centered, peer review process for distance learning courses.)

Katie McDonald: I love going to conferences and [taking notes] about all the tools, looking them up online, and playing or trying them. But I always have to keep myself grounded at the level that faculty don’t want this just because I think it’s cool and because I think it would help their course. The designer really has to build a relationship with the faculty and have the trust that when I say this is technology that will really help you, it’s because it will really help you in this way. Not just to use it because it’s fun and it’s new and it’s innovative. (McDonald represented the views of working instructional designers in the discussion. She is an instructional technologist for RIT Online.)

Joeann Humbert: I think that’s where the instructional designer is key in the process of putting a course online because it is different teaching online. And a person in that role can translate—help to translate—effective pedagogy. So I think if you go back to the core [issue] of helping people teach good courses online, the instructional designer can be a key person for the faculty member. I think having their skill in the balance is critical.

I still meet faculty—and many are in engineering and areas that have more traditional lecture-based courses—who don’t know about all the research in the field. They have no clue about distance education and are thinking about delivering a distance course but wouldn’t even consider [consulting] an instructional designer. It’s only after building credibility with those faculty, and building trust, that they’ll begin to reconsider how they develop their course. (Humbert is the director of RIT Online, the distance learning support organization for the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY.)

Shattuck: I think that is what we’re talking about, the masses, the mass of instructors, that have now moved into distance education, and I think that people who are the innovators are frustrated at seeing this. But I think that’s the natural process. Eventually, because students will not take the courses, people will find an instructional designer. They will, for their survival.

Conclusion

The discussion concluded with remarks on the importance of conversations—between faculty members and more experienced colleagues; between faculty members and instructional designers—in the design of a quality distance education course. There was general agreement that these conversations play a crucial part in the creative process and are deserving of further attention in the ongoing debate about quality. I’ll post that part of the discussion next time.

(Author’s Note: This work was supported in part by a travel grant from the School of Educational Policy and Leadership at The Ohio State University.)

[Editor’s Note: Part II to follow in a coming article.]