This paper is the first of a series of papers dealing with changes in learning and teaching. In this paper we deal with changes in teaching/learning technology. In the next paper we will deal with some of the deeper implications how these technology changes are affecting curriculum design, the tasks and nature of teaching, and even the professor’s job itself. The thoughts presented here are the result of a series of work sessions and discussions among LCC faculty. Note: I will use the term “teaching technology” as a simple shorthand. We recognize that what we are really discussing is the technology and processes used to facilitate both teaching and learning.
To understand where teaching technology is changing and how it might affect LCC’s future, we need some context. We need to take a look backward first before we can look forward. For years, well, actually for centuries, the processes and technologies used in education have been rather stable, perhaps boringly stable. There were certainly innovations along the way. Gutenberg’s printing press in the 16th century was a definite advancement. There were plenty of experiments in the early days of computers too, but basically little changed. Then in the mid- and late-1990′s the Internet began to trigger a revolution. The evolution of teaching technology has been continuous and accelerating since then, but to facilitate understanding these changes, we are going to discuss them in terms of “generations of teaching technology”.
Gen Zero is traditional higher education as practised since the time of Plato. While we typically associate traditional college instruction with lectures, the real core technologies are writing, printing, and speaking. It’s the written and printed word that’s central. Textbooks, lecture notes, and written assignments submitted on paper are the media that dictate how the teaching is done. These media, while enabling learning for some, also limit it. Dialogue with the professor and understanding the richness of the subject come only from personal, face-to-face encounters.
The core technologies in Gen Zero have evolved in recent decades. For professors, the copier and word processor have replaced the mimeo and typewriter. Whiteboards have replaced chalkboards. For students, typewriters and computers have replaced pen-and-paper as the means of creating and submitting assignments. But the basics for students are the same: printed physical textbook, paper for notes, and a pen or pencil. Textbooks have gotten fancier. Color process litho printing replaced black-and-white, but it’s still a book.
Gen Zero has several disadvantages. First, a student must physically go to school – be at a particular place at a particular time when the professor and others will also be there. For students, traditional Gen Zero learning is both time- and location-intensive. If you can’t be there, you are out of luck. Family, work, or just sheer distance can easily prevent getting an education. The physical campus and campus life, while attractive to many, can be intimidating to first-timers. Second, Gen Zero technologies favor particular learning styles. If you learn well by listening to lectures, if you are good with words, if your reading skills are excellent, then you’ll excel. But if you’re more visual or kinaesthetic, or if you don’t have a solid foundation in reading and writing, you will definitely struggle. Finally, although students attend in classrooms that are filled with other students, Gen Zero still tends to favor solitary study and learning. Yes, some instructors can bring social and group work into Gen Zero classes, but the technology favors isolated individual study. For all these reasons, Gen Zero technology, traditional college instruction, tends to produce weak success rates. It’s effective in producing learning in only a selective part of the population.
Nonetheless, Gen Zero teaching technology has several advantages that help explain it’s longevity. Of course, for a long time, it was the only game in town. But when compared to newer technologies, Gen Zero has the advantage of being flexible. Less planning is needed. Courses can be scheduled and professors assigned at the last minute. The professor can, if need be, teach “just-in-time” by staying only a week ahead of students in preparing lesson plans. Prep for courses is definitely easier. Lectures can be produced from sketchy notes and in-depth knowledge. Courses can be “updated” by choosing a newer edition textbook and the professor keeping up-to-date in reading research in her field. With Gen Zero teaching technology professors spend their “prep” time either grading or learning what to teach. The how-to-teach is largely absorbed by mimicking what the professor experienced when she was in school.
In the 1980′s and early 1990′s there were many experiments in “distance learning” in higher education. Telecourses were developed by large foundations, broadcast by PBS stations, and supported by colleges. Correspondence courses were tried. Community colleges were often at the forefront of all these efforts in keeping with the community college mission to provide access. But the real revolution in teaching technology awaited the arrival of the Internet and the World Wide Web.
The development of the Internet and World Wide Web in the early 1990′s set the stage for a major innovation in teaching technology. In the mid and late 1990′s, several colleges and universities took advantage of newly invented Internet technologies and began offering courses over the Web. E-learning was born. LCC was one of those pioneer colleges being the first community college in Michigan to offer online courses.
As part of this shift to e-learning, new software systems were developed called Learning Management Systems (LMS). The major LMS’s include Blackboard, Angel, WebCT, Moodle, Sakai, and Desire2Learn. LCC, after delivering courses on it’s on without a full-blown LMS, moved to Blackboard and then to Angel. Now in 2012 LCC is moving to D2L. Despite some cosmetic updates, all these LMS’s are essentially the same and essentially the same as they were 10+ years ago.
The basic concept of the LMS and Gen One e-learing is document and file-centric. Materials and “content” are posted to a controlled private website managed by the LMS. The content usually takes the form of either static web pages to be read or, more often, files to be downloaded such as Microsoft Word documents, or Powerpoint files or spreadsheets or PDF’s. The LMS does allow a very rudimentary messaging and bulletin-board functionality, a quiz delivery system, and a simple gradebook tracking. But the learning process essentially consists of downloading, opening, and viewing files and documents. A student then completes “assignments”, which often are either a quiz or they write their own file/document and upload it to the professor.
E-learning in Generation One technology is still very static text-oriented, only the text is now electronic instead of printed on dead trees. It’s also very isolated. Learners work by themselves. It’s very difficult to build a sense of community or interaction with the learners. Most learners work alone with less substantive interaction with their fellow students or the professor than they had in face-2-face Generation Zero technology.
There have been great advantages to Generation One technology. By enabling learning via the Web, it has allowed asynchronous distance learning. Students who can’t make physically to campus or who can’t commit to a fixed time schedule during the week can now learn and take courses. This has expanded access to higher education, a core part of our mission.
Generation One technology, while dominating what we’ve called “online classes” for years, should not be confused as being solely online. Generation One has made increasing inroads into traditional face-to-face instruction, providing flexible easy access to learning materials that supplement the physical classroom. For example, this author’s face-to-face classes require usage of files and content that are only available on the LMS. But regardless of the type of class, Generation One is essentially static, text-oriented content delivered in files that are downloaded and uploaded. The LMS attempts to mimic the closed nature and exclusivity of a classroom.
There are significant disadvantages to Generation One technology, many of which are only apparent to those who have attempted it as either student or professor. First, Generation One, while breaking down barriers of distance and time, also creates isolation. It puts a premium on motivation and self-directedness by the student. Students who need intensive hand-holding, or who don’t manage their time well, or who aren’t highly self-motivated don’t do well with Gen One technology. Gen One also puts a premium on having a learning style that absorbs text well. Visual or kinaesthetic learners don’t do as well generally.
For professors, the disadvantages include a lack of immediate feedback from students. It’s a struggle to identify what works and what doesn’t. Unlike in person, it’s difficult to tell when they don’t get your explanation. Generation One is also very time consuming. The simple explanation that can be given orally in person in office hours in 5 minutes, takes a 1/2 hour or more to write in an email. More significant is that the burden of preparation for the course expands by an order of magnitude with Generation One. In Generation Zero, class “prep” really meant grading, writing tests, office hours, and putting together some bare bones lecture notes. A lot could be delivered on the fly in the classroom. In Generation One, everything is now a written file. “Lectures” mean a lot of writing. Course design, navigation, and sequencing of activities/materials becomes critical and time consuming. And it must all be done before the course begins. For online Generation One professors, “breaks” between semesters have long ago disappeared. What used to be Christmas break to refresh is now a mad crunch to get the next semester’s courses ready.
In the early years of Generation One, there was much thought, often by administrators and publishers, that perhaps “master courses” could be prepared once and then delivered repeatedly by the authoring professor and other professors. Experience has shown though that this hope for economizing on prep by the one-time creation of relatively stable “master courses” was an illusion. First, it takes several attempts at a course, particularly an online course to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Typically a newly designed and created course will have to be totally redesigned the following semester based on the lessons of the first attempt. Second, online courses are highly sensitive to who is teaching them. What works well for one professor doesn’t work for another because it’s not how the second professor approaches the subject. Online courses work best when it’s truly the voice of the professor teaching it. In this regard, an online course, it’s design, it’s sequencing, it’s activities and content, are like textbooks. Yes, they make a good starting point, but the effective professors tell their own stories using the books or materials as support.
Overall, Generation One teaching technology has mirrored what Silicon Valley has called Web 1.0. In recent years however Web 2.0 has emerged. And with it, so has a new generation of teaching technologies.
Web 2.0 technologies have combined with insights into learning from education experts to create what we’ll call Generation Today.
Starting around 2005 the World Wide Web began to shift to what Silicon Valley called Web 2.0. Web 2.0 is interactive and depends on connectedness and user-generated content. Prototypical examples of Web 2.0 are Wikipedia, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, blogging systems like WordPress, and the many applications developed by Google. Many of these tools, while not specifically designed for education, are either free or low-cost enabling tech-oriented professors to experiment.
At the same time, professors experienced in Generation One struggled to improve the learning and engagement of students. Education researchers began to explain the importance of theories such as connectivism and constructivism in developing improved learning. These different strands rapidly came together to begin to produce the current set of teaching technologies: Generation Today.
Generation Today teaching tools engage more senses. They’re interactive. They engage the learner. They help tap into multiple learning styles and make learning more accessible. The also help students connect with each other. A critical feature is that they are heavily visual – they rely on rich web pages instead of static file downloads. They involve video and audio and pictures. They break the tyranny of static text-based files, opening access to many more and allowing better instruction.
Generation Today teaching is still evolving along with the tools for it. Sometimes students create digital media and sharing it. Sometimes students collaborate by jointly editing a document or speadsheet or presentation simultaneously online. Sometimes students are chatting online with instant messaging. The uses are numerous and rapidly expanding.
The advantages of Generation Today are engagement and access for more students. Students respond to it. Generation Today responds well to the growth of smart phones and tablets, freeing learning from the desktop. Today’s “digital natives”, students who have always had the Internet in their lives, expect learning to be Generation Today. They want lectures to be “captured” and recorded in Youtube style videos, even when they attend the lecture in person. They want podcasts (MP3 audio files) of explanations of key concepts to supplement written text. They want to create, collaborate, connect, and share.
Generation Today technologies are tremendously challenging to colleges though. The primary drivers of Generation Today technologies in higher education have often been the small cadre of advanced, “push the envelope” tech-oriented professors who experiment with the technologies. Many colleges have accelerated their move to Generation Today by adopting Google Apps for Education, a free suite of apps provided by Google to educational institutions. Others are developing their own web apps and implementing newer technologies for all faculty such as blog systems, lecture capture technology, and Apple’s U-Tunes. Open e-textbooks are another example of the move towards Generation Today.
Nonetheless, there are major challenges. Generation Today technologies are generally open and decentralized. This runs counter to historical IT practice at most colleges where controlled and closed systems have been the rule. Generation Today technologies in many ways are counter to the design and concept of the major LMS’s of Generation One. The LMS’s are still needed, largely because Generation Today open technology hasn’t found a way (yet) to handle and aggregate grade and assessment data. But even here, it may only be a matter of a short time as some projects are working on that problem right now. A further challenge is professional development. Generation Today is being adopted piecemeal by individual professors, but all of them must be brought along. A final challenge is that, unless materials and tools are freely and openly shared among professors at different institutions, the time involved to create and courses expands by another order of magnitude beyond even Generation One.
Generation Today technologies are changing very rapidly and changing education rapidly as well. But even Generation Today isn’t the last word. There’s already an entire new generation of teaching technology that’s just emerging.
Generation Universal (or Coming)
I will call the next generation of teaching technologies Generation Universal or Coming, because it’s not just “tomorrow”. It’s already starting to happen today, just not on the scale that Generation Today is. At LCC, we have a very small number of professors who are part of this newly emerging generation of technologies.
In the coming Generation of teaching technology, learning is universally accessible – it’s everywhere, thanks to a ubiquitous Internet, displays, and mobile connectivity. It’s also immersive. You don’t just watch or create in this new generation, you learn in the materials. It involves sophisticated “serious” games, or virtual reality, or augmented reality. In keeping with the spirit of the new generations of technology, instead of trying to explain in words what they’re like, it’s easier to show you. If you watch this short (7+ minute) video prepared by Corning Glass, you’ll see some of what we mean by “learning using augmented reality”. Pay particular attention when the girls get to school and go on a field trip.
There is an accompanying video (longer) that explains how close the technologies are to reality. Some are here now. Others such as the transparent tablets are perhaps 2-3 years away. Others, like the large wall-size glass displays are further out. In higher education terms, 3-5 years is right around the corner.
I have tried to summarize the movement of these four generations of teaching and learning technologies in the following simple graph (obviously the time axis is discontinous). It shows how teaching with Generation Zero has peaked. It’s declining. Generation One, the original LMS and e-learning file-centric technology initially expanded access and utilization. But it is being rapidly replaced with Generation Today technologies and Generation Coming has already begun. One of the challenges for LCC is that while LCC was a pioneer and innovator in Generation One, it now faces a classic innovator’s dilemma. It has grown stagnant and not embraced or widely implemented Generation Today technologies, which poses a serious risk and opportunity. The risk is competitive. The opportunity is to serve even more students better.