Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Educause Learning Initiative Conference Day 2

So I intended for my blogging over the past few days to be as real-time as possible, but it looks like that hasn’t happened. Still, I will divide my postings by days to make it easier for you (and me!) to keep track of the sessions I attended. Lucky me, I arrived at the Atlanta airport 2 hours early, so I hope the following gives you ample opportunity to reflect on my experiences at the Educause Learning Initiative Conference.

In “Emerging Educational Technologies and Neomillennial Learning Styles,” Chris Dede (formerly of GMU!) mentioned Tom Friedman’s “The World is Flat” and put a new spin on one of Tom’s ideas. (By the way, I met Tom and heard him speak in Richmond a few years ago – he is fantastic!). Chris told his daughter to “study hard, because someone in India wants your job.” I remember only a few years ago we were worrying about programming and telemarketing jobs being shipped away. But the day is here when it’s more than just those jobs...I suppose almost any job can be shipped away, but the higher ed/IT field really appeals to me because so much of it is interactive and hands on, and the projects I am/will work on will always be changing.

Chris focused on several emerging “next generation” interfaces for distributed learning, such as MUVE’s (Multi User Virtual Environments) whose title characters were avatars (virtual representations of ourselves), and MMOG’s (Massively Multiplayer Online Games). However, these environments which were once a figment of someone’s imagination are here NOW and are almost ubiquitously being used by this new net generation of young learners. Problem is: the content of these games is basically garbage! The challenge: how can we use these tools in education to facilitate learning? One way that’s already in practice is the River City Project (which you can read about), and research indicates that children who typically received D’s and F’s performed as well as students earning A’s and B’s in this type of learning environment.

I also learned of Second Life, which I would best define as a large-scale educational virtual world, for the first time at Educause. It was fascinating, and appeared to be engaging and expandable. I wonder how long it will be before we see Second Life in college classrooms all across America/the world? Part of the issues with it, at least today, were bandwidth (it’s pretty hard to efficiently run Second Life on a wireless network, which is often much slower than a wired one), and the fact that some college freshmen using Second Life are under 18 (but learners must be over 18 to interact with “characters” from other worlds/outside of their university’s sphere), which could impede learning and restrict them from being on an even playing (er, learning) field from the rest of the age 18+ members of the class. One of the neatest things about Second Life, I think, was the possibility to “fly” to another world and interact with students, professors, whomever from other worlds, learn from them, and add them as “friends” to serve as an archive of future connections – almost like a real-time MySpace with educational value.

One of the neatest learning tools I discovered from Joel Smith and Candace Thile’s session was the Carnegie Mellon’s Online Learning Initiative. Last semester I found and bookmarked (but haven’t yet fully explored) some virtual, free, online classes, but the OLI seemed to take this concept a step farther. Students could see and complete the course material for free (non-credit) or take the courses – entirely online, without an instructor – for credit through a participating institution. Someone beat me to asking the question of OLI’s 508 compliance, and the speaker laughed and said that they failed miserably (though all of the material does have underlying text). But, she pointed out, how do you describe a bunch of microbes and their movement to a blind user and salvage the interactivity of the lessons? It echoed some of the challenges my Immersion team has been facing while developing our Underground Coal Mine Supervisor Online Training System (except they probably aren’t developing the OLI modules in the crippling Workforce Connections LCMS). We want to keep the lessons as engaging and interactive as possible, but the challenge is: how do we best do this while keeping everything 508 compliant and easy for future designers to update?

Another interesting point the OLI session raised was that having a sort of “cognitive tutor” – a computerized learning environment whose design based on cognitive principles that function a lot like a human tutor – greatly increased students’ understanding of the material. The cognitive tutor would provide immediate feedback, and be there to give the student another math problem, for example, on the spot, for additional practice until the student displayed mastery of the concept. (Where was this cognitive tutor when I was taking multivariable calculus?) And perhaps the most important hurdle that must be overcome is the question of “Will I recognize this concept in a novel problem solving situation? Will I be able to apply what I’ve learned in the real world?” Bingo: the hurdle, (in my opinion) faced by students of all types of instruction. If, after taking a course, a student can’t walk out of the classroom (or away from the computer) and answer the question, or even distinguish the problem at hand, what has he or she learned, and how efficient was that learning, anyway?

I mentioned to a few people I’d met at the conference that one of the neatest things was experiencing firsthand how the theoretical knowledge I’d been gathering in my graduate classes was routinely used in everyday speech by experts in the field. The speakers touched on topics such as distributed cognition, scaffolding in teaching, communities of practice, cognitive dissonance, situated learning, and other concepts that I thought while learning about them “Hm, I wonder if I will ever really use these concepts in practice.” (Note to self: the answer is YES.) Now I REALLY see the value and correlation of a master’s degree to success in (and even enjoyment of) the Instructional Technology field. I greatly appreciated my semester of knowledge as a tool to understanding what was being freely tossed around in discussions throughout the conference.

The speakers of the OLI seminar touched on the topics of learning theories. One of the speakers said: "Learning theories are like toothbrushes. Everyone has one, but no one wants to use anyone else's." As students, learning technologists, instructors, or whomever, we can’t be afraid to integrate others’ insights and theories within our work – we will be missing out on a gold mine of valuable tools to enhance our understanding of how students learn.


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