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Students, the Slow Moving Target

Jack Wilson, CEO of UMass Online, has written several important essays about elearning. In his essay, ?Elearning?Is it Over?? he writes, ?The paradox of technology enhanced education is that technology changes very rapidly and human beings change very slowly. It would seem to make sense for proponents of e-learning to begin with the students. At least that is a relatively slow moving target.? He has also written 10 Ways to Fail with Technology in the Classroom and 10 commandments for elearning .

In another amazing article, More than Digital Content: Long Live Your Course, Wilson asks the logical question of ?who owns the course?? In this age of online learning, a great deal of the course is tied to the webpages and bulletin boards and web applications on the university?s server. So then, does the university hold the rights to this content? Should a university insist on owning the content as a way to partially recoup the massive expenses related to infrastructure? Or should it let professors do what they want with the web content, letting professors make money off content paid for by the university and made possible by the university?s instructional infrastructure?

The question is a faulty one, Wilson argues. ?Any faculty member that could be replaced by a videotape, CD, or Web site should be replaced?as soon as possible.? In other words, a class?s value resides not only in the online material, but also in the interactions and activities with the professor. But that position paints us into a logical corner. Why can?t a teacher?s involvement with students be totally web-based? What if a teacher is lousy in class but designs a great online course? The problem with online learning is that it forces teachers to create learning content. Professors are uncomfortable with this. Yes, they can write articles for academic publications, but these articles don?t need to be pedagogical in nature or to address the general community. On the other hand, with an online course, they practically need to write a textbook by themselves, a rather insurmountable task. And it needs to be updated regularly. As any webmaster will tell you, the tools to automate this are not here yet.

Professors have a hard time understanding the learning needs of students in a web-based class. Yes, there are homework assignments and discussion, but it?s easier to talk to a student in an environment unmediated by technology. Here are two problems with web interactions: Whose turn is it to speak? How do I control the number of students I can talk with at one time? Web interactions still lack the spontaneity of tapping one?s neighbor on the shoulder or doodling on a piece of paper. Probably hybrid classes are the solution: classes with both a live in-class component and a web component. That might be preferable for adult learners. But in a hybrid class, learners will still prefer the sessions in the classroom and probably do the most interesting interactions and discussions there, causing the web component to be used with varying levels of enthusiasm. Just as foreign language classes work better when everybody agrees to stop speaking the primary language, the only way to gain a commitment from students to use the web component is to leave them no other choice. Also, there are economic matters to discuss. The initial costs involved in developing a web course are so high that it makes little sense to just make one or two modules. Making 8 or 9 allows a teacher to realize an economy of scale.

Unfortunately, most of the problems with elearning are economic. Students are unwilling to pay thousands of dollars for a class where they never see their teacher. Universities are unwilling to spend money on technology that might become outdated in two years. Professor, already overworked, are unwilling to assume the role of content creator unless they are paid more and given more time and assistance to develop courses. But just wait. As technology becomes cheaper, webcams become more popular, web maintenance technologies become cheaper and bandwidth becomes more plentiful, web courses will be cheaper, easier and possibly more fun. Possibly.

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