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Impressions of Online Learning

I just finished the third month of my twelve month long Masters course at Full Sail University. This program, Education Media and Design Technology, is 100% online. Since more and more education will be occurring online and I will need to be able to facilitate it as an educator, I wanted the experience of learning online from a student perspective. I think it will make me a better online educator. This was one of the main reasons why I decided to do this program. There are no required in-person sessions in the summer; there are not any optional ones either except the graduation ceremony if you wish to attend. So far it’s going very well and smooth, and I would say that the learning process is just as robust and rigorous as if I was doing it in-person.

A big concern some people may have about online learning is communication and interaction with the instructor and fellow students. With the great web technologies that exist now, this is actually not a problem at all. Communication and interaction happen in a few ways. The instructors do synchronous sessions and facilitate discussions via Wimba. Wimba sessions occur once or twice a week, depending on the instructor. Students can also use the Wimba platform for group collaboration purposes. Other VoIP tools like Skype and iChat are used. And, of course, social media tools like Twitter and Facebook are used for other asynchronous communication. My only issue is that I’m literally on the other side of the world from the instructors and fellow students. It’s morning time in Beijing when they are doing the Wimba sessions in the evenings in the States, so I’m always at work. This is only a small drawback since the sessions are recorded. I can listen back to the session anytime afterward asynchronously. Any questions I have about the session can be addressed to the instructor through the other means described above or email.

The learning materials have been great so far and relevant to 21st century learning. We are sent books that we are required to read for each course (I do hope that the books will offered electronically soon, though) and there are Internet-based readings we do, as well. We’ve watched TED Talks, videos made by the university, and other videos on the Web. We have to respond to discussion prompts on discussion boards that relate to ideas in these readings and videos, using the e-learning system the university uses. Of course, we are expected to incorporate elements of the readings and other media into our assignments. All of these different learning media have been from the latest and greatest minds from Gardner to ISTE to Jensen to Robinson to Shirky.

The assignments are challenging, as well, both in content and process. They mix rigorous content understanding along with promoting technical skills with our Macs. For many assignments, we are given a choice for what tool/application we want to use, but sometimes we have to use a certain tool/application. We’ve done podcasting, videos, webpages, desktop publishing, presentations, and Web 2.0-based work. A majority of assignments are open-ended to an extent and allow for creative interpretation. Others are more “traditional” writing assignments that have to follow APA formatting guidelines. This includes the thesis I will have to do in order to graduate. Assignments have been done both individually and in groups. It hasn’t been too difficult to complete group work when you’re at a distance from your partners. This in and of itself has been a fantastic learning experience. All assignments are assessed with a rubric. Most assignments are submitted through the university’s e-learning portal; others are uploaded to the instructor’s iDisk, and a few others have be posted to Web 2.0 sites. Strict deadlines are given, and we are expected to meet these. Technical problems aren’t considered an excuse for not submitting on time.

All-in-all, it’s been a great experience so far. I am learning as much or more than if I was sitting a physical classroom. Though there are strict deadlines, I can complete the assignments according to my schedule and inspiration. Outside of the traditional thesis we have to write, the program has been rather progressive in it’s approach and content. It’s just been really busy doing this program on top of a full-time job. I am feeling a little burned out right now, but at least summer is only a few weeks away!

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Leadership for Technology Integration

For my month 3 Master’s class (Emergent Technologies in a Collabortive Culture) at Full Sail, we have to read a book put out by ISTE called Web 2.0: New Tools, New Schools. This has been a good review for me about pedagogical processes and considerations with Web 2.0 tools. The chapter I was particulary interested in, however, was the one on “Professional Development” (PD). Being a Technology Integration Specialist at my school, providing PD is an important part of my job description. And, in order for technology integration to become a seamless part of every educator’s practice, PD is an essential element needed to get to that point of seamless integration in a school.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, PD “will need to come from all angles- top down, bottom up, grade level to grade level, subject teacher to subject teacher, and even student to faculty.” I continued to say that “explicit support and dedication to the transformation process from administrators and school boards will be essential.” (a little aside here- I think that was the first time I’ve ever quoted myself. Weird!) I think this second point about the top down leadership angle is so important. If our administrators don’t have a vision nor provide leadership for educational transformation as a fundamental goal (with technology integration being a part of the transformation process), then it will be difficult to truly unfreeze the status quo (if we are thinking of ‘unfreezing’ in terms of Lewin’s Change Theory).

For the past few months, I’ve been thinking about how best this process could work from the top down (administrators) angle. I’ve had (and continue to have) conversations with like-minded colleagues and even with my immediate administrator about this. Ideas are generated, but we never seem to finalize a strong idea in how to proceed.

Today, however, I just came across a few great ideas in the ISTE book in how to proceed (this is specifically in regards to training for technology integration). Here’s a summary of the ideas (from p. 111):

1. Change two simple things in the teacher evaluation process- require teachers to show how they are integrating technology in one formally observed lesson; have an element of technology integration be part of each teacher’s annual goals.

2. Require teachers to attend a certain number of PD workshops each year relating to technology integration.

3. Poll teachers each year on their needs and desires and offer specially tailored PD workshops based off of the feedback.

4. Offer special designations to teachers who do a certain number PD workshops relating to technology integration and can show explicit application in the classroom of what they’ve learned.

5. Skype in experts on various elements of technology integration to provide specialized training so that costs can be cut from having to travel to PD workshops that are out of town.

All of these are excellent ideas. I especially like numbers 1, 2, and 4. I think these three processes more clearly show that there is vision and expectation of ALL faculty to be actively involved in the learning process. This learning process and, of course, the implementation of the newly found technology integration skills will help the evolution of relevant and authentic 21st century learning environments. This would be the ultimate goal.

Transformation and change isn’t easy regardless of the angle of approach. For the top down angle, we must have leaders who don’t fear change if it’s going to happen sooner rather than later.

Reference:

Solomon, G and Schrum, L. (2007). Web 2.0: New tools, new schools. Washington D.C.: International Society for Technology in Education.

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