Crossposted to Teaching Thursday
This week the Senate Continuing Education Committee hosted its regular Online Teaching Showcase. Each semester the showcase brings together faculty who teach online and asks them to share some the techniques and technologies that they use to make their online classes more successful. In some ways, this regular gathering of online teaching faculty is a great way to get a sense for future directions in online teaching.
Many of the most common (and intriguing) applications that faculty used to reach their online and distant students sought to facilitate realtime interaction between faculty and student. The old stalwarts, Adobe Connect and the various Wimba Applications (which are conveniently bundled into Blackboard), made an appearance. Their reliable and familiar interfaces allow faculty to stream a lecture to a group of students in real time, record the lecture for an archive, and share screens with students. Tegrity Lecture Capture joined these two applications as another option for faculty who are interested recording lectures live. Tegrity is a server (or as they say now "cloud") based application that allows students to view lectures either in real time or recorded without downloading software to their computer. To watch a recorded lecture, the student downloads a relatively small executable file which they then run on their computer. Based on the demonstration that I saw at the Showcase, Tegrity allows for the faculty member to track students who stream the lectures from the cloud. Faculty could not only see how long a student viewed a recorded lecture, but also isolate parts of the lecture that a student re-watched in order to identify problem concepts or explanations.
I also saw a demonstration of Tidebreak which is an application that creates a dynamic, shared environment where students and faculty can share screens, swap files, and even take control of a central, shared workstation to demonstrate a procedure or execute a task. I could imagine that software like Tidebreak could be used alongside Adobe Connect or Wemba to create a far more interactive online classroom, but with this advance comes greater complexity.
Cloud based computing also was on display with products like Citrix. Citrix allows students to access applications run "in the cloud". The applications range from Adobe products like Photoshop to the standard suite of Microsoft offerings (Excel, Word, Access) and even more specialized applications like the statistics application SPSS. From what I can tell, the goal of this kind of service is allow students access to software without the expense and complications individual licensing. It will eventually allow a faculty member to create an online computer lab where they could work with a group of students using virtualized software (again, from the cloud) without making them each buy the applications or worrying about the hardware that remote students are running.
The applicability of these new applications and services is immediately apparent to the part of me that wants to create a richer, more dynamic online classroom. Another part of me observes that the complexity of these applications will certainly increase the learning curve for a student engaging in online learning (even while services like Tegrity and Citrix could lower the point of entry from the stand point of hardware and software). Much of the collaborative technology on display also privileged a live teaching environment. Most of my online teaching, however, and I imagine this is true for many faculty members, is done asynchronously. That is to say, we are not interacting with students live; instead students are viewing course material at their own pace and interacting with the instructor or their fellow students at far less regular interval than they would in a classroom environment. While I am sure the users of each of these technologies would stress that they could also work asynchronously, it still seemed clear to me that the goal was to reproduce the classroom experience in a virtual or online way, rather than to imagine the online classroom as something fundamentally different.