CMXtraneous: Using the Web

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Putting Bums In Seats

Posted Wednesday, December 29, 2004 9:54:22 AM by Tom Green

Tom Green

I have been doing a lot of thinking about eLearning these days.It started about five years ago when I worked with with a close friend of mine,Tom Auger to develop an online Photoshop course for the College and I really haven't stopped being fascinated with the subject. The experience was that profound.

When we developed the course we looked at what a number of institutions were doing and rejected their model. In many respects, most of the courses were nothing more than "Digital In-Baskets". The student hits a web page, downloads the material and submits completed exercises, or papers, back to the institution via email. When one University told me how proud they were of doing online courses, they were not exactly happy with my response which was: "You could have saved yourself a ton of money if you had forgotten "online" and sent the student a bunch of envelopes and stamps."

Colleges and universities are rapidly hitting the point where they either have to get the course delivery digital or get dead. It is that stark. My College is a fairly typical example. There is pressure to grow but we are rapidly running out of parking lots where buildings can be constructed. In rather blunt terms, we need to put "bums in seats" but don't have the space for the seats. eLearning may just be the solution to that issue.

That view is the sledgehammer view of the situation. A more refined view is the facilitation of learning. Our students grew up digital. They are untethered. They are just as comfortable using their cell phones to message each other as they are surfing a web page on a computer. Though I jokingly say that many of them appear "glued to their devices", it isn't that far from the truth. What really catches my attention though, is when I mention to them that they will be among the wireless pioneers, how interested they become. Which brings me to eLearning.

Just as computers are becoming untethered from their networks, so too, are bums becoming untethered from their seats. Learning can now be done anywhere, and at anytime. In fact, I am hearing a lot of students wonder why their courses can't be done online. Interestingly enough, I don't hear this from educators. This is a rather interesting "disconnect". Just as the bums are preparing to leave the seats, the institutional chatter increases around how to glue the bums into the seats, or how to tighten the bolts even further. Maybe the time has arrived to make use of some bolt cutters.

How my "deal became sealed" came about through a conversation I had with Juha Christensen, Macromedia's President, Mobile and Devices, just after his Max presentation. We were talking about the mobile and wireless market in North America and what I was looking at doing at the College regarding eLearning and wireless devices. He made a rather pointed observation that should resonate with anybody thinking of getting into eLearning. "What you might really want to think about", he said, "is how to provide learning to your students using a variety of media. The question is not how to provide the elearning. The question is how do you get your students to use their devices and cell phones for five minutes of learning."

This is "facilitation". The learning is geared to the medium and facilitates on demand learning - learning that occurs when and where you choose - rather than putting a bum in a seat for a 3-hour class. This is a fascinating concept and it isn't surprising that Macromedia sees a link between mobile (phones) and devices (PocketPC) and eLearning. It should also come as no surprise that many of their products - Flash, Captivate and Authorware, for example - are ready for eLearning.

Though the products are ready, I really don't know if educators are ready.

In order to facilitate on demand learning, the traditional education mindset has to change. This means it is no longer sufficient to regard learning as taking place in a controlled setting at specific times. On demand learning throws class schedules out the window. Attendance is a thing of the past and learning is provided in a virtual, not a physical, space. Books will be added to with Rich Media. Content will have to be tailored to the medium - viewing a one-hour video lecture on a cell phone just isn't going to work - and teachers will have to learn to master an entirely new set of tools and a very foreign, virtual space.

This should throw the private sector institutions for a loop. They are used to delivering courses over a three or four-day period. The classes usually run from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and a lot of information is tossed at the student during that time frame. The more bums they can put in the seats, the more courses they can run and the more money they can make. The eLearning model, is the exact opposite. Students will learn at a time and place of their choosing and will move through the material at a pace best suited to their learning style. If it is three days, fine. If it is fifteen days, so what?

The public sector institutions that provide the education are also going to have to do some serious navel-gazing as well. It is no longer sufficient to provide a digital in-basket. Technologically savvy students simply won't stand for it. They live in a digital space that delivers content - from streaming video to text messaging - on demand. They will expect no less from their learning providers: subject matter that is rich, indulgent and an experience. That is just for starters.

Paul Clothier delivered a rather important session at the Macromedia Max Conference in November which dealt with the subject of "Blended Learning". Before private and public sector institutions go out and "get some eLearning" he suggests they carefully consider their efforts from the following angles:

  • What are the learning objectives?
  • What is the budget?
  • Who is the audience?
  • How much time is to be available for knowledge transfer?
  • What resources are available to the institution and the learner?
  • Who are the Subject Matter Experts?
  • Is the course scalable?

These are extremely important questions and, what struck me, was the fact that technology really doesn't enter the equation until you reach the resources question. Yet many institutions, both in the private and public sectors, go right to the technology and build from there. According to Clothier, that would be a fatal error.

We are in for a few very interesting years as digital media technologies are applied to eLearning. It is going to be fascinating to watch how public and private educational institutions adapt to the "new" way of doing things and how they grapple with the very real issue of faciliating learning through a variety of digital mediums.

Most important of all is how they deal with the fact that the days of putting bums in seats are starting to disappear.

Category tags: Using the Web