Driving Innovation with Online Learning

Driving Innovation in Online LearningIf you’ve visited the Inside Online Learning blog before, it’s probably no secret that the Online Learning Consortium (formerly The Sloan Consortium) provides many of my favorite resources for both research and professional development. I’m attending the OLC conference this week (October 29-31) and this year’s theme is “Driving Innovation with Online Learning.”

Innovation: a new idea, device, or method; the introduction of something new; an improvement to something already existing. – Merriam-Webster

The term innovation is often used in the context of online education. We speak of new technology and applications for delivering courses, as well as new strategies for engaging students and assessing their learning. It usually begins with an idea about a better way to do something we’re already doing, and a goal of continuous improvement of our existing classes.

In his new PBS series How We Got to Now, author Steven Johnson points out that the most important innovations usually involve collaboration and an open sharing of ideas. That’s where organizations like The Online Learning Consortium come into play, fostering an active and ongoing conversation about whats working, and what’s not. As educators we are students too. The need to identify and explore innovative ways to do things, such as learn online, is never ending.

Innovation in online education is taking place at a rapid pace, but how do students benefit from these efforts? How do we decide which innovations are the most effective and which ones to adopt in our classes? What role will innovation in online education play in moving other industries forward? These are just a few of the questions I have in mind this week during the conference.

Watch for daily updates to this post with my wrap-up of resources and take-aways related to innovating our online classes. It’s my goal to share as many highlights from the event as possible. In the meantime, you can also connect with the conference backchannel via social media by following @OLCToday and the conference hashtag: #aln14.

Wednesday, October 29: Establishing Effective Partnerships

Each year several sub-themes seem to emerge across sessions and all of the side conversations taking place in between. This year it seems we’ve finally realized that we can’t (and shouldn’t try to) do it all alone. No one academic department or instructional design group will be able to keep up with all the trends, all the systems, all the data and devices, all the demands of students and faculty members. Several of the sessions I attended addressed the need to partner with others to do the best work, whether it’s an external vendor, internal support team, or combination of the two.

Elizabeth Mulherrin and Jack Neill from the University of Maryland University College shared their recent work in “From Analytics to Action: A Cross-Functional Approach to Improve Student Success.” They assembled an “Innovations Team” charged with developing a process to make the most of all the data being collected about student achievement in their online courses. The Team consisted of advisors, academic departments, the Provost, data analysts, institutional research resources, and student success offices with a goal to “tap the best thinking to create the best learning experience for everyone.”

During my session with Amy Hilbelink, “Other Duties as Assigned: Defining the Role of the Instructional Designer in Higher Education,” we suggested that course work alone is not enough preparation. Instructional design students, and others who may be new to designing online courses, should seek out opportunities to not only gain practice, but also learn from what others are doing. Several attendees recommended participating in conversations and professional development in other industries (such as K-12 and corporate training) to explore different perspectives for building effective learning environments online.

Thursday, October 30: The Certainties of Change and Time

The dynamic nature of online education was addressed throughout the day from the morning keynote presentation to the afternoon poster sessions. The technologies that we use to teach and learn are changing, and we have ideas that we want to implement to make courses more engaging and effective, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Some of the best initiatives take months, even years, to come to realization, which is followed by periodic review and revision.

William Kirwan from the University System of Maryland opened the second conference day by “Looking at the Academic Innovation Landscape: Lessons Learned and Future Possibilities.” Kirwin noted the changing expectations of higher education (and funding) over the past several decades, as well as the need to “inspire future generations of faculty” to embrace not only current approaches to online education, but also those that will follow decades from now.

Helix Education’s Kari Kovar and Tom Caswell shared “Five Things You Should Know about Competency-based Learning,” a particularly popular topic this year. This approach brings change on many levels, but one of the most interesting for me is the change in the faculty member’s contributions – moving from a traditional role to one of “team member” working with learning coaches and technology. (The concept of technology as a partner in the process is also intriguing.) These presenters stressed the need for planning (it takes time!) and careful coordination to ensure success.

Innovation and Iteration: Celebrating 20 Years of the International Conference on Online Learning” was conducted by a panel that asked attendees to respond to the question: What are the key questions that need to be addressed to ensure quality while encouraging innovation in online education over the net 10-20 years? The critical nature of the component of time is clear – we’ve got to look forward, to both anticipate the challenges ahead and prepare ourselves to respond to the issues we don’t see coming. Time was a factor of much of the discussion, e.g., “cultural change is slow,” online classrooms can be monitored “in real time,” and “technology isn’t moving fast enough to meet our social needs.”

Friday, October 31: Many Methods, Paths, Ideas

Emerging themes, hot topics, and new technologies tend to point us in specific directions each year, but … it’s increasingly evident that there’s not one, best way to “do” online education. Each school, program, faculty, and group of students creates a context in which some approaches work better than others. What works in your classroom may not work as well in mine, and vice versa. It also seems that more than one approach can be successful, giving us a range of options to work with that lead to similar results.

The last keynote of the conference, “Rhizomatic Learning – The Community is the Curriculum” was presented by Dave Cormier from the University of Prince Edward Island. His recent cMOOC (#rhizo14 ) was described as a “many to many” community in which learners interacted with each other and the experience through an open syllabus. They started “without a curriculum, but instead an agreement” to explore the work offered within the course and select, individually, what they wanted to do.

The Twitter backchannel during this session suggested this approach as the opposite of competency-based learning, and during the question and answer period, attendees asked how it all relates to adaptive learning – competency and adaptive being two popular topics this year. Cormier noted that “competencies can become checkboxes; sometimes checkboxes are needed, but not always.”

With so many technologies available and different ways to effectively gain knowledge and develop skills, what if a degree could be earned through a combination of competency-based courses, open syllabus courses, traditional courses, and practical experience, with adaptive learning strategies for preparation and foundation courses? The logistics of tracking the process and gaining all of the currently required administrative approvals is a little daunting, but within the realm of possibility. Future years could see us moving toward greater acceptance of a variety of learning experiences – all as worthy and beneficial, complementary to one another, and tailored for each student or small groups of students. Would you call this innovative?

The conference is now over, but the conversations continue thanks to the collaborative atmosphere fostered by The Online Learning Consortium and conference sponsors, organizers, presenters, vendors, and attendees. Explore the posted resources and continue to follow the social media accounts for more information.

innovation in online learningAs an OLC Social Media Ninja I’m also experimenting with Pinterest this year, capturing links and images on my OLC Learning Board. Check the board, and this post, throughout the week for more information!

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog