Collaborative Methodologies Usher in New Era of Distance Learning: A Penn State Story

Rick Shearer

In this interview, Rick Shearer, the Director of World Campus Learning Design at Penn State University, boasts of the rich dialogue carried out asynchronously within universities’ learning management systems, but questions whether the institutions should host LMS services in the future.

Human Resources IQ (HRIQ): With 25 years of experience, you could be considered a veteran of distance learning. How have distance learning courses and learning management systems (LMS) changed over the years?

Let me start with DE as a discipline and the changes over the years. I have to say the biggest change, in many ways, has been the transition from high quality pre-produced content that was designed to engage individual learners one at a time, to courses that are online, that engage many individuals asynchronously or synchronously through the medium. However, that is a single lens of viewing the shift from CBT/CBE (Computer Based Training/Education) to our current online environments. We have also had much success over the years with Educational Radio and TV along with audio-graphics. The first two were used to reach many individuals in a broadcast mode and with phone line connections a limited number of the learners could interact with the instructor. The latter, audio-graphics, was a unique means of displaying images to students who were connected and then initiating dialogue through a telephone bridge. This was actually the precursor to products like WebEx and others.

So while we have seen a big shift in the technologies and methods, I feel the real step forward was the ability to engage small groups of learners (up to 25 or 30) in rich dialogue carried out asynchronously within the learning management systems. This opens the door to the possibility of a richer educational exchange and a reduction in transactional distance or the perceived psychological gap between learners and between learners and the instructor.

Now in terms of learning management systems, which have been around in some form since the mid ‘60s if we include systems like PLATO, I’d say that we are just now starting to see them evolve from a push type Web 1.0 methodology to a Web 2.0 collaborative/social type of methodology. We are just starting to see the emergence and integration of tools that allow for more seamless co-creation of knowledge by learners and the beginnings of social presence systems where at a glance students can see who is online at the same time and can initiate dialogue around topics without the lag time inherent in online discussion forums. This, however, may have a down side as the online discussion forums provide space for reflection on concepts, which is not always the case in a live synchronous exchange.

Also, the other big change is the inclusion of data analytic engines. It is still unclear how these analytic engines will be employed within the LMS systems to provide essential information and assure better completion rates and lower drop outs, but there is a lot of good work being done in the area of analytics.

HRIQ: Integrating technology into online and distance-learning environments lends itself to some unique challenges. What are the challenges for universities who are thinking of scaling up their traditional online courses? What key considerations should universities consider when adopting and developing the technology meant to achieve their goals?

I’d say the key challenge is for institutions to develop a clear strategic direction for what they want an online presence to provide to traditional students, who normally come to campus. Here it is essential that we separate the notion of distance education from the idea of serving the needs of traditional students, they are discrete audiences with very different needs, as the DE students will likely never set foot on a campus.

So first I’d say having a solid strategy for how you want to address the online learning needs of traditional students is essential and will set the direction for every other component of the online enterprise, from the LMS to backend infrastructure. Thus, the technology is the second or even third question that should be addressed. The strategy and overall goals of the online courses/programs is first, and determining whether the goal is: to provide more flexibility in scheduling or attending classes; a move by the institution to more hybrid courses so the institution can grow without the need to add more physical classroom space; or is it that every undergraduate student should experience at least an X number of online courses as much of the training in the business world will occur in this format. The last thing the move to online or scaling online should be about is making money, as distance education and a solid online enterprise for the institution is expensive. While they may lead to another revenue stream down the road it will not happen overnight.

In terms of scale as the online enterprise grows, I’d say a key decision today is whether to host the technology internally at the institution or to outsource your LMS and have it and the data hosted in the cloud. In today’s world one has to question if institutions of higher education should be in the LMS business. This is not to say we shouldn’t be, but it is something institutions really need to take a hard look at as they move forward with their strategic plan around online learning.

HRIQ: Security concerns should always be addressed when adopting new technologies. How do you and your team address your faculty and student’s privacy? Furthermore, how can faculty use emerging technologies to monitor student’s progress?

I believe all of us operate under the umbrella of FERPA and are very concerned about the security of student data. In our situation we assure all vendors agree to the FERPA guidelines in our contract negotiations. These contracts are run through our risk management and legal departments and appropriate actions are written into the contracts in cases of a breach of security.

Further, to protect the students’ and faculty rights in rich media production, we will never put the likeness of anyone in our videos or audio productions without the explicit signed permission to do so. We do not want to violate anyone’s rights in case they are in unique situations and need to remain fairly anonymous in regards to the fact they are in a class or pursuing a degree.

In terms of monitoring progress, as I referenced above there is a lot of good work being done in the area of data analytics and it is just a matter of time until we start to see best practices emerge for how these new tools can assist us with monitoring and assisting students obtain their educational goals.

HRIQ: Is there a new technology entering the online education arena that you’re particularly excited about?

There are new technologies entering the arena every day, some good, some not so great, but it is seldom that we see truly new approaches that are disruptive or really groundbreaking. Beyond the introduction of technology, a key to integration of some of the newer technologies is the need for a cultural shift to occur within institutions. This will be required before we witness a broad adoption of OERs (Open Education Resources) and the ability to offer highly engaged courses to large numbers of students through MOOCs or MOOC like mastery-based courses.

However, when I think of where I’d like the field to go I tend to go back to a 1980s video and concept that Apple developed around the Knowledge Navigator. Even with today’s iPads and voice command technology in our phones, the Knowledge Navigator vision has yet to be realized, but it is one I still like to return to as it provides a unique personalized experience to learning in a distance education mode. Also, I’d like to see our course designs evolve from content presentation to being centered on learning activities where students become more engaged in the experience and go out and find the content and resources required to support the solutions to the learning activities. These types of scenarios become more authentic learning environments, but at the moment the approach is very time consuming to produce and develop if employing rich media for role-playing or to immerse the learner in a scenario. As stated by a presenter at this year’s EDEN conference ‘so far we have done a great job of replicating the class experience online, but we have failed to truly take advantage of the technologies to offer a different and more engaging experience.’

Interview conducted by Hannah Hager