Jul 27, 2009

Paper or Plastic?

ESchoolNews.com published an article last week documenting the debate over whether or not the government should provide students with electronic reading aides dubbed “Kindles”. These devices are essentially flat, lightweight, high-resolution black and white screens that incorporate a built-in keyboard and wireless capability. With 2 GB of internal storage, the Kindle could do for the bookworm what the iPod did for the audiophile.

Actually giving every student in America access to a Kindle is no easy (or cheap) proposition, and opponents are quick to list the many problems that could arise. Who, for example, would replace a Kindle that is lost or stolen? Additionally, classic textbooks will never “break-down” like an electronic device could. However, the benefits for integrating eTextbooks like the Kindle are just as compelling. Proponents say the price for providing reading materials would actually decrease over time once the devices were in the hands of students. Factor in other advantages, such as doing away with the chore of hauling around cumbersome and heavy paper textbooks, plus the ability to instantly update old content, and it’s easy to see the excitement that surrounds this issue.

But is the world ready for education without the paper-bound textbook? The answer to that question lies in the reality of the modern learning environment. While some teachers are quick to integrate the latest technology available into their classrooms, there are still traditionalists who see eTextbooks as just another boondoggle. Teaching styles are varied and conditional, and what works for one teacher could seriously hinder another. On the other hand, while making teachers happy is certainly beneficial to education, in the end, it is all about the student.

The real question at the heart of this gets back to a previous blog post where I called upon all online students to address the question of what the next learning environment should look like. There seems to be a groundswell of new ideas being presented that want to answer this, but while an imaginary destination is nice, what’s really needed is a roadmap.

Jul 21, 2009

Think Global

With the leisure of summer comes a feeling of freedom from the pressures of going to class, writing papers, and taking tests. It can be easy to forget just how much of a privilege a quality education is. The path to self-improvement rarely strays from the course of learning, and with such an opportunity perpetually available, it is crucial to stay focused on just how valuable it truly is.

In the opening pages of “The Promise of Open Educational Resources” by Marshall S. Smith and Catherine M. Casserly, it is stated that:

At the heart of open-educational-resources movement is the simple and powerful idea that the world’s knowledge is a public good and that technology in general and the World Wide Web in particular provide an extraordinary opportunity for everyone to share, use, and reuse that knowledge.

This idea drives the OER movement to each corner of the globe with the goal of giving everyone the opportunity of self-improvement. There is a ubiquitous need for learning, just as there is a ubiquitous need for food and shelter. Because of this, there will always be students.

Learners have the incredible transformative power to take information, synthesize it, and pass it on to others. The realization that everyone is both teacher and student at some level is integral to the formation of open education for everyone. In a previous blog, a call was made to all online students to help shape the future of online education. As programs reach beyond borders and oceans, connections are made that should be recognized as potential avenues for learning.

Cross-cultural integration is the inevitable result of the World Wide Web, and the possibilities for cross-cultural sharing must be pursued at every opportunity. Encourage your teachers to take advantage of the resources at their disposal and broaden their horizons to encompass the whole globe. Organize an e-mail pen pal program. Find out how other students are studying, how other teachers are teaching, and what other classes are learning. Consider things from a global point of view. As your scope gets bigger, your limitations will shrink.

Jul 13, 2009

Choosing the Right Teachers and Classes

It happens several times each and every academic year- new schedules, new classes, and of course, new teachers. Although the first week of a new semester or trimester may seem like a brief respite from the overwhelming workload of finals, there’s a reason universities give students some leeway before launching fully into the curriculum- this is the time set aside to allow you to pick the right teachers and classes for you.

There are many things to consider before building your new schedule. Some people like to plan out every class they will take until graduation, while others wait until the last minute to fill up their roster. Do your best not to be part of the latter group- while it’s tempting to settle for whatever is immediately available, it’s possible you’ll pay for it in the end with an incongruous schedule or unnecessary credit.

Once you know what courses to take, do some research into what options fulfill each requirement. Find out what time slots are offered- when do you learn the best? Are you most attentive first thing in the morning, or is the late afternoon more your style? Make sure to leave enough time for snack breaks- learning on an empty stomach rarely happens. Also, check where each class will be held. Lugging tons of textbooks from one side of campus to the other can be a painful exercise for anyone without a spare forklift.

Next, check up on your teachers. Sites like RateMyProfessors.com are popular and may seem quite useful, but it’s important to use these merely as a preamble to forming your own opinions. It’s you, and not some random poster on the Internet, who will be synching your unique learning style to their teaching style. One recent graduate tells a story of how she found her favorite teacher based on negative comments posted on RateMyProfessors.com. “I could tell the people who posted bad comments clashed with his personality, and would probably clash with mine. I ended up taking four of his classes.”

Spend an extra five minutes after the introductory session to talk to your potential new teacher and get a better understanding how you will be spending class time. Will you have to write a lot of papers? Group projects? Lectures? Know what works best for you and search for the perfect fit.

Any extra effort you put into finding the right class and teacher combo will be returned to you ten-fold. You’ll get better grades, work less hard, and learn a whole lot more. Just don’t take Calculus at 8 AM – unless you’re into that sort of thing.

Jul 7, 2009

Calling All Online Students

Online course usage is growing by the day. As the acceptance of this highly sought after medium expands, more and more schools are rushing to implement online aspects to their curriculum. The latest study from the Department of Education is sure to fan these flames even further, giving online proponents weighty evidence to back their case. But what exactly is this document saying?

The ninety-four pages puts forth quite a lot of data, but there are some very important aspects to consider before declaring online education as superior. First, it describes courses that integrate in-class instruction with online elements (a “blended” model) to be the most effective when compared to wholly online or strictly face-to-face models. However, the study goes on to state that these blended courses that exhibited superiority “differed in terms of time spent, curriculum and pedagogy.” (page xvii). Clearly, it is how these elements are used that matters the most.

Earlier, the study reports “online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control of their interactions with media and prompting learner reflection.” (page xvi). As a student in an online course, what does this mean to you? In an earlier blog, the possibility for a student-driven curriculum was explored. Could this be the next step?

The opportunities for online courses are just now beginning to truly take shape, and the fate of education as we know it hangs in the balance. The key is to create something that allows the student to learn as effectively as possible.

So now I leave the question to you, the student. What form should this new medium take? What has worked best for you? What hasn’t worked? In what way can online education promote “control of [a learner’s] interactions with media and [prompt] learner reflection”?

The future is in your hands.