Online Learning: A Universe of Opportunities

online learningThis week I’m blogging from The Sloan Consortium’s 19th Annual Conference on Online Learning. The event’s theme is “Online Learning: A Universe of Opportunities” and it is my goal to share as many of the event’s learning opportunities with you as possible!

Serving more than 2,000 onsite attendees and 1,500 virtual attendees, the Sloan conference focuses on learning programs and technologies relevant for higher education, K-12, business and industry, government, and non-profit organizations.

During the conference I’ll update this post with my wrap-up of each day’s activities, highlighting take-aways for online students and instructors, and creating a list of helpful resources. You can also connect with the conference backchannel via social media using the #aln13 hashtag (a nod to the consortium’s Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks).

Wednesday, November 20 – The Student Experience

The focus today seemed to be on students as multiple session presenters, vendor presentations, and networking conversations addressed the online learner’s perspective.

  • Expectations of instructors: George Veletsianos from Royal Roads University, Canada, shared his findings from a study of learner experiences with open courses and MOOCs. Students identified “needs for improved instructional design” in their courses, citing issues such as lengthy videos. These learners also shared a preference for “instructor presence” over “instructor responsiveness.” Online instructors, how are you establishing a presence in your current courses?
  • Connections with campus: A growing number of traditional, campus-based institutions are offering degree programs that are delivered completely online. Heather Chakiris from Penn State World Campus shared the many ways in which the school’s distance learners say, “We are Penn Staters, too!” Through opportunities like a student division of the alumni association, athletic events (home and away), and live streamed speakers series with Google Hangout integration, online students can participate in on campus events. Is your online program affiliated with a physical campus? Check out the non-academic resources available in addition to courses and support services.
  • Students and course design: During my own presentation about measuring quality in online courses, attendees asked about how students might be invited to participate as part of the teams that design and develop online courses, or committees that make decisions about online programs, at their institutions. Students, how would you like to be included in this process?
  • Gaining access: The day’s final presentation was the keynote session with Hal Plotkin, Senior Policy Advisor from the U.S. Department of Education. Plotkin shared his story of gaining access to higher education and the opportunities it made possible. He also addressed the increasingly critical role of online and technology-enabled learning in the development of educational and training initiatives that will allow tomorrow’s students to explore their “talents and capacities,” especially as they relate to employment and careers. What does online access to education mean to you?

Thursday, November 21 – Diversity of Students and Faculty

The term online learning covers a wide range of education and training experiences, ranging from MOOCs and lifelong learning, to degree programs and professional development. The sessions I attended today emphasized the diversity of emerging online programs, as well as the students and faculty.

  • Massive and global: Daphne Koller, a founder of Coursera, presented Thursday’s general session “The Online Revolution: Learning without Limits.” This platform for Massive Open Online Courses continues to grow with more than 5 million students and 500 courses. Students can choose to participate in classes offering everything from lectures to labs in more than 20 disciplines, and in 12 languages. And the learners are participating from all corners of the globe, even Antarctica. How diverse are your courses?
  • Faculty support: Not every online program has thousands of students. Donna Liljegren shared her experience of coordinating faculty development at a small institution, one with a traditional campus as well as new online programs that serve around 250 online students. Faculty members can be as new to online teaching as their students are to online learning. Just as students are encouraged to prepare for the experience, instructors can do the same through training that helps them explore the tools available, understand the expectations of their new roles, and encourages them to experiment. How can you support new online instructors in your program?
  • Student demographics: Online students are often juggling so much more than their course work. Many of the American Public University System’s (APUS) students are actively serving in the military. APUS’s Wallace Boston and Phil Ice shared their research on student demographics as predictors of student success. This presentation included a description of the many personal, circumstantial, and institutional variables that can impact online program completion. How do you stay motivated to continue in your courses?

Friday, November 22 – New Frontiers

While Daphne Koller from Coursera used the term new frontiers in her presentation on Thursday, it resonated throughout the rest of the conference and came to mind again in the final general session. Anant Agarwal, President of edX, shared his ideas about “Reinventing Education,” which addressed not only MOOC students, but the possibilities for other formats and learners as online education continues to evolve in terms of:

  • Re/defining types of online learners: Agarwal described trends seen by the edX initiative that include “students as educational tourists.” The concept was also part of the APUS session yesterday that mentioned student “shoppers” as students who enroll with various interests to try it out, with no immediate goals for completing a program or even a course. This has been my own previous experience as a MOOC student. These students find some benefits in their learning, but challenge the standard ways in which we “count” students and determine they have been “successful.”
  • Implementation and access: EdX is a non-profit organization with a mission related to increasing access to “expand access to education for everyone, enhance teaching and learning on campus and online, and advance teaching and learning through research.” Watch reports coming from edX and its partners for more information about how online courses are and can be delivered. Agarwal noted that the open source edX platform has also been adopted for large-scale use in China, France, and the Arab region, expanding both access and opportunities for research.
  • Online and on campus learning: In addition to offering close to 100 online courses on its own, edX currently partners with more than 25 colleges and universities. This is part of the organization’s mission to improve campus-based education, taking the MOOCs and their materials into the classrooms as supplemental content. Students can interact with extra practice exercises, review recorded explanations of complex concepts, and then ask questions of their face-to-face instructors. MOOCs can in this way serve as “next generation textbooks.”
  • “It’s all a big experiment.” With this statement Agarwal described how edX approaches its work, learning from successes and failures with improved learner experience as the overall goal. This was also an underlying theme of The Sloan Consortium’s conference, as presenters and attendees shared through formal sessions and informal conversations what they are doing at their institutions and in their online and on campus classrooms.

The conference is now over, but the conversations continue thanks to the collaborative atmosphere fostered by The Sloan Consortium and conference sponsors, organizers, presenters, vendors, and attendees!

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