Let me start off by saying, I am a friend and supporter of our College of Graduate and Continuing Studies. I believe in what I understand their mission to be, that is, to offer a high quality, but lower cost alternative to commercial, adult education options.
I have attended two recent discussions about instructional technology at UMW, which have raised what, in my mind at least, are some fascinating questions. What I’m about to say here may be perceived as unfair. I don’t really have a seat at the table, but I have been lurking nearby, and I think I may have something to contribute since I have over a decade of experience with electronic teaching and learning environments. I readily admit that, not being at the table, it’s likely that I am mistaken in some or all of my ideas. In any case, I am not raising these issues to criticize anyone, but rather to advance the conversation.
Part of the mission of our College of Graduate and Professional Studies is to develop blended and online course offerings. What do those terms mean? Allen, Seaman and Garrett (2007) differentiate between three types of learning environments:
• Web-facilitated Learning, where up to 30% of the course content is delivered online,
• Blended Learning, where 30 – 80% of course content is delivered online; and
• Online Learning, where more than 80% of content is delivered online.
Notice the emphasis on content delivery, which I think it is misplaced, as I explain below.
Since the beginning of our CMS review process six months ago, I have been concerned that I was unable to articulate the need a new CMS was supposed to address. Indeed, the first answer I heard when I raised the question was that the purpose of the new CMS was to replace our existing Blackboard product. That clearly begs the question. It felt to me as if everyone else knew the answer, and that I was simply ignorant, but if so why weren’t we talking about it?
At the meeting two weeks ago, I heard several people say that CGPS needs a common CMS across all courses. We were told that both faculty and students typically have full-time jobs elsewhere, so they don’t have the time or inclination to explore alternative tool sets in each course. They would rather use a common toolset; they also seemed to be suggesting that the toolset be fairly simple.
In conversation at last week’s forum, the question was raised whether we had the infrastructure to support online learning at CGPS. The response was jarring to me:
We have the infrastructure, but what we don’t have is support from the top or from DTLT. DTLT is great at what they do… Jim Groom is internationally known for his work with WordPress… but they don’t do what we (CGPS) need, specifically, training. They make occasional visits here (to CGPS) but there’s no one here permanently. (The bottom line is) after ten years (at CGPS), we still don’t have a real distance learning program.
These statements raise a number of issues in my mind. First, DTLT has assigned one full time Instructional Technology Specialist and one half-time person (a new media specialist) to CGPS. While this may not seem like much, the College of Arts and Sciences, with roughly six times the faculty, has 5.5 IT staff. That works out to approximately 25 faculty for every ITS at CGPS compared with 42 faculty for every ITS at CAS. (Additionally, CAS is short by two ITS right now, so the actual comparison is even more skewed.) One may argue that it’s appropriate for CGPS to have more IT support, but one can’t say legitimately they have none.
The learning environments described by Allen et al suggest a view of teaching as content delivery, at least that is the phrase they used. Content delivery makes me think of online versions of textbooks or other text resources, and online testing. There is nothing wrong with those things, but they’re neither cognitively demanding nor complex.
My idea of teaching and the view of most faculty I know is bigger, involving student interaction with the content (and people) to construct an understanding of what the content means. This involves reading, thinking and writing about content, and debating meanings with others in the class. In my experience you can do these things effectively with technology. And, it is this view of teaching that DTLT supports very well. DTLT is not primarily about training (or training is only a minor part of what they do), rather DTLT is about instructional design. User services is the group to talk to about training, I think.
Unless we are considering completely on-line courses (and I don’t think, for the most part that we are), the distinctions that play a central role in Allen et al are missing the point. The real questions that need to be addressed include:
• What should the course environment look like?
• How are students going to access and interact with the course materials (e.g. content)?
• How are students going to interact with the instructor and how are they going to interact with each other?
The answers will be different for different courses and that’s as it should be. It is dealing with these types of questions that DTLT is ideal for.
The emphasis to date in the CMS review has been on IT questions: What types of software (e.g. CMS), hardware (less of an issue these days), training and other support are necessary and desired (a slightly different question) to support those course environments? Until we understand the pedagogical questions, outlined in the previous paragraph, I don’t think we can correctly answer the IT questions. It’s discussion of the former that I think has been lacking, and it’s that discussion I look forward to having.