Choosing the Right Technology to Support Online Learning

It still feels like summer outside my window today, but I know schools are back in action and the traditional end of summer for me—that first school bell—has already rung across much of the nation. I hope the summer has been relaxing and productive for you. Yes, productive, because I find my downtime is the time when my creative juices seem to get going and I come up with some of my wildest ideas, some of which actually work! My students never knew what hit them in September after I had a little time of my own.

This summer, to get those juices started, I was able to attend the ISTE Conference in Denver. It’s the largest educational technology conference in our country and recently went through a name change from the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) to one synonymous with its sponsoring organization. There is always so much to see and do, but because of this Tech Tips article, I tried to find a few good stories to share about language acquisition. And I do hope to share some of those…later, because one of my wild ideas this summer was to enter the world of being self-employed, and September came upon me much too quickly.

It’s Not the Technology that Matters

An often-repeated mantra in educational technology is that “It’s not whether you use technology that matters, but how you use it.” I tend to use that a lot, but I can’t take credit for it. It became a guiding principle in a textbook I co-authored on using educational technology, and I find myself saying it to the graduate students I work with in my new online teaching gig, and with the classroom teachers I work with in school districts that actually took me up on my offer of help.

It’s now also become the focus of a chapter I’ve been working on for a new book about online professional development. This is why September seemed to come upon me too quickly, because there’s a big deadline looming at the end of it. I hope you will bear with me and let me share some of the things I have been thinking about as I prepare for that deadline.

I actually stumbled into online learning more than a decade ago without really meaning to and now actually have a good bit of experience, especially with designing and delivering online professional development for educators. One question I get a lot is, “What technology should we use?” I have to admit, that working on that chapter seemed pretty daunting, because there are so many different technologies available and I felt a little overwhelmed. We always seem to get so bogged down in the technology, and it’s changing all the time. It’s hard to keep up. Then I remembered that mantra. It’s not about the technology. I needed to take my own advice.

How Will You Use the Technology?

By thinking how to use the technology for online learning instead of the technology itself, it became much easier to focus my thoughts on what technology to use. So, the following is a brief list of technologies, primarily to support online learning but that would work in hybrid situations, as well, that I have organized by the how, not the what. Because of space, this isn’t the whole list, and there’s not a lot of specifics, but I hope there are some kernels of interest that you can take away. Some of these, perhaps, deserve a full article of tips and tricks, so please let me know if you want to hear more about any of them in future issues.

Presenting basic information via text and images

A lot of online learning gets panned as simply being a “textbook online.” There are two consistent requests for online learning, that it be 1) engaging, and 2) interactive. We have television and movies on demand, simulations and animations online, and we can go bowling in our living room with a Wii video game. But there’s a lot of learning that occurs using text and images. Remember books? I’ve learned a lot from books, and still do. I find some books to be really engaging. Text and images are a staple learning resource.

If you don’t have George Lucas’s budget, you can still make online learning engaging with text and images. If your content is engaging, students will interact with it. If you’re content is not engaging, it doesn’t matter how pretty it is. Text and images are good for complex information or when you have a lot of information that people need to spend time with and review. Common learning activities include reading research and literature and synthesizing that information, and text often works very well for that purpose.

If you run your own web site, now you don’t have to know how to program in HTML (the primary programming language for the web) to post text and images, but can rely on easy-to-use blogs, wikis, and course management systems. Keep the amount of text on those screens brief, and attach documents you’ve created in word-processing or presentation software for longer segments of text, which for me, is anything more than a page.

Demonstrating a process, sequence, or procedure

Once you move into the realm of skill building, you might want to demonstrate some kind of action or sequence. Action implies motion and that’s where web-based technologies can really help you out, even some very common technologies you probably have access to right now.

Presentation software (like PowerPoint or Keynote) is a great starting point for capturing and demonstrating process. You can record and insert audio, include navigation buttons and hyperlinks, and package the presentations for downloading or viewing on the Web. PowerPoint may be a little more malleable, because you can import it into additional applications to create animations or movies.

Flash is an animation application that is probably the de facto tool for movies and animations on the web, but it can take some time to learn. You can, however, import PowerPoint into Flash and speed the process up. There are also some powerful, and admittedly more expensive, applications like Articulate’s Presenter and Adobe’s Captivate that use PowerPoint files to create robust, standalone Flash presentations with audio that come in their own little course shell. The benefit of using these kinds of tools is that content experts often own and know how to use PowerPoint, and you just need one person with the know-how to make it something extremely “engaging and interactive” on the Web.

I get a lot of requests about making and putting video on the web, and it is very helpful, but it’s expensive and time consuming, even with the less expensive digital videocameras available now and free editing tools like iMovie or MovieMaker. Consider whether you actually need video, or whether you can use a video-like sequence. Talking head? No video! Instead, you can import royalty-free still images into PowerPoint, GarageBand, or MovieMaker, add an audio track, and still have a powerful learning experience that you can post as Flash or a podcast.

Hosting asynchronous interactions

We do this all the time through text, audio, and video. Asynchronous just means that people don’t participate in something at the same time. You probably do this already through e-mail and social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace. While language acquisition certainly requires synchronous interactions, the benefit of asynchronous interactions is that it gives people the gift of time. They can be flexible in their learning.

Threaded discussions between teachers and students are common in most online learning, and not only help students practice written skills but also give them time to think and process information. A blog might be considered an extrapolation of a threaded discussion if you use it to allow students to comment on postings. Blogs are also helpful for students who want to create an online portfolio of their learning or who use dialog journals in conversations with their language teachers.

Hosting synchronous interactions

As I said, there are times where you and your students need to communicate at the same time. One of those is chat, but I find chat to be most valuable when it is embedded in a different application, like webconferencing software. These tools, like Adobe Connect or Horizon Wimba, usually include interactive whiteboards, support for presentations and document sharing, polling and surveys, webcams, and chat. This is one of those technologies that probably deserves an article on it’s own, but I have two suggestions (for now) about webconferencing to promote learning.

The first is, if you’re not working 1-on-1, turn off the webcam. O.K., maybe not all the time, but most of the time. I think it’s nice at the beginning of a session and maybe at the end to allow at least the teacher or presenter to use their webcam to say hello, but few people really use them well with a group. Webcam images tend to be small, grainy, and dark. If you try to get more than one person in the view, they begin to resemble stick figures—ghostly stick figures with shining eyes. Instead, create a presentation or document that supports what you are saying, and avoid the distraction of bad video.

My last suggestion is, don’t forget the phone! Everyone has one—some people have more than one. Unless you practice with your group, audio over the web on a webconference can be painful, literally ear-splittingly painful from feedback. If you do go that route, make sure everyone has a headset with a microphone. External or built-in speakers often get picked up by microphones and you get stuck in a toe-tingling experience of ever-echoing interference.

More than How

That’s a brief overview of how technology can support learning online. I hope you indulge me as that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. In upcoming issues, I hope to go beyond the how to include some stories from some great people I met at the ISTE conference. Of course, if you have any ideas or requests, please feel free to let me know.