The wrong way
When I was first asked to teach an online ethics class way back in 1998, I cleverly built my online lectures the semester prior by transcribing what I said in the face-to-face classroom into text after each lecture. The result was eight-to-10-page documents (single-spaced!) for the students to read for each lecture. Somehow the students managed to read them—don't ask me how.
Of course, nobody wants to scroll through long blocks of text online. The online environment is a fundamentally visual medium. Like most teachers in those early days of online education, I thought that I could simply do a brain dump from my head to the heads of the students using text as the medium.
But my bigger mistake was to still work within the face-to-face paradigm. Nearly all new technology is first viewed through the prism of the old technology, and it takes a while to learn the unique environment of the new technology.
The first television shows came along when the dominant broadcast medium was radio. Radio shows would be broadcast from theaters with people reading scripts standing in front of microphones banging coconuts together to make galloping sounds. Think Prairie Home Companion.
The first television shows merely put a camera in the audience and broadcast what was on stage, still with people reading scripts and banging coconuts together. They were still working within the radio paradigm. It took them a while to realize that television was a fundamentally visual medium and to switch to acting and real horses.
Unfortunately, much of higher education is still stuck in the “Online Learning 1.0” stage. Some of the more enlightened teachers have at least advanced to voice over PowerPoint, but many are just showing slides of bullet points—which is the worst way to use PowerPoint in either a face-to-face or an online environment. That's just broadcasting your notes.
PowerPoint should be used to amplify your message with imagery. Take a look at a TED talk, documentary, or newscast. Are you simply watching bullet points with voice? Of course not.
The right way
The private sector figured out that the online environment is a fundamentally visual medium and is now producing education and training specifically tailored to that medium with what is sometimes called “rapid e-learning development software.” Systems such as Articulate Storyline, Adobe Captivate, and SoftChalk can now allow us to reach Online Learning 2.0.
These systems are built on a fundamentally visual rather than a text-based starting point. They create presentations that combine sound with imagery, including photos, animations, video, etc. The audio and visuals together create the learning experience.
You might argue that this can be done in PowerPoint, but it is much more limited and difficult in PowerPoint, and the quality is much lower. For instance, there is no easy way to sync your narration with imagery and movement in PowerPoint, which will rapidly drive you batty if you have a lot going on.
Plus, real learning requires the learner to engage the material every 15 or 20 minutes in order to move it from their short-term to their long-term memory. The traditional college lecture does not allow for this, and as a result studies have shown that the traditional lecture is a remarkably ineffective way to learn.
Rapid e-learning development programs allow you to break presentations into snippets of any length (four to six minutes is ideal for learning) and to add various interactions along the way. These could be quizzes and also kinetic activities such as moving elements into the correct order, exploring concepts through click-and-open interactions, etc. The software opens a wide range of ways to engage the content and reflect on it that were not previously possible.
Time for an example
For instance, I created an online module that taught math in different base systems, such as base 2 (binary) and base 16 (hexadecimal). Being able to translate between base 10, 2, and 16 systems is needed for certain types of telecommunications work. The system allowed me to show that the next generation of Internet addressing uses hexadecimal notation because it's actually much easier to translate between binary and hexadecimal than between decimal (base 10) and either of the other two systems. I demonstrated this counterintuitive fact by lining up the binary and hexadecimal counting systems on the screen and having different color arrows appear at different points on the number line to show how they sync up. This is hard to explain unless you see it.
I also included practices along the way that had the students translate between the systems. While the users were given feedback about whether their answers were right or wrong and were able to keep trying until they got it right, these self-tests were not graded.
It's been proven that frequent nongraded computer assessments generate better learning than large graded assessments because they remove the pressure of motivation-sapping punishment for failure. My son first learned math on a computer program that kindly told him to redo it every time he got it wrong. He was never discouraged—just motivated to keep doing it until he got it right. Higher education needs to include more of this thinking in its teaching.
Right now, Articulate Storyline, SoftChalk, and Adobe Captivate are the major players in the market. Adobe seems best suited to creating tutorials on processes, such as showing how to enter information in a database. Storyline is a very powerful general-purpose system with a broad range of uses. SoftChalk is cheaper than the other two but has slightly less functionality. It also has an online repository of higher education examples to look at, though unfortunately these seem to be mostly text and voice and so are not good models. Higher education is even trying to use these systems themselves within the old paradigm.
Take a look at the example below and consider how you might use a system like this to create rich content that takes advantage of the online medium.
John Orlando has spent 15 years in online education, mostly learning by trial and error. He helped develop and lead online learning programs at the University of Vermont and Norwich University and has taught faculty how to teach online as well as to use technology in their face-to-face teaching.
This is the first in a new feature in Online Classroom on the latest approaches that are taking us to Online Learning 2.0.