“Can you post that online, please?” That’s the question more and more academics hear every day from their students. Actually, it’s more of a demand than a request, according to Donna Jones, Ed.D., an academic solutions engineer for Blackboard, Inc. , a company that provides Web-based learning systems, including course management programs, to universities and corporations.
“Today’s college students are ‘millennials,’” Jones said. “They’re really the first digital or Web generation of the twenty-first century. They grew up with the Internet and are light-years ahead of their professors when it comes to understanding and using technology. And they’re insistent about integrating the Internet into their educational experience.”
In her current position, Jones works as a pedagogical expert and assists higher education institutions in determining the best teaching and learning uses for Blackboard software programs. Although Blackboard has many experts who understand the technical aspects of the software, academic solutions engineers like Jones help institutions understand how to develop effective uses of the software to teach in the unique environment of the distance-learning classroom.
Because she comes from academia and has a background in instructional systems design – creating special environments using the right technologies in the distance environment – Jones is an ideal liaison between institutions and her company’s software developers and sales team. “My MIS background gives me an advanced understanding of the systems development cycle, terminology, and use of technology in general,” Jones continued. “I have daily contact with our customers so I understand the market; plus, I teach with the software as well. Our software developers look to me and my teammates for a better understanding of how we can adapt to our clients’ changing needs and the latest instructional technology trends.”
As recently as four or five years ago, Web-based learning tools were a hard sell, according to Jones. Now, the majority of the country’s universities use some type of online learning tools. “Faculty who once resisted teaching online become real advocates once they see how easy it is to post support documents and interact with students via the Internet,” Jones said.
Continuous access to course documents is just the tip of the online learning and teaching iceberg. Advanced technology tools, like those offered by Blackboard, and Internet access enable professors to facilitate classes online; students can engage in synchronous group discussions, join real-time chats, listen to a lecture, and ask questions all from the convenience of their home, dorm, office, or even coffee shop. Teachers are able to conduct surveys, post practice exams, and save enormous amounts of time while a computer tabulates the results, grades the test, and provides immediate feedback.
Aside from some obvious timesaving benefits, online learning and teaching change the dynamics of a class. Students and faculty agree: There is often increased collaboration and interaction among students and teachers. Classmates aren’t left out because of work, family obligations, or illness. Multiple formats appeal to different learning styles. Online discussions offer a voice to those too shy to speak up in class. Chats can be harmonious or highly spirited, and because distance learning students may live literally anywhere in the world, new perspectives can emerge.
Jones, who earned her doctorate in Instructional Technology and Distance Education in 2004 from The Fischler College of Education and Human Services while living in southwest Kansas, is passionate about distance learning.
“If it weren’t for Nova’s distance program, I would have had to relocate, because the only institution offering a doctorate degree I was interested in was six hours from my home,” Jones said. “I conducted most of my coursework online, and spent approximately one week a semester on-site in Fort Lauderdale.
“My classmates were from around the country, Canada, and Puerto Rico. We were actually more involved with each other as students than I ever had been in any of my previous face-to-face classes. We connected via e-mail, synchronous discussions, activity chats, and group work. The course management systems offered by Blackboard facilitated our collaboration. Even though I’ve been out of the program almost three years, I’m still in touch with many of my classmates. We’ve become good friends. “
Jones also recalls, “Years ago there was some snobbery associated with online degrees. People’s perceptions were that they just weren’t equivalent to those earned in the more traditional face-to-face setting. At one time, that view may have had merit, but thankfully, that is changing. Today, most academics recognize that distance courses are as rigorous as on-site classes, if not more so, because more development and instructional design goes into them. Gone are the days when you can just walk into a classroom and lecture. Now you have to think about how to get your point across at a distance using interactive media. And that includes both the instructor’s and the student’s responsibility to the group as a whole.”
Strictly online classes are morphing into hybrid courses, which represent the fastest growing area in distance learning today. For example, students might conduct the majority of their coursework online using Web-based collaborative tools, then meet in person for the balance. Almost every subject lends itself to Internet learning, which can be delivered with a rich media mix of everything from movies and narrated PowerPoint presentations to interactive lectures, thereby reinforcing the industry mantra: the more animated, the better.
As a result of her own experiences, Jones considers herself an evangelist for distance learning. In 2005, she started a grass roots movement after discovering the Iowa Communications Network (ICN), which has the only state-owned fiber infrastructure in the nation, was denying access to the state’s businesses and industries. “The way the laws stand now, only educational institutions can use the ICN, leaving 67 percent of the bandwidth available,” Jones said. “Through our efforts, the ICN is slowly looking at other delivery mechanisms to help increase capacity and do what is right for the state of Iowa. Some applications under consideration include on-demand video service, ICN end points in business and industry facilities for training, and disaster recovery in case of business interruption.”
The technology that facilitates online learning helps open doors for nontraditional students – those working full-time, those with families, those with disabilities – by giving them access to a learning environment they wouldn’t easily have. It provides increased educational opportunities to millions without substantially increasing institutional budgets. There’s no doubt that 18- to 22-year-olds benefit from the experience of going away to college. However, distance learning has lifelong applications. It enhances culture, the arts, keeps people connected, and helps workers improve their skills. It’s an exciting alternative that, thanks to technology, is changing the course of education. And it’s here to stay.