Reflections on the History of Online Learning

[ Music ]>>I’ve been teaching in
the classroom for 30 years. I’ve always enjoyed that. But I was burning out. My practice had been to try
to change my hat every five or ten years just to keep
interested in the game. So I’d spent a few years as
the head of the department. I’d spent a few years
basically doing research with some colleagues. All the while teaching,
teaching, teaching. But when this internet
academy thing came along, and the SUNY Learning
Network that was in infancy, and Eric Fredericksen came to
our college and said, you know, there’s this thing called the
internet, and we’re trying to figure out a way to use
it to help students learn. At that time I happened to be doing two-way
video with high schools. And I said, you know, that’s like the next level
of absentee teaching. And I can get out of the
classroom a little bit if I try this. So I tried it. And it turned out that
it was opening my eyes to this new possibility that
students can really learn in an environment where I’m
not in charge of it altogether. They’re in charge of it. So I became very
interested in it. And honestly I went to the
president of the college, and I said, you know, I
think this is an opportunity for the college to
attract new students. And he said well, I’m
going to give you a year, and you do what you can do. And if you’re successful,
then we’ll get into it in a bigger way. And so I did. I got some faculty members
together who agreed to do it. And it was successful. And they got excited about it. And it just sort of
mushroomed from there on. The rest is history.>>I started in 1997
with the Empire State Partnerships Project. So we did faculty
development online. We were one of three
statewide projects that BBN GTE Regional
Technology Labs was conducting to see how people would
use the web for education. So we did an arts and
integration statewide project with NYSCA, NYFA, State
Ed., Monroe and BOCES. One of the big, one of
those federal grants that was the 21st
Century grants. So it was new web,
very primitive. I had an interesting
situation happen. I was doing a presentation
at Hudson Valley on Wednesday on gamification and badging. And the faculty member that I
was working with had questions. We were sharing a GoogleDoc. So it’s 11 o’clock
at night, I’m in bed, and I’m on my phone editing
a Google slide presentation with a faculty member. I don’t know why we’re
both up at that hour. And I suddenly had a flashback
to 1997 on a landline, in bed, in Troy, talking to
someone in Buffalo about no, you can’t open the
web browser and Word with that little memory. So open it up, get that on
your clipboard, you know, I’m like talking someone
through the screen that I was imagining in my head. Because it wasn’t
enough memory for them to actually compose
something and keep that window open while
they’re copying and pasting it into the web discussion board. You know, it, that’s
a huge, in ten years. I mean that’s huge. That right now I’m on my
phone making a presentation.>>There were technical
problems. We were in modems. Wide band was rare. Not very many students had
personal computers at that time. There weren’t smartphones
to use. IPads had not been invented yet. So the technical issues were
availability and accessibility to the technology, the
basic equipment needed to study online. Also, there was a
lot of skepticism about its effectiveness. A lot of, you know, the
stereotype, the English or the Philosophy students
can’t learn this way. They need the wisdom of
the scholar to guide them through this material. And it’s not going to
work on the internet. So there was that skepticism. But what combatted the
skepticism was the success of those who tried it. And at one point there
was a union issue. This is going to put teachers
out of work, you know, and the head of our unions said
we’ve got to fight against this. I said well, before you fight against it, why don’t
you try it. So I had the head of the
union teach an online course, and it was very successful. And it showed that no,
this is going to open up employment opportunities,
not restrict them. And that has become at my
college we used to look for teachers for online courses. And now we have to turn away
those who are requesting because we have all
that we need. So it’s become a real part of
our culture to teach online.>>Faculty perceptions in online
learning have really changed a lot over the last 15 years. We used to have, when we first
started out, there was a lot of concern over can I do
the same sorts of things? Can I really make
students learn? Can I really measure
what they’re doing? And I think now there’s
less of a focus on can we, and more of a focus
on how do we. So I think it really is
starting to become accepted by faculty a little bit more. And as more faculty
do web-enhanced things and as the learning management
system and, for good or bad, publisher sites and tools
become more widely accepted and more readily
available to faculty, I think it is becoming less
of a, is it even possible sort of an idea to more
of a, you know, okay how do I actually
make this work? Nuts and bolts. What is my routine
going to look like?>>Well I’ve seen it change
from sort of an emerging field that was really doing
pretty much the same thing that was happening face to face, to a field that’s more
interesting and more concerned with actually getting
students active. We’ve seen more use of group
projects and more interaction, peer to peer interaction. We’ve seen better
designed courses. And we’ve seen the
public acceptance of online learning grow as well. So it used to be that people
doubted whether subject X could be taught online. And now it’s pretty clear that
you can teach anything face to face, anything online that
you can teach face to face. And that the quality is,
with adult learners at least, it’s been proven is
at least as good. So we’ve seen a growing
acceptance, and therefore, more and more faculty
moving into it.>>In all the time that
I’ve been teaching, since 2000, a lot has changed. We didn’t have any
textbook companies that were interested
in providing content. And now the textbook
companies feel that they can provide
a whole course for you. I’m not sure I agree
with that, but… I’m sure I don’t agree
with that actually. Let me be quite honest
about that. I don’t believe they can. But that’s a challenge for
instructional designers working with faculty that we didn’t
have in the beginning. Every, all content was yours. The number of tools out there
on the web that you can drag into your class now, that
you can send students out to, have increased a hundred fold. There’s so much more out
there for faculty to use. Just, you know, acceptance
of online learning as a thing you can actually do and that’s valid has
grown quite a bit. Administrators at colleges were
not interested in it except as possibly, you know,
revenue generating. And a lot of faculty were
very resistant to it. There are still pockets of
that, but most people understand that it is valid as
a way of learning and that it can be a big part of a student’s educational
experience now.>>We started online in 1997, and one of our main challenges
was to convince both faculty and administration that
online was legitimate and that it could be as
good as the classroom. In the decade that
followed, it became clear that in some ways online
was as good as or better than classroom learning
activities. And so now most administrators
that I have come into contact with have come around
to that belief. That, you know, properly
designed courses work whether the environment is
face to face or online or some combination of the two. So it’s not so much that one
approach or the other is better, it’s that they’re both good
if they’re done properly.>>People say that 70,000 years
ago we had this change somehow where we started to
be able to communicate and remember amongst 50
people, maybe 150 people. And that’s where the sapiens
started to really come on. When you look at recorded
history, and you look at somebody like Julius
Caesar, or Cicero, you know, 2000 years ago in
the Roman Republic. When they wanted to go
and learn something, they went looking for a mentor. And in this case is Apollonius
on the Island of Rhodes. This one guy they go to go see. Because that relationship
between somebody who is really great at something in them was what they
were looking for, a way they could find
one person to share with. And we’re talking about a
really small scale of learning, a couple of people who
are recognized as masters. And we look historically at
the sort of learning people. They’re all like that,
right, like Confucius, right. We’ve got these single people who are masters that
we learn from. But we don’t have
a lot of records. Like nobody knows
what Apollonius said to Cicero or Caesar. We don’t know, right. But we do have some of them. When you look forward
about 1500 years when Aristotle gets
rediscovered in the west. We have a record of what
the great person said, but no interaction. So then learning, instead of
being something to a very, very small few with one
expert, becomes the study of an expert from
really far away. There’s a real change
there in terms of what learning looks like. So instead of it
being an engaged or fluid complex discussion, it becomes everybody
studying one thing. And in that particular case, in the Aristotle rediscovery
case, it’s listening. So there’s one guy at the front of the room who’s got an
incredibly precious record of what Aristotle said, and
he chants it out to people. People are, the only way
they’re going to leave the room with it is to put it in
their heads and remember it. So learning in that case
becomes a memorization process. And it becomes sort of an interrogation
from far away, right. So you’re looking
into Aristotle, but he’s not there
to talk about it. And this is the thing
that Socrates said, right. As soon as you write
something down, it can’t defend itself anymore. You change the process
of knowledge exchange. When we go forward another
couple hundred years and start talking about,
a guy like Pestalozzi, who is my personal
educational hero, who wanted to teach an
entire country how to read. So you can’t do that with
a text from Aristotle. You can’t just hand
Aristotle out to people. And you can’t send one guy all around to teach people
this stuff. So what he did is he tried to
take the process of learning and basic arithmetic, pardon me,
reading and basic arithmetic, and writing, and he tried
to codify it so that anybody who could do the barest amount of reading could walk someone
else through the process. Atomize it to the
tiniest little bit. And he’s famous for saying,
maybe not famous enough for saying, that a textbook is
only good whenever its teacher is simply a machine that
the book is using, right. So the teaching is just a
process of flipping pages. Something that some of us
still recognize today, right. But at that time, the
technology available to him, what was possible to him,
and his specific goal which was trying to get
a whole country to read, the country of Switzerland. It was the best approach
possible. But then learning is not
interrogating a text. It’s not talking to a mentor. It’s following a step by step
process, set up by somebody, or a group of somebodies from
far away, with somebody else in front of you who may not
even understand what’s there, walking you through
that process. And you can see us stepping
further and further away from the human that had this
knowledge to begin with. One of the great things that’s
happened now is that all of a sudden that
connection can come back. So for those of us, I
mean digital divide aside, there’s some really
important issue around. People having access
to the internet and having the basic
literacies to be able to use it. But for those, there’s still a
vastly larger number of people who have access to
some of this stuff. And then also have access
to real people again. So instead of having to plan
for a textbook six months ahead of time and scrape it all
together and cut down trees, whatever we need to do, at a
given time somebody can reach out and find something out. And I mean in ten years
we’ve already forgotten that life wasn’t
always like this. That I can reach up and grab
my phone and find out that, you know, when the
Boxer Rebellion was. Because I always forget. I know it’s in China. But where and when
I always forget. But beep, beep, beep, beep,
beep, and it comes up. And we’ve forgotten that
that wasn’t possible. But our education
system is still designed for when it wasn’t, right. Because so much of what
we do is collect content and hand it to people. And when I look at,
you know, and again, I come from both ends here. I got the open learning
stuff and all the crazy stuff that I do online, and then
I have the responsibilities that I have at the university. And when I talk to people about
the labor market, and they say, well we need people who
are ready to do jobs. And I say okay, so you’re
saying that in order for that to happen, you would like
me to turn the university into the college from
20 years ago and pump out people who have jobs. Yet, at the same time,
equivalent research is saying that they want creativity. They want communication skills. And they want these things. And none of these things
say they want accountants. Not that we don’t
want accountants. Accountants are lovely people. But what they want
are those skills that Caesar went to
Molon for, right. That ability to convince
the Senate that you should totally let
me go to Gaul for five years and do all kinds of
crazy things there, even though you know
it’s a bad idea, right. And those skills, those soft
skills, we can still do that. And we can do it in ways now through on the fly
and sort of… I have a great professor
at my university. I was talking to her yesterday. And we’ve been talking on and
on for the last year and a half. And I wrote her a blog post about a year ago essentially
saying you can give up your curriculum. All you need is a syllabus. If you have a syllabus, and
then you let the students build that curriculum. She teaches a perfect, it’s
a perfect course for it. She does case studies
in marketing. So she sends out a
challenge to the students. They go and gather
from all over the web, and then they do that online. And then when they come back
to class, all they, she does, she doesn’t actually
go through the content. She goes through the
meta conversation. Why did you pick that? Did you see this piece
when you gathered that piece of information? Oh wow, you put those
two pieces together. That’s really crafty. Because those are
the actual literacies that those students need. They don’t need to remember the
name of that marketing approach or the whatever, anything
that you would test on a multiple choice test. They need all of these
surrounding skills. All of that stuff that the
labor market is saying they want that can’t be taught from a
textbook, that can’t be learned by rote, that’s not about
a step by step process. Because whereas to scale
that basics learning that they were talking about
having happened in Switzerland, that textbook approach
is a really pragmatic one for doing that. For simple processes. If you want to scale complexity,
every one of those students who walks in the door is
coming in in a different place. And we’re not trying
to put them into a box. We’re trying to get
them from that place to a better place for them. And those paths aren’t
going to be the same. And I think that if we can look at the availability
of those connections. In a lot of cases those
connections are still text. Some cases, those
connections are still people, are actually people. And the availability of, well
the similarity of that world to the world that
they’ll get when they get out into the real
world, so-called, then what we’re teaching them
to do is we’re teaching them that soft expertise, we’re given
them that experience of going through the process of becoming
embedded in a world of knowing. Whether that’s about
philosophy, or whether that’s about marketing or whatever
it is, in a way that’s going to be far more similar to whatever it is they
want to do to achieve. I don’t care if they’re
artists or whatever it is, but it becomes far more similar, and it answers the
labor market issue in terms of the soft skills. And then we need to push
back on this other thing, which is really anachronistic
request to solve this problem with 20 year old skills. So to me when you take that
historical view, when you look at that sort of connection
and mentorship connection, you look at what happens
when print comes in and how we start to revere it. You look at the way that
developed to the textbook and how we got a rote
approach to learning for practical reasons
at the time. But then what we can
do now, if we can look at that what we do now,
in light of the challenges that are facing higher
ed, I think we end up with a far more
valuable experience for students that come in. And we have much
better arguments for why higher ed matters. And that really at the end of
the day is what’s important to me is that I think
that us coming together with the young people in our
culture and saying you know, you can think better than you
do now, is really important. But if we live in a world right
now that’s making very Randian like numbers-based arguments for
why we should have a university. If we can’t count the
salary they’re getting six months after. If we’re making those arguments, that’s the world
that we live in. And we need really
coherent arguments for why that approach is anachronistic. And I think the historical thing
does a really good job of that. [ Music ]

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