Today’s immersive virtual learning environments are a far cry from the online learning environments of the past. They have progressed beyond chat rooms and instant messaging—beyond even podcasts and MP3 downloads—to include video streams, wikis, and telepresence. Today’s technology has taken at least some of the “distance” out of “distance education,” says Tracey Wilen-Daugenti, director of the Higher Education Practice in the International Business Services Group at Cisco Systems.
Since earning her master’s and doctorate in business administration, Wilen-Daugenti has studied the use of technology in higher education and is now a visiting scholar in e-learning at Stanford University in California. In her recent book .edu: Technology and Learning Environments in Higher Education, Wilen-Daugenti discusses how schools can use technology to create new kinds of learning environments that incorporate greater levels of geographically distributed communication and collaboration.
“The lines are blurring between distance learning and face-to-face,” she says. “These technologies are solving the problem that distance learning has always had—they’re closing the gap between people, creating a sense of presence and community.”
These trends have sparked the creation of a new profession: educational technology. IT experts who enter this field are trained to help professors assimilate new media into their courses. “It’s an emergent field,” says Tucker Harding, an educational technologist with the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CNMTL) at Columbia University in New York. “Educational technology is more than instructional design. It’s crossing over into curriculum development, where we’re concerned with identifying what actually contributes to the improvement of teaching and learning.”
If business schools want to learn how to use technology to design new, more collaborative educational experiences for their students, say Harding and Wilen-Daugenti, they don’t have to look far. They can just watch how corporations are using Web 2.0 applications and video collaboration tools to connect their own workforces. As these technologies continue to infiltrate the corporate environment, most companies won’t just hope that business schools assimilate these tools in their teaching—they’ll expect them to. That growing expectation promises to place new pressures on business educators to push ahead, try new approaches, and prepare students for the technological realities they’ll face in the years ahead.
Tech Tools to Try
Business educators can now choose from an ever-expanding range of applications that have any number of possibilities for the classroom. Some next-generation communication and collaboration tools are available from companies like Cisco, Oracle, Microsoft, and Apple. Other tools—often with similar capabilities—are available on the Internet for free.
Web conferencing and telepresence. Live Web conferencing has been taken to the next level with new high-definition video conferencing systems. Products such as Polycom’s RealPresence and Cisco’s TelePresence are becoming increasingly popular among businesses. Telepresence allows individuals to meet at a realistic-looking “conference table,” even if they’re half a world apart. “These systems create very realistic face-to-face interaction,” says Wilen-Daugenti. “It seems like you’re sitting across the table from each other. You can hear a soda can open and see each other’s facial expressions.” Telepresence systems can help business schools connect to students, faculty, guest speakers, and experts, without the cost of travel.
Using Adobe Connect, Columbia University’s Center for New Media Teaching and Learning held its Global Classroom (above), a live Web discussion that brought together more than 1,000 students and faculty from ten schools worldwide.
Online gaming. Students also can participate in a variety of multiplayer virtual games targeted to business. For example, Animedia’s Big Biz Tycoon is available for the PC. LavaMind.com offers a suite of business and strategy simulation games, including Zapitalism!, Profitania, and Gazillionaire.
Collaboration software. Companies like Google and Cisco have developed suites of collaboration tools that support blogs, wikis, mash-ups, calendars, and e-mail, as well as shared documents and spreadsheets. Google offers online collaboration work applications such as Google Docs and Spreadsheets, Google Video, and Google Talk, all of which allow users to share information over a secure connection. Cisco’s WebEx WebOffice also allows users to create shared online workspaces.
“By creating a Twitter feed, a professor can keep a dialogue going with his students through their mobile devices.”
—Tracey Wilen-Daugenti, Stanford University
YouTube, Skype, Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter. The same popular Web sites that allow users to share images, video, and messages can be used to link students and other stakeholders of the business school, whether they’re in their homes or on the move.
“Mobile learning is taking off, and business schools are using PDAs to deliver just-in-time learning. That emulates what’s happening in the corporate world,” says Wilen-Daugenti. Students can use tools like Skype to connect online via video phone calls. They can use Twitter to share links or short, quick text messages—or “tweets”—back and forth. “By creating a Twitter feed, a professor can keep a dialogue going with his students through their mobile devices,” she says.
A Time to Experiment
Educational technologists at the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning are just beginning to understand the implications, consequences, and potential of new media technologies. The only way to develop best practices is to design learning experiences, set them in motion, and see what works and what doesn’t, says Harding.
One of CNMTL’s most ambitious experiments, the Global Classroom, was launched in January 2008. Described as an online “super site” at ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/globalclassroom, the Global Classroom focuses on sustainable development and features a variety of relevant resources, which students use to prepare for weekly live, interactive Web-based discussions. During each discussion, students can type in and send their questions. As the presenter speaks, he can read the questions and choose which ones to answer.
To make the Global Classroom work, CNMTL uses Adobe Connect, a program that allows people to communicate via online messages and even see each other as the video lecture is broadcast. During its first run, the class connected more than 1,000 students from ten universities.
The Center spent a year preparing for the program’s launch; it began its second offering of online courses in September 2008. “It’s challenging to get everyone coordinated and choose times that accommodate all the different time zones—we don’t want people to have to get up at four in the morning to attend the lecture,” says Harding. Some participating schools also have had bandwidth problems because they didn’t have the infrastructure in place. To reach these areas, the CNMTL broadcasts the audio of the lecture over a land line via conference call. That way, if the bandwidth fails, students will still be able to hear and participate.
There is still a long way to go before online experiences can match the capabilities of face-to-face instruction, says Harding. But a virtual classroom offers something that the traditional physical classroom cannot—truly global reach. Using online technologies, educators can bring hundreds, even thousands, of people from different backgrounds together to engage in a common, live discourse. They can work together to solve problems, Harding says.
“With the Global Consortium, someone working in Latin America is in the same course as someone working in Africa’s Millennium Village.”
—Tucker Harding, Columbia University
“Using these tools is about more than just convenience,” he says. “We want students to feel as if they are all part of a single classroom. With something like the Global Classroom, someone working in Latin America is in the same course as someone working in Africa’s Millennium Village. They don’t just talk to each other about obstacles they faced in the past; they can talk about the obstacles they faced that very day.”
A Worldwide Conversation
Harding and Wilen-Daugenti agree that no matter which tools faculty choose to bring into the classroom, they will need solid tech support to use them effectively, whether it’s from a student helper or a full-blown tech-support office. But they add that it’s even more important that faculty shift the way they think about technology.
“Once class starts, so many professors tell students, ‘Close the laptops, turn off the wireless.’ But that’s because they haven’t changed their pedagogy,” Wilen-Daugenti argues. “Instead, they could integrate these devices into the classroom by having students Google concepts or share ideas. If students are instant messaging with the professor, they’ll be less inclined to be instant messaging with someone else.”
New tools for virtual and collaborative learning also can help professors craft richer experiences for students, inside and outside the classroom. They can build learning communities that include more people, over greater distances, with a wider range of experiences. When educators bring that kind of collective knowledge to a problem, Harding says, they can increase a student’s understanding of that problem tenfold.
“If we can find ways to include more students in these conversations, we can address their problems in a more systematic way,” he adds. “Everyone’s understanding of the challenges we face, all over the world, can be improved.” Such worldwide conversations give virtual learning great potential not just to teach, he emphasizes, but to improve the human condition. That fact alone makes it a mode of delivery worth exploring to the fullest.
Raymond Smith is currently the associate dean of executive education at the University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business in Columbia. He formerly served as associate dean of executive education at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in Durham, North Carolina.