The Effective Use of Technology in Online Education

The Effective Use of Technology in Online Education

This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.

I’m nearing the ten-year anniversary of becoming the director of online education at my institution. Over that decade, I’ve had the opportunity to attend dozens of national conferences related to online and distance education, and to hear hundreds of keynote and breakout sessions on the topic of technology.

And frankly, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to listen to big-name keynoters at these conferences–especially individuals who describe themselves as technology futurists or experts in technology trends. Why is it harder? Because in my experience, most of what these experts discuss and predict doesn’t come to fruition.

I attended a national distance-learning conference a week before writing this article, and I decided to attend a session on emerging technologies in online education. (I tried to resist, but I just couldn’t help myself!) The speaker discussed holoportation, a technology I had not heard of prior to the conference.

I’m still a bit fuzzy on exactly how holoportation works, but in essence, video-capture technology creates 3D versions of people who then can be “transported” to other places to interact in real time with other individuals. That is, if they—those at the receiving site—have the appropriate technology to receive and re-create the transported image. Will this be the future of online education? The key to faculty and student engagement in online learning? If so, when and at what cost? I’m a bit skeptical, but time will tell.

Some things I’ve witnessed
Since 2007, I’ve had the opportunity to work with well over 200 faculty as they developed and taught their first online course. Not all, but many new online instructors have the misconception that an online course needs to utilize most, or at least a fair number, of the latest and greatest educational technologies available, simply because the class is online. I’ve seen countless scenarios where this has led to both faculty and students feeling overwhelmed and not having a good teaching or learning experience.

However, what I’ve been seeing over the past three-to-five years has been different. I’ve witnessed faculty being more thoughtful, reflective and intentional in the technologies they are deciding to use in their online courses. I’m not sure why this is the case. It may be related to their own experiences as online students. It may be because today, faculty often have more opportunities to receive advice, recommendations and support from instructional designers and instructional technologists. Or it may be from lessons learned in teaching prior online courses.

Another thing I’ve witnessed over the years and continue to see today is this: faculty will get exposed to a new technology, maybe while attending a conference or from a colleague at another institution; following that exposure, the faculty member decides to adopt that technology in their course, without giving much thought to whether the technology is supported by their institution. Using a technology not supported on campus then leads to frustration on the part of students if they attempt to use the technology and have nowhere to turn to for help and support should they need it—something the faculty member can’t always provide.

Technology and teaching
Does using more technology have the potential to improve teaching and learning? Yes. Does using more technology always result in improved teaching and learning? No. As you can imagine, research examining the impact of technology use and student learning is complex and mixed. Some studies show that incorporating more technology in teaching improves learning. Others studies suggest that technology use has no impact or even can have a detrimental impact on learning.

I’ve read authors who have made statements such as “Technology has greatly enhanced the efficiency and productivity of all industries, except for education.” I disagree. I do indeed think that technology use has had a positive impact on learning in a variety of ways, and one of those is by increasing access to education. Consider online education, Coursera, edX, Khan Academy, YouTube, TEDx, open educational resources, etc., and how these have improved access to educational materials for millions of people.

During the writing of this article, I had a hallway conversation with a faculty member who was teaching a course in my building—a technology-enhanced building. She was not originally scheduled to teach here, but a couple of weeks into her class, a student got sick and needed substantial medical care. The student ended up being fine, but she needed to remain at home for subsequent care. The instructor was able to make the course available to her student through the use of various technologies available in this building, and the student was able to participate from home and successfully complete the course.

In addition to improving access, technology use in online education can positively influence teacher-to-student communication (e.g., texting programs to remind students of upcoming course deadlines, virtual office hours); engagement and interaction (e.g., synchronous sessions, collaborative group projects); and an instructor’s ability to improve teaching presence in a course (e.g, participation in online discussions, creating videos related to course content). Technology is also used to help ensure academic integrity in courses as well (e.g., proctoring of online exams, plagiarism software).

Some closing thoughts
In addition to utilizing technology in the classroom, institutions have been employing technology to enhance student support services, which can also improve learning. Providing academic advising, tutoring, career counseling, personal counseling, etc. through electronic means such as Skype or secure video conferencing can help ensure that these types of support are accessible to online students.

Trying to stay on top of the dozens or even hundreds of new technologies that appear annually in the educational technology market (an approximately $8 billion-a-year industry) can be dizzying and overwhelming. Institutions should have a system in place to research, pilot and adopt new technologies for use, and this system should include students, faculty, staff and administrators.

Finally, it’s been my experience that faculty want technologies that are relatively simple to use and reliable—with an emphasis on reliable! There will always be early adopters and faculty who are heavy technology users, but I sometimes think technology decisions are based on those users, when in fact they likely represent a minority of faculty at a given institution.