Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Harvard goes online. Other universities should take note

The question is no longer whether distance learning is as good as face to face learning. That question has been answered long ago (see the Sloan Reports for more on that topic.) The focus of the question has switched to how much better can we make distance learning courses? In the past, the term distance learning, was associated with one dimensional correspondence courses in which lectures were videotaped and course materials were mailed to students. Now, distance learning describes a new level of learning in which technologies are integrated to facilitate richer online learning environments. In fact, distance technologies have transformed our face to face learning environments in a major way. Now, lectures are videotaped and streamed to students immediately along with course materials and communication tools for immediate engagement with content, students, and instructors.

Distance learning is simply the way people learn in today's information age. Harvard is the newest high-profile university to harness these distance technologies in collaboration with ITUNES U. They currently have 1 entire course on ITUNES titled, "Understanding Computers and the Internet", however, Harvard's ITUNES model is a bit different than other universities. Except for their one completely online course, Harvard is using ITUNES to let potential students simply get a taste of their online courses. The latest press release from Harvard, states "Each 10- to 15-minute long video introduction gives the viewer a virtual taste of the Harvard classroom and the opportunity to experience Harvard Extension School distance education. Audio of each complete two-hour introductory lecture is also available for downloading." One can access the ITUNES version of the course at http://itunes.extension.harvard.edu/, however, for those that do not have ITUNES, one can access an alternate version of the course online at http://computerscience1.org/

This course is a good example of using technology to create and distribute knowledge, however, one crucial component that is missing from the ITUNES model is the virtual space needed for discussion. The strength of online education is combing multimedia (text, images, audio, and video) with points of interaction via asynchronous and synchronous communication. There is no doubt that Harvard's online materials available are excellent, however, I would like to see them build a community using online communication tools such as discussion boards, text messaging, and audio/video apps such as skype and google talk. Maybe that is part of the Harvard Extension online school experience. Either way, it is important to make the distinction between online courses and online materials. The Harvard course website states, " This course is all about understanding..." In my humble opinion, unless communication and interaction is a key component to the learning environment, one should not call it an online course. Other than that, it is one of the best resources for course materials I have come across on the net.

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