The Real Challenge of Virtual Learning

The Real Challenge of Virtual Learning
President Susan Aldridge of University of Maryland University College (UMUC) delivered this keynote address, titled “Putting Quality First: The Real Challenge of Virtual Learning” and delivered in the Maryland Distance Learning Association Conference. Towson, Maryland.

No doubt about it. Technology has quickly and completely transformed the way we
think about and deliver higher education. In fact, with the advent of e-learning, we
have created almost unlimited access to academic opportunity, by transcending the
barriers of time and space.

Today, students everywhere are trading the campus for the computer…logging on to
classes at all hours of the day…exchanging emails with their professors well into the
night…and connecting with classmates worldwide whenever and wherever the need

Technology has also fueled a radically different knowledge culture. One that
promotes learning as an ongoing pursuit — rather than a diploma-driven activity —
which serves as the underpinning for individual growth and fulfilment; employability
and adaptability; global citizenship and social inclusion.

So in reorganizing our educational systems and strategies to support this new
mindset, we have begun to think in terms of continuums and communities. And in
doing so, we are moving away from the traditional stovepipe paradigm to embrace a
more contemporary pipeline model, which relies heavily on distance learning.

Rather than operating in isolation of one another, academic institutions are now
harnessing the promise of technology with the power of teamwork to move learners
seamlessly through an extensive channel of undergraduate, graduate, and professional
development programs…on-the-job training and personal enrichment.

Yet while we have succeeded in using technology to automate the learning process,
we are still discovering the many unique learning opportunities it affords. Indeed, as it evolves, technology provides far more than a platform from which to teach. It
offers an extraordinary tool through which to learn…enabling us to move beyond
course management and delivery, to engage both our students and our faculty in
active, collaborative, and authentic knowledge creation.

That said, going virtual is about so much more than just choosing e-learning
platforms and converting coursework. The real challenge lies in not merely
replicating, but rather greatly improving upon the face to face learning experience.

And with that in mind, distance educators must put quality first in everything they
do…from creating a powerful learning environment…to facilitating a vibrant
learning community…to ensuring effective learning outcomes.

What’s more, we must never confuse digital comfort with digital proficiency…or
assume that technology will ever replace good teaching. Therefore, we will need to
view it as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

As institutions of higher education, tasked with preparing creative and competent 21st
century knowledge leaders, we must help our students cultivate the very skills they
will need to succeed in today’s rapidly changing global economy….with its focus on
information and knowledge….connectivity and communication. Skills that have
always been difficult for learners to acquire on their own.

The capacity to discover and disseminate relevant information, along with the
judgment to ensure its reliability and the knack for synthesizing it across multiple
modalities. The ability to apply new knowledge, while also negotiating across
disciplines and cultures to generate innovative solutions to real-world problems.
To be sure, this task will require a fundamental philosophical shift in the way we, as
distance educators, choose our technologies, design our courses, develop our learning
activities, and identify our outcomes.

It will mean moving away from teacher-directed pedagogy to embrace a far more
learner-centric approach…responding more effectively to what students need to learn,
rather than offering only what faculties want to teach. It will also mean creating
classrooms around learning rather than instruction…by enabling students and faculty
to meet, connect, and collaborate at will.

But in using distance technologies to enhance any learning environment, we must
also be prepared to measure the impact of our efforts….by assessing every aspect of
the student’s learning experience. From acquired knowledge to applied skills; selfconcept
to world view; learning styles to learning attitudes.

What’s more, this assessment will need to be ongoing, outcomes-based; multidimensional,
and well-integrated, with clearly articulated learning standards and
objectives, along with frequent opportunities for students to perform and prompt
feedback around that performance.

Over time, the Web has become both an unending fountain of information and a
universal medium of communication. In the process, we have begun to see the act of
learning as far more than simply transferring information from teacher to student.
Instead, technology has paved the way for dynamic participation…in which we may
cultivate new ways of thinking and doing, through active discovery and
discussion….experimentation and reflection.

And not a moment too soon! As educators, we know that the ideal learning
environment is customized to meet students where they are, both experientially and
dispositionally…while at the same time constructive and collaborative, in that it
empowers them to create meaningful knowledge and develop new forms of

The ideal environment also provides students with plenty of opportunities to amplify,
clarify, and effectively use what they know within the context of real-world
situations. So rather than simply learning about physics, students experience what it
actually means to be a physicist.

And finally, the ideal learning environment inspires students to learn beyond the
requirements we impose.

Therefore, in assessing the capacity of any distance education technology to facilitate
an ideal learning environment, there are at least four questions we should always ask
and answer.

Does it pave the way for authentic learning experiences with ample and ongoing
interaction – student-to-student, student-to-faculty, and student-to-content?

Does it combine problem-based instruction — which involves analyzing and
synthesizing information — with knowledge-based instruction that relies more
heavily on recall, comprehension, and application?

Does it accommodate for differences in language, cultural tradition, ability, age,
learning style, and even available equipment?

And finally, does it embed mechanisms with which to accurately and continuously
measure learner response?

Perhaps our greatest challenge lies in educating the so-called Digital Native
generation. Those students born after 1982….and who are now rapidly emerging
onto the higher education scene.

Having spent their entire lives consuming everything that digital technology has to
offer, these natives rely on laptops and the Internet for information…on video games
and YouTube for entertainment…and on cell phones and instant messaging for

The statistics are indeed staggering, according to e-learning expert Marc Prensky.
More than 10,000 hours playing videogames….over 200,000 emails and instant
messages sent and received….some 10,000 hours in cell phone time….and another
20,000 hours sitting in front of the TV….all before these kids ever leave for college.
Now stack that up against maybe, at the very most, only about 5,000 hours spent
reading books.

These technologies offer a truly panoramic window to the world. A recent study
published by Educause reports that of 800,000 school-aged children surveyed in the
United States, some 23 percent report using the Internet to connect with others across
the country, with another 17 percent moving out around the world. It comes as no
surprise then that their inner circle includes a significant number of friends they’ve
never even met face-to-face.

On average, today’s tech-savvy youth carries 94 numbers in his cell; 78 names on a
messenger buddy list; and another 86 within a social networking community. The
digital natives among us also — in their words — regularly “poke” one another….by
blogging, sending messages, or posting photos on MySpace, Facebook, and Bebo.

In addition, they spend hours living in virtual worlds and online gaming
communities…where they create avatars and assume pseudonyms to play with other
gamers…in literally every corner of the globe. Additionally, they use the Web as
more than just an information receiver….but rather as an ever-expanding gateway to
collaboration and commentary.

Consequently, a significant number of our incoming students not only expect — but,
in fact, demand — a learning environment that is simultaneously engaging,
participatory, sensory-rich, and experiential…and prefer to learn by doing than by
hearing or reading about it.

That said, they use terms like “power down” to describe what they must do to
participate in the conventional face to face learning environment….with its lengthy lectures and tell-test instruction. So in meeting their demands, we will need to
reinvent many of our standard teaching practices.

Take the ubiquitous lecture hall, for example… undergraduate staple in such
introductory courses as psychology, sociology, physics, and economics.

As educators, most of us cut our teeth on the large lecture format…which involves
many students straining to stay awake as one teacher engages in a monologue of
sorts…for upwards of fifty minutes or sometimes longer.

Now while this technique is certainly economical, it is hardly effective or
empowering. For starters, the lecture method is passive, rather than active….teacherdirected
rather than learner-led….rote, rather than receptive….and single, rather than

With few, if any, meaningful opportunities for audience participation or individual
clarification, there is no real way of gauging the lecture’s impact on student learning.

And even when the teacher is a charismatic speaker or extremely adept at using visual
aids, it’s difficult at best to keep a room full of minds from wandering.

For their part, students take whatever notes they can….memorize what they need for
the exam…and once that’s over, forget most, if not all, of what they’ve heard.
Consequently, undergraduate courses we have always considered to be building
blocks of future knowledge are, for the most part, failing to produce the outcomes we

Now at the very least, we might incorporate podcast technology to improve these
outcomes….using audio, video, and graphic elements to upload lecture content into a
format that students can plug and play, anywhere, at anytime.

But even better, why not take that same material and use it to create a highly
interactive and multi-sensory video game. One that not only exploits the tremendous
potential of technology and fulfills the student’s need for profound digital
engagement…but also builds upon previous knowledge and accommodates for
individual learning preferences.

Indeed, these virtual communities are remarkable anytime, anywhere tools for
enabling students and teachers alike to connect and collaborate. At the same time,
they may access and exchange relevant information, while also improving specific
skills AND developing individual abilities….in a way that is easily transferable
beyond the learning environment and into the real world.

We can even design the game to yield all sorts of useful assessment data….from a
student’s demographic profile……to her progress in achieving stated learning
objectives……to the relative ease with which she participates in the learning

In essence then, by incorporating a popular digital pastime, we have greatly improved
upon a largely unpopular face to face instructional tradition. And in the process,
provided our students with an ideal learning experience…which engages both the
mind and the body in a process that is constructive and cooperative; immersive and
interpretive; analytical and applicable.

Interestingly enough, this strategy is quickly taking hold….in even the most
traditional institutions. Dartmouth College, for example, has developed one such
virtual environment to train community emergency response teams…while Harvard
University recently inaugurated River City to help public health professionals identify
the root source of a highly infectious disease, along with a scenario for containing it.

Remote access technology offers yet another extraordinary way to learn by doing.
My own university’s network systems and security laboratory is a perfect example.

In looking for something more sophisticated than the traditional animation or
simulation lab to support its information assurance program, UMUC settled on a
remote access environment….a quantum leap, educationally speaking. In fact, this
new technology — which operates without broadband connection — affords our
students a unique opportunity to truly experiment from a distance, using actual handson,
real-time applications.

And in the process, they learn how to develop and implement access lists; conduct
configuration management; balance traffic loads; and perform other network security
functions — entirely online — using state-of-the-art hardware and software systems
from such industry icons as Cisco, Oracle, Microsoft, and Computer Associates.
Needless to say, this lab represents the ultimate “win-win.” UMUC students gain
real-world experience with cutting-edge technologies and applications, while the
workforce benefits from hiring graduates who bring this experience with them.

Colleges and universities — with or without well-developed virtual campuses — are
also adopting social networking technologies to enhance the learning
experience…particularly for distance courses that in the face to face world have
always relied on dialogue, debate, and documentation.

Even the most basic social networking tool offers an exceptionally flexible and costeffective
communications platform….potentially linking thousands of learners….within an environment that allows for both asynchronous and real-time
connection. And in doing so, engaging students in active learning, while also
promoting important skills, and facilitating continuous assessment.

For example, blogging enables students to share and evaluate information and ideas,
while also learning to read and write more effectively. From the teacher’s
perspective, it provides an ongoing record of work from which to measure student
progress. What’s more, students who are more or less “invisible” in the face to face
classroom actually flourish in the blogosphere, as they become increasingly more
proficient as communicators and collaborators.

Given these advantages, teachers at every level are using blogs for a wide range of
learning tasks….from creating digital journals and personal portfolios to coordinating
group projects and maintaining discussion boards.

Moreover, this one-to-many technology makes it possible for us to build easily
expandable, online communities of practice…connecting students and faculty
members from various institutions and organizations….to create new knowledge,
share information, and engage in cooperative problem-solving.
In fact, communities such as these are quickly becoming virtual greenhouses for new
ideas and inventive solutions, while also encouraging a sense of joint enterprise and
professional identity.

Although less popular in academic settings, wikis are gradually emerging as
fundamental networking tools. As such, they provide an openly accessible digital
workspace in which any group of co-producers may generate, synthesize, and assess
subject-specific knowledge. Under this scenario the wiki originator begins with an
initial draft…which is then read, edited, and rewritten by subsequent visitors…who
may also publish new articles and create pages of their own.

These spaces can support virtually any size effort…from a small-group class
project….to a worldwide, mega-document, such as Wikipedia. And given that wikis
are open, collaborative, and asynchronous, contributors are free to build upon one
another’s work…frequently assuming specific roles based upon individual strengths
and styles. For example, one group might check for accuracy and grammar…while
another cleans up the structure and adds new pages.

Although the digital native generation is inspiring distance educators everywhere to
push the technology envelope…we must, in fact, credit their adult counterparts — or
the so-called digital immigrants — for fueling the online learning revolution.

In fact, nearly half of all American college students are busy working adults, for
whom the school day begins once the evening rush hour is over. So they need all the
help they can get in the form of flexible academic options that transcend the
sometimes overwhelming barriers of time and place.

Now while these adult learners may not be quite as tech-savvy as their children, they
are certainly, for the most part, knowledgeable digital consumers….who have come
to depend on the Web for everything from email to e-shopping. So in addition to
accessible coursework, they expect us to provide them with the same customer
service they receive from any other online vendor.

As distance educators, it is our obligation to put quality student support on par with
quality academic programming….ensuring that every service we provide on campus
is also furnished online.

At UMUC, we have made world-class student service one of our top
priorities….combining digital technology with 24-hour, 360-degree system support,
to deliver everything from class registration, tuition payment, and financial aid…to
placement testing, academic advisory, and, most recently, transfer credit evaluations.

By joining forces with Hershey Software Systems, UMUC has succeeded in
automating its enrollment management process….drastically reducing the time it
takes to evaluate transfer credit portfolios…and, therefore, saving both our students
and the university untold dollars and countless hours. In fact, by uploading transfer
information electronically, we can provide our students with a credit “balance
statement” in only a fraction of the time it once took to complete the process by
hand…from months to within days.

And given that a university’s library is the heart of its learning enterprise, we have
also taken ours online…having now built a vast repository of electronic library
resources…which includes more than 100 databases, many of which furnish full-text
versions of journal and newspaper articles.

Moreover, we have reference librarians on duty around the clock to assist students by
e-mail; chat room; or telephone….while also obtaining copyright permissions for our
faculty members….and digitizing selected books and articles for them to use in the

Of course, any high-quality academic experience begins with good teaching. But
given that technology-enhanced instruction places very different demands on both
students and faculty, we cannot simply migrate our tricks of the face-to-face teaching trade into the distance learning environment. So we have also put technology to work
for our faculty in developing UMUC’s Center for Teaching and Learning — or CTL.

This center provides online access to an abundance of professional development
resources, in a variety of formats….along with structured training workshops and
peer mentoring opportunities. We have also embedded a Faculty Media Lab, which
brings faculty members, course designers, and distance education coordinators
together online to create innovative audio, video, and graphic e-learning

I think it’s safe to say that distance learning is not just a passing fancy….but rather a
permanent – albeit ever-evolving – dimension of today’s higher education landscape.
At the very least, digital technology paves the way for greatly expanded access to
lifelong learning. But even more significantly, it is transforming the very nature and
purpose of what we do as educators.

Unlike previous generations — with their focus on course delivery and learning
objects — next generation technologies emphasize connections and context. As such,
they support learning as a process, rather than an outcome…and promote selfefficacy,
rather than factual recall. They also provide us with tremendous flexibility
when it comes to integrating formal with informal learning.

So given where we are in our distance education trajectory…and where our students
will most likely want us to go…what will a quality learning environment look like as
we enter the next decade?

Obviously, when it comes to technology development, the range of possibilities is
relatively unlimited….making it difficult at best for us to wholly envision the learning
spaces of tomorrow. However, I do believe that we will begin to move beyond
institutionally centered and controlled learning management systems…to embrace a
more user-focused approach, such as the rapidly emerging personal learning
environment — or PLE.

PLEs provide learners with a unique digital interface through which to integrate
personal and professional interests around formal and informal learning. They also
create a personal portfolio in which to organize, store, and share knowledge acquired
over time.

This new approach to distance learning is certainly far less cumbersome and
restrictive than the current one….thereby enabling students not only to exercise
greater control over their own learning…but also to respond more quickly to
changing technology. It also supports the growing digital culture of connection and collaboration, while at the same time unleashing a virtual bazaar of learning

But aside from their many advantages, personal learning environments will
undoubtedly present a variety of challenges for higher education
institutions…particularly with respect to intellectual property, academic
accreditation, and faculty roles and responsibilities.

Therefore, in balancing the use of next generation technology, against both student
need and our own institutional objectives, we must carefully nurture its
potential….through effective partnerships and true pipelines for innovation with other
like-minded, public and private institutions and organizations.

By collectively researching, evaluating, and sharing promising practices and policies,
I believe that we can promote an even more empowering and effective distance
learning culture and environment. One of mutual support and shared
responsibility…in which quality is and always will be the benchmark for everything
we do.