The Online Education Year in Review

This year's Online Education Year-In-Review comes to us via Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois Springfield and long-time thought leader on distance education. I recently spoke with Ray about emerging areas in distance education over the past year, and he provided four that he sees as taking off today.

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This year's Online Education Year-In-Review comes to us via Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois Springfield and long-time thought leader on distance education. I recently spoke with Ray about emerging areas in distance education over the past year, and he provided four that he sees as taking off today. Augmented reality (AR) refers to digital content added to a cell phone or tablet's screen when its camera is used at a certain location. Either the spot is geotagged with content that an app picks up and adds to the view, such as when Pokémon Go pulls up animated creatures based on the user's location, or the image in the camera is added to a database that the app picks up and overlays with content. The latter has been used with class projects that involve students creating posters which, when viewed through a cellphone with an AR app, overlays a video or other content about the poster topic on the viewer's screen. Ray notes that while “augmented reality came into the general public view with Pokémon Go earlier this year, it has actually been around for a long time in guiding museum tours, laboratory orientations, and more.” A number of museums have tagged their displays with supplemental information that is pulled up with an AR app. We ran an article in the September 2015 issue of Online Classroom on how Thomas Cochrane from Auckland University of Technology had students create AR tours of Auckland. Students superimposed old images of historic buildings over the current ones so that people could get a sense of how the city has changed. The system worked so well that the project was adopted by the Auckland City Council as a tourist information guide. I can see this process being used in a number of different class activities. Civil engineering faculty could assign students to research buildings, bridges, and other structures in their city and create AR content about their engineering properties. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I received my PhD, students in a history class could create tours of the 1960s protest movement using important campus locations. A student could superimpose a photo of Sterling Hall after it was bombed over the current building, along with a description of the event. Similarly, someone standing on top of Bascom Hill could watch a video of protesters being tear gassed by National Guardsmen at the location to get the sense of what the scene was like 50 years earlier. Being at the actual location while getting historical content provides an educational experience that is not possible when looking at webpages from home. Art students could create tours of the campus museum that both apply course concepts and enhance a visitor's experience. If you are interested in exploring these projects for your own classes, two good apps for making AR content are Aurasma (https://www.auganix.org/hud/aurasma) and Wikitude (www.wikitude.com). Virtual reality is another topic that we covered this past year in the May and December issues. New apps and content are being created daily for use in the classroom. One of the more interesting developments involves the ability of people to interact remotely with one another live in their own spaces. Microsoft Hololens projects a 3-D hologram of the other user into the person's own location, allowing those two people to talk with one another as if they were in the same room. This would be a great way to bring distributed online learners together in live events. The system can also project stored interactive holograms in a user's location, so that, for example, medical students can walk around a 3-D body and pull out different parts to examine. Imagine what this means for allowing students to explore objects in other parts of the world. Computer assisted teaching. This past year, Georgia Tech computing professor Ashok Goel taught an online course with over 300 students. The students posted over 10,000 forum messages, many involving routine questions. To handle them, Goel's graduate students created “Jill Watson,” a software program using IBM's open source system that would respond to discussion forum questions that it could handle. The students never knew that the responses were being posted by a computer. See a discussion of the experiment at www.news.gatech.edu/2016/05/09/artificial-intelligence-course-creates-ai-teaching-assistant. The BI Norwegian Business School is using a similar program to handle chat in its classes as well (http://bit.ly/2hBBhQG). This signals the application of artificial intelligence in teaching, and Ray asks what it means for the role of the instructor in future online courses. The program trained itself by finding commonalities between questions and, thus, could be used in any online course to answer simple administrative questions about assignments, the syllabus, and so on. That would reduce the time commitment for faculty teaching online courses, freeing them up to spend more time in personal interactions with students on more meaty course issues. Computer assisted teaching has also been applied to adaptive learning, which provides personalized education by giving each student a course of study based on his or her own knowledge and skills. Education has been dipping its toes into the adaptive learning waters for some time now, and you will find an article on one interesting application of it in our March 2016 issue. There is still a big up-front time investment in programming the assessments and the learning paths based on them, and maintaining overall course coherence when students are being given different portions of course content has been an issue, but more and more faculty are looking to adaptive learning to provide personalization of more rote elements of online learning, once again freeing faculty up to engage students on higher-level issues. The education ledger. One interesting advance uses the technology that supports Bitcoins—electronic currency that can be used as real currency at over one hundred thousand locations. Bitcoins are supported by blockchain software, which addresses the security problem by distributing information about transactions and accounts across thousands of computers in the world rather than in one location. MIT applied the same principle to storing information about an individual's education by releasing an open source program that uses blockchain technology to track academic credentials.  Education providers can submit a student's completion of a course, certificate, degree, or any program directly to an electronic ledger that the student controls, one that the student can show to potential employers or anyone else. So far it sounds like just a way of saving people from having to order transcripts, but moving the information to the person from the institution allows for the possibility of adding nonstandard forms of learning to the ledger. For instance, someone might complete a MOOC in C++ programming from Coursera, and after passing an exam at the end, Coursera submits a certificate of completion directly to that person's ledger. He or she can then show the ledger to an employer to demonstrate proficiency in C++. The same might be true of a one-day workshop on Excel that someone takes through a training company. Someone might also watch a sequence of YouTube videos on a topic, such as how to use Final Cut video editing software, and by successfully completing assessments after each video receive a certificate. One discussion about such ledgers suggests a future where people would acquire education in a variety of ways, such as listening to an audiobook while driving to work and completing an exam about it afterwards. A ledger-based education system could diminish control of education by traditional institutions and redistribute it to a variety of public and private organizations, with people acquiring the knowledge that they need when they need it, rather than years earlier in a degree program. Of course, employers would still need to make a judgment about whether to accept a nonacademic credential. After all, the value of a college is not that it is a storehouse of information, as all of its information is available in some format elsewhere, but in its ability to certify learning. I can imagine that employers would accept nonacademic forms of learning if they find that employees with them perform as well as those with an academic credential. Ray believes that the technology could also lead to customized degree programs where individuals cobble together education from different institutions and even nonacademic work to satisfy degree requirements. In that case, I wonder if that could lead to degrees without issuing institutions, because content is drawn together from a wide array of sources. Does it make sense to claim to have a degree in marketing from Syracuse if Syracuse only provided 10 percent of the education? Perhaps regional or professional accreditation agencies will start certifying degrees. For more information on these topics, visit Ray's website at: https://sites.google.com/site/emergingonlinetech/