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The Open, Social, Participatory Future of Online Learning

George Veletsian

Madison, Wis. — Educators from around the country are gathering here this week to trade ideas at the 26th Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning. One expert they’ll hear from is George Veletsianos, an assistant professor of instructional technology at the University of Texas at Austin who edited the new book Emerging Technologies in Distance Education. Wired Campus caught up with Mr. Veletsianos to get his take on the state of online education.

Q. What are the biggest technology struggles right now for online learners and teachers?

A. Unfamiliarity with the technology, for one. Instructors don’t know what’s available and how they can use it. Then unfamiliarity with online learning and what it can truly afford. Usually, the average instructor has heard horror stories about online learning being the poor cousin of face-to-face learning—which is unfortunate, because new technologies allow opportunities for enhanced interaction and enhanced pedagogies. And then the amount of time that the instructors need to launch an online class—and the extent to which that is valued from the university. For instance, if there’s no incentives to teach an online class. Or if you’re at an institution that perceives face to face as being the best mode of teaching, then you’re not encouraged actively to go figure out how to teach online.

Q. How do you think online education will look in 10 or 20 years?

A. I think we’ll see more collaborative endeavors in online-learning offerings. For example, students taking courses from multiple universities and bundling them together to create a degree. It will be more social than what it has been. New technologies are moving that way. The rise of social networking, Web 2.0, and the participatory Web: At the center is the social interaction between individuals. It will get appropriated in the higher-education system. Right now most courses that are based on content-management systems are not focused on interaction between participants. They’re focused on, let’s put together this weekly module, and then that’s where the experience happens. The student goes there to read about the weekly module. I think the future is where the center is the student, and the people comprising this online learning community. The student and the community are collaborating on the content. Right now, you might take a class and you might never meet the other students.

Q. You teach about “the participatory Web.” What impact do you see this phenomenon having on online learning?

A. It’s no longer possible for universities to be offering distance-education courses that are isolationsist or individualistic when people’s experiences outside of the university are social and connected. The massive open online course offered by George Siemens and Stephen Downes is an example where learning was based on the idea of people forming connections between them and supporting each other in their personal learning with regard to the topic that was being studied. It was basically an open course. And there were, I think, 2,000 people signed up. There were central locations where these people could meet. But then they could all form their own little mini-communities within the course.

Q. Do you really see much technology innovation in online courses? A recent report from Eduventures found that despite the buzz about Web 2.0, online programs are still dominated by rudimentary, text-based technology.

A. You have to talk about different groups of people. I deal with early adopters, in some ways. If we’re talking about the general scene in online learning, yeah, I would agree that there is not much innovation going on. I’m more hopeful than what I was two years ago. Partly because the narrative of online learning is gaining more and more acceptance. And partly because there’s pockets of innovation at all sorts of places.

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