Engaging students with online technology

Author: Neil Kay-Jones, Online Support & User Experience Manager

It’s not hard to imagine a world in which learning – just like working – takes place remotely. Technologies like Yuuguu are already enabling students and teachers to connect from wherever they are, providing for better attendance, less travel and – it’s been shown – a better environment for learning. Increasingly, we can see that the future of education will take place in classrooms without walls.

Online learning is a subject much debated and one in which much has been promised. But, while government-funded educational programmes have exploited the web to provide comprehensive ‘distance learning’ courses, the power of remote, real-time education is only now being explored.

Tools like Yuuguu that allow live screen sharing, desktop control-swapping, conference calling and group messaging have found an immediate home in the workplace. More effective collaboration and the reduced need for travel have proven powerful benefits. But, these new, more flexible working practices have yet to find real adoption in the education sector. Just look at the number of people studying through the Open University! These people could all benefit from using new technology such as Yuuguu.

However, the suggestions are that this is changing. Professor Larry Press, a lecturer in information systems at California State University, is just one teacher to have become excited by the potential of collaborative tools to deliver virtual classes.

As a test of their suitability – and a useful demonstration of synchronous collaboration – Press ran a class for his students held entirely remotely. With both lecturer and students remaining at home, they were able to view the teaching presentation and communicate through conference calling. The test offered surprising results about the benefits of collaborative tools for teaching.

While obvious advantages such as the greater convenience of an ‘online’ class led to greater attendance, there was evidence that learning in this way could – potentially – be more effective than in the classroom. Some students reported a greater ability to concentrate on the subject being taught, partly because their computer screens are taken up with the presentation but also because they felt themselves in a more comfortable environment and frame of mind. This sense also fostered a greater freedom to contribute.

Press is keen to understand whether these benefits would remain with larger groups of students (his test involved ten) but sees that learning in this way offers a powerful pointer to the future of education, particularly given the cost savings that could be made in  terms of providing teaching facilities.

He says: “There are many unknowns – how well does it scale in comparison with live classes?  Scaling is both a matter of technology and our ability to interact with many people.  What sorts of tools can complement screen sharing? For example, instant polls and chat-like applications where students can vote questions or comments up or down during the class session. And how does a hybrid model work in which a class takes place live in a classroom with others participating online?

“Schools are under tremendous economic pressure, and, if the technology is shown to be relatively effective and scalable, it will be widely used.”

There is a real sense that remote collaboration is becoming a common way of doing business. In fact, ‘remote working’ through technologies like instant chat and document file sharing have already become a part of our working lives. Real-time collaboration tools like Yuuguu are being adopted in a similarly pervasive way. Given the obvious benefits in terms of attendance and reduced travel (both economic and environmental), how long before the same tools are applied to the way we and future generations are taught?

We would love to hear from teachers, students and anyone involved in education of any sort on what they think of embracing new ways of teaching and learning?

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