After many years as an educator and administrator in elementary education, Martin LaGrow left to pursue several certifications and a career in Information Technology. After a brief stint as a network analyst, he returned to the world of education to focus his newfound enthusiasm for technology on improving residential and online academic delivery as an instructor and now an online faculty manager for Rasmussen College. Martin holds a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from St. Xavier University.
In the 1990’s, the earliest forms of online education started to take shape as organizations like CALCampus used the World Wide Web to allow students to access training modules. Interaction was minimal—courses consisted of mainly text and often students still needed to submit assignments through the mail. The first online course I took in the late 1990’s was an Algebra course. The college mailed me VHS videotapes to view, and I took a multiple question online test when I was done—nothing in the way of online instruction actually took place in the online course!
As the Internet grew and bandwidth increased, online delivery became more robust and engaging. Text-based lessons are supplemented by video content. Instructors can engage students through chat rooms, live or archived presentations, and even video conferencing. Online education has certainly come a long way, yet remnants of an earlier day remain. Assignments are still largely text-based. Student interaction is often limited to discussion forum posting. Colleges are struggling to find ways to make content more synchronous while still meeting the demands of a largely asynchronous student base. Online instruction, however, is still more influenced by its previous incarnations than it is by how people use the computer today. Even the most advanced learning environments lag far behind social interaction and gaming environments, developmentally speaking. A whole new virtual world has been created around Second Life, for example, which presently boasts over a million users, and there are more focused virtual environments built around various game franchises. In this environment, people can interact, make new friends, shop, play games, and even attend live music performances. But what can’t they do there? Earn credits toward a degree.
According to In-Stat, over $7 billion was spent on virtual goods in online gaming and social networking sites in 2010 (http://www.instat.com/press.asp?ID=2917&sku=IN1004659CM), and the trend continued into 2011. Could there not also be a niche in that market for consumers to spend money on virtual interaction that ultimately yields a tangible reward in the form of a college degree? It’s clear that it’s the increasing desire of today’s computer user to participate in virtual interaction. More and more businesses are finding ways to innovate in this space and cash in on money already flowing freely for virtual products. Why haven’t learning institutions jumped on the bandwagon? With increased competition from for-profit colleges and career training institutions, it may only be a matter of time before the virtual world becomes the next training field for college students. The technology already exists—it’s just a matter of applying it in an academic context. A simulated classroom could be the next evolution of academic delivery and interaction, with the following features already in use in the social media gaming world….
A virtual classroom that LOOKS like a classroom. Online courses are still a venue trademarked by tab and menu browsing within a frame. Today’s student is accustomed to more interactively designed environments. Want to submit an assignment? Click on the teacher’s desk. Want to see a list of videos related to this week’s content? Click on the TV. Want to see this week’s list of assignments? Click on the chalkboard. Want to ask the teacher a question? Leave a note on the door. If designed properly, the classroom can be a much more intuitive environment for even novice computer users who have already figured out how to click to plant crops, feed fish, build a house, visit neighbors, and deliver messages in similar environments.
Avatar based interaction. Virtually every social media environment (and even home gaming systems such as the Wii) offers the ability to create a virtual representation of yourself. In a virtual online classroom, students and instructors can do the same to give a visual manifestation of their presence. Interaction occurs naturally when students encounter their peers in person. Use of avatars extends the opportunity for this kind of interaction online if students can see the presence of other student or the instructor in the room at the same time. Courses that require student posts and interaction can document student interaction for instructors to consider when grading.
An avatar course ‘guide.’ Unlike other avatars in the course, the course guide is a software-based avatar that can remind students of deadlines, point them to new content, and even answer simple questions, taking the place of a searchable FAQ. This gives students the feeling of responsiveness and interaction no matter when they chose to log in to the course. The avatar can even be programmed by the instructor to give certain comments or reminders triggered by student activity.
A common course area for multiple sections. If a college is offering twenty sections of the same course online, the rooms can be linked by a commons area, where avatars from all course students and instructors could have the opportunity to interact. On a larger scale, colleges could even offer a recreation hall, student union, and lecture hall for special presentations available to all students. Offering these areas creates a larger sense of community and a greater likelihood that students will have the opportunity to ask questions and exchange ideas.
The time is ripe for a truly new learning environment. The technology is available; even commonplace. Today’s student uses the Internet differently than any previous generation. The first academic institution to develop a new learning environment that mimics the way people use the Internet today is going to have a substantial competitive advantage in the 21st century education marketplace.