Trey Martindale knows teaching technologies that help create inspirational learning environments. A professor of instructional design and technology at the University of Memphis, Dr. Martindale tracks and describes e-learning advancements on his blog, Teachable.org. His non-profit Instructional Design and Technology Studio provides graduate students an opportunity to develop online curriculum for real world clients. I interviewed him about the latest developments in online learning.
Q. Does technology ever distance you from your students?
A. Is there transactional distance created with this intermediary of the web, email, or the telephone? Yes, but I am having real learning conversations with students just as I would in person. My relational connection with online students is as strong, or stronger, as with my face-to-face students, except that we don't have the experience of breathing the same air in the same room.
Q. Your courses meticulously align information and activities with specific objectives. Is there room for poetry in distance education?
A. I like a master chef analogy. Once you really know and understand the basic recipe, you can deviate from the cookbook and intuitively add a dash of this and that. You know who the customers are, what you're creating, and why. And if you are asked, you can explain your decisions.
Q. So, instructional design tolerates whimsy?
A. Designers certainly should! But creative expression doesn't just happen. Creativity can and should be taught. Before course management systems (CMSs) took over the known online learning world, I was creating courses with HTML. My courses were a lot more creative and visually engaging. Now when I use a CMS course template, the end product is less interesting to me. I'm trying to reclaim design elements from ten years ago when I had a more open, less constrained design landscape.
Q. CMSs are clunky?
A. Ten years ago they were nowhere. Now, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a CMS. They reflect the power relationships we reinforce: the instructor is in control and the learner is put in his or her place, managed. It's not just a name. Students are like cruise ship tourists, trapped in the lame excursion itineraries of smarmy cruise directors. Sorry, you didn't want the filtered interview, right? CMSs are like a planned gated community where not much surprising happens.
Q. Few teachers have the time or inclination to hand-code a course or module. What other choices do teachers have? What else can they turn to?
A. Use your CMS for what it is good for, managing documents and storing grades. Then look for opportunities to open your course (and students) to the wider world. Blogs and wikis are a good start. I have two new instructional design resources that I want to share. One is Abbey Brown [full disclosure: Dr. Brown and the writer are professors at the same university] and Timothy D. Green's new book, The Essentials of Instructional Design. Also, Allie Carr-Chellman at Penn State has written a new book called Instructional Design for Teachers.
Q. If teachers avoid CMSs and cobble together multiple technologies to create a course or module, students spend too much time learning the tools at the expense of content.
A. Right. Students shouldn't have to learn the instrumentation of all those different systems at the institution's convenience. Technologies should be like email. I can use the email application of my choice, and it handles email just fine, regardless of where the message came from, and what app was used to send it. That's where our learning future is going. Each student will know how to operate his or her personal learning environment (PLE), and that PLE will interact with resources and inputs from all kinds of sources. We don't own these students. By using a PLE, students can manage courses and content from different institutions under a single interface.
Q. In your downloadable [pdf] chapter in George Veletsiano's Emerging Technologies In Distance Education (2010), you write, "The PLE gives the learner control over his or her own learning process." Pretty great stuff.
A. It's a floor wax and a desert topping.
Q. Where do we find PLEs?
A. There are people working in this area, mostly in Canada and Europe it seems. Graham Attwell, Scott Leslie, Scott Wilson, and Stephen Downes?he's a leading thinker in open and personal learning.
Q. Teachers might be interested in who you follow on RSS to stay current.
A. The New Media Consortium, for one. Also, Bryan Alexander. And Gardner Campbell?a thoughtful English educator?really gets the integration of technology and instruction. David Wiley, Tony Karer, Tom Kulhmann, Terry Anderson, George Siemens. Check out Open High School of Utah, a virtual school unlike any other in the country. It uses open-source curriculum and real-time data analytics--intelligent tutoring [note: based on Dr. Martindale's suggestion, I interviewed OHSU for an upcoming blog]. A bunch of folks here at the University of Memphis are also working on intelligent tutoring systems. I'd keep on eye on this, in general.
Q. And the future of online education?
A. It's getting a bad rap because of the diploma mills, and because of poorly designed courses. We need to get past this phase before people view online education, by default, as less valuable than face-to-face.