Many students and educators are embracing the change because it frees them of the requirement that they all be physically present at the same time and location. Others are apprehensive about the loss of in-person contact or are unsure whether the technology is improving their ability to learn.
Despite the apprehension, rapid advancements in education technology are underway. Educators have a vast array of social media, online learning, and distance technology tools at their disposal to increase communication with and among students and to support individually paced learning.
Face-to-Face Communication May Become Thing of the Past
American University in Washington, D. C., serves as an example of how professors are using technology to enhance learning in their classes. About a third of AU professors are offering online and distance learning courses, and using social networking tools such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google to communicate regularly with their students. The university's Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning offers its instructors training in emerging digital media, and teaching online and hybrid classes.
AU professor Jill Klein predicts that face-to-face communication will slowly fade out as online teaching becomes more prevalent. The days of long class lectures may also be dying out, she says, noting that students easily get bored of listening to their professors and tune out quickly.
Klein, like other professors who teach online courses, posts 10-minute lectures that students can listen to at their convenience within a set time period.
"As more technology becomes available, the question is, 'what is the meaningful level of engagement we can have with students? They are looking for more than a 3-hour lecture. And we want to extend the conversation constructively,'" she says.
Klein directs the professional MBA program at AU and serves as an information technology executive in residence at the Kogod School of Business.
AU professor Amy Eisman says the term "education technology" can have several meanings.
In a recent magazine article Forbes, Chris Proulx, president and CEO of eCornell, predicts 2013 will see big growth in online education, especially in the top-tier universities. He attributes the surge in online activity over the past few years to MOOCS, or "Massive Open Online Courses." Some AU professors have already begun to offer these courses.
Virtual Communication, Social Media are Crucial Tools for Teaching
Klein says she uses a mix of online and face-to-face communication to teach her undergraduate classes, since most of the students live on campus. Her graduate classes, however, are all online, since many of the students live off campus, work in different jobs at different times of the day, and are scattered worldwide. Because of this, she relies on virtual communication, such as Collaborate, to teach her courses. Klein also holds virtual office hours, which she says allows her and her students more flexibility than scheduling face-to-face meeting.
Klein says all her graduate students are encouraged to use FaceTime to communicate. She is also considering using Skype and Google Hangout as communication tools.
Klein says she uses Google Sites to coordinate group projects. She has a master site, and every team has a page on the site. The team members can build out as many pages underneath their pages as needed. She points out that this method works very well in managing projects online.
Students Learn at Their Own Pace With Online, Distance Learning
One of the biggest advantages of technology in education is that it allows students to learn at their own pace, something that they wouldn't necessarily be able to do in a classroom setting. Professors are experimenting with a variety of technological tools to make it easier for students to do this.
Klein says she records her online lectures using Panopto (a video recording, webcasting, and content management system). Short videos such as Ted Talks, interviews, assignments, and additional readings are also posted online. Students can access the content from anywhere in the world and do the homework at their convenience over a period of a week.
Bryan Yates, professor at the Department of Psychology, says all his lectures, assignments, and tests are now online.
Yates uses the iTunesU app for the iPad to build his courses online. Through this feature, students can read books, play audio and video lectures, and take notes that are synchronized with his lectures. They can see a list of all the assignments for the course and check them off as they are completed. With his new Apple TV, Yates says he can stream his videos to his iPad and send it directly to his TV or screen projector in class.
Yates also uses innovative ways to guide his students with material he has posted online.
Education Technology Poses Benefits and Challenges for Instructors
Most professors agree that technology has added more flexibility in teaching their courses. "It has helped transcend time and space. And it has made it possible to provide branching instructions, which is guiding a student based on what they know. The traditional classroom lectures assume that everyone is learning in the same way at the same pace," says Yates.
Eisman cautions that, along with the benefits, online teaching has its challenges too.
"You need an extremely motivated student and a very motivated instructor," she says.
In her article, 8 Lessons in the Art of Teaching Journalism Online, Eisman says online teaching requires a lot of up-front work. The prep time for her online course is twice that of her face-to-face course, Eisman says. Online courses also require a blend of technical skills and theory. For example, an instructor can't just post vidoes of the lectures he gives in his face-to-face class, Eisman says.
Instructors also need to be aware that they can be faced with terrible connectivity problems with whatever technical tools they are using, Eisman says. "Know that whatever you are using today will change in six months anyway," she says.
Classroom Technology's Benefits to Students are Still Unclear
Despite some of the benefits of using education technology, there are some professors at AU who are not convinced that it is beneficial to students, such as AU professor Stef Woods.
Woods says she relies much more on social media tools to communicate with her students and less on online or distance education technology.
Woods, who teaches a course called "Contemporary American Culture" based on the "50 Shades of Gray" trilogy, serves on the AU Social Media Club Faculty Advisory Board. In 2012, she was chosen as the co-winner of the CTRL Jack Child teaching With Technology Award.
According to Yates says there is a need to measure outcomes of teaching with technology.
"As we switch to a variety of different formats to teach, we need to ask, are students learning as much?" Yates says. Currently, there is no real measure of this type of outcome, according to Yates.
Klein says that she focuses on whether her students have met her goals for teaching rather than whether they are doing better with or without the use of technology.
According to a special report on the impact of technology on higher education, the Economist says technology can be "disruptive" and expensive. Instructors may not want to take the time needed to learn the technology, or find that they lack the budget for needed support. But despite these issues, the Economist says that technology will continue to have a significant impact on college education and that online education will "gain a firm foothold" in universities around the world.
AU Students Have Mixed Responses to Use of Technology in Education
Despite its prevalence at AU, educational technology is not welcomed by all students. Freshman Sally Martin found online education lacking in some ways.
listen to ‘Sally Martin: Communication in Classroom Setting is Better Than Through Online Classes’ on Audioboo
But sophomore John Smalls welcomes the chance to take an online course at AU. He is enrolled in a class that is completely online.