In addition to the Internet, the use of digital technologies to educate learners extends the opportunity to reach larger numbers of students. Digital technologies such as video and audio have enabled educators to develop new teaching and learning strategies that help students develop the skills needed to thrive in a continuously changing world. Delivering instruction via the Internet and utilizing digital technology creates a framework for instructors and students to access knowledge and collaborate in the construction of new knowledge and understanding. In the end, the ultimate goal is not to utilize distance learning for the sake of keeping up with what others are doing, but to enrich the educational experiences and opportunities for all students.
As technology continues to advance, there are innumerable ways to design and deliver education at a distance. For instance, Web 1.0 technology was about reading content accessed from a Web site. Distance learning provided via Web 1.0 tools was static with little opportunity for student interaction.
The new Web 2.0 technologies allow learners to engage in peer to peer collaborative learning through blogging, videos, wikis, and webinars. A free Internet-based communications software program, Skype, allows individuals to talk to each other all over the world for free through the Internet. A webcam can be used to send video, and Skype can handle conference calls for up to nine users. Even more exciting is the ability to schedule Skypecasts, a jumbo conference call with up to 100 people participating. After downloading the free software and logging into the Skypecast, participants can listen to the conversations, indicate a desire to talk and then wait for their turn to talk, and contribute to the conversation. Imagine the possibilities for education! Students and faculty around the globe can share ideas, concerns, and discoveries. Students can create Skypecasts for an international audience as easily as they prepare an in-class presentation for their local classmates. Additionally, with Skype’s video capability, instructors can demonstrate techniques and procedures.
Web 2.0 technology, enabled social networking of the chat room to evolve into the social media collaboration and connections happening in Facebook (www.facebook.com), and MySpace (www.myspace.com). Higher education is seeing potential and grasping opportunities to put these networks to work. From increasing student access to textbooks, to helping students find a roommate, to connecting students to a variety of student services, college and university departments are relating with students through the social media they are already familiar with. Hoffman (2009) shares:
Many advocates promote the use of social networking for community building and increasing student engagement in higher education classrooms…Mazer, Murphy and Simonds (2007) indicate that teacher self-disclosure via social networking can increase motivation and improve classroom climate thus impacting student outcomes. In many of these debates, the focus is often limited to the massive and most well known of the social networks, MySpace and Facebook, particularly because media coverage has ensured that even those who have limited familiarity with social networking have heard about these Internet environments. However, social networking tools are more diverse and in fact, some may better fit specific class needs (Hoffman, 2009, p. 92).
Colleges and universities are exploring ways to utilize other Web 2.0 tools, through the use of mobile technologies, in innovative and effective ways. As mentioned previously, the new generation of college students is plugged into their mobile devices, preferring the immediacy of information available through cell phone technology, such as emailing or texting classmates and professors. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launched the MIT Mobile Web project in summer 2008 with 7000 screens. The mobile portal offered information on class schedules, grade reports, directions to classes, the best ways to get from one campus location to another, and bus schedules. In three months, the number of screens increased from 7000 to 55,000, with plans for the 2.0 version to offer access to the MIT learning management system and the ability to pay and manage debit card accounts (Raths, 2009).
Finally, virtual worlds are opening up a whole new realm of learner-centered engagement with Web 3.0 technology, based on intelligent Web applications where users will create new tools and applications through open-source software and systems. A few years ago, placing a narrated PowerPoint online was advanced strategy; then video-conferencing enabled students to experience live lecture from a distance, albeit usually with limited or no interactivity. Now, with the availability of collaborative video systems such as Elluminate, instructors and students communicate with each other online either through a chat room or through video webcams, increasing the ability to interact synchronously and reinforce concepts in real-time.