03 Aug Education conference focusing on importance of integrating technology
Madison, Wis. — More than just the expected crowd of educators is congregating at the Monona Terrace for the Distance Learning 2005 Conference that runs through Friday; as the technologies involved in distance education have expanded, so have the fields involved. In addition to K-12 and higher education instructors, the conference will see attendees from business, government, and military organizations.
Distance Learning 2005 is addressing technology as it applies to all of those sectors; the conference features presentations on the most effective uses of educational technologies, as well as sessions that are exploring some of the lesser known applications of those technologies. Over the 21 years of Distance Learning conferences, coordinators have been working with presenters and attendees alike to integrate technology in such a way that it will address the interests of its national audience.
“The conference is really focused on the successful use of those technologies in real education,” said Bill Winfield, conference director. “It’s not a technology-only conference, but it’s a conference that focuses on the successful use of technology in education. It’s educational focused first, but the technology follows second. This conference allows attendees to use the new technologies that are available.”
In order to do this, Winfield and the conference’s coordinators have had to track the changes in distance learning – and in the technology it uses – over the years. According to Winfield, changes in distance learning during the 1990s were guided, for the most part, by the emergence of new technologies. Distance learning saw its tools develop from what Winfield referred to as “adaptive telecommunication devices” for the telephone and television to videoconferencing tools for the Internet.
Now, distance learning is dominated by network-based technology. Mobile devices, the Internet, and even iPods – whose podcasting feature is able to connect distance learners and educators – are just some of the advances on which some Distance Learning 2005 presenters are focusing. One of the more prominent of those presentations, a Giga Conference collaboration between the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Ohio State, will be held at noon on Friday, and will focus on “next-generation videoconferencing technology.”
Judy Brown, the director of the Academic ADL Co-Lab in Madison and a previous conference attendee, added that many additional technologies have been developed for and adopted by distance educators. Brown’s list included “collaborative tools, any-time-any-place learning, individualized instruction, virtual worlds, and immersive learning,” adding that those were technologies used for “distributed learning,” a term that suggests the tools can be used entirely online, or blended into a classroom environment.
Several of the conference’s presenters blend distance – or, perhaps more accurately, distributed – learning technologies not only into classrooms, but into their sectors, as well. William Horton, president of William Horton Consulting, Inc., has used distributed learning tools for training purposes for more than 30 years.
• For more on a session presented by his wife Katherine Horton, see the related WTN story.
Horton told WTN in a pre-conference interview that among the challenges for distributed learning is quality.
“There is a tremendous demand for technology,” he said. “The issue is: now that we can do it, how can we do it well, so that it has an impact,” Horton added.
He suggested that distance learning developers take a cue from the entertainment industry – particularly when dealing with the generation that did not grow up in the digital age.
The television show “Law and Order,” for example, starts out intriguing its audience with the discovery of a body, Horton notes. The mandatory, yet uninteresting information about the particular episode, such as the title and names of the actors, comes after the audience is lured in.
“Or sometimes it’s the way theme music is used,” Horton said. “For example, in documentaries, when someone talks the music volume subsides.”
Horton realizes that corporations and organizations don’t have education budgets with the millions of dollars that the Steven Spielbergs of the world have, but it’s worth taking a look at what principle is at work in the entertainment industry, and then determining how to apply those principles on a modest budget.
Robert Wisher, the director of the Advanced Distributed Learning for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. is another conference presenter. He notes the military’s challenge of training millions of personnel and dependents throughout the world, including some in places that are Internet inaccessible, such as submarines.
“In any given day we have 186,000 people in some form of formal military training,” Wisher said. “We simply cannot afford to have experts everywhere,” so the distance training brings the knowledge of those experts to disparate points of the world.
The military has seen significant reductions in training time from distance learning, and has seen efficiencies and savings gained in other areas, such as travel time.
Winfield was careful to stress, however, that the conference is not focused solely on the technology; rather, it is rooted first and foremost in education, and includes technology only as it applies to distance learning.
“We don’t teach the technologies; some of the workshops do, teaching how to use flash and some of the technologies. The focus of the conference, however is not to teach how to use them, but to teach how to do effective instruction using the technologies. We do have some how-to sessions, but the dominant sessions are those that teach what works, rather than just the bells and whistles,” Winfield said.
As for the conference’s focus on Wisconsin, while Winfield stressed that Distance Learning 2005 is a national conference, he also noted that about a third of the conference’s participants, presenters, and represented companies are Wisconsin-based. So, while the conference has a national focus, “we try to include more of the Wisconsin-based issues across the spectrum,” Winfield said.