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Distance Education Trends at OTC16

By: Art Morgan
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I attended the Online Teaching Conference (OTC) in San Diego in June. OTC is organized and run by a collection of great teams that are at the forefront of distance education in California: CCC Confer, 3C Media Solutions, and @One, all of which are projects of the California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative (OEI). The OEI has three main goals: access (improving access to online courses and services), completion (resources to help all students succeed), and quality (increasing support for online students and faculty).  The conference was sold out, and many of the sessions were packed to capacity. Here are the top three things I learned at the event.

Distance Education Quality Continues to Improve Dramatically

I have to admit that I was initially somewhat of a skeptic about distance education. I knew that web-based tools were great for informal learning, but I was not sure if higher education curricula could make the leap to online platforms. Over 10 years ago I became convinced of the potential of blogs and online forums to help people learn about topics that were of interest to them, and in 2005 I started a blogging site that was intended primarily for high school and college students.  It was fascinating to watch as young people from across the country transformed themselves while blogging; they were constructing logical arguments, using critical thinking, debating, and engaging in meaningful dialog. My thought at the time, however, was that the site was successful because people were choosing their own topics; they were doing it for fun, not to earn a degree.

Today I can clearly see the potential of online teaching and learning in higher education, thanks in part to the people I met at OTC. Hundreds of passionate, innovate educators attended the conference. Several sessions demonstrated innovative and inexpensive ways to use video to make classes more engaging, such as sessions by Tracy Schaelen of Southwestern College, and Chris Brown of 3C Media Solutions.  A session called “Humanizing Online Learning,” by Michelle Pacansky-Brock and Katie Palacios was also a fantastic demonstration of how higher education courses offered via distance learning channels can be just as personal as any face-to-face class.

Accessibility of Distance Education is Key to Quality

There was a lot of focus on quality at OTC this year, and an increasing recognition that accessibility and Universal Design are key components of ensuring quality in distance education. The OEI and it’s @ONE program team reviewed learnings from their Peer Online Course Review (POCR) program, and professors discussed how using instructional design best-practices improved quality and completion rates for online courses offered by California community colleges. Several presenters pointed out that since instructors do not have face time with students in online courses it is more challenging to know when students are struggling or not feeling engaged with the subject matter.  This makes it even more critical to build accessibility and Universal Design into the courses, allowing learners to engage via multiple modalities.

Video Accessibility is a Key Component of Quality Distance Education

Video is increasingly one of the modalities used to achieve the goals of Universal Design in distance education courses. As I mentioned above, there were many excellent presentations on how to use video in online courses.  However, with increasing use of video comes new challenges.  How can educators efficiently use video in courses but ensure that the video is accessible to the broadest possible student population?

OTC attendees who were using video or planning to use video in their courses were acutely aware of the fact that video used in distance education courses needs to be captioned. However, there is still a significant amount of confusion regarding how to caption videos. Many people were aware of AST and our CaptionSync service, but some had the impression that the process of creating captions was entirely automatic, using speech recognition as with YouTube auto-captions. As most of you who use CaptionSync know, we use professional transcribers to ensure high quality in the captions that we produce.  We are doing our best to correct misconceptions (see for example this blog post about closed captioning methods), but clearly we have more work to do on this front.

The good news is that educators who teach online and hybrid courses are very aware of the need to combine good technology with a caring, professional human touch. These passionate, pioneering educators are figuring out new ways to bring high quality educational experiences to broader audiences than ever before, and we all owe them a debt of gratitude.