Online Ed: Riding the third wave of tech change

31 10 2015

I recently read an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education that got me thinking about the changes in delivery modes that have occurred during my sixteen years as an online educator.  As I see it, we are now within the third major wave of change.

In 2000, online education was a revolutionary idea.  Correspondence courses had been around for decades (maybe centuries?), but doing away with the post office and allowing for real time communication over the dial-up phone lines was an intriguing concept.  We didn’t really know if the mode would take off, but the first wave of change – the move from dial-up to cable speeds facilitated an enrollment explosion.  The increased speed allowed online course delivery to co-evolve with digital photography and videography.  When I first started teaching anatomy online (and included model building), it was not unusual for students to mail me physical photograph prints of their work.  Now, less than 10 years after that course first went live, I doubt any of my students have daily access to a film camera. Content delivery, in the dial-up days, was nearly all textbook based and heavy in reading.  While I provided notes, large image-rich files were discouraged because of bandwidth limitations.  Around 2002, I moved to cable internet.  Oh, the possibilities!2014-05-03 14.58.59

The next wave of change in online education involved the rise of Apple laptop and desktop computers.  Long used in K-12 education, most colleges in the early 2000’s were using primarily PCs in their general computer labs, and most students had Compaq/HP/Dell machines at home because of the lower cost.  In the early days of the PhysioEx and Virtual Unknown lab simulation programs I use for class, only PC CD versions were available.  Students who owned Apple machines were required to travel to a PC-based computer lab to do their work.  Around 2012, both of those programs switched from CD to browser-based delivery, and the PC vs. Mac divide was no longer an issue.  Nothing I do in any of my classes is now limited by machine or OS type.  That wave has largely passed.

The current wave of change in online course delivery involves desktop vs mobile course access.  Although Apple computers never dominated the desktop market, the iPhone and iPad product lines do dominate the mobile world.  And, Apple products do not play Flash-based content.  This means that a student, expecting to complete my online course on an iPad, is not able to do so.  Will that change?  Yes, I’m sure it will.  HTML5 and increasing processing power of mobile devices will certainly give a larger degree of flexibility and accessibility to mobile content in future years.  The main limitation to completing work on the phone will soon be, for most students, screen size.  I recently upgraded to an iPhone 6 Plus for the screen size.  If I wanted to, I could physically do most of my day to day work on my phone, but I certainly wouldn’t want to – my eyes would protest.  However, someone with eyes much younger than mine may wish to work primarily from a mobile device.  The new Windows phones can even dock with an external monitor – can Apple be far behind on that?

When I taught my first online course I could not have foreseen that, down the road, I would be able to take pictures and videos on my phone, and upload them to my courses – where students would then access them on their phones.  As someone who is an early tech adopter, always looking to play with the next new thing, I am excited to see what comes next.  Virtual reality labs, maybe??  Please??

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