Nurturing Informal Professional Development for eLearning Instructors
Jennifer D. Jones, M.Ed. United States of America http://injenuity.com
The demand for distance learning, specifically Web-based instruction, has greatly increased in recent years, with many learners choosing to attend online institutions. Traditional education providers must learn to participate in a new market for which they are largely unprepared to negotiate. Existing models of instructor professional development do not provide the rapid, iterative, collaborative learning that instructors need in order to participate in new learning environments. Institutional culture change takes time, and organizations are realizing that time is no longer a luxury they possess. Informal learning is a valuable opportunity for administrators to nurture and support the organic and community-based professional development that leads to successful eLearning adoption across an organization. This chapter addresses opportunities and challenges in nurturing informal professional development, with examples of methods and practices that can be quickly adopted with minimal institutional cost.
KEY TERMS & DEFINITIONS
eLearning, Informal Learning, Professional Development, Faculty Development, Connectivism, Faculty, Instructors, Informal Professional Development, Academic Computing, Networked Learning, Creative Commons
In the field of education, professional development is the practice of providing continued training and educational opportunities to instructors so they can maintain professional standing, progress through career paths, and obtain required certifications. Informal learning is seldom included in institutional planning for instructor professional development, despite the fact that instructors self-report that they prefer learning from their peers (Hardcastle, 2008). While it may be challenging to plan for informal learning, it is important to devise strategies to support and nurture this type of professional development. To nurture informal professional development, institutions must embrace the changing teaching and learning culture. Digital pedagogy requires many instructors to make a distinct shift in their teaching methods. These changes bring to light many of the problems with traditional
instructor-driven teaching methods. Jenkins (2008, p.49) claims, “A resourceful student is no longer one who personally possesses a wide palette of resources and information from which to choose, but rather, one who is able to successfully navigate an already abundant and continually changing world of information.” Instructors must become immersed in the community-based technologies and experiences that facilitate more learner-centered instruction. These cultural changes will not occur through workshops and seminars or as administrative mandates. They will spread through organizations and beyond when instructors collaboratively discover methods to help learners gather knowledge and make meaning in a more learner-centered environment, supported by new media. This chapter focuses on eLearning, which is loosely defined as instruction enhanced with Web-based tools. Web-based tools may include traditional course and learning management systems, social networking platforms and third party social media applications. This overarching definition will include courses taught fully at a distance, blended courses, where portions of instructional time are conducted online, and face-to-face courses enhanced with the application of Web-based tools. Challenges faced by eLearning instructors often relate to their teaching practices more than the tools and technology. Taylor and McQuiggan (2008) found, “Many faculty development programs fail to make significant changes to teaching itself, however, because they focus on the technical side of teaching online, breaking it down into skill sets rather than addressing pedagogy.” Most instructors can benefit from discovering instructional strategies that involve more learner-centered approaches. Professional development for eLearning instructors should be open to all instructors, including those who only teach face-to-face. The chapter provides a short background on informal learning and professional development, including references to emerging learning theories. It addresses some of the current issues and concerns with nurturing informal professional development and then provides recommended activities from institutions supporting informal learning. The section on future trends offers suggestions for additional research and potential new developments in the field of eLearning. Directed primarily at higher education providers, many of the topics discussed can also be applied in K-12 institutions. The chapter provides general information and suggestions, with the understanding that each organization, instructor and student will have unique needs and perspective.
Most learning we experience in our lifetime occurs informally. Research into informal learning includes exploration of multiple learning theories, both traditional and emerging. Social Cognitive and Constructivist philosophies address some of the components of informal learning. These theories hold value for examining learning and knowledge creation, but the nature of the practice of learning has changed considerably since they were first developed. Instructor professional development is also now associated with adult learning theories and related instructional practices (Lawler, 2003). As these theories have been written about extensively elsewhere, they will not be discussed in detail in this chapter. Emerging theories, such as Connectivism (Siemens, 2005) and the Rhizomatic Learning Model (Cormier, 2008) attempt to explain how social learning is mediated in the age digital communications. Connectivism brings together principles of chaos and networks to support the theory that knowledge does not simply reside within an individual, but can be found in organizations as well
as within technological appliances. Siemens (2005) explains, “Over the last twenty years, technology has reorganized how we live, how we communicate, and how we learn. Learning needs and theories that describe learning principles and processes, should be reflective of underlying social environments.” Like connectivism, rhizomatic learning looks to networks of personal connections in creation of knowledge and meaning as a negotiated process. Suggesting that a distributed negotiation of knowledge can allow a community of people to legitimize the work they are doing among themselves and for each member of the group, the rhizomatic model dispenses with the need for external validation of knowledge, either by an expert or by a constructed curriculum. (Cormier, 2008). These models address the complex nature of collaborative knowledge creation between networked individuals. Critics of both theories claim they bear too much resemblance to classical social learning theories, and that technology has little influence on social learning processes. Without a clear definition of knowledge, theorizing about learning becomes a complex endeavor. The increasingly transitory nature of what is lauded as current or accurate in new and developing fields, as well as the pace of change in Western culture more broadly, has made it difficult for society in general and education in particular to define what counts as knowledge. (Cormier, 2008) One interesting development in the vetting of new learning theories is the affordance of new media to facilitate conversation and debate around the concepts. Jenkins (2008, p.52) warns, “Cyber communities often bring together groups that would have no direct contact in the physical world, resulting in heated conflicts about values or norms.” The individual, meaning-making process is aided by collaborative discussion tools, where participants contribute in ways that assist others in creating context to support personal opinions on new learning theories. This essentially brings life to the theories, in the form of continuous discussion and debate, where all are welcome to contribute opinion and document research and practice. This process, however, leaves some critics concerned with the accuracy and quality of the collaboratively generated content. In addition to discussion of emerging trends in learning models, we should also consider institutional culture. There is a wealth of published literature on institutional culture and change management. Every organization has a unique culture that should be addressed when developing programs that will affect change. Part of the institutional culture includes the learning ecology. Siemens (2003) defines the learning ecology as, “an environment that fosters and supports the creation of communities.” Supporting and nurturing informal professional development requires promotion of a healthy learning ecology. Creating, preserving, and utilizing information flow should be a key organizational activity. Knowledge flow can be likened to a river that meanders through the ecology of an organization. In certain areas, the river pools and in other areas it ebbs. The health of the learning ecology of the organization depends on effective nurturing of information flow (Siemens, 2005). Instructor professional development includes a history of formal workshops, courses, seminars and conferences. Professional Development Plans (PDP’s) vary by institution and are sometimes driven by state standards. Often, these plans include a review process on a multi-year cycle. Professional development activities are usually aligned with specific goals as part of an instructor’s PDP, which is used for promotion, evaluation, and certification. Many of these policies neglect to acknowledge forms of informal learning where instructors collaborate and
build knowledge together. This active practice is at the heart of informal professional development. Some organizations have sponsored Communities of Collaborative Inquiry, Communities of Practice, Professional Learning Communities and other projects that bring together internal faculty groups. These institutions are well aligned to quickly implement support for informal professional development, including participation in global online collaboration. Instructors are exposed to many pressures that interfere with professional development and new knowledge acquisition. Student demand for online learning in an increasingly competitive market can drive administrators to push instructors into eLearning without proper institutional support. Unions work hastily to negotiate additional compensation for instructors teaching online. Full-time faculty may feel threatened by adjunct instructors with skills to jump into online learning without extensive professional development. Academic computing departments may restrict instructor and student access, and limit resources. Publishers pressure instructors to use their textbooks or online services. Instructors also feel strain from library and bookstore staff, registration and students services as well as the local business community. The last few years have shown an emergence of a new kind of instructor, one who is heavily engaged in personal learning and sharing through new media. The connected instructor recognizes his or her own learning preferences and needs and seeks to build a network of personal contacts with similar interests and diverse specialties. These instructors place little importance on knowing all the answers; rather, they value the process of building relationships with people who can help them discover the answers. The connected teacher participates as both a consumer and producer of new media (Couros, 2006). External connections allow them to take advantage of information and resources they may not have access to within their institution. Connected instructors are at the front lines, testing new technology and experimenting with new forms of assessment. They are frequently more knowledgeable about new media than both administrators and academic computing leaders. These instructors will guide others to informal professional development opportunities in digital spaces.
NURTURING INFORMAL PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
Informal professional development (PD) is a practice that includes learning activities which are loosely planned and unstructured. This may include mentoring, small discussion groups, social networks, organized communities of practice, project groups, and independent research and practice. All instructors participate in informal professional development, but many are unaware of its impact on their learning and growth. In a recent faculty development survey, Taylor and McQuiggan (2008) explored faculty professional development preferences. Faculty were asked to indicate which type of professional development experience they would be most likely to pursue: formal face-to-face events, informal face-to-face events, formal online events, informal online events, or self-paced/self-directed materials. The format most faculty preferred was informal or self-paced learning. Self-paced materials were requested most often (42.6 percent), followed by informal face-to-face events (41.2 percent) and informal online events (33.8 percent). Requests for formal face-to-face training programs (30.9 percent) and online programs (29.4 percent) lagged behind the other formats. In addition, faculty indicated that the most helpful aspects of professional development events related to teaching online included opportunities to share real-life experiences with their colleagues, to use various technologies including the university's course management system, and to access specific examples and strategies.
Often, informal learning experiences are not documented as part of annual review or tenure processes. By creating an institutional support system that includes recognition of informal learning, we can begin to promote the mainstream acceptance of these activities for formal employee review and evaluation. Instructors should be able to identify their own personal learning. Developing an awareness of personal learning is vital and can be learned through reflective practices and peer feedback. New media technologies provide one means to connect and sustain relationships with others who actively support and contribute to professional development. The peer feedback of these connections gives instructors a way to identify personal learning and take responsibility for future development. Cultivation of professional social contacts can offer instructors the opportunity to explore multiple avenues of learning and discover which options best suit their learning preferences. Promoting and supporting learning communities is an important component to helping instructors develop an awareness of personal learning. George Siemens (2003) describes the traits of these physical and virtual communities as: • A gathering place for diverse people to meet • Nurturing place for learning and developing • A growing place - allowing members to try new ideas and concepts in a safe environment • Integrated. As an ecology, activities ripple across the domain. Knowledge in one area filters to another. Courses as a stand alone unit often do not have this transference. • Connected. People, resources, and ideas are connected and accessible across the community. • Symbiotic. A connection that is beneficial to all members of the community...needed in order for the community to survive. In addition to awareness of personal learning, instructors should be prepared to efficiently access, filter and evaluate large amounts of information while socializing responsibly in digital environments. Advances in new media have created new areas of research into the definition of “literacy.” New media literacies, have been identified as skills or competencies, both social and technological. “They enable students to exploit new simulation tools, information appliances, and social networks; they facilitate the exchange of information between diverse communities and the ability to move easily across different media platforms and social networks” (Jenkins, 2008). Instructors should also be able to support students as they acquire and practice these skills. Informal professional development involves immersion in new social and cultural landscapes. The organizational culture and social norms will need to be carefully observed and respected when working toward change. In addition to the organization, there are social and cultural considerations involved in exploring new media and building global connections to foster and promote informal learning activities. One of the biggest cultural shifts in nurturing informal professional development is the need to promote a culture of sharing, both within the institution and globally. Academic institutions are not traditionally known for sharing information and resources. Institutions should develop a sharing culture that includes providing open courseware, publishing content with Creative Commons licensing, opening access to journals, cooperating and collaborating on projects and course development, and respecting students who choose to attend multiple, often competing, institutions. For informal professional development to flourish, there should be full administrative support and strong leadership. This support should be clearly defined and may include policy and procedure change as well as shifts in administrative responsibilities and oversight. Initial activity
for administrators may include conflict resolution between departments or individuals as roles are redefined. Administrators may not have the natural ability or capacities required to support the complex demands involved in institutional culture change. A recent Harvard Educational Review article describes a new framework for helping administrators achieve personal development by overcoming their Immunities to Change: To overturn these Immunities to Change, participants envision and experiment with behaviors that run counter to their own assumptions and then consider whether those assumptions need modification. In practicing these new behaviors, participants can begin to form new understandings of and relationships to their previous commitments and the underlying assumptions. (Helsing et al., 2008) The framework includes self-evaluation, reflection, and professional mentoring. Leaders involved in organizational change need active professional development that addresses their personal development and challenges the assumptions that get in the way of their progress. Professional development in education is no longer possible without digital communications. Informal professional development is enhanced through digital communications and resources. Workplace learning has changed dramatically in the last decade. Cross (2007) observes: The old way of learning used workshops, training programs, role plays, lectures, readings, tests, practice assignments, group discussion, homework, self-study, computermediated lessons, job rotation, assessments, and on-the-job training. The emergent way of learning is more likely to involve community, storytelling, simulation, dynamic learning portals, social network analysis, expertise location, presence awareness, workflow integration, search technology, help desks, spontaneity, personal knowledge management, mobile learning, and co-creation. Because of the rapid advances in Web-based tools and technology, campus technology departments may not be prepared to fully support implementation of these resources. Program developers should partner with academic computing offices to discover challenges and opportunities. This process will include negotiation and sacrifice. Initial technology support may include internal, closed networks for collaboration, but should evolve to more open platforms as the learning ecology develops.
Issues, Controversies, Problems
Not every instructor will be enthusiastic about incorporating Web-based tools and exploring learner-centered instruction. Taylor and McQuiggan (2008) observed, “As faculty prepare to move into online teaching or have their first experiences teaching online, they note that which is unfamiliar, different, or absent.” In the past, efforts have focused on bringing these instructors gently up to speed with the technology through organized training institutes and boot camps. To move forward with eLearning, support should now be focused on those who are willing and enthusiastic about it. Learning organizations should take advantage of early adopters and eLearning champions rather than continue to try to persuade disinterested instructors to adopt technology. Some instructors and academic institutions may be reluctant to openly publish their creative works. Traditional subscription-based peer-reviewed journals are losing ground to Web-based academic publications with shorter publishing cycles. Learners purchase their instruction from multiple sources in order to customize their learning experiences and fit their demanding
lifestyles. They are also discovering how to access free and open content online. Education providers are struggling to keep up with the new marketplace and still maintain traditional economic models for content production. Attention to the reported technical proficiency of young people has misled many to assume all young students have new media literacy proficiency. Instructors, advised to expect a classroom full of digital learners, are often reluctant to integrate technology in their traditional classrooms. Some fear learners will be distracted to the point of ignoring instruction, and others are uncomfortable teaching students with more advanced technological skills than they possess. Every learner will possess different basic literacies, and instructors will learn to adjust their teaching styles to support diverse groups. Jenkins (2008, p.57) states that, “Media change is affecting every aspect of our contemporary experience, and as a consequence, every school discipline needs to take responsibility for helping students to master the skills and knowledge they need to function in a hypermediated environment.” Campus computing departments are at an interesting point in their evolution. There are increases in network vulnerability and pressures to maintain campus-wide reliable high-speed wireless access. Acceptable use policies that include strict content filters, limited administrative rights on machines, and mandatory course management systems inhibit creativity. The tools that enable the connections that support informal learning may be blocked or filtered by learning institutions. Unfortunately, just when open access would be most beneficial to teaching and learning, legal challenges, such as privacy laws and copyright issues interfere with successful implementation. Information Technology departments that have to spend their time acting as content police cannot focus on supporting the primary mission of teaching and learning.
Solutions and Recommendations
Culture change is slow and should be approached from many angles and through diverse tactics. Some activities may be coordinated and organized, while others will rely upon individual and spontaneous efforts. If professional development plans are regulated at the state level, formal change and recognition may take years. It is still important to plan for support of informal professional development in anticipation of changing standards. The following solutions may be applied to help nurture and support informal professional development for instructors.
In many cases, policy and procedure will need to change in order to accommodate informal learning support. Potential targets for attention include acceptable technology use policies, union contracts, tenure and promotion procedures, data retention policies and any others that relate to professional development and eLearning. These changes can start with exploration of loopholes that allow for more beneficial interpretation. Often, rules are inferred, based on stagnating institutional culture. Sometimes individuals misinterpret policy and miscommunication allows the misinterpretations to persist. Policies that restrict communications tools should be the first ones addressed. Following that, tenure and promotion documentation procedures may be revised to include a narrative component for evaluation of informal learning activities. In some cases, administrators may need to respond to union leaders regarding student contact hours and modified compensation for online instructors. Before considering augmented salaries for instructors teaching online, conduct a careful review of comparable institutions and contracts.
Develop a Holistic Approach to Technology Adoption
Faced with reduced budgets, many administrators are learning the value of Web-based tools as replacement for face-to-face meetings and conferences. The 2008 Horizon Report on key emerging technologies suggests institutional collaborative change. It is critical that the academic community as a whole embraces the potential of technologies and practices like those described in this report. Experimentation must be encouraged and supported by policy; in order for that to happen, scholars, researchers and teachers must demonstrate its value by taking advantage of opportunities for collaboration and interdisciplinary work (Johnson, Levine, & Smith, 2008). College presidents and administrators in the state of Washington have recently begun conducting meetings using web conferencing software. Other administrators are using Web-based tools for departmental communications. Institutional advancement offices are building social Web sites to attract and retain students and connect with alumni and donors. Student services departments are conducting orientations, counseling and interviews in virtual worlds and through Web conferencing and chat rooms. Libraries are rapidly implementing new support and research tools, including live online librarians. The more open and visible these activities, the more likely instructors are to embrace the change in culture.
Provide an Inviting Physical Environment
There are many environmental factors that can play a part in nurturing informal professional development. The physical working environment is something easily overlooked as a component of professional development, especially in large institutions or systems where working space is scarce. According to Cross (2007), “An organization that seeks more innovation should encourage its people to build shared spaces in which to work on prototype ideas. This concept of a shared space is both physical and behavioral.” Informal professional development is nurtured in open, relaxing spaces, where instructors feel welcome to drop in without an appointment or scheduled meeting. This could include lounge areas, library space, coffee shops, or other campus gathering places. This also may mean opening office doors, sharing offices, breaking down cubicle walls, and providing refreshment. Another way to show support is to introduce instructors to technology as their students experience it. Students do not have mandatory office hours, desktop computers, and stationary phones used just for learning. Instructors should be empowered with enabling technology and workplace flexibility. Desktop computers should be replaced with notebooks. Wireless phones and handheld devices should replace desktop phones. Instructors need to have portable recording and playback equipment, as well as video and Web cameras and headsets. All of these devices combined are less expensive than the overhead of an office. Instructors should be allowed to work in flexible environments, as their students do, provided they are consistent in their posted online office hours and respond promptly to student communications.
Restructure Academic Technology Departments
Changes to the structure of Academic Technology departments will be the most challenging and resource-intensive component of preparing institutions for new learning environments. In
addition to the physical environment, the online environment should be prepared for the instructor and students. Instructors should have easy access to the online tools they are expected to use, as well as any they wish to test. For many institutions, this will involve changing the reporting structure and nature of academic computing. From the perspective of its theoretical and historical foundations as well as its primary mission of instructional support, academic technology has more in common with the library, faculty development, and distance or continuing education than with IT departments supporting campus telecommunications, networks, and administrative computing (Albright & Nworie, 2008). This may also include partnering with technology companies and outside agencies to spread broadband access to rural areas to increase access for instructors and students. Many schools have realized the benefit of outsourcing server space, applications and technical support. Rather than invest in hardware and infrastructure, some place a high priority on increasing bandwidth and wireless access.
Develop a Culture of Sharing
There are many opportunities for sharing, including open licensing of publications, opening professional development sessions, combining financial resources, collaborating on curriculum development and co-sponsoring events. Sharing can be done within the institution as well as externally. There is a growing international movement toward Open Educational Resources (OER), and Open Courseware (OCW), with many emerging groups collaborating to discover the best ways to organize and increase access to these resources. Web-based technologies, such as RSS (Really Simple Syndication), allow people to customize content by gathering it from multiple sources, remixing, and publishing it on demand. Instructors and students can now quickly and easily collect lessons from around the Web, remix them and publish them in multiple formats, including customized, printed books. These services are made possible because instructors are openly publishing their content in a format that can be collected using RSS feeds, and licensing them through Creative Commons.
Hire for Change
One way to stimulate informal professional development is to make it a priority when hiring new instructors. Hire those who are enthusiastic about technology and who champion a culture of sharing. Seek faculty with learner-centered approaches to teaching and learning. Students need instructors who can help them discover useful information and knowledgeable people. Seek instructors who have built personal networks of experts willing to connect with students. Look for those who collaborate with others and openly publish and share their works. Reconsider the single teacher instructional model. Introduce learners to knowledgeable professionals willing to respond to inquiry using Web-based synchronous and asynchronous media. Networked instructors often have access to professionals who voluntarily take time to engage in collaboration with students. These sessions can be conducted synchronously or asynchronously using Webbased media.
Encourage Viral Professional Development
Viral Professional Development (VPD) is a strategy that encourages instructors to share their knowledge and experience in a way that promotes viral transmission, from one to another (Jones, 2008). When one instructor attends an outside learning event, or builds knowledge through online networking and then shares that knowledge and information with others, the knowledge can spread quickly, like a virus. VPD occurs naturally in organizations, but there are ways to stimulate growth and adoption. Viral Professional development relies on champions. These are people excited about learning and willing to share what they learn. They do not have to be instructors. They could be administrators, academic computing support staff, teaching and learning staff or instructional designers. The starting point of connectivism is the individual. Personal knowledge is comprised of a network, which feeds into organizations and institutions, which in turn feed back into the network, and then continue to provide learning to individual. This cycle of knowledge development (personal to network to organization) allows learners to remain current in their field through the connections they have formed (Siemens, 2005). Though these people are most likely already evangelizing Web-based teaching and learning, once they are encouraged by others and praised for their actions, they will be much more successful in spreading knowledge through the organization. To fully take advantage of the power of VPD, consider developing an online space for people to share ideas, network and communicate safely. There are many commercial Web sites that offer hosting for social networks, but there are also open source software solutions that can be installed and maintained institutionally. An open site, where members of other organizations can join, creates more opportunities for shared learning. However, some organizations choose to internally host faculty social networks, with secure access for internal participation only. Consider building something that is flexible and can be opened or closed as the learning ecology evolves.
Many institutions are successfully experimenting with grass-roots support models for informal professional development. There is no single formula that will work best for all institutions. Activities should be modified and customized to meet the needs and culture of the organization. The following recommended activities have been practiced at institutions supporting informal professional development. Most can be quickly implemented without expensive resources and extensive planning. Schedule Informal Lab Time Sometimes called Play-to-Learn, or Kick the Tires, these sessions are open labs where participants have the opportunity to try new technologies in an informal setting with support from knowledgeable staff and peers. Sessions may have a theme, such as a particular Web-based tool, or can be completely unstructured. Some institutions hold these at regularly scheduled times and locations. These are not workshops. There is no agenda and there are usually no handouts or materials. Instructors are encouraged to socialize and ask questions aloud to the group. Sessions can be streamed live over the Web and recorded and archived for attendees who cannot participate in person. Example: Schedule a session on new media literacy and encourage attendees to focus on a particular unit or module of instruction they would like to revise. Reserve a campus technology lab, and use free online video streaming tools to deliver the session to people who cannot attend.
Provide refreshments as an incentive. Gather resources for the session using social bookmarking tools, and provide the link to the resources to attendees. Allow them to ask questions, work together, experiment with tools, or just read resources. Encourage them to work together to answer questions and develop ideas that will work with their learners and personal instructional practice. Share Financial Resources When an instructor or program requests funding for an eLearning project or resource, ask them to check with other instructors, programs and external colleagues to see if it is a resource that can be shared and jointly funded. This works well with Web-based resources, such as library databases, publisher resources, and Web conferencing software. Check with vendors for specific license terms. This type of resource sharing encourages instructors to work together. For example, purchasing a technical simulation resource that can be shared between programs or institutions may encourage instructors to work together on their curriculum. Example: Proprietary simulation software, or vendor-specific industry software can be cost-prohibitive. Seek other programs or institutions that can benefit from the software and may be able to contribute financial resources to purchase licenses. This works well with software that is expensive, but not used frequently enough to make the purchase valuable to a single program. When the license is purchased, share the access information with instructors who are most likely to use it and promote it. Host or Join Open Online Professional Development These sessions have also been called Show and Tell or Open Professional Development (Draper & Ellis, 2008). They are similar to Kick the Tires sessions, but are conducted fully online using Web conferencing software. Sessions can be based on a theme or be completely open for networking and discussion. Hosting open sessions and promoting them outside the organization will help attract others who can network with and support your faculty to build connections. Example: Using Web-based conferencing tools, either free or with purchased license, host informal professional development sessions that are open to outside participation. Promote these online, through e-mail and electronic mailing lists and word of mouth. Themes can include anything from Web-based tools, to teaching strategies. Participants should be encouraged by the moderators to share materials and speak. Moderators should be prepared with content in case discussion is slow. Invite expert guest presenters for short presentations or question and answer periods. If you are unable to host sessions, try locating sessions hosted by others. Support the Tools that Enable Connections In order for instructors to participate in informal learning activities, they should have access to Web-based tools and internal and external communications networks. Jenkins (2008, p. 51) states that, “Networking also implies the ability to effectively tap social networks to disperse one’s own ideas and media products.” Instructors need access to social networking sites, chat applications, Web conferencing tools, online file and media storage, and text messaging. They should be encouraged to spend time nurturing their professional-social relationships. This can be a major cultural shift. Even when access is granted and time is given for participation, if instructors have previously been prohibited from this activity, they may be reluctant to jump into it without examples of success. Proficiency in social networking requires social maturity in addition to time management and communications skills.
Example: Make certain instructors have access to chat programs, streaming audio and video and blogging platforms. Provide them all with headsets with microphones, Webcams and portable video cameras. Give them time to experiment with the technology and network with other instructors. Encourage them to use the tools for activities outside of work. This will help them generate ideas for instructional use of the tools. Evangelize Openness Open Educational Resources are becoming more popular, due, in part, to the success of projects such as the MIT OpenCourseWare initiative. Rice University offers a self-paced course about Open Educational Resources. There are numerous handbooks and online support options to help institutions get started developing open content. Creative Commons (CC) is an organization committed to helping content-creators license their works in a way that encourages sharing. Rather than accepting the automatic, restrictive copyright with content publishing, creators can quickly select CC licenses with a variety of options for copyright control and attribution, including limitations on commercial use. All instructors, not just those involved in eLearning, should be aware of Creative Commons licensing as one way to promote openness. In addition to using the licensing, instructors can access large amounts of CC licensed content that is easy to incorporate in instruction, most with very simple requirements for attribution. Example: Create a model for funding projects that encourage development of Open Educational Resources. Teach the entire organization about Creative Commons, and make CC licensing a campus priority. Include models of open learning in all sessions by using CC licensed materials with proper attribution. Provide administrators access to CC images and publications to use in their presentations.
New organizations are more likely to adopt emerging methods and practices of professional development, and therefore, will have the strongest influence on the future of informal learning support. As Web-based tools continue to evolve and institutions discover new ways to capture and share information, it will become necessary for instructors to have the skills they need to manage their own professional development. Though new instructors may possess strong technical skills, many do not understand learner-centered instruction and will need professional development experiences that include a strong pedagogical component. Teachers will spend more time on learning and professional development and will need the support of administration and recognition that this activity should be included when planning for compensated work time. Open Educational Resources will gain credibility and momentum as content becomes easier to create, publish, and distribute. The simplification of open publishing will create a stronger incentive for people to share resources. Published authors in other fields are already seeing the benefit of releasing free digital copies of their works alongside their print publications (Doctorow, 2008). Many print journals and magazines are turning to electronic-only publication. Creative Commons copyright licensing is a big step in the right direction for opening up the field to more sharing. Lessig (2008) proclaims, “Whole fields need to establish a different copyright default.” New economic models will evolve to support creative works, as it becomes easier to copy and remix electronic content.
Institutional technology support roles are in transition. The traditional IT department cannot continue to function in the world of instructional technology without strategies for change management and rapid implementation. In institutions where the primary function of IT has centered on supporting administrative applications and networks, the change in focus toward teaching and learning may be a major cultural shift. The next generation of educational IT administrators will need to have a strong understanding of teaching and learning. Albright and Nworie (2008) recommend a new administrative role on campuses. We propose that each campus should have a senior academic technology officer (SATO) to provide strategic leadership and direction for academic technology applications, initiatives, and support services across the broad spectrum of instructional technology functions; provide leadership in planning and policy related to curriculum development, e-learning, and other instructional technology initiatives that facilitate achievement of the institution's strategic goals; and build partnerships among campus academic support units to work collaboratively toward achievement of institutional goals that can be addressed through instructional technology. Economics will play a role in pushing eLearning to a tipping point. Campuses facing massive budget cuts will turn to eLearning to reduce overhead, eliminate expensive building projects and capture new enrollments. With organizational budget cuts and staff reductions, colleges will depend more and more on eLearning to supplement and replace some face-to-face instruction. eLearning is also one solution to increasing educational access to under-served and rural populations. Industry partnerships will lead to stronger infrastructure to support learning for these students. Cloud computing is the subject of many educational computing discussions. The working definition seems to encompass a variety of services and products that aim to host content and applications externally rather than on internal servers. There are issues and controversies, as with any new technology. Advocates see many benefits in moving content to externally hosted sites controlled by companies with resources to maintain powerful processing and redundant storage capacity. Though there are inherent risks in giving up content to third party providers, many institutions have quickly jumped on this trend. We should soon begin to see the results of institutional adoption of these practices. The success or failure of these programs will influence future directions in eLearning. We are still in the exploration stages of researching ways in which knowledge is co-created in digital spaces. Some academics have embraced the concept of Personal Learning Networks (PLN); unstructured, dynamic, networks of personal social connections and relationships developed in online spaces. A universally accepted definition has not yet emerged. Many feel the experience is so deeply personal that it does not exhibit clear patterns for replication. Others question whether or not the learning that occurs in these networks is different from other forms of social learning, and if it merits unique investigation. A few things set the PLN apart from other social learning. The first is that the technology enables rapid feedback loops with global participation. The second is that participants perceive they are involved in a strong, supportive community with members whom they trust and respect. There is a definite cultural component, including an active subculture of private communication, which is ripe for research and observation. Finally, “eLearning” will soon become an obsolete term as we recognize that it is not separate from other forms of learning. Web-based tools will be an expected component of all instruction. As the tools reach maturity, they will become invisible. Learners will maintain their personal
learning environment, collecting the pieces of information they need to accomplish their learning objectives. Instructors will become facilitators, guiding students to the resources and people they need to achieve their learning objectives. They will help students discover how to reflect and assess their own learning. New methods of assessment will emerge as we discover new ways to define knowledge and learning.
Informal learning occurs in all organizations and is a natural means of acquiring new knowledge and skills. As learning institutions increase their online and blended course offerings, instructors will need to prepare to teach in a new environment. Traditional professional development methods alone will not provide the knowledge and experience instructors need to succeed with teaching and learning in digital spaces. Informal professional development offers the opportunity for collaborative knowledge building and shared inquiry. Nurturing informal professional development should be an institutional priority, supported by strong leadership and accessible technology.
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