Posted by: nickgerlich | March 12, 2008

Back To The Future

It has been exactly 11 years since I had a rather strange meeting with the person who was then the Dean of the Graduate School at WT. I had no idea why I had been summoned to this man’s office. I wondered if I were in some kind of trouble or other. What else could possibly happen when a dean hauls you into his office?

But Dr. Nelson was in no mood to reprimand me for anything. In fact, he was there to extend an invitation to become involved with a new initiative at WT. Turns out my former dean in the College of Business sensed that there was some untapped potential in me, an aptitude that had yet to be found or leveraged. So it was he who had steered me toward Dr. Nelson.

As I sat there and heard Nelson’s invitation unfold, I quickly sensed I was glimpsing the future of education. Not that the old view would ever go away, but this new view was forever going to change the way we think about education.

Online LearningOf course, I’m talking about online learning. Dr. Nelson wanted to know if I would consider coming aboard as the second WT instructor to take a course online. I seized the moment, and my life has not been the same since.

WT’s first online course was in Education offered in Summer 1997. Its second course was MKT6340 Seminar in Marketing, taught by yours truly that fall. And it took me a solid six months to develop it from scratch, because there were no roadmaps back then, nor sherpas. Dr. Nelson gave me a machete (a graduate student in CIS) to teach me HTML, and a deadline. Figure it out. Find your way. Carve a path.

There was also no Angel Learning System then, either; instead we toiled with a homegrown package called WTOnline. It was not until several iterations and 10 years that we finally outsourced the whole thing to Angel. Those early years were tough, as our first programmers were a couple of undergrads who happened to dream in Javascript and could write it down when they arose.

The colleague in Education who was a few steps ahead of me quickly sensed market opportunity, and left for greener pastures. I stayed, and am now teaching my 42nd online course (not counting multiple sections of the same course). WTOnline is now WTClass, and Angel is used not only for online courses, but to some degree for every land-based class as well.

Much has changed in these 11 years. What was once text-based has increasingly become media-driven, with loads of Web 2.0 apps. And our initial view that online courses need to be synchronous quickly changed when we discovered that requiring people to be in specific places at specific times essentially violated the premise of online learning.

You know: Anytime, anywhere.

I now laugh when I consider that I held required class chat sessions. Of course, I only had 15 people in that first class, so we weren’t exactly tripping over one another. But the fact that we were all on dial-up played a big role in how slowly the discussion unfolded.

As we look ahead to the future, I wonder what things my students want and need to make their online courses more practical, relevant, and convenient. I suspect it will involve ever more podcasting, video clips, and the like, but I also suspect it goes beyond these obvious artifacts of a high-tech society.

So I turn this blog on its side, and beg you to help write the concluding sentences. What do we need to do to create the ultimate online learning experience for you? Please do not use this opportunity to slam professors or specific classes; instead, be constructive.

And like TV’s Frasier Crane…

Dr “I’m Listening…” Gerlich


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