It is an exciting time to be working in the field of distance learning. Rates of enrollment in distance education courses are rising across the United States. Brick-and-mortar institutions are offering more opportunities for “hybrid” and all-online coursework, while universities that operate exclusively online are becoming more popular. Internationally, the application of cutting edge communication technologies has brought distance learning to more regions around the world.
Accordingly, this week’s 28th Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning in Madison, Wisconsin was a truly international event. Drawing 1,000 participants from all U.S. states and numerous other nations, this annual event is all about sharing resources and wisdom that enhance distance educators’ efficacy across cultural settings.
Emergent collaborative technologies were a natural focus for conference participants, many of whom were able to attend through its webcasting via the Mediasite platform, operated by Sonic Foundry. Live, on-demand streaming webcasts and rich media presentations seamlessly transmitted conference content to a well-connected audience. Tech-facilitated communications gave this year’s gathering a celebratory tone, as the conference itself was its own outstanding showcase of tech-based distance learning in action.
One of two featured “Virtual Events,” the highly-attended Global Perspectives on Distance Education Panel featured prominent guest speakers hailing from Helsinki, Sao Paulo, Tokyo and Cairo. Moderated by the author of the “Handbook of Blended Learning Environments” Dr. Curtis Bonk of Indiana University, the panel discussed factors that increase enrollment in disparate world regions.
Several conference workshops dug into the real-world difficulties of integrating the work of software developers with the content-rich expertise of academic professionals in the construction of a great e-learning program. Other niche topics included the dynamics of virtual labs, “cyberinfrastructure,” e-textbooks, e-portfolios and other rising stars in the world of online information delivery.
Keynote speaker Judy Brown, Mobile Learning Strategic Analyst, discussed the mobile frontier in distance learning. As the numbers of mobile devices and apps soar, Brown argued that this mounting trend opens up doors for mobile-based instruction, arguably an ultra-convenient mode of educational communication.
Citing a predicted 40 billion mobile app downloads in the next five years, Brown sought to demonstrate that it is no longer a question of the relevance of mobile-based education. Rather, it is time to strategize how distance educators will tap into this portal of access for millions of students.
This year’s Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning well-exemplified the sea changes afoot in distance education. It provided educators with the opportunity to participate and learn using the same tools they will bring back to their students, from live-streamed video to participatory chats with fellow attendees. Long an advocate of open educational resources, conference organizers have made all lectures, papers and media resources freely available to the public in its digital Resource Library.
As digital technology and higher education become increasingly intertwined in the coming years, the annual Distance Teaching and Learning Conference is set to play an important global role in widening the horizons of educators in response to the snappy pace of digital and social change.