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Distance Learning Tech - A Loop That Needs Closing

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I remain unimpressed by the proliferation of instructional videos saturating the content base for on-line learning settings.

First, some background and disclaimers....

We here at Electric Book are particularly interested in topics that involve post-secondary STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects –- topics that generally require more than written text to express key concepts. Our emphasis is on developing publishing methods to enhance the human connections among students, teachers, and mentors in this subject space.

This isn't about dismissing the value of MOOCs (Massive Open On-line Courses). There exists evidence that MOOC delivery of some courses is as effective as classroom training (so long as students remain engaged in the program).

And we aren't taking issue with the quality and enthusiasm of those who design and present many of the high quality videos one can view at Kahn Academy or BrightStorm.

Yes, there is a great deal being done to deploy technologies that cost effectively present lecture materials to large numbers of individuals.

But there isn't enough being done to 'close the loop' connecting students, mentors, and teachers as they collaboratively and interactively discuss solutions to their problems in mathematics and science.

STEM subjects are really hard to discuss on-line where keyboards are designed for text and mice for hot-spots and rectangles. Add mobile, and you have smaller keyboards and and larger touch-points.

Granted, there are a lot of twitter-like chat ('near-synchronous') threads referencing various content pages, and the use of white-boards still proliferate within the synchronous space connecting students and tutors. Still, the actual media being talked about – the solution sequences, graphs, schematics and illustrations, remain in a kind of black box – a URL with little, if any granularity to the parts that compose the illustration or fragments of an animation.

Worse, when the source of a message is a student trying to solve his/her own problem, the only practical recourse is to send photo by e-mail/message or use social media (what student wants to share his Instagram account with his/her college professor – what sane professor would share his social  account ID or phone number with students?).

It is time to push the envelope in putting in place new publishing approaches that help break content out if its 'black box', and messaging tools that smooth the flow of student contributions into the dialog.

We here at EBC admire the example set by Stack Exchange which makes heavy use of MathML through use of a dedicated MathJax JavaScript rendering engine to display truly attractive mathematic expressions. But we are also going one step further to add  'hooks' that allow students to reference parts of a problem solution in their on-line messages. And of course, you can't go into this space without doing the same thing for graphics and illustrations.

On the student side of the equation, until math and graphics drawing tools take a quantum leap on the mobile platform, the emphasis is on image annotation and exchange that don't require a nightmarish commitment from a school's IT department.

Finally, all this stuff needs to be wrapped into the ability to quickly form study groups connected to credible teachers and mentors in a scalable easy-to-use social infrastructure.

So yes, this 'next step' forward will be challenging, but we need to get beyond streamlining the distribution of lecture presentations. There needs to be more work in developing new publishing formats and presentation models (besides video and PDF),  better authoring tools, and new approaches to more easily merge on-line dialog into 'micro-references' of animated solutions, graphics, and typography.

This stuff is hard to do. And chances are there isn't a video that teaches one how to do it.

What about your team? What are your experiences in building better communication tools for your post-secondary institution's STEM students. I'd love to hear your feedback as comments to this posting on my social media sites – assuming I can remember them all...