Layering: Presence on Content
According to the Community of Inquiry theoretical framework/model a deep and meaningful educational experience occurs at the intersection of cognitive presence, teaching presence, and social presence. One of the most interesting innovations in educational technology over the last couple years has been the arrival of tools that harness the ability for students and/or faculty to layer communications on top of content, which offers the possibility of increasing all three types of presence. In distance learning, it is arguably social presence which is often most lacking, and these tools may be useful for increasing it.
One example, and perhaps one of the earliest sites to accomplish this, is VoiceThread.com. (See a great intro video on VoiceThread here or a previous post on this blog here.) With VoiceThread, one can upload a PowerPoint presentation, set of images, or other media (teaching presence), and then course members can have a conversation on top of the content, in text, audio or video, on each slide (cognitive presence). So rather than asking a question, making a comment or posting a link to a relevant site or research article somewhere else in a discussion forum, or waiting until the end of the presentation, this can occur on the very slide where the question or comment arises. And since the comments can be posted in audio/video in addition to just text, one can get a real sense of the person behind the comment (social presence).
Similarly, rather than reading a page or chapter in one location, then going to another to have a discussion, answer a few quiz questions, or complete an assignment - it can happen at specific points within the content itself. For those who use textbooks, here are two examples from the publishing world that take this a step further: FlatWorldKnowledge.com (intro video) and Cengage's MindTap (intro video) are both e-book publishers with quite different business models, but which both are putting out e-books which allow faculty to customize their electronic textbooks and add interactivity and communication in another layer on top of the content, in various devices. They allow users to make electronic notes and highlights, chat with other learners, and store their information in the cloud. MindTap integrates with several other systems, such as Google Apps, Kaltura, and ConnectYard, and nearly negates the need for a separate course management system. Instructors can not only customize the e-book by re-ordering, deleting, or adding to it, they can insert links to web resources and articles and have class discussions, assignments, quizzes, and even manage grades using MindTap's cloud-based interactive layer.
FlatWoldKnowledge seems to be headed in a similar direction: allowing instructors to create highly customized content (but based on e-books FWK creates and sells), allowing learners to take notes and highlight items, chat with one another, and add their own input on top of the content. FlatWorld even has a revenue-sharing model whereby users can create study-aids for the content and upload & sell their creations in an online marketplace.
Finally, I should mention Diigo.com (see intro video on main site page). While Diigo started out as a "social bookmarking" tool, similar to delicious.com, it has evolved into much more. One can now use Diigo not only to bookmark and tag sites, articles, web pages, and so on; one can highlight, take notes, and store links and information in a cloud-based "library" that is accessible from many different devices. Students can use Diigo to help organize learning resources, take notes, tag items for future retrieval, and sharing or finding other resources via searching or contacts and connections. Instructors and students can set up Diigo groups - for sharing resources using common tags, and these groups and/or tags can feed a widget which can be embedded into most Learning Management Systems - so that any time a course participant adds a new resource, it will show up within the course space. Diigo is also very "education-friendly" in that they have special "educator accounts" available to anyone with a .edu email address.
So whether you create your own content, have students create content, use content from publishers, or simply access and manage content from around the web, there are an increasing number of options that can add layers to increase interactivity and presence.