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Technologies for Learning

Alban Weekly feature article, May 19, 2008
Wayne Whitson Floyd, Education Department Manager

At Alban we take seriously our educational mission to provide an independent center of learning that creates spaces where people from different denominations and faith traditions can work toward their goals and learn from one another in an atmosphere of respect and collegiality. Whatever the style of an Alban Learning event – keynote address, seminar, online webinar – in every case our intent is to examine the questions, challenges, and opportunities that face real congregations in today’s world, focusing on the needs of their leaders, both clergy and laity. The growing number of possibilities for using Web-based technologies for learning makes it even more crucial that we know our educational mission first, and then ask whether and how specific technologies may help us accomplish that mission most effectively.

We are discovering that there are Web-based learning technologies that can contribute significantly to the quality of your continuing education and that can allow you to do more of it at your own pace and schedule. These technological tools are commended to you here not for their whiz-bang ingenuity—although there is plenty of that—but for their ability to help us fulfill our goal of transforming congregational leaders so that you can accomplish your own missional objectives most effectively.

On our own staff we are starting to use video conferencing to communicate with our sister organization, the Center for Congregations in Indianapolis. Our consultants use WebEx (click here for demo) webinars to provide a richer experience than telephone conferencing alone. And we are trying out an in-house blog, Alban Connection, to share work that will benefit from comments from our Alban colleagues.

If you’re reading this online through either Alban Weekly (our weekly electronic newsletter), you are participating already in one of the learning technologies that Alban has found most useful. Yet this form of electronic communications—as well as even such innovative websites as our own www.Alban.org—has tended toward mainly one-way communication, with a provider transmitting information to you much as radio and TV had done previously.

Now a second generation of online resources, which goes by the generic name Web 2.0, is opening up a two-way, participatory experience of the web, where users not only have access to provider-based content, but the users themselves are encouraged to produce some of the content themselves. Simple examples of this are blogs (from Web logs) that allow you to interact with the author of the site—and also with one another—by leaving comments on articles or information posted there. Other simple examples are Flickr®—a photo sharing site—or the web-browser social bookmarking program del.icio.us. Alban’s Congregational Resource Guide (CRG), for example, already is moving beyond serving as an electronic library or resource center to being a site that invites your contributions, evaluations, and reflections about the resources needed for vital congregations.

Until recently all of these resources required you, the user, not just to discover the websites and blogs that were of interest to you, but to take the initiative regularly to check back to see if anything new had shown up. Most sites now provide RSS Feeds—links to a website or blog that actively “push” or publish frequently updated information into a reader or “aggregator” program on your computer, such as Sage, NewsGator, or Google Reader. Examples of this technology at work through the Alban Institute include the Alban Institute RSS Feed, the Indianapolis Center for Congregations RSS Feeds, or the AlbanLearning RSS Feed.

You also will notice that Alban is using much more audio and video content on our website, blogs, and the CRG site. One way that is happening is through audio and video podcasts—short recordings of our staff, consultants, and other event leaders introducing themselves and their work to you. You can listen to these online or download them to your computer or an mp3 player for later enjoyment. The www.AlbanLearning.org blog posts YouTube videos and PowerPoint slideshows. And in addition to short videos already used to introduce our consultants (example), we are exploring streaming video for future online seminars that will provide a full audiovisual presentation of our Web-based educational events.

One of the most exciting new developments has been the use of the WebEx platform for webinars, or Web-based seminars, that combines traditional telephone conferencing with the ability to make presentations of curricular materials to you in real time through PowerPoint presentations, video, whiteboards, or questionnaires. These webinars can be live events that allow interaction and question-raising with the leader of the webinar – through audio links or by typing questions in an on-screen text window. All of our webinars also are recorded so that you may listen to them in the future at your own leisure.

The same sort of social-networking software that made possible such well-known sites as MySpace and Facebook is in the process of being adapted by Alban (using Ning.com) as a potential tool to help foster networks of conversation among ministry professionals with similar concerns and resources and needs. Alban also is exploring the use of user-generated encyclopedias and research tools, called Wikis (the best known being Wikipedia), that already are being used in educational contexts using platforms like pbwiki.com. Stay tuned for developments on both of these fronts!

For those of us who began our formal classroom education using blackboards, chalk, and erasers, an appreciation of the value of these “learning technologies” is almost certainly an acquired taste. If the idea of HTML coding, Facebook accounts, streaming video, blogs, social networking, or Wikis makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck, don’t despair; you have lots of company. Yet Alban believes that there is significant value for your ministry in just knowing what others in the church are doing with Web-based technologies, even if personally you’re not quite ready to go there.

It’s easiest to think that the technological divide between those who are and aren’t comfortable with Web-based learning is merely a generational one. I have come to realize, however, that it is mostly experiential. Our comfort zone with technology depends mostly on our familiarity with it. Recently I heard an online learning expert from IBM describe this succinctly: “It’s not technology if it existed when you were born.” “Technology” is the stuff we have to learn about when it comes along later in life, as opposed to those things that for us simply were “there” when we arrived in the world—they are just part of the reality we live in.

Take, for example, the generation of radios that succeeded my grandfather’s Philco 8- tube radio in its black Bakelite case in his living room when I was a boy. For him this was technology, for as a child he had not even had electricity readily available. I was born, however, three years after Bell Labs invented the transistor in 1947. So I didn’t have to grow up worrying about how semiconductors worked, or capacitors, or light-emitting diodes. I just remember how utterly cool it was to have my own radio that didn’t have to sit in the living room like a small piece of furniture, but went in my front shirt pocket, even though it was the size and weight of a box of Juicy Juice.

“Technology” came along for me, too, in the form of my first Kaypro computer in 1982 that ran on the CPM operating system. “Technology,” too, was the world of dial-up modems and wondering “where” the internet is, and learning about e-mail, and much later putting my first rudimentary Web page online. It was my first cell phone that was the size of a 1-Liter bottle of soda. All of it was awkward, scary, and full of calamitous potential.

I embraced these technological tools not just because I was fascinated with HowStuffWorks, but because my Kaypro was better than using WiteOut while typing; e-mail was cheaper than long-distance telephone and didn’t wake anyone up when you wrote it at 2 a.m.; and as a teacher, online research and library resources were available whenever I had need of them. Yet each new link in the evolutionary chain of technology was experienced as much as an obstacle as a possibility. The question in adopting it always has been, and remains for us at Alban, does the potential justify the initial jitters we experience? And are we changing our educational goals just to use new technology, or are we advancing our educational mission most faithfully by finding the very best tools at our disposal, some of which are online?

At Alban we are clear that our central learning goal remains the same now as always: to provide help you can trust as you examine the questions, challenges, and opportunities facing real congregations and their leaders—clergy and laity—in today’s world. As we seek the best tools available for this work at any given time, we depend on you to let us know what does and doesn’t serve your needs and how our uses of learning technologies do or don’t enhance your educational experiences with Alban. Leave comments on our blog www.AlbanLearning.org or email me at education@alban.org. Learning is always a team effort; thanks for helping Alban keep it that way.

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