These days, teens adapt to new technologies like fish take to water. But many educators have been slow to adopt the trend of accompanying lectures with multimedia and other 21st century technologies. What's standing between old habits and new technologies, and how can students and teachers begin to revolutionize education using new tools?

An ethical obligation?

According to Curtis Bonk, Ph.D., professor of Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University, educators have an ethical obligation to consider using technology to enable students’ learning. Bonks, who has penned several widely used books, including The World Is Open: How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education, says it’s not as simple as responding to students’ expectations that courses will have a Web component.

“It’s a global phenomenon,” he says. “Today, because storage is cheaper and because we’ve been doing this for more than a decade, there are more ways in which people are taking advantage of this to learn. Not only are students expecting us to because they’re on the Web all the time, but also because it’s possible—the possibilities are there.” Bonk goes so far as to say that professors have almost no excuse not to start experimenting with multimedia, podcasts, YouTube clips, iPhone applications, etc.

Teaching teachers technology

His enthusiasm for new technologies and their possible applications in the classroom is contagious. Bonk admits, though, that the main excuse for many professors is a reasonable one: It’s simply overwhelming to learn about these new technologies. Though many 5-year-olds today can operate an iPhone with ease, it may not be so easy for the 50-year-old professor who is accustomed to standing behind a podium and interacting with the students in the standard lecture or discussion format.

Another of Bonk’s recent books, Empowering Online Learning, helps teachers meet the challenge of creating engaging educational experiences that incorporate technology. “I’ve tried to create frameworks to help teachers,” Bonk says. The book walks the reader through what Bonk calls the “R2D2 framework”—Read, Reflect, Display, and Do—and it offers more than 100 practical activities that can be used in higher learning and K-12 education. “Without a framework, teachers can get overwhelmed if they’re not accustomed to using technology in the classroom,” Bonk says. “But we have to remember, teachers were overwhelmed with the technology in the 1950s—with film projectors!”

Integrating technology into student-teacher relationship

Randy Garrison, Ed.D., education professor and director of the Teaching & Learning Centre at the University of Calgary in Canada, understands professors’ frustration with this new open world. “I have a lot of sympathy for professors who are struggling to integrate the technology, because they actually need a lot of support,” he says. “It’s an enormous challenge to sit back and rethink and redesign your course, which is really what you need to do to take advantage of technology.”

Ultimately, Garrison says, fully taking advantage of the technology allows professors to engage students in meaningful ways. “What you don’t want to do is just add technology on top of what you’re already doing,” he says. “Students will never do the optional activities. What you have to do is fully integrate technology into the goals of the course—that way you end up with a much more effective and coherent course.”

The Internet and online technologies and programs, Bonk says, open up the world of learning and exploration into opportunities that didn’t exist a decade ago. “Teachers should be embracing this,” he says. “It’s really very exciting.” One of the exciting aspects of the new open world is the idea that students can communicate online—create online communities of learning. Online learning is distinguished from distance education, according to Garrison, in that it is typically not self-directed and it is typically interactive.

Ron Owston, Ph.D., professor of education and director of the Institute for Research on Learning Technologies (IRLT) at York University in Canada, explains that though most undergraduate students are looking for technology in education, they do not want a fully online learning experience. “They want to meet their professors and fellow students,” Owston says. “What seems to be appealing to students is this idea of blended course, where there is a fair amount of technology in the course but they still have some face-to-face contact.”

Blended learning

Blended learning is an educational environment that has taken off in the past decade, and this is something, Owston says, that recent research shows is very effective. “It gives students flexibility and allows them to work whenever they want to—at 2:00 in the morning if they want.” Blended learning courses utilize online discussion groups, video conferences, and other Web technologies to engage students in interactive learning that can be done from just about anywhere.

The University of Central Florida has strategically implemented blended learning into its institutional practice. “They’re really the leader in terms of an institutional strategy,” Owston says. “They’ve found that students by and large tend to prefer this. And it’s cut down on capital—they’re able to make better use of existing resources.” Owston explains that a survey he conducted of Canadian faculty shows that teachers also find the blended learning approach satisfying. “In fact, they found that they were able to get to know the students better because they had more opportunity to read their writing,” Owston says.

Garrison’s recent research has also focused on blended learning. “There is a lot of evidence to suggest that it’s even more effective than other learning environments,” he says. “It combines two kinds of communication—face-to-face verbal communication and online written communication. It’s a more rigorous and enhanced way to learn," Garrison says.

Blended learning environments include low-residency programs, where students come to campus for a few weeks over the summer and study online during the school year. This type of arrangement can be particularly beneficial for the person who is employed full-time or who has a family.

Online degree programs

Still others are looking for a fully online education. Many universities now have online degree programs, including the Open University, a fully online university that has what they call “supported open learning.” The Open University has more than 150,000 undergraduates and 30,000 graduate students.

And then there are those nontraditional students who have no intention of entering a classroom or even an online degree program. For these individuals, there’s the Open Courseware Consortium, started by MIT, an international initiative whereby institutions such as Johns Hopkins, Tufts and UC Berkeley share their materials online.

Peer2Peer University and University of the People are online communities of open study groups for short university-level courses. These universities are free of charge, and people self-direct through the content, which includes existing open courseware.

How is technology changing higher education? It’s about more than YouTube clips, online syllabi and tests, and communicating with professors via email—it’s about, as Bonk says, revolutionizing education.