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A Recap of the 18th Annual Sloan Consortium Conference on Online Learning
A new direction in learning

By Melissa A. Venable / October 2012

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Last week's 18th Annual Sloan Consortium Conference on Online Learning lived up to the theme, "At a Crossroads: Online Education in a Complex World."

The Sloan Consortium conference draws a diverse group of instructors, administrators, support services providers, technology experts, and instructional designers working in a range of education and training settings, but with shared goals related to improving online learning. This year more than 1,500 attendees participated from the Orlando venue, while 1,300 joined streamed sessions online.

Several threads emerged through keynote and plenary panels, session and poster presentations, and the conversations these events sparked both in person and online:

  • Scaling for Global Reach: It's been the year of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) and expanded online offerings at a variety of institutions. Participants discussed, and often debated, the possibilities for making learning opportunities available to large groups of learners. Distance education was explored not only in terms of geography, but also of access. First-hand accounts from instructors and messages from students, such as those included in Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun's keynote address, were inspiring.
  • Serving Student Needs: New online programs can be helpful from the institution standpoint to increase revenue, but the real bottom line involves the learners. Presenters shared their research and lessons learned for improving outcomes and the overall learning experience with a focus on creating high quality courses. A plenary session panel—with representatives from Education Trust, University of Phoenix, and the University of Massachusetts—also called on educators to address student support for program completion, as well as the needs and expectations of today's online learners for career advancement and workforce preparation.
  • Increasing Collaboration and Communication: It seems clear that purposeful data analysis will drive many decisions about the future of online learning. And large collaborative efforts—like projects presented by plenary speaker Arfon Smith, Director of the Citizen Science program at The Adler Planetarium in Chicago—may help us to create better ways to understand the vast amounts of data we're collecting in online education, with an eye for both accuracy and serendipity.

The professional development opportunities at the conference extended beyond the workshops and sessions to include opportunities to connect with other online learning professionals through social media. Networking began pre-conference with a Twitter hashtag (#aln12), LinkedIn event, and digital badges, and continued in person and online.

Through continued exploration of different models and approaches applied to a variety of contexts in our complex world, we may find the future of online learning in a host of new directions, not just one path, moving forward. And it will be our shared experiences and collaborative efforts that lead the way.

For those unable to attend, the Sloan Consortium has made the keynote and plenary session recordings available online, as well as curated streams of conference tweets and images using Storify.

About the Author

Melissa A. Venable is an instructional designer with experience in industry and higher education (public, private, and for-profit). She is an education writer for's "Inside Online Learning" blog where she also hosts a weekly live chat. Venable's background includes supporting students as a career counselor, academic advisor, and instructor. She earned her doctorate in curriculum and instruction - instructional technology at the University of South Florida, focusing on the online delivery of career services. She also works as an adjunct online instructor and can be found on Twitter @Melissa_Venable.

© 2012 ACM 1535-394X/12/10 $15.00

DOI: 10.1145/2380716.2384576


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