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Innovation. Inspiration. Connection.
A Review of the Distance Teaching and Learning Conference 2017

By Anita Samuel / October 2017

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A Google search for "eLearning conferences 2017" returns a staggering 6,490,000 results in 0.62 seconds. With so many options, how do we decide which conference(s) to attend? If you are involved in eLearning, in any capacity, one conference to consider is the annual Distance Teaching and Learning Conference held on the banks of Lake Monona at the Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison, Wisconsin. This conference provides an opportunity for eLearning professionals to network, identify trends, and experience new educational technologies.

The 33rd Distance Teaching and Learning Conference promoted "Innovation. Inspiration. Connection." and was held from July 25-July 27. It brought together eLearning instructors, instructional designers, and educational technologists from various fields including higher education, K-12 education, the corporate sector, the military, and healthcare. Information sessions, speed sessions, ePosters, think tanks, spotlight sessions, and various discussions were held over the span of three days-there was always something to cater to everyone's interest.

It is impossible for one person to review the conference in its entirety, instead I will focus on the trends that appeared, some interesting features of the conference, and some takeaways.


This year, there were three identifiable trends: competency based education (CBE), augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), and accessibility.

Competency based education (CBE). The conference kicked-off with a keynote from Southern New Hampshire University's Michelle Weise, who spoke about disruptive design. She proposed the true disruption for online learning is CBE, which is forcing a re-envisioning of traditional educational structures. eLearn Magazine editorial board member and Capella University faculty member, Rena Palloff led a think tank on CBE and throughout the conference there were discussions, information sessions, ePosters, and spotlight sessions on CBE. A number of issues related to CBE were raised such as: "How can existing educational structures accommodate competency based models of education?"; "Can the competency based model embrace social learning?"; "How and what do we assess?"; and "How do we retain students?" Digital credentialing and badging were explored, in tandem with CBE, as valid indicators of learner skills.

In all the discussions, one interesting point that kept repeating was educational institutions are having to rethink their concept of how education is conducted. They have to develop new models to accommodate CBE. CBE truly is disrupting traditional notions of education.

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Being a technology nerd, most of the sessions I attended were about AR and VR. Video game industry vet, Gordon Bellamy started things off during his spotlight session; he transported the audience to a virtual rave on the Steam game platform. He also invited eLearn's co-editor-in-chief, Simone Conceição , on stage for a hands-on demo.

Figure 1. Gordon Bellamy demonstrates Steam to Simone Conceição
(Credit: Scott Norris, Distance Teaching & Learning Conference, 2017)
[click to enlarge]

Bellamy also introduced attendees to Facebook Spaces where VR users can meet and interact with virtual avatars of their friends. While Spaces tries to expand reality by enabling avatars to meet in Egypt, in space, or underwater, the need for social interactions was apparent during Bellamy's attempt to re-create physical interactions such as "high-fives."

He also conducted a follow-up discussion session that provided a space to explore the possibilities afforded by AR and VR. The conversations touched on a few practical implications of virtual reality:

  1. Virtual spaces could enable educational institutions to provide more services to students without the need for a physical set up.
  2. Online classes could embrace these technologies and allow students to meet in VR for discussions or informal get-togethers. There is potential for alleviating the sense of isolation that students experience online.
  3. VR simulations could enable users to don alternate identities and experience life in very different ways. For example, participating in a simulation as a member of a minority population would help users understand discrimination from a more personal level.

Along with this, the current challenges with VR were also explored:

  1. No parent wants their child to spend long periods of time wearing a helmet. The VR paraphernalia, in its current form, is cumbersome and unappealing. It cuts the user off from the "real" reality around them and that is not an experience everyone enjoys.
  2. The cost. VR is still beyond the reach of most people. VR requires special equipment in addition to high-end computers that can support the technology.
  3. While the hardware exists, there is insufficient software. For example, though there exists the potential to explore the human body in wonderful new ways, the models for this have yet to be created.

Rose Cameron of Penn State also underscored the need for software to complement VR hardware. She stressed that in the near future, the demand will grow exponentially for those who could code for VR software and with that, VR could become more widely adopted.

The complexity of models for VR and the programming requirements were on display at the Mirum Learning exhibitor's booth. At their exhibit, physics and engineering became real as the user studied flying an airplane.

It is clear that VR provides amazing, immersive experiences. But it was also obvious that it is resource heavy. The technologies of VR and AR have a long way to go before they can be accessible to the regular educator.

Accessibility. The topic of accessibility evolved into a stand-alone thread in the conference. Issues surrounding accessibility were examined in a Spotlight session led by eLearn editorial board member, Dr. Thomas Tobin. While discussing the implications of accessibility compliance for institutions, the speakers also broadened the scope of the term "accessibility" beyond disability services. Accessibility is now about creating inclusive experiences for all users.

There were a number of other sessions looking at other aspects of accessibility. Tools for creating accessible content were introduced; faculty development was shown to be an important element in creating accessible and inclusive course content; the challenges of meeting accessibility standards in courses were discussed; and, the lack of accessibility in new technologies was also reported.

Closed-captioning, open textbook resources, searchable PDFs, appropriately sized fonts, and color schemes were all shown to be considerations within accessibility. As Tom Tobin succinctly put it, "Not accessible is not acceptable."

Instructional designers. An interesting development at this conference is the increasing number of instructional designers who are in attendance. It is obvious that more and more organizations and educational institutions are employing the services of instructional designers. The tension between instructional designers and faculty were the topic of a few presentations, while informal conversations also touched on the fraught relationships.

The advances in competency based education, accessibility issues, and new technologies mean institutions are going to rely more heavily on instructional designers. Their positionality within education will need to be discussed as we move ahead.

Information Sessions

The conference included numerous speed sessions, information sessions, and ePosters. Topics that have been discussed for years continue to appear such as faculty adoption of technology, competencies required to teach online, online educator beliefs and assumptions, and moving face-to-face courses online. It is clear while great strides have been made in online learning, there is a long way to go. It is easy to be swept away by the thrill and hype of new technologies and fail to realize most faculty are still wary of online teaching.

Pre-Conference Events and Special Interest Groups

The DT&L conference also offered workshops, conference certificates, and symposia ahead of the official conference. This year saw the launch of the "Distance Education Research Symposium" that focused on research in distance education and how to move research forward. Panelists included Chris Dede, Karen Swan, and Ellen Wagner, to name a few. With opportunities for roundtable discussions and Q&A sessions, this was an opportunity to network and learn from each other. There were a number of workshops on specific technologies and how to leverage them in classrooms. By popular demand, Ray Schroeder conducted his emerging technology workshop.

This year, DT&L offered four Special Interest Groups (SIGs) that participants could join: Military Distance Educators, Workforce Development, Healthcare Online Educators, and Librarians Supporting Distance Education. These SIGs were opportunities for participants in similar fields to network and share ideas.


The exhibition hall was filled with exciting new technologies that could enhance teaching and learning. In between the various sessions, I managed to video interview a few of the exhibitors (Hoonuit, Mirum Learning, Forio, and Ilos) who explained their products and how it could benefit educators and students.

Final Thoughts

For an online learning educator like me, this conference is on my annual calendar. It is a place to discover what other educators and institutions are doing; to understand new trends and see how distance education is evolving; and, to try out new technologies. The option to attend the conference virtually makes it accessible to a wider audience. It's an event not to be missed!

About the Author

Anita Samuel, Ph.D., is currently Assistant Professor in the Health Professions Education program at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. She received her doctorate in Adult and Continuing Education from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where she now teaches courses on distance learning, instructional technology, and organizational change. She has also worked, for more than a decade, in Malaysia serving an international student population. Her current research interests include faculty experiences in online learning, faculty development, online education in health professions, and instructional design.

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2017 Copyright held by the Owner/Author. 1535-394X/17/10-3152718


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