Exclusive Interview with Dr. Lin Muilenburg, Associate Professor of Educational Studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland

November 15, 2013

Dr. Lin Muilengur, Associate Professor, Associate Professor of Educational Studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland

Dr. Lin Muilenburg, Associate Professor of Educational Studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland

Dr. Saba:  Dr. Muilenburg, would you please tell us about your educational and professional backgrounds?

Dr. Muilenburg: My early career began as a secondary biology, chemistry, and math teacher, but I’ve had the good fortune to experience a great deal of variety in my work life due to nearly a dozen relocations as a result of my spouse being an active duty military member.  After earning an M.A. in Instructional Systems Development (ISD) at University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), my focus turned to adult training and development and online learning. I coordinated the ISD Training Systems Program at UMBC and was an adjunct instructor there. Subsequently, I pursued a Ph.D. in Instructional Design and Development at the University of South Alabama while I taught online for UMBC and worked as an ISD consultant.

Relocation number eight changed my career trajectory in an unexpected and interesting way. While researching public schools to meet my own children’s academic needs, I discovered independent study charter schools. I was sold on the concept of offering totally individualized instruction targeted to a student’s needs in each content area, and got a teaching position at one. This experience truly changed my educational philosophy and convinced me that personalized education really is possible if the right structures and attitudes are in place to support it.

Subsequently, I worked in a large school district conducting data analysis and job-embedded staff development to help teachers meet the needs of underperforming students. I’m currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland teaching instructional technology and several other courses such as math and science methods and classroom management. My work focuses on transforming teacher practice by exploring new educational possibilities using technology tools.

Dr. Saba: How did you become interested in technology driven education?

Dr. Muilenburg: The most influential forces in developing my early interest in technology were two instructors in my masters program at UMBC:

Mr. Robert McLoughlin introduced me to computer-based training, and I found that I had an affinity for the type of instructional design work that combined the technical with the creative. It was always challenging for me to muster the concentration necessary to write a paper, but I could simply immerse myself in project development for hours on end. I’ve built on the skills I learned from Mr. McLoughlin over the years as I mastered more complex tools and then… how great for educators… all sorts of fascinating yet simple-to-use Web 2.0 tools.

Dr. Zane Berge introduced me to the world of distance education and computer-mediated communication when I was his graduate assistant at UMBC. Yes, while working with him I learned quite a bit about how to do research and that was an important part of my education. But what was more influential was that Zane changed the way I looked at technology. Through his mentorship I learned not just how to communicate online, but why someone would want to. Zane was my first meaningful online friend and the first person with whom I learned to collaborate electronically. These early interactions with Zane taught me that it is possible to have meaningful, deeply intellectual conversations with someone in a chat room, for example. He convinced me that there was an art and science to using these tools and I wanted to learn more about both.

My interest in mobile learning took off when I purchased my first iPhone, which quickly became an essential tool to my daily living. I still don’t play a single game or use Facebook or Twitter regularly (although I did try all of those things for a while). But I depend on a slew of apps for information, productivity, communication, education, travel, photography, entertainment, navigation, teaching, and health and safety.

In preparation for next year, I am developing a new undergraduate-level First Year Seminar course called Relationships 2.0. The course will examine the effects of digitalization on relationships, looking at both the pros and cons.



Dr. Saba:  What are some of the current research and development projects you are working on?

Dr. Muilenburg: I have a very eclectic research agenda that includes instructional technology, mobile learning, elearning, science education, and educational policy.  A couple of my current projects may be of interest to your readers:

I’m writing about my research which examines students’ and instructors’ views when comparing feedback on assignments provided using two different methods: written feedback using Text Expander and screencasted feedback using Jing. While there have been several previous studies that have examined the use of screencasting to provide feedback on student writing, I am used these tools in conjunction with scoring rubrics to provide feedback on students’ electronic portfolios containing multi-media projects. From the instructor’s perspective, I will discuss issues such as learning curves with the tools and ease of use, the time it takes to record the feedback, and the qualitative pros and cons of the two different tools. From the students’ perspective, I am examining such issues as which type of feedback was the most useful for revising their work, which made them feel the most connected to the instructor, how much time they thought the instructor spent providing the feedback, and how the feedback would influence their future work in the course.

I’m writing about my research which examines students’ and instructors’ views when comparing feedback on assignments provided using two different methods: written feedback using Text Expander and screencasted feedback using Jing.

In preparation for next year, I am developing a new undergraduate-level First Year Seminar course called Relationships 2.0. The course will examine the effects of digitalization on relationships, looking at both the pros and cons. Some examples of the types of phenomena we will explore include the changing nature of dating, how the meaning of friendship is evolving (e.g., the growing preference for mediated interaction such as texting, gaming, and Facebook over face-to-face interactions with one’s social network), how parent-child and student-teacher relationships change online, and the paradox that people feel more lonely the more time they spend in virtual relationships. These topics are ripe for exploration as digitalization becomes ever more pervasive in our personal and professional lives.

Dr. Saba:  You recently co-edited a book titled the Handbook of Mobile Learning. How did you conceptualize this project and select its international group of contributors? 

Handbook_of Mobiel_LearningDr. Muilenburg: My interest in writing about mobile learning stemmed from implementing mobile learning activities in my own classroom, and from action research projects I was conducting with pre-service teachers in the local K12 schools. The more I got into the field, the more my interest blossomed, so I began discussing the concept for a book with my long-time collaborator, Dr. Zane Berge.

Dr. Berge and I are great collaborators because he leans toward the theoretical and I tend to view things through the lens of a practitioner. We spent weeks fervently debating the approach to the Handbook because of our differences in perspective. It’s very gratifying that in your review, you specifically noted this balance between theory and practice as a strength.

Like any good researchers would do, we conducted an exhaustive literature review to fully understand the scope of the research that had been conducted to date. The lit review reaffirmed for us who the heavy hitters in the field are. We considered it critical that the top researchers participate in order for the book to be authoritative, so Dr. Berge wrote to each of them personally to invite them to contribute.  For certain individuals, we had specific topics in mind that we thought would be particularly apropos given their body of work. All of the other authors responded to the call for proposals with their own chapter ideas.

The Handbook of Mobile Learning includes nearly 100 authors from 23 countries. We felt it was critical to draw on research from around the world because the U.S. is not at the forefront of mobile learning research, and there is such an interesting array of work being done on different continents.  We are extremely proud to have many of the top researchers from around the world represented in the Handbook of Mobile Learning.

Dr. Saba: Have you received any feedback from your colleagues and students about the Handbook? How has it been received so far?

Dr. Muilenburg: Well, to be honest, I don’t know whether or not my students have read it, since I am currently on sabbatical.  (And yes, I am smiling as I write that.)

Colleague feedback to the book has been positive to date, and we have received several strong reviews including your review here at the Distance-Educator.com and one at the Float Mobile Learning Blog (see the hyperlinks below). Upon receiving their copies, many of the contributors sent Dr. Berge and me exceptionally enthusiastic emails (admittedly, this is somewhat biased!). But given the level of professional credentials of many of the authors, their endorsement of the final product is particularly gratifying.

Like any handbook, the Handbook of Mobile Learning is not meant to be read cover to cover, in one sitting … rather, I find most people read a subset of chapters that pertains to their particular interests at a given time. I know that I have already gone back to reread specific chapters since the book was released and I’ve read them all many times during the editorial process. I believe your readers will find it to be a valuable resource.

Reviews of the Handbook of Mobile Learning:

New Handbook of Mobile Learning Is Far-Reaching In Breadth and Depth

Book Review: The Handbook of Mobile Learning by Zane L. Berge, and Lin Y. Muilenburg

Dr. Saba:  How do you see the future of mobile learning, in particular, and the direction(s) that technology driven education may take in the future?

 Dr. Muilenburg: I think the future of mobile learning really depends on whether you are considering formal or informal learning environments. Educational systems are extremely resistant to change, so many educational institutions are years behind (and some schools are decades behind) in taking advantage of the capabilities of our computing devices. In self-directed learning or informal settings change can occur rapidly, so this is the area with greater promise. After all, the development of mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets, along with Web 2.0 tools, has been the impetus behind the recent revolution in informal learning. I will briefly discuss both formal and informal learning here in the context of the US educational system.

Despite the availability of digital tools, most classrooms today still function pretty much like they did 100 years ago. A large body of evidence shows that simply providing teachers with instructional technology does not change teaching practice. It takes extensive, ongoing training, support, and collaboration to develop an effective technology-driven instructional program that includes student-centered instruction, and project-based or inquiry-based learning. Development of this type of program is a significant investment in both the tools and the people. Given the fiscal realities faced by most educational systems, innovative leaders and individual risk-takers must often make difficult decisions to fund technology initiatives such as BYOD, 1-1 computing, tablet computing, blended and virtual learning opportunities to the detriment of other important goals.

Unfortunately in the U.S., the current national mandates of No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top require the development of new assessment and evaluation systems which force a redirection of the limited funding school systems have at their disposal. For example, this year 19 states are upgrading their computing and Internet security systems in preparation for the launch of the new PARCC assessments for the Common Core State Standards. The intensified focus on measurement and evaluation systems serves to entrench teacher-centered instruction and reduces the capacity for innovation. Testing will certainly be a boon for the development of technologies to support and remediate students who are not meeting the standards including supplemental and adaptive tutorial systems and blended and virtual classes. However, this environment does not inspire or promote the student-driven inquiry that mobile learning maximizes. I don’t see mobiles revolutionizing K12 schooling because our current educational system is not on a path that is consistent with the informal and self-directed learning for which mobiles are best suited.

At the higher education level, mobile learning is more feasible because there are fewer legal concerns and because college students have the latitude to participate in more self-directed learning. There is growing acceptance on campus that mobile devices really are invaluable learning and performance support tools in all sorts of situations and content areas. As mobile devices continue to become more powerful and further ingrained in our everyday lives and in our content areas, more professors will give assignments that utilize their unique capabilities.

What’s really interesting about mobile devices and digitalization in general, is trying to predict how informal learning is changing society and our views on formal learning. Using a mobile device, we now have free access to some of the best educational content in the world, anytime, anywhere. People worldwide are flocking to online courses, MOOCs, and degree programs. Sometimes the work posted online by amateurs becomes very popular – a phenomenon that has actually undermined the value of work contributed by experts. Add to this the frequent media attacks on the high costs and questionable value of a liberal arts college degree, and one has to wonder how long traditional programs will be able to continue business as usual.

What’s really interesting about mobile devices and digitalization in general, is trying to predict how informal learning is changing society and our views on formal learning.

It seems that we are shifting toward a marketplace model for higher education. In the future students will be able to cobble together credentials, certificates, or degrees by taking courses from any number of institutions or providers. They may choose to take college courses of varying credit values either on campus, online, or both.  They may take advantage of traditional on-campus experiences for part of their college careers, or choose to study together with students from around the world in a truly international experience (see the Minerva Project at http://www.minervaproject.com/). Exam centers or online proctors will be more common as students must pass assessments to show their competency to earn credentials. Perhaps we will see a model similar to the one developed by the Badges for Lifelong Learning project (http://www.hastac.org/groups/badges-lifelong-learning). Whatever the model looks like, I think the underlying concept is that learners now accustomed to the self-directed, informal learning afforded by digitalization will demand a more responsive, customizable educational product. Institutions need a model that is more flexible and can adapt more quickly to change. If educational institutions don’t provide it, entrepreneurs will.

Dr. Saba:  Thank you for an informative interview. 

Lin Y. Muilenburg, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Educational Studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She teaches graduate courses involving instructional technology, teaching methods, and classroom management. Her recent book, co-edited with Zane L. Berge, is the Handbook of Mobile Learning. (e-mail: lymuilenburg@smcm.edu)