Online Learning: Trends, Models And Dynamics In Our Education Future - Part 2
How are you going to certify your knowledge in the near future? While it is unlikely that general educational degrees will maintain their value and business currency, it is increasingly probable that your "value" will be in good part vouched for by the "portfolio" of your online experiences, social reputation and past Internet learning-related activities.
Photo credit: alastor
In the future, what you will learn outside of school, through your other experiences, the connection with your peers, the projects you participate in will be fully acknowledged, recorded and even credited. Your key life experiences will be recognized as being one of the key components of what will be seen as a lifelong personal learning path. Your Flickr photo-stream, your blog writings, your videos on YouTube, and like these many other significant activities you will take online, are going to determine your public learning persona and educational profile.
In Part 2 (Part 1) of this exploratory voyage in the future of learning, Stephen Downes shares an accurate analysis of the trends and dynamics driving our relationship with institutional and informal learning, and allows you to assess and anticipate how education and our perception of it is going to be deeply transformed in the coming years.
The Future of Online Learning: Ten Years On
by Stephen Downes
Content Versus Conversation
Our picture of learning technology today – whether it be an LMS like Blackboard or Desire2Learn, an authoring system such as Connexions, or a resource such as OpenCourseWare - is that learning systems are essentially content delivery systems. Hence, they are typically based on a publication model of storage and distribution, are institutionally based, and tend to focus on mass deliveries of common materials to classes or cohorts. We see this in the design of the system, the technical specifications (such as ‘content packaging’) and in their deployment.
The personal learning environment, however, is not based on the principle of access to resources. It should more accurately be viewed as a mechanism to interact with multiple services. (Milligan, 2006)
The personal learning environment is more of a conferencing tool than it is a content tool. The focus of a personal learning environment is more on creation and communication than it is consumption and completion. It is best to think of the interfaces facilitated by a personal learning environment as ways to create and manipulate content, as applications rather than resources. In particular, that the various channels created by the PLE enable is for a student to form a set of connections with a collection of individuals at any given point.
In 1998, I referred to this as the Quest Model, based on the idea of ad hoc collections of people grouping together to solve puzzles in online multi-user environments such as Multi User Dungeons (MUDs). This model has become much more widespread, but no less ad hoc, as people today connect with each other to have distributed conversations, to create wiki entries, to collect resources in discussion threads, and like activities.
In the Quest Model, each achievement would become a part of a personal profile, a part of a learning record that would in turn inform future challenges. This idea is reflected today in the concept of the e-portfolio, where the products created through the process of engagement and interaction are stored and (digitally) mounted for display.
We see today the idea of an e-portfolio taking hold outside traditional learning - people have their own blogs, their own Flickr photo portfolios, art projects on Deviant Art, game modifications, fan fiction, open source software, and much more.
The products of our conversations are as concrete as test scores and grades. (Ryan, 2007) But, as the result of a complex and interactive process, they are much more complex, allowing not only for the measurement of learning, but also for the recognition of learning.
As it becomes easier to simply see what a student can accomplish, the idea of a coarse-grained proxy, such as grades, will fade to the background.
The educational institution is unlikely to disappear, but it is unlikely also to remain the sole locus of student learning.
Educational institutions will need more and more to think of themselves as part of a larger system, and as their offerings as entities that will become a part of, and interact with, the larger environment. Consider, for example, the photo editor that connects to Flickr, described above. Now imagine what an art appreciation resource would look like, how it would interact with Flickr photos. (Unattributed, 2006)
Educational technologists should additionally not only think of themselves as building systems that contribute to the network of resources, but also of systems that draw from that network to create value-added resources.
For example, a recent TED demonstration saw an application that created a three-dimensional composite image of Notre Dame Cathedral composed from thousands of Flickr photos. (Arcas, 2007) Educational institutions can in the same way create pictures of our understanding of other - less concrete - concepts that can be found in the thousands and millions of bits of content created by people around the world.
This is the fundamental understanding behind a learning theory developed to describe learning in networks, connectivism. (Siemens, 2004) The theory proposes that knowledge is contained, not merely in the bits of information transmitted to and fro as content and creations, but in the way these contents, and the people that create them, link together.
Just as the activation of the pixels on a television screen form an image of a person, so also the bits of information we create and we consume form patterns constituting the basis of our knowledge, and learning is consequently the training our own individualized neural networks - our brains - to recognize these patterns.
The purpose of educational institutions, therefore, is not merely to create and distribute learning opportunities and resources, but also to facilitate a student’s participation in a learning environment - a game, a community, a profession - through the provision of the materials that will assist him or her to, in a sense, see the world in the same way as an accomplished expert; and this is accomplished not merely by presenting learning materials to the learner, but by facilitating the engagement of the learner in conversations with members of that community of experts.
As discussed above, educational institutions will need to see themselves as providers of learning resources (and not merely learning objects). These resources will be online services that connect students with:
- learning content;
- simulations, and
- other activities;
- ad hoc communities of learners;
- and experts and
- other practitioners.
They will be specialized multimedia content consumption, editing and authoring systems designed to facilitate a student’s ability to perceive and perform as modeled by experts in a community of practice.
These resources will not be inert content objects, but rather, will need to be able to learn about the environment they are being offered in, be able to learn about the student, and to get this information not just locally but from wherever it may be on the internet. Thus, such resources must be able to communicate state and other information to and from other (authorized) systems and services. They may, therefore, be fully-fledged web services, but they are just as likely to be lightweight applications depending on other simple services to do much of this work for them.
Today, institutions do not yet know how to deliver information to other systems. Beyond interlibrary loans, we have (at best) identity federation systems such as Shibboleth.
Learning resource sharing networks, such as Globe, are small, ineffective, and exclusive. However, institutions are beginning to learn to prepare content for distribution through remote systems, such as the provision of lectures for delivery through iTunes University.
Such systems will evolve over time into a mature system of open content distribution, facilitated through open access mandates, repository and other server software, and content and interaction standards.
Flow and Syndication
Understanding learning as ‘conversation’ (Sharples, 2005) also allows us to look at the management and distribution of learning resources a bit differently.
Today, as noted above, we tend to think of such resources as static and bibliographical, like books in a library, where contents are ‘published’ and then ‘stored’. This view is evident in much of the discussion that surrounds learning technology today.
We think of work as being stored in a research repository, indexed and archived, in such a way that we can search for them, typically through a catalogue (or metadata) system, and retrieve them. (Barker, 2007) The major concerns of educators in this environment are things like persistence and provenance, copyright and reproduction. (Jantz & Giarlo, 2005)
In the networked learning environment, however, learning resources are best thought of not as content objects about a discipline that are retrieved and studied, but rather as words in a multimedia vocabulary that is used by students and teachers in an ongoing conversation within a discipline to engage in projects and activities. (Downes, The New Literacy, 2002)
Content and learning resources, rather than being thought of as static objects, ought to be thought of as a dynamic flow. They are more like water or electricity and they are like books and artifacts.
The technology of learning - and of the web generally - is evolving to accommodate flow. (Jarche, Learning is Conversation, 2005)
Probably the most significant development in the last ten years has been the deployment of the Rich Site Summary standard - RSS - that allowed content creators to syndicate their writings and other creations. Using RSS feed readers, web users do not go to web pages or search for content, but rather, subscribe to RSS feeds and let the content come to them. (Downes, An Introduction to RSS for Educational Designers, 2003)
Most educators, and most educational institutions, have not yet embraced the idea of flow and syndication in learning. They will - reluctantly - because it provides the learner with the means to manage and control his or her learning. They can keep unwanted content to a minimum (and this includes unwanted content from an institution). And they can manage many more sources - or content streams - using feed reader technology.
RSS and related specifications will be one of the primary ways Personal Learning Environments connect with remote systems. To use a PLE will be essentially to immerse oneself in the flow of communications that constitutes a community of practice in some discipline or domain on the internet.
What It Isn’t
When people think of personalized online learning, they frequently think of adaptive systems, learning programs powered by artificial intelligences that test a student’s competence, formulate customized lesson plans based on those pre-tests, and then measure a student’s performance though a series of online activities. (Boticario & Santos, 2007)
While people will no doubt pursue solo learning activities (just as they, by themselves, read books today) this will not constitute the core of the learning experience in the future (just as reading books does not constitute the core of learning today).
Even though learning systems will be able to auto-grade tests, will be able to track progress through a set of learning activities, and will be able to facilitate a wide variety of measures, these results will not constitute, by themselves, ‘evidence’ of learning.
Students will demand that there be a human element to evaluation, as they realize that their own performance is varied and complex, and may not be measured accurately by a machine, and employers and others will require a human element, because they will understand that humans devise endless schemes to ‘game’ or otherwise trick automated systems.
In the end, what will be evaluated is a complex portfolio of a student’s online activities. (Syverson & Slatin, 2006) These will include not only the results from games and other competitions with other people and with simulators, but also their creative work, their multimedia projects, their interactions with other people in ongoing or ad hoc projects, and the myriad details we consider when we consider whether or not a person is well educated.
Though there will continue to be ‘degrees’, these will be based on a mechanism of evaluation and recognition, rather than a lockstep marching through a prepared curriculum. And educational institutions will not have a monopoly on such evaluations (though the more prestigious ones will recognize the value of aggregating and assessing evaluations from other sources).
Earning a degree will, in such a world, resemble less a series of tests and hurdles, and will come to resemble more a process of making a name for oneself in a community. The recommendation of one person by another as a peer will, in the end, become the standard of educational value, not the grade or degree.
About the author
Born in Montreal (Quebec, Canada), Stephen Downes is based in Moncton, New Brunswick. At the Institute for Information Technology's e-Learning Research Group, Stephen has become a leading voice in the areas of learning objects and metadata as well as the emerging fields of weblogs in education and content syndication. Downes is widely accepted as the central authority for online education in the edublogging community. He is also widely accepted as the originator of ELearning 2.0. Downes. Downes is also the Editor at Large of the International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning. For more information about his career and to access his multiple web sites please see this About Stephen Downes web page.Stephen Downes -
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