Online Learning: Trends, Models And Dynamics In Our Education Future - Part 1
"In the future students will not be constrained by the limits of the classroom model. They will set their own curriculum and proceed at their own pace. Learning can thus be based on a student's individual needs, rather than as predefined in a formal class, and based on a student's schedule, rather than that set by the institution."
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In the future you will see that the choice of learning opportunities will be embedded in other activities just like players learn in the course of a game, for example. "They do not first learn how to play the game, and then play it. Rather, they begin playing the game, and as they attempt to achieve goals or perform tasks, the learning they need is provided in that context."
Personal Learning Environments will become more popular giving gradual way to an educational curriculum based on one's personal, context-based, learning needs.
What will happen in the future is that learners will be offered learning resources according to their specific and personal interests, aptitudes, skills and already attained educational levels, while in the course of attending their job, playing a game or exploring a new kind of activity.
Stephen Downes takes you to uncover many of the new trends, innovations and dynamics that will likely shape the way you and I will learn and educate ourselves in the near future.
The Future of Online Learning: Ten Years On
by Stephen Downes
We now have powerful and inexpensive computers we can sling over our shoulder or carry in our shirt pocket. (Yamamoto, 2006) These computers are connected wirelessly to the internet at bandwidths sufficient to allow instant multimedia communication anywhere on the planet. These computers will only improve in the years ahead, becoming faster, slimmer, and more affordable. And we are not at the point where we are seeing the possibility that education may be deeply personalized.
To date, much of our attention, even in the field of online learning, has been focused on a system of learning centered on the class or cohort: groups of students studying the same curriculum pace through the same set of learning activities. (Fenning, 2004)
We continue to organize classes in grades, sorted, especially in the earlier years, by age. Time continues to be the dominant metaphor for units of learning, and learning continues to be constrained by time.
As it was ten years ago, the model is that of a group of people starting at the same time, studying the same materials at the same pace, and ending at the same time. And as I noted ten years ago, this model of education was adopted because it was the most efficient. (Hejmadi, 2006)
While we want to provide personalized attention, especially to submitted work, testing and grading, learning is still heavily dependent on the teacher. But because the teacher in turn is responsible for assembling, and often presenting, the materials to be learned, customization and personalization have not been practical.
So we have adopted a model where small groups of people form a cohort, thus allowing the teacher to present the same material to more than one person at a time, while offering individualized interaction and assessment.
What we have begun to notice with online learning, however, is a decreasing emphasis on this formal style of learning, and an increasing emphasis on what has come to be called informal learning. (Chivers, 2006)
In the case of informal learning, students are not constrained by the limits of the classroom model. They can set their own curriculum and proceed at their own pace. (Moore, 1986) Learning can thus be based on a student's individual needs, rather than as predefined in a formal class, and based on a student's schedule, rather than that set by the institution.
Groups Versus Networks
The continuing trend in formal learning to structure learning opportunities as classes and cohorts requires explanation.
Underlying the transition from formal, structured learning to more informal and more unstructured learning is not simply a technological change but also a social change. It is this change I have attempted in recent years to capture under the heading of 'groups versus networks'. (Downes, Groups Vs Networks: The Class Struggle Continues, 2006)
Traditionally, people have been seen to learn either as individuals or in groups. This characterization of organization is not unique to education; it is very common to talk of (say) the needs of the individual versus the needs of the state. This characterization, however, glosses over the possibility that there may be more or less cohesive ways of organizing people, thus allowing for a middle point between the individual and the group: the network.
Though networks have always existed, modern communications technologies highlight their existence and given them a new robustness. Networks are distinct from groups in that they preserve individual autonomy and promote diversity of belief, purpose and methodology. In a network, however, people do not act as disassociated individuals, but rather, cooperate in a series of exchanges that can produce, not merely individual goods, but also social goods.
Traditional learning composed of classes and cohorts operates more as a group than as a network. (Davis, 1993)
- Students pursue the same objectives employing the same methodologies. This is especially evident in corporate learning, where they are expected to share the same vision and to be pursuing the same outcomes.
- Learning in such classes is frequently collaborative, as students work in small groups to produce a common project or outcome. (Mohn & Nault, 2004).
- Interaction is structured and led by an instructor.
- Classes are closed; there is a clear barrier between members and non-members.
In the case of informal learning, however, the structure is much looser.
- People pursue their own objectives in their own way, while at the same time initiating and sustaining an ongoing dialogue with others pursuing similar objectives.
- Learning and discussion is not structured, but rather, is determined by the needs and interests of the participants.
- There is no leader; each person participates as they deem appropriate.
- There are no boundaries; people drift into and out of the conversation as their knowledge and interests change.
Learning Management and Competences
The 'educational delivery' (ED) system I postulated in 1998 became what we now know as the learning management system (LMS). However, unlike what was projected then, the LMS was not based on personalized learning, but rather, preserved the course management structure that prevailed in schools and universities. (Jarche, 2006) Indeed, early incarnations of the LMS were seen as extensions to the classroom, as evidenced by the name 'web course tools' (Web CT).
That said, even in traditional educational institutions, the trend is shifting away from courses and toward topics. This is seen in the development of competence-based learning designs, such as in the TenCompetence project. (Kraan, 2006)
The idea of competences is that they are based on identifiable skills or capacities, and hence are not rooted in a body of content but rather in a student's personal growth. (Karampiperis, Demetrios, & Demetrios, 2006) As such, students are able to select their own track or achievement path through a competence domain, as informed by their own interests, employer needs, or in the case of younger students, parental guidance. Each competence, meanwhile, corresponds to a selection of learning resources (and specifically, learning objects). (de-Marcos, Pages, Martinez, & Gutierrez, 2007*)
It is not clear that such a system will meet the needs of learners. Insofar as this is a form of autonomous learning, it is not clear that it supports collaboration or cooperation. Moreover, it is not clear that an outcomes driven system is what students require; many valuable skills and aptitudes - art appreciation, for example - are not identifiable as an outcome. This becomes evident when we consider how learning is to be measured.
In traditional learning, success is achieved not merely by passing the test but in some way being recognized as having achieved expertise. A test-only system is a coarse system of measurement for a complex achievement.
Personal Learning Environments
In the future, competences will be just one way (and an unusually employer-centered way) to select learning opportunities. What we will see, rather, is that the selection of learning opportunities will not be a stand-alone activity, but instead will be embedded in other activities. (e-Lead, 2008)
One can imagine how players learn in the course of a game, for example. They do not first learn how to play the game, and then play it. Rather, they begin playing the game, and as they attempt to achieve goals or perform tasks, the learning they need is provided in that context. (Wagner, 2008)
The PLE is not an application, but rather, a description of the process of learning in situ from a variety of courses and according to one's personal, context-situated, needs. The process, simply, is that learners will be presented with learning resources according to their interests, aptitudes, educational levels, and other factors (including employer factor and social factors) while they are in the process of working at their job, engaging in a hobby, or playing a game.
The environment that they happen to be in, whether it be a productivity tool, hobbyist web page, or online game, constitutes (at that time) the personal learning environment. Resources from across the internet are accessed from that environment: resources that conform to the student's needs and interests, that have been in some way pre-selected or favorably filtered, and that may have been created by production studios, teachers, other students, or the student him or herself. Content - interaction, media, data - flows back and forth between the learning environment and the external resources, held together by the single identity being employed by the learner in this context.
In time, the learning management systems deployed by educational institutions will evolve into educational delivery systems usable by personal learning environments. They will, in essence, be the 'remote resource' accessed from a given context.
Educational delivery systems will recognize the identity of the student making the request and will coordinate with other online applications (which may include commercial brokers, open resource repositories, or additional student records) to facilitate the student's learning activity.
We might think that these educational delivery systems will be delivering learning objects. This is not entirely incorrect, although a learning object today has come to be seen as more like a unit of text in a textbook or a lesson in a programmed learning workbook. It will be more accurate in the future to say 'learning resource', since many such resources will be available that do not conform to the traditional picture of a learning object - and may be as simply as a single image, or as complex as a simulation or training module.
*(de-Marcos, L., Pages, C., Martinez, J., & Gutierrez, J. (2007). Competency-based Learning Object Sequencing using Particle Swarms. Retrieved September 03, 2008, from 19th IEEE International Conference on Tools with Artificial Intelligence).
End of Part 1
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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