The Future of Online Learning: Ten Years On

Fascinating prognostications by Stephen Downes through 2018; he anticipated the iPad. The article (see link below) is over 50 pages long and well worth the read.


The snippets that most resonated with me are below, scroll down …

the student of the future will not start up an operating system, internet browser, word processor and email program in order to start work on a course. The student will start up the course, which in turn will start up these applications on its own.

While technology changes rapidly, people do not. People want to use tools that look and feel like tools they’ve always used, and will tend to adopt tools only if they see a clear benefit either in productivity or in savings.

education is fundamentally a process of communication; learning, by contrast, is fundamentally a process of growth

the line dividing the professional from the non-professional community will become increasingly elusive over time

There is a significant loss of efficiency in environments of closed, controlled communication.

Time continues to be the dominant metaphor for units of learning, and learning continues to be constrained by time … 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.
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. 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.

Traditional learning composed of classes and cohorts operates more as a group than as a network … 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.

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.
(Darren’s Note: See Frank Smith’s The Book of Learning and Forgetting)

[Game players] begin playing the game, and as they attempt to achieve goals or perform tasks, the learning they need is provided in that context. [Consider this as a definition of a PLE.] … 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 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.

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.

… 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.

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…

… 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. (e.g. the way Photosynth “creates” Notre Dame Cathedral from flickr images.)

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.

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. (Darren’s Note: Think RSS feeds.)

In the end, what will be evaluated is a complex portfolio of a student’s online activities.

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.

… time is ceasing to be an objective standard of learning. (Consider the Google Knol or “Learning Objects” as individual units of knowledge.)

we are approaching the era when online learning will also be seen as mobile learning. (Darren’s Note: see the Kaplan Univ commercial: “The system has failed you.”)

… [instructional] designers realize that, instead of delivering content to the student, they can require the student to go out and get it – or even better, to go out and create it.

… it is important to understand that place independence means that real learning will occur in real environments, with the contributions of the students not being some artifice designed strictly for practice, but an actual contribution to the business or enterpr
ise in question.

Current online learning efforts are based on the idea that learning will occur in a certain online place – a learning management system, say – or will be conducted using certain software tools.

… schools will be converted into meeting facilities, workrooms and laboratories, multimedia studios, and more. Specialized equipment, such as sound-proof recording studios and high-speed video editing equipment, will be made available. Libraries will evolve (in a transition that is happening today) into multimedia studios …

… a field trip to a local stream or forest would be seen as a once-a-semester activity, because it would otherwise consume too much class time, it could now become (for some students) a once-a-day activity, with what used to be classroom activities designed around the field trips.

Although we learn what we learn from personal experience, we usually learn what we learn from other people.

as Wenger says, “… the school is not the privileged locus of learning. It is not a self-contained, closed world in which students acquire knowledge to be applied outside, but a part of a broader learning system. The class is not the primary learning event. It is life itself that is the main learning event.”

Strictly speaking there is no such thing as a ‘learning community’ – save, perhaps, the strained and artificial creations of educational institutions that try to cram classes into collectives, creating personal relationships where none naturally exist.

… communities are grown rather than constructed and (therefore) they are owned (and managed) by their members rather than by some external agency. Sharing and learning cannot be “legislated into existence.”

Students gather around an instructor precisely because the instructor has knowledge, beliefs and opinions that the students don’t share. They gather around each other because they each have unique experiences. Fostering a learning community is as much a matter of drawing on the differences as it is a matter of underlining the similarities.

Despite the efforts of educators and individuals to create (often lavish and complex) learning environments for students, this will in the long run not be necessary. Learners will create their own communities, their own environments. At most, the educator needs to ensure that the tools are there for students to use, and that the channels of communication, from student to student, from community to community, are open.

… what we know of the communities of the future where learning will actually occur is that they will be communities in which learners can immerse themselves and grow into something new. Previous experience suggests that these will be places where they can create and where they can project – not “serious games” but “modding communities”, not “reading groups” but “fan fiction”, not “educational simulations” but “LAN parties”.

… it is probably inevitable that the domains of ‘learning’ and ‘testing’ will separate. In the future it may even be thought of as quaint that those responsible for the fostering of learning were also those responsible for evaluating whether or not learning actually happened.

People who are in some way able to demonstrate their ability – through a portfolio system, for example, are able to circumvent the need for testing altogether.

Where a 20 or 40-hour course may be appropriate in an in-person learning environment, shorter courses are more appropriate online, as short as ten or fifteen minutes.

Consider a bookmarking service such as, for example. Although its primary function is to allow a person to manage his or her bookmarks, it also becomes a record of what that person has read (or, at least, seen). Consequently, the bookmark as public performance and record becomes one of its primary functions.



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