Future of online learning (part 1)

January 14, 2009

In my last post I mentioned a fascinating essay by Stephen Downes: “The Future of Online Learning: Ten Years On”. In it, he revisits and updates his 1998 predictions about the future of education, most of which are apply heavily to business, which is already an environment where people have to learn at different paces. Here are five of the most interesting ideas from this long and thoughtful piece.

1. One task to rule them, and in the mashup bind them

“In 1998 I wrote that computer programs of the future will be function based, that they will address specific needs, launching and manipulating task based applications on an as needed basis. For example, I said, 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.”

This paragraph is related to one of the big changes caused by the move towards a world where we perform complex tasks using an array of interconnected web applications, each with simpler functionality and hosted on an array of increasingly smart devices, each serving a more specific purpose and connected to each other via the Cloud. UNIX junkies with their tiny command line applications will be overjoyed. Developers of wonderful, hulking, multi-purpose applications (Microsoft and Office, Adobe and Creative Suite, Autodesk and AutoCAD) will find their most casual users chipped away.

The big challenge for designers of these tools is twofold: 1) their applications need to be open, and interoperate properly and, 2) the user experience will somehow need to be consistent enough not to confuse people.

Resources like http://www.programmableweb.com/ and organisations like http://www.dataportability.org/ are helping the industry to make headway on the first point. Thanks largely to Google Maps, the word mashup is now commonplace, and tools like Yahoo Pipes, Microsoft Popfly, JackBe, Dapper, Kapow, IBM’s QEDWiki, Proto, BEA AquaLogic and RSSBus.” (more here). This matrix is also pretty cool.

Number two is tougher, as there is more of a grey area between it working and not than when grabbing data from another service. However, it is crucial for designers to keep an eye on the development of standards in interaction design. For the web, frameworks like YUI which allow standard controls to proliferate are useful, although they must still be carefully used. Physical devices are an entirely different issue, and can turn an accepted way of interacting on its head (e.g. iPhone and touch and the Wii with motion sensing).

The main opportunity: get to know your customer and you will be able to meet their specific need better, faster and more cheaply than ever before.

2. Many screens – a.k.a. letting information come to us

“In 1998 I wrote that ‘The PAD will become the dominant tool for online education, combining the function of book, notebook and pen.” The PAD, I said, would be “a lightweight notebook computer with touch screen functions and high speed wireless internet access.” I also said it would cost around three hundred dollars…”

“With slim, lightweight technology, truly useful and portable PADs will be widely available within the next ten years. We have already seen significant improvements in screen technology, including slim touch-sensitive screens. Wireless access and cloud computing make bulky storage devices unnecessary; what local memory is needed will be more than adequately managed using tiny flash memory chips. Improvements in battery life and solar power will mean that these low-wattage portable computers will run for days. They will, as I suggested before, come in all shapes and sizes, from a slim pocket version (much like the iPod touch) to a notepad version..”

“The same technology that makes PAD technology possible will continue to proper improvements in large screen displays (devices I nicknamed WADs (Wide area Displays) ten years ago).

“In the future, it will be common to see these large-area displays hanging on living room and classroom walls. Instead of being the size of small windows, they will be the size of large blackboards. They will be touch sensitive (or if not, connected to a pointer tracking system device similar to the ones being cobbled together for less than $50 by Wii enthusiasts (Lee, 2007)) or included with any of a number of children’s educational webcam games today (such as Camgoo, among many others).”

For too long we have bent over backwards for computers, limited to a (relatively) small screen and a computer taking pride of place on our desk.  In the future, the opposite will be true. We are surrounded by information. In the future, we will use an array of different devices to access it – from iPhone style handhelds for simpler tasks to desk and wall sized interactive touchscreens for the bigger ones:

…imagine that any environment that contains a flat surface can become a teaching environment, one where your friends’ faces (or your parents’ or your teachers’) can appear life-size on any old wall or on a table surface as you converse with them from the next room or around the world. We have already seen how the availability of mobile telephones has transformed society in less than a generation. (New Media Consortium, 2008) Having much more powerful, much more expressive, communications technology available everywhere will have a similar impact.”

3. If it ain’t fun, forget it

“A great deal has been written in the last few years about educational games or, as they are sometimes called, ‘serious games’. (Eck, 2006) In 1998 I wrote that “educational software of the future will include every feature present in video games today, and more.” Though this hasn’t proven to be strictly true, it is largely true, and probably no more true than in the domain of games and simulations.”

“In 1998, I wrote the following: “To give a student an idea of what the battle of Waterloo was like, for example, it is best to place the student actually in the battle, hearing Napoleon’s orders as they become increasingly desperate, feeling the recoil of one’s own musket, or slogging through the mud looking for a gap in the British cannons.” (Downes, The Future of Online Learning, 1998) Today we can say that the creation of such simulations will not be simply the domain of large production houses, but will rather be more and more the result of massive collections of small contributions from individual players. And that the creation of content – any content – needs to take this phenomenon into account, or be seen as abstract and sterile.

Giving people a chance to experience a situation they are learning about is an unusually good way of making sure they understand it. The humain brain is playful. As such, give it a complex environment to experience and you can guarantee that it will start pushing, pulling, prodding and generally attempting to find the way it works  – trying to work out the rules.

Imagine trying to teach music by showing someone only the score to Mozart’s Requiem, or art appreciation by describing one of Turner’s sunsets. Ultimately, our subconscious minds are much more attentive than our conscious, which is why we get so much more depth from an experience than from a description.

4. Personalised learning, group evaluation

Another big idea is that of personalised learning environments. Instead of having students chug through a defined syllabus with standardised tests to mark the pace, the educational institution’s responsibility will be to connect them with projects, resources, games and members of the community around that domain. As they get more and more involved:

“…each person will have what may be thought of as a ‘profile’ of their own art, music and other media, which they have created themselves or with friends, along with records of their activities in various games and simulations (we see things like this already with applications like Launchcast) that take place both on and off line.”

What is really interesting is how all this will be tested:

“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.”

5. Learning resources will annotate the world

“Online learning stiff suffers from the misperception that it is about having students sit in front of their computer screen for extended periods of time. As a consequence, the idea that online learning might foster independence of place has been missing in much of the discussion of the field. (…) That said, with the recent development of smaller and lighter wireless-enabled devices, we are approaching the era when online learning will also be seen as mobile learning. Students will be freed from the classroom, and freed from the stationary desktop computer. And as I said last time, true place independence will revolutionize education is a much deeper sense than has perhaps been anticipated.”

Much of what goes on about us has a history and a significance that we miss completely, whether it’s the context in which a piece of technology was developed or the story behind a piece of architecture. In a more concrete business context, it might be the profitability of a piece of machinery or the childcare problems of an employee you have a meeting with in 10 minutes, which are affecting his ability to concentrate.

Well designed learning resources have the potential to guide us through the physical world rather than pulling us away. Incidentally, that’s why walking tours of cities can be so interesting – you see these layers peeled back for you.

More to come.


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