Selected Predictions and Comments on the Future of Online Learning




By technology, we sometimes mean innovation using new types of computers or faster Internet access or spreadsheet software upgrades. But technology innovation also involves organizational changes and changes in the educational process itself. These changes are sometimes not easy, and innovators may get a reputation of the "trouble maker".

This is perhaps to be expected, however. The educational system is, and must be, conservative; it must act according to the proverb, "measure nine times before you cut." The forces of gravity will not let us jump as high as we might wish. And your seemingly good ideas are squelched, but people around you say that's all right, since gravitational force is necessary to keep us from blasting off into space.

But the very positive point here is that some rockets still fly - those which are designed well enough for that. Online education today is considered as an alternative, but a promising alternative nonetheless. During the next few decades it will become a mainstream approach in the lifelong learning process.

Here is prediction number one- freeware educational workbooks andeducational materials will be available on a freeware basis.

Electronic media are gaining momentum, overtaking hard-copy presentations; "eBooks" are changing the way we understand how materials are delivered to their end-users. A dialogue between a webserver and a high-quality desktop printer can substitute for a network of communication in a big printing plant. Information delivery itself becomes very inexpensive.

High quality learning resources will be free. A priority problem for learners will be finding (from this information overload) material which most suites concrete needs and how to work with these resources to facilitate collaborative learning projects and connections outside of class. Educational publishing companies as we know them today will soon have to earn their living as educational service businesses, providing the aforementioned services built on freely available learning resources. Of course, someone will have to pay to conceive the technical aspects of the freeware materials; someone will also have to pay authors of these materials.

This is where non-profit organizations and government funding can enter into the mix.

For example, in Estonia, Europe Miksike Corp, which runs the Web based Miksike Learning Environment, has created a wealth of worksheets in html-eTemplates by using non-profit money (Renovabis, Soros Foundation, The Tiger Leap Program as main donors). The Miksike Corporation has to keep its resources open and available not only for learners but also for companies that may be competing against Miksike in the realm of educational services. G.E.M. -- the rapidly developing gateway to educational materials is another good way for free educational resources to reach the learner.

Hence, Prediction Number 2 can be made -- Non-profit and for-profit

sectors will participate in more intensively collaborative efforts a) For-profit service organizations are interested in access to new freeware materials b) The non-profit sector is interested in effective usage and maintenance of materials created by means of its donations Thus, we may be at the dawn of a new era of collaboration, where a joint venture is generated between goodwill and effectiveness.

Prediction number 3- Online vs Distance Learning

It will soon be more reasonable to concentrate on the growth and development of "online learning" rather than on "distance learning." Today, "online learning" remains a kind of sub-category of "distance learning", but this will soon change. Online learning may at first develop within specific, local areas; with some rethinking of the roles of "teacher" and "learner", the kind of distanceless proximity that characterizes online learning will perhaps lead to a renaming of the whole field, and "collaborative learning" will be generated. With physical distance no longer of any importance, it will no longer have to be part of the name of this new style of learning together.

Prediction number 4- Lifelong Learning.

Education is, or should be, a smooth and stable process of walking from the unknown and inexperienced towards wisdom and the ability to create. This means changing priorities in categorizing education. What if we categorize education not primarily in terms of the organizational aspects of schooling (kindergarten, college, adult learning, home schooling etc.), but give priority to the knowledge and skills obtained and level of proficiency?

Prediction number 5- International Aspect.

Educational is to be a global endeavor. Diverse cultures, languages, learning styles, and educational alternatives present a task that is far from an easy one to address. But they are also keys to success. Since we are talking here of diverse and differing models of education and approaches to learning, then we must admit that all regions everywhere in the world have something to offer, including areas that know nothing of computers. We can also learn from our own and each other's history, from reading of major similarities in learning between Stone age cultures and Information Age societies. In those early days, education developed without particular technology; sticks, clay tablets, pencils or paper. We all know that the basic technologies we insist on using in modern compulsory education are really just temporary vogues in the history of mankind over thousands of years.

A group of colleagues around the world, recognizing that technological innovation involves organizational changes in education as a social institution, have formed an organization, the World Association for Online Education (WAOE). Great ideas are waiting to be taken up. Just a few of these ideas are outlined below.

Although WAOE is officially incorporated in Sacramento, California, it is in fact a "virtual association" in that our professionally-based members may never meet one another face-to-face; our membership will be through online registration and participation; our meetings and decision-making will likewise be carried out online.

WAOE puts the emphasis on developmental work and tries to design new learning models and resources for the Information Age. It is an organization which expects people ask, "what can we do together" rather than "what do they have to offer me."

People around the world can develop their ideas and work collaboratively, and where everybody benefits from what each member actually contributes and shares. I am pretty sure that besides economically developed regions in the world also Eastern Europe, India, South Eastern Asia etc. have a lot to offer here.

Prediction number 6- smaller schoolhouses and more teachers

If we want to make learning into a creative process and preserve stability we need more teachers/ facilitators and smaller classrooms. A system where one teacher from a faraway learning center can manage with hundreds of students works according to the learning standards of yesterday, a lecture-type and fact-based learning. Education will be more personalized soon.

But technology can decrease the management costs of education. E.g. it is much more cheaper to establish a virtual chemistry lab rather than to build up a physical one. Most of the functions of schools will soon fit our desktop computers and savings we get from this will be used to hire more teachers.

Education is already and will more and more become a collaborative effort involving dialogue between humans.

The key problem of Hi-Tech companies already today is not finding people who can speak with machines, but finding smart people are able to communicate with society and work for it. Communicating with machines and humans is different.

Communicating with machines you can always be sure that 2 + 2 = 4. In the human world the correct answer to the 2+2 question may be whatever. It all depends on circumstances. Of course we may say that computers give us mathematically more correct answers, but the point is that we have to follow what society says, because it is the society who owns the right to switch machines on and off.

And machines are not able to teach us the logic of human touch.

Closing remarks and final prediction:

The predictions presented above are made with regard to the conception of an open environment where online learning developments can be fostered. They are meant to note the way the wind is tending to blow through cyberspace; they are not written to define something as free as that wind. Success in online learning environment development cannot therefore be assumed to depend too much upon prediction, or upon past developments in this or in other fields. Mistakes are part of the learning, and the development, process. What is important is the speed and the efficiency with which we react to change and the ability we demonstrate to adjust to failures or to alternative outcomes.

Final prediction: Prediction number 7

At least one of the aforementioned predictions is wrong. And maybe all of them are wrong. Which one(s)? What are their alternatives? Let us wait a cyberspatial moment, and we will see.


Thanks very much to all friends for their comments and editing, especially:  Jenna Seehafer, California State University, CA, U.S.  Katherine Watson, Coastline Community College, CA, U.S. Mary Joe Bheda, Georgia State University, GA, U.S. David Wyatt, David Wyatt and Associates, Australia