The Future of Online Learning

Time and Place Independence

Online learning is in essence distance learning, and distance learning in turn is characterized by time and place independence. Today's online learning, while clearly time independent, is not so clearly place independent, as students are tied to a computer terminal and internet connection. The emergence of PADs will change all that.

Time independence is often characterized in terms of a student's working hours. When characterizing time independence, for example, writers often point to a student's ability to study in the evening, or to study weekends. In a rural environment, where one's time for study is dependent on the crops and the weather, time independence is often characterized in terms of being able to work on rainy days, or after the crop is in for the winter.

Time independence in online learning is all of this and more. The best way to characterize the change is to say that time in online learning ceases to be an objective standard which applies to many people at once, and instead becomes an individualized standard, against which personal learning and achievement are indexed. This is seen when we look at how time is employed as a (relatively constant) variable in traditional learning, and employ it as a (relatively flexible) variable in online learning.

In particular, the following time-variables may now be adapted to individual needs: daily start and end time, hours of work, break time, time per lesson, time per activity, time per test, days of the week, month or year worked, hours per week, month or year worked, start date of a course or other educational activity, end date for course or activity, number of courses in a week, month, or year. Etc. Each of these variables may be set individually for each student, where time, rather than being a static backdrop against which learning is conducted, becomes a dynamic resource allocated on an as-needed basis.

A word about pacing is needed at this point. One reason the traditional class model is favoured by so many educators is that self-paced learning is regularly effective only for highly motivated students. Where motivation is lacking, or where other factors, such as job or family responsibilities, intervene, self-paced learning is less effective. The low completion rate often associated with self-paced distance learning is evidence for this. Especially with younger or more at-risk students, pacing is necessary.

So it should be clear that time independence does not entail self-paced or non-paced learning in all circumstances. A variety of methods can and will be employed in online learning systems to ensure a regular and orderly progression of students through their coursework. What distinguishes online learning is that this mechanism for pacing may be applied at the individual, not the group, level. Moreover, pacing, in an online learning environment, is determined by a wide variety of factors, and not the more narrow range of factors which influence pacing in traditional classrooms.

In online education, the parameters for pacing will be set based on input from the learning system, from the instructor, from parents (where applicable), from the student, and from the educational jurisdiction in which the learning takes place. Each of the parameters listed above will be set according to these inputs, so that each student has a clear (and individualized) set of temporal parameters associated with his or her learning. These parameters in turn form the basis for time-driven system events such as the presentation of materials, testing and evaluation, and deadlines.

Place independence does not mean studying at home, although it does not prevent this. Place independence means that students are not tied to any particular location as they conduct their learning activities. Traditional and even contemporary distance learning is not especially place independent. True place independence will revolutionize education is a much deeper sense than has perhaps been anticipated.

Traditional education is, of course, not place independent at all. This is the case because, first, students must be assembled into a class at some particular location, and second, because they must be located where the learning resources (the teacher, the library, etc.) are located. Thus in traditional education, students assemble at a certain place - a school, college or university - each morning and stay there until the day's learning activities are complete.

In distance learning, the materials are brought to the student. Thus the teacher is presented to the class either via audio or video conferencing, or mediated via print or electronic instructional materials. Yet even this form of learning is not especially place independent. Although it is true that print materials may be read anywhere, except perhaps in the shower, students otherwise must be located by a computer, telephone, teleconferencing facility or ITV classroom in order for instruction to occur. While less place dependent than the traditional classroom, students nonetheless do not have the full mobility that deep place independence implies.

Online education will in the future be place independent in a deep sense, because the student's primary learning tool, the PAD, will be highly portable. Just as today a student could teleconference from anywhere using a cellular telephone, students of the future will be able to learn anywhere with the PAD. One can picture students snuggling under the covers reading Descartes or watching Macbeth, lounging in the park working out geometry problems, or sitting in their living room practising their French.

Moreover, as educators realize that students are not bound by any particular location, instruction of the future will encourage mobility. Political science students, for example, will be expected to frequent City Hall or the provincial legislature. Forestry students will work in the forest. In the future, education will not be an activity conducted in the cloister of a separate building. It will be common to see groups of schoolchildren visiting shops to learn about budgeting and economics, visiting clinics to learn about first aid, visiting retirement homes to learn about history. Education in the future will move from the school into the community.

For adults, education will be an activity engaged in on a regular and routine basis, much like reading or watching television today. People on the job will spend slow time brushing up their skills. Commuters will work on their classes on the buses and rails. Saturday mornings will begin with breakfast, the morning paper, and a quick history lesson. Many adults already do this today, except it's called reading. In the future, reading will become interactive, and a student's reading and interacting will count as an educational pursuit, and rewarded as such.

The School of the Future will not look like today's institutions, which dominated by classrooms, lecture theatres and libraries. All of these facilities will not be used even remotely to the degree they are today. Schools will be converted into meeting facilities, for face-to-face interaction, and laboratories, where workstations and specialized equipment are available for student use. The lecture theatre will not disappear completely; it will be used for special events and gatherings. Libraries will evolve, coming to resemble museums, housing one-of-a-kind documents and other rarities. But the concept of the school itself as a place where learning is conducted will become obsolete.

Schools will become much smaller, both in terms of size and of populations served, and will become highly specialized. Community schools, once on the wane, will re-emerge as community learning centres, serving a student base of about 200 students and a community of no more than 500 people. Cultural schools will abound; some schools will incorporate chapels and religious training, while others sweat lodges and powwows. This will occur because, as learning is individualized, the economies of scale which propelled the construction of massive regional schools, will no longer apply. Larger schools, to which students must travel a half hour or more, will be seen as inefficient.

Computers, in general, will bring community back into our lives. That sounds ironical and even implausible, but it is inevitable. For the least expensive thing to move is information; the most expensive thing to move is people.

Convergence. The evolution from traditional classroom based institutions to online learning based institutions will be gradual, and characterized by an increasing convergence of methodologies and technologies employed by both online and classroom instructors. While today it makes sense to categorize learning as either on-campus or distance, in the future this distinction will become harder and harder to draw.

We can see this phenomenon in classrooms today. Increasingly, instructors are depending on learning tools, such as CD-ROMs, videos, and other multimedia tools, to support and enhance learning. Additionally, thousands of instructors have started to place their class outlines, background materials, and other materials on class websites. The tools and techniques of online learning are being found increasingly in the classroom environment.

Critics complain that this amounts to no more than an offloading of printing costs from the institution to the student. This argument would hold more weight were students not typically charged for photocopying expenses. But in the long run, as the PAD becomes easier to use, students will rely less and less on printing and more on online reading. Moreover, material placed online also has the potential to become more interactive. One could print a self-test quiz, for example, but what would be the point? Students are much more likely to take the quiz online.

As with any convergence, there will be no point at which we can say definitively that classroom learning has effectively merged with online learning. Probably the institutional structures which marked the delineation will long outlast the practical distinction. Already traditional classes exist in which there is no formal lecture or meeting time, the interaction between instructor and student being handled entirely online and through meetings with individuals and small groups. We have passed the leading edge of this wave.

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Copyright 2004 Stephen Downes
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.