The Future of Online Learning

New Technology in Education

To identify trends in education, perhaps the best methodology is to identify trends which work well today, whether technologically based or not. In other words, identify the tools people actually use today, and examine how computers of the future will evolve these tools for use in the future. We say this because, while technology changes rapidly, people do not. People will want to use tools which look and feel like the tools they've always used, but which provide expanded capabilities.

And the tools most widely used in education today are remarkably simple, having remained unchanged for the last several centuries. They include books, notepads or paper, writing implements, blackboards, and teachers. Of these, obviously, the role of the teacher is the most complex and will have to be discussed in detail. The remaining tools, however, will be absorbed by the new technology in a very straightforward fashion: the PAD.

The PAD (Personal Access Device) will become the dominant tool for online education, combining the function of book, notebook, and pen. Think of the PAD as a lightweight notebook computer with touchscreen functions and high speed wireless internet access. The PAD will look like a contemporary clipboard and will weigh about as much. Its high-resolution screen will deliver easy-to-read text, video and multimedia. The PAD will accept voice commands, recognize your handwriting, or accept input via a touch-screen keyboard.

Various PADs will evolve, depending on need and application. Small three-by-five folding PADs will fit easily into a jacket pocket and will be taken on business trips or vacations. More standard eight-by-eleven PADS will be the workhorse of educational institutions, businesses, and the home. Large-screen WADs (Wall PADs) will hang from walls for home entertainment, business presentations, or education.

The use of PADs in education will have two major consequences. Education will become truly personal, and it will become truly portable. Personal, because the PAD will serve as an individual student's primary educational tool. And portable, because PADs are portable. PADs are about five years away. Their development, and emergence into common currency, will occur in a fashion similar to the emergence of the cellular telephone today. They will cost about three hundred dollars.

Presentation software will become full-featured and easy to use - but not design. The glory days of do-it-yourself HTML, if they ever existed, will wane as greater bandwidth and capacity greatly enhance the designer's ability to present learning materials. Just as today few instructors produce their own instructional CD-ROMs, so also in the future instructors are unlikely to produce their own instructional websites.

This is not to say that the instructor of the future will not produce his or her classroom materials, just as the emergence of video recording or CD-ROMs does not preclude an instructor from photocopying a class handout. But like class handouts, the content of such material will refer students to more full-featured instructional materials, just as today class handouts refer students to texts, videos or CD-ROMs.

Educational software of the future will include every feature present in video games today, and more. For a good example of the sort of learning environment which will become widespread in the future, look at products such as Sim City or Sim Earth, from Maxis. The point of educational software will not be so much to present a stream of information to a student as it will be to place the student in an environment where the information needed for success in that environment will be actively sought and learned.

All the essential tools for multimedia educational software either exist now or are in early stages of development. Products such as Powerpoint and Director have evolved into richly textured multimedia containers, moving from page to page either via preprogrammed settings or user input, presenting graphics, video and sound, responding to student choices, and connecting to other resources.

Virtual reality and simulations already exists to a great degree of sophistication for military and aeronautics applications, and this technology will move to the personal computer interface level with the development of more powerful PADs and intuitive manipulation devices, such as the data glove. Even more sophisticated total immersion simulators will be available at community learning centres and will be for a variety of skills based learning activities.

But not just that. 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 muskat, or slogging through the mud looking for a gap in the British cannons. Virtual reality already exists to a high degree in such games as Doom and Quake, Microsoft Flight Simulator, and a variety of other games. It is only a matter of time before similar products are designed with educational objectives in mind.

Educational software will differ from contemporary gaming software only slightly, and at that, mainly behind the scenes.

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