The Future of Online Learning


Interaction and Online Conferencing

Online conferencing will be a major tool used in education and almost all other areas of endeavour. As such, conferencing will be used in education for both discussion of the subject area, and also to teach students how to use online conferencing. For the effective use of online conferencing will be a skill as important in the future as are the social skills taught in schools today.

Probably the most significant decision made by distance educators today is in the choice of conferencing tools to use in support of distance courses. Institutions are spending tens of thousands of dollars on teleconferencing bridges, interactive television, and internet conferencing suites. These investments are for the most part misplaced. In the future, online conferencing will be easy and cheap. The expensive purchases of the past will be scavenged for parts, if they are hardware, or discarded, if they are software.

Synchronous conferencing is conferencing which takes place in real time. For example, a telephone call, classroom lecture, or conversation is a synchronous conference.

Today, interactive television (ITV) is the synchronous communications medium of choice for many distance education institutions. It will be obsolete within five years. Internet video conferencing will take its place, not only because it will be cheaper, but because a system which can transfer data as well as video will be preferred to a system which can transfer only video.

Synchronous conferencing systems of the future will consist of a basic platform from which users can opt to conference using a variety of tools: video, audio, text based chat, and whiteboard. Additionally, such systems will support file transfer, remote launching and control of applications, and more. These systems already exist; what is lacking is only the bandwidth to use them effectively.

Asynchronous conferencing is conferencing which does not take place in real time. A letter, a notice posted on a bulletin board, or a message on an answering machine, are all examples of asynchronous conferencing.

Today, most asynchronous conferencing is text based. In the future, asynchronous conferencing will evolve from being text media to full multimedia. Already, video email clients are available, and most online technology newsletters are published in full HTML format. Students, equipped with multimedia messaging clients, will be able to embed sound, images and videos into their messages.

Conferencing standards and protocols. Today's commercial online conferencing tools are (a) expensive, and (b) proprietary. Online educators who select Lotus Notes, First Class or Web Crossing are committing themselves to that product for the foreseeable future. This is because educators must commit themselves to purchasing entire systems which cannot be used in conjunction with other conferencing systems.

Conferencing and multimedia standards are being developed today. Examples of this include SMIL (Standardized Multimedia Integration Language, pronounced 'smile') and the H.323 voice-over-IP standard for video conferencing. These standards will allow developers to introduce components of online conferencing systems, such as clients, which can work with any conferencing server.

Good examples of this already exist. Terminal emulation (or telnet) was developed in order to enable remote access to mainframe computers. Telnet standards, such as VT100, were developed. This enabled the development of a wide range of telnet clients which now allow any user on any system to access any remote mainframe.

Another good example is the world wide web. The web is based on a set of communications standards, called HTTP (Hyper Text Transfer Protocol). This allowed the development of independent clients, called browsers, to access any web server from any other system. Indeed, it is the very existence of HTTP standards that allows us to turn televisions, airport kiosks, or any other device we can name, into a web browser.

The same will happen with online communications. When a student wishes to post a message to a discussion board, for example, a standardized multimedia messaging client will launch and connect with the discussion board. The student will create the message, then sign off. When other students wish to view the message, they will use a standardized viewing tool (formerly called a browser).

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Copyright 2004 Stephen Downes
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