The Future of Online Learning

Instructional Management Systems

The task of coordinating student progress through various learning materials, tracking their grades, and facilitating interaction will fall to a class of software applications known generically as instructional management systems. An instructional management system just is the educational delivery (ED) system described above.

An instructional management system is the backbone or motherboard into which all educational components are plugged. It will be operated primarily by the course instructor, who in turn will configure custom course delivery for each student he or she manages.

Such systems are already in development and have gained wide acceptance in the online educational community. Examples include Virtual U, Top Class, Web CT, and many others. The systems just described differ from conferencing systems in that they manage online education, as opposed to merely facilitating some aspect of it.

IM systems will become as large and as important as Windows is today. They will be one of the major instances of computer specialization; they will be the engine which powers PADs insofar as PADs are used for education, and online educational services.

The development of open standards for IMS systems will have several consequences. First, the offering of available IMS systems will be split neatly in half, as those not meeting the standards will wane (much as Macintosh has waned). Next, a proliferation of IM systems and system components will occur, as developers create their own versions of education-compatible chat engines, discussion arenas, and backbone systems. This will cause the price of IM systems to drop dramatically. One or a few inexpensive IM backbones will become ubiquitous, the character of an online educational offering determined by the selection of plug-in modules and the skill of the instructor.

Conferencing systems, now being touted as the solution for online learning, will be discarded as expensive and inefficient. In order to function as an IM backbone, a system needs to support a wide variety of educational objects. Conferencing systems accomplish none of this; they are in the end nothing more than tools used for distance communication.

As such they are great, but online learning - as instructors are increasingly discovering - requires much more support than a mere communications tool. For online learning requires a highly structured sequencing of learning activities and online resources, It is too easy to become otherwise lost or distracted in an online environment. Students, as mentioned above, will require pacing.

Producing that level of support on a case by case basis utilizing an online conferencing system will prove too taxing for even the most dedicated of instructors. Even though conferencing systems support document management and dispersal, they do automate such essential features as pacing, course structure, interaction with remote educational objects, or course customization.

Some online conferencing tools will evolve to meet educational needs, and will in the process become IM backbones. Others will not, and will be used primarily for groupwork and conferencing (the application for which they were designed in the first place). At best, conferencing systems will plug into and communicate with IM backbones. They will support online education, but they will not deliver online education.

Content Filtering will be one of the major tasks of instructional management systems. Surf Watch - and other programs of that ilk, such as CyberPatrol - are clumsy initial attempts to perform a task with will be required in the future: channeling children's browsing patterns into safe areas of the internet.

I say clumsy, because the methodology is clumsy. There are two major screening systems employed by such systems: first, (editable) lists of words and word fragments the presence of which in a website (or chat, or email) will prevent that website from being uploaded, and second, (editable) lists of approved and/or disapproved sites.

The method is clumsy because it often screens inappropriately (for example, most sites on breast cancer fail the test) and because it scans text only (thus allowing unwanted images, audio clips and videos through). Additionally, in places where filters have been employed in high traffic areas (such as Yahoo Chat), an alternative language quickly develops, one which circumvents the screening software. Thus, for example, one sees chatters talk about cyber s<>x.

With the development of XML and online objects, websites of the future will become much more sophisticated, and so will the way in which the internet is used in schools. Clients used by students will not offer full internet access, the way Netscape does today. Instead, these will interact directly with (thousands of) educational servers. The servers will not deliver web pages so much as they will deliver educational objects.

The primary motivation for the system just described will not be to restrict access to unseemly materials, but rather, to ensure that educational content developers are paid for their work. An educational client accessing an educational object will, in the process of that transaction, initiate a microbilling to the institution accessing the educational object. These systems, although they will use internet technology, and indeed be accessible from the internet generally will nonetheless form a closed system.

In such an environment (and especially when the resources available number only in the tens of thousands, rather than hundreds of millions), content is easily assessed prior to use. Instructors will preview materials online, select those the content of which is appropriate for children (or young adults, or whatever), and link their courses into those materials.

Educational object metadata will probably include ratings, however these will be seen more as a guideline than a regulation. Educational jurisdictions, through their instructors and administrators, will decide for themselves what is appropriate for their students. Especially with the proliferation of private, religious and cultural schools, these standards will vary widely. In addition, parents will also be able to screen all materials selected for their children and opt to restrict resources or select alternatives.

Of more use to instructors will be metadata describing the resource's educational content, skill level, and cost for usage. This information will also help parents screen materials and select alternatives.

The question of what the 'censors' will allow students to read may have been applicable in the past, when all students used the same learning resources, and these resources were available in public forums such as the school library. But it will have no relevance in the future, where content selection will be handled on a case by case basis by parents, instructors, and educational institutions.

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