The Future of Online Learning


Modularity is the idea that an entity we consider to be a single unit is in fact composed of separate and independent parts. For example, computers are to a large degree modular. Various components can be plugged in, switched, swapped, or replaced with better parts.

In the same manner, online courses will be modular. A course - especially from the designer level - will no longer be seen as a single unit, but rather, as a collection of component parts, each of which may be replaced or upgraded as the need arises.

The predominant model for course design will resemble the architecture of contemporary computers. There will be a backbone, analogous to the computer's motherboard, which establishes the basic structure of the course. Into the backbone will be plugged in various learning modules, communication tools, and student information systems.

Customized courses will be the first major application of a modular approach to course design. In the first instance, customized courses will be designed to meet the needs of particular clients. For example, a college offering a selection of business and computer courses may assemble a customized package for a corporate training client.

Suppose a Business course consists of modules on Business Writing, Financial Accounting, and Customer Service. And support a computer course consists of modules on Word Processing, Email, and HTML Design. A new course could be constructed by selecting desired course modules, say, a Corporate Communications course consisting of modules on Business Writing, Customer Service, Word Processing and Email.

As custom course design hits its stride, the demand for individual courses will arise. Students may need supplementary material in areas where they are week, or additional material matching their interests or aptitudes. Abridged courses may be offered to people with strong backgrounds in the field. Variations on the same course may be used for students working in different disciplines.

Menuization, a concept today employed primarily in the area of course selection, will in the future be employed in the area of course construction. Students or other training clients, perhaps working with an educational consultant or designer, will assemble courses, and programs of courses, from a menu of course components.

Indeed, the concept of the course itself will gradually be seen as an arbitrary division. The primary unit of instruction will be the module, and programs will be seen as large collections of modules. Viewed in this way, it may be seen how a program could be highly individualized.

Modules themselves will be modular. A learning module will essentially consist of a collection of educational materials, mechanisms for communication and interaction, and an assignment or evaluation component. Module design will consist of two major tasks: the selection of module components, and the ordering of module components.

The idea here is that a module is best thought of as the assembly of a sequence of educational activities. For example, a student may be required to read some material, engage in a simulation, write a report, participate in a discussion and complete a quiz. Each of these activities in turn requires the support of some educational materials. The task of the module designer will be to select those materials, and then to present them in a sequence.

Distributed design. Because the internet will support high speed data transfer, there will be no requirement that instructional components reside on the same computer - or, for that matter, in the same country - as the course being offered. For example, suppose there exists a high quality multimedia dissection of a business letter at an educational web site in Singapore. The module designer will have the option of plugging that resource into the online course.

This is already happening. Educational resource sites are springing up across the internet. The best example of this is Canada's Schoolnet, which provides a comprehensive set of media resources. Virtual Frog, a pioneering internet effort, is used in biology classes worldwide. My own Guide to the Logical Fallacies is widely used in logic and rhetoric courses.

Not only content based sites are employed in online courses. Companies such as Hotmail offer free email addresses, which are used by students worldwide. Online communities such as Geocities provide free web space, most of which is used by students. Chat servers, bulletin boards, personal pagers: all of these are available from suppliers who willingly allow their use in online courses.

What has not yet happened - but which will, in the future - is that these resources will be added to online courses in a formal manner. By that, I mean they will satisfy educational object protocols.

Educational Object Protocols are the rules which govern how educational objects will interact with each other. The development of these protocols is already under way, led by the Educom/NLII IMS (Instructional Management System). Of interest for course and module developers are two major components.

First, all educational resources will be accompanied by metadata. Metadata is data about the data. For example, an article about Saturn would contain data about Saturn - it has rings, it is a gas giant, and so on. Metadata would be data about the article - it was written by Fred Jones, it is located at, and so on.

Second, educational resources will be written in XML (eXtensible Markup Language). XML is similar to HTML, but while HTML concerns itself mostly with how a document is formatted and displayed, XML is used to indicate the role of document components. Thus, authors, for example, will use XML to identify questions, asides, definitions, or any of a variety of other structural definitions.

Metadata and XML will be enormously useful for intelligent search agents, and these agents will be used increasingly for a variety of purposes: assembling specialized data, compensating authors, monitoring student progress - in short, anything which requires a structured retrieval of data from a variety of online sources.

Of concern to educational software developers will be the standard set of function or object protocols. These will determine what information an educational object requires in order to be invoked by a remote system, and what information that object will return to the remote system. Consider, for example, how a user logs into the educational system. A student login would be handled by a login object, which expects as input (from the student) a user name and password, and returns (to the system and to the student) a user object. The user object, in turn, based on student or system input, interacts with other system objects to produce on screen displays, update student records, send messages, and a variety of other educational tasks.

The way in which these objects communicate with each other will be standardized. This means that online learning systems of the future will be composed of separate, interchangeable objects, each dedicated to a specific task. And what will happen in practise is that various software vendors will market programs consisting essentially of sets of these objects. Thus, for example, Web Crossing will market an online conferencing system which interacts with the remainder of an online course in a predetermined and structured manner.

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