The Future of Online Learning

Future Technology

Technology, they say, should not drive content. However, when technology is the bottleneck through which instruction must be delivered, then technology, if it does not drive content, most certainly limits content. Today, institutions offering online learning must live with the reality that instructional material must be delivered through narrow pipes to underpowered computers running dubious software. In the future, this will all change.

Bandwidth will in the future be essentially unlimited. By bandwidth, we mean the amount of information which may be delivered from a server site, such as an educational institution, to a receiver site, such as a student's computer. Today the standard falls at around 28,800 bits per second, or in other words, roughly a page of text, a medium sized image, or a few video frames. Bandwidth limitations preclude the use, in many settings, of innovative Java applets, multimedia, video and videoconferencing.

This will change, and it will change sooner rather than later. In many Canadian and American cities, high speed access is offered by cable television services. Telcos are responding with better data compression technologies, such as ADSL. In the last year, networks of LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellites have been launched. Towers supporting digital wireless internet are springing up. It is not unreasonable to state that, in the face of these innovations, that bandwidth will be ubiquitous and cheap.

Computers will become more reliable and will look less like computers. This development will be driven on two fronts. First, processor and memory speeds and capacity will continue to increase. The present doubling of capacity every eighteen months or so shows no sign of abating. Your Pentium 75 computer, which was state of the art just two years ago, is now a candidate for replacement. The next significant change in computer technology will occur in a year or two with the introduction of 64 bit processors - gaming systems, such as Sega or Nintendo, already employ these high capacity chips.

And second, computers will become more reliable because they will become more specialized. Today's desktop computer, which does everything from word processing to internet access to graphic design, will gradually fade out of existence, as more specialized machines designed for particular applications will come to the fore. Computers will become appliances - some already have, such as your digital alarm clock, microwave timer, and programmable VCR. In the future we will see specific machine for specific tasks. Already we see Apple computers employed increasingly in niche markets, such as graphics and video design.

This trend will accelerate in the future. The phenomenon of embedding - that is, placing computer support in traditional appliances, is already well documented. Additionally, new appliances for new tasks, such as word processing, web surfing, or game playing, will rise to the fore. We see this already with the development of such tools as Web-TV and Sega Gamestations. This trend will accelerate because the resultant systems will be faster, more reliable, and cheaper.

Operating Systems, such as Windows 95 or Unix, will fade to the background, out of sight for most users. The current trend sees operating systems doing more and more for the user. Windows 98, for example, introduced an internet browser to the suite of operating system features. This trend will reverse, not because the United States Department of Justice disapproves, and not because computers cannot handle such large and complex programs. The trend will reverse because such systems are inflexible.

Current operating systems exist because today's computer programs are task based. For example, one program acts as a word processor, another acts as a spreadsheet calculator, and so on. The operating system is required to help users launch these programs and to help these programs work with each other. First you start the operating system. Then you use the operating system to start the program.

Computer programs of the future will be function based. They will address specific needs, launching and manipulating task based applications on an as needed basis. For example, the student of the future will not start up an operating system, internet browser, word processor and email program in order to start work on a course. The student will start up the course, which in turn will start up these applications on its own.

The operating system will not be needed to control these applications because the course software will do that. Except for a slim menu which allows you to start your course, the operating system will fade into the background, broken into component parts. These components would be run only when needed by an course or an application started by the course.

There are two reasons why operating systems will evolve in this way. The first is the demand by users for simplicity. It will be seen as absurd that a user needs to learn how to use Windows before being able to send a postcard to Grandma. And second, operative systems and task based programs will need to fade to the background because they are constantly changing. It is absurd to expect a user to relearn the operating system and applications every six months or so. The course software will maintain a constant interface while automatically upgrading component software.

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