The Future of Online Learning

The Triad Model

The triad model identifies three key players in online learning: the student, the instructor, and the facilitator. The existence of a new player - the facilitator - is necessitated by the distance between instructor and student, and the need for a peer based community as well as an online topic based community. Many of the tasks assumed by instructors in traditional education devolve to the facilitator in online education.

The Instructor in online learning may be located anywhere. In most instances, the instructor will be located at some distance from the student. Working with the ED system and communicating directly with the student online, the instructor plays three major roles: (a) as a facilitator of learning, (b) as a content-area specialist, and (c) as an evaluator.

As a facilitator of learning, the instructor provides instruction and guidance on the use of learning materials. For the most part, this involves the sequencing of learning materials and activities, monitoring pacing, and where appropriate, communicating directly with the student, the on site facilitator, or parents. The instructor also fosters student interaction and supports the development of the online community which will arise surrounding his or her instructional content.

The instructor's primary role is as a content-area specialist. It is expected that an instructor in a given field will have possess qualifications and credentials in that subject area. The instructor is not expected to provide lectures - this sort of instruction is provided in the course materials. But the instructor is expected to respond to student queries in an informed manner or to offer new or additional information in the subject area.

As an evaluator, the instructor tracks student progress and receives student assignments and exams. These assignments are either graded by the system or graded by the instructor, with the results in all cases returned to the student online and entered into the student's ED records.

The Facilitator is located in or near the student's home community, generally based in a community learning centre or school. While the instructor communicates with a student from a distance, the facilitator will generally communicate with a student in person.

The facilitator is responsible for the provision of technical support in the use of computers, internet, on-line course materials, multimedia materials, and other technology. He or she also acts as a mentor, provides study skills and time management training, if required, and supports and encourages the student, and acts as an advocate for students, helping them navigate through the admissions process, course registration, and other administrative functions.

The facilitator is not expected to be a content-area specialist. The facilitator does not teach course materials and does not grade or evaluate students in any way. Rather, just as the instructor is xpected to foster the interest based community, the facilitator is expected to foster the peer based community. For this reason, facilitators will most likely be drawn from, and hired by, communities rather than institutions.

The Online Learning Host/Provider Framework describes the institutional support for the triad model.

In traditional education, the host and the provider are the same institution. That is to say, the same institution which produces the instruction is also the institution attended by the student. For example, if I say I am taking a course from the University of Calgary, what I mean is that the course instruction is being delivered by the University of Calgary, and also that the University of Calgary provides the facilities where I receive that course instruction.

In the future, host and provider institutions will increasingly be different institutions. One example of this is course brokering, wherein the course I am taking may have been developed by, and even instructed by, a University of Calgary instructor, but is being delivered at Red Deer College. Thus, when I take the course, I use Red Deer's classrooms, computers, and facilities even though the course is a University of Calgary course.

Host institutions will be by necessity geographically - and community - based. They will be the small, specialized schools described above, staffed by facilitators, and housing meeting rooms, laboratories, virtual reality simulators, and other tools too specialized or too expensive to be purchased by individual students.

Provider institutions, by contrast, may be located anywhere. With no time or location constraints, it will become increasingly common for provider institutions to service a global audience. We are seeing this trend develop already. Even today, I see course announcements posted almost daily on distance learning list servers such as DEOS or WWWDEV. It is now possible to take a course on almost anything from almost anywhere in the world. And although such course offerings are not always attractive, because of bandwidth limitations and pedagogical factors, these limitations will disappear as the field matures and the technology evolves.

Potential students will shortly be faced with a dizzying array of educational opportunities. Indeed, one of the primary tasks for host institutions will be to select and menuize course offerings. Typically, a host institution will support only a small subset of available educational opportunities, selected primarily by political and economic considerations. For example, government funded host institutions in Manitoba, such as schools or employment centres, are more likely to support courses and programs offered by Manitoba schools, colleges and universities.

But there will be a general fuzzing of traditional boundaries, especially in jurisdictions where the host and provider institutions are not governed, or at least associated, under an umbrella organization. For example, if host institutions in Manitoba developed onsite support facilities independently of the colleges and universities in that province, then they are far more likely to offer a menu of courses and programs from national and international institutions, and not primarily Manitoba institutions.

Provider institutions will find it essential to develop and nurture networks of host institutions, if only to secure a long term market for their course offerings.

[ Previous ] [ Home ] [ Next ]

[Refer] - send an item to your friends
[Research] - find related items
[Reflect] - post a comment about this item

Know a friend who might enjoy this newsletter?

Feel free to forward OLDaily to your colleagues. If you received this issue from a friend and would like a free subscription of your own, you can join our mailing list at

[About This NewsLetter] [OLDaily Archives] [Send me your comments]

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