Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Where is DL Going?

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Sept 23, 1999

Posted to DEOS-L 23 September 1999

In July 1998 I wrote a paper called "The Future of Online Learning" - see

In a nutshell, I think that distance learning is going online, and that therefore a lot of the traditional distance learning that we see will pass by the wayside.

I should also reflect John Sener's endorsement of Elliott Masie's newsletter, which reflects many of the same trends I observe. In that same issue (I think it was, anyways), Mr. Masie pointed to a very important resource which should be required reading:

I would also refer the reader to Mr. Masie's 1998 Annual Report on Learning and Technology (the 1999 report should be available in November, I would think). I have a copy, heavily commented, at

The Masie center's home page is

Brandon Hall is also working on a large "Future of Online Learning" project. See I can't vouch for the contents because I haven't seen them - he has a newsletter, but I'm too cheap to pay $189 for it.

OK, all of that said:

Elliott Masie is absolutely right when he says we should focus of the user's experience. I would have worded it slightly differently - that we should focus on the users. Indeed, my essay (and probably many of Mr. Masie's observations) derive from a cynical apprehension of what users are likely to do.

People should observe the history of the internet. Originally intended as a tool for defense, then as a tool for scholarly research, the internet rapidly evolved into the equivalent of the staff room bulletin board - one or two official notices papered over by recipes, pet stories, jokes, and personal chit chat.

The first multi-user applications on the internet were not scholarly conferences or even online classes, but rather, online versions of Dungeons and Dragons games. Inter Relay Chat strayed even further from the academic mold, so much so that we could no longer show topic listings in class, since they were offensive to even the most broad-minded student.

The internet we know today - the World Wide Web - also began as a scholarly endeavour, but rapidly became a motly collection of personal home pages (and personal pet pages - if you'd like to see my cat, please go to And yes, the web is now commercialized, but recall that the first commercial sites (and even today, among the most profitable) were pornography sites.

When we look at traditional distance education - classes conducted at set times using expensive technology (such as teleconferencing or interactive television), we are looking at a learning environment very much dominated by institutional perspectives, and not user needs. Anyone who has tried to set up an online class at no fixed time at a traditional institution will know what I mean - the registration and other systems were not equipped to handle such a concept.

The recent discussion of class sizes is most illustrative. Mauri Collins made the astute observation that it really depends on how you teach your class - those instructors attempting a traditional teacher-led class will find 20 students a heavy load, while alternative user-centered approaches, such as practised by Guy Bensusan, can support much larger class sizes.

But in reality, the concept of a class per se no longer makes sense. Prospective students are already finding a wealth of self-paced learning initiatives on the web. And because such student-centered approaches require much less staff time, they are a lot cheaper. From a user perspective, we would have to say that it is going to take a lot to convince someone to sign up for computer science classes for $2,000 per year at Nebraska when they could take the same material from Ziff-Davis University for $70 per year.

Think from a user perspective. Almost everybody on this list - including myself - learned in a traditional paper-based mode. If you were good students (like me) you took notes and kept your textbooks. I now have a vey full bookshelf and volumes of notes. But I never refer to them!

Yeas, perhaps I reviewed them right before the test, just to make sure I had the dates right and the outlines clear. And sure, I might look even to this day look up a reference, such as the Enclyclopedia of Philosophy's listing for Pseudo-Dionysius. But in my day-to-day work, those volumes are useless; by contrast, my own website is a valuable tool to which I refer constantly.

Now suppose you are working on a nuclear reactor, and the red light marked AP-VSC flashes. What would you rather do? Look it up in the manual? That would work, but can be a bit slow. Watch a video? Not even an option! Call someone? That would work, but requires very expensive expert support staff. Or type 'AP-VSC' into a subject-specific gurunet for an instant and detailed explanation?

The traditional conception of distance learning - and traditional distance learning as it now exists - represents the idea that learning is something separate from our other day-to-day activities. But as is now being gradually recognized by educators - and is well known to artists, artisans, and dart players - learning occurs as a *part* of day-to-day activities; and distance learning will evolve so as to *integrate* into those activities.

Richard Hezel writes,
PBS is the largest distance learning provider in the USA. While PBS supplements video materials with web-based materials, there is no evidence that other media, including video are going away.

On the contrary, there is significant evidence. Let's look at why PBS is supplementing its vast resource base. Television is a terrible distance learning medium. It is not interactive. You have to watch it at a set time, at a set place (ie., placed in front of the set). It is not good for complex concepts (which is why we have seven second sound bites). It impacts the user on an emotive, not a cognitive, level.

Television - or more accurately, on-demand internet-delivered digital video, which isn't the same thing at all, really - is fantastic for certain types of learning. Teaching empathy, for example, or trying to convey an intuitive feel for what Alexander's march to Samarkand was like. But video is limited, and ought to be supplemented with other resources - which is why a multi-modal system, like the web, will carry the day.

I would argue that the more distance learning institutions stick to older technologies, and the more they stick to the hide-bound class-and-degree form of learning, the more they will be hurt by alternative, and especially commercial, online learning.

A lot of people walk and talk as though online learning is established as a methodology, and quite contentedly say, "It isn't for everybody". They act as though the internet were a mature technology, as though the web as we know it and love it represents the future of this new medium.

It does not. Not even slightly. We are still very much in the developmental phase; we are at the beginning of this technology, in no way mature, and capable only of glimpsing what will come. But even at this very early stage, one thing stands out so clearly: the internet will put tremendous power into the hands of individuals - an incalculable amount of power - and those institutions which attempt to dictate, rather than react, are doomed to oblivion.

One final observation: Virginia Dickenson observed that "no technology has ever created a 'new' law". Now I will have more to say about copyright in another email; Carl Franklin's comments require a crafted reply. But for now, let me observe, that copyright legislation is *itself* the product of new technology.

Prior to the development of printing, copyright legislation did not exist, and for that matter, even the concepts represented in copyright legislation did not exist. Authors frequently copied others' work and represented it as their own. Authors frequently assumed previous authors' names - hence we see the example of Pseudo-Dionysius, an anonymous writer completely ignorant of any such thing as trademarks or plagiarism.

Copyright legislation is the product of a technology which made it possible for knowledge and information to become a commodity, for them to be something bought and sold on the open market, to common people. Copyright protection first protected the book rental industry (they being too dear to actually purchase), and then, the book production industry.

The development of the internet is the development of a technology with at least as much impact as the printing press. Its raw capacity is evident - here I am, an obscure semi-credentialled scholar reaching to thousands of people worldwide, a feat unimaginable even twenty years ago. I link to resources at the drop of a hat (and of course, my website allows me to retrieve them on a second's notice). And that all is just the beginning.

When asking yourself, "What is the future of distance education," ask yourself, what would the ideal be, were there no limitations? How would I want to learn, if I wanted to learn something? In what form, in what manner (and at what time and place) do I want knowledge to be presented to me.

It's 10:00 p.m. (Andrea just called from the living room) Mountain Standard Time. I'm at home. Relaxing. Working. Learning. Teaching. Classes and teachers and grades and degrees? It all doesn't matter any more; it's all so irrelevant.

Too bad I still have to stop what I'm doing to watch the Simpsons. But that, too, will change.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

Copyright 2024
Last Updated: Jul 21, 2024 07:35 a.m.

Canadian Flag Creative Commons License.