Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Getting Ready for Online Learning

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Oct 28, 1998

Posted to NewsTrolls October 29, 1998

Online learning is sweeping across the internet. And some of today's small players - Ziff-Davis ( springs to mind - will in the near future be some of the big players. This will be a *huge* growth industry.

But the big players are done tooling up.

In Canada, at least, governments and institutions are already releasing major online learning resource packages. Check out the Media Awareness network, for example - - and *especially* the learning resources for teachers. I also saw an ad in the Globe and Mail recently looking for a webmaster-historian to coordinate a multi-million dollar online multimedia history of Canada site. I am aware of several additional government initiatives in various stages of development. Because governments in Canada are willing to develop these resources, this nation will lead the world in online learning.

In the United States, the corporate effort is being led by Educomm and centres around the IMS Standards and Protocols. See They are taking a systems approach: first they will describe the structure of integrated online learning, then various institutions and companies will build online learning components.

The IMS Protocols are a *very* heavy read. Fortunately, the model they describe is almost exactly what I propose in my paper, "The Assiniboine Model" - see At some point in the near future I expect to write a precis of the IMS specs and assumptions.

America Online just this week announced a partnership with Street Technologies to begin delivering online training. The article from the Masie Centre:

Street Technology to Deliver On-Line Learning to AOL Customers: In another indication of the growth of the commercial sector of On-Line Learning, Street Technologies today announced that they have been selected by AOL to be its primary anchor tenant for delivering online tutorial learning to its 14 million members.

"AOL focuses on consumers, as well as the small business market. Street's extensive catalog was seen as having applicability for both segments, and as a result, can be seen in the Computing Channel for individual consumers, and on the WorkPlace Channel for small businesses that need day to day support. Users can also access the tutorials using Keyword: Computer Tutorials.", said Steve Gott, Vice President of Street Technologies.

Streets' Internet learning business model allows corporations to pay only for the courseware (pay-as-you-go), hosting and administration reporting are included free of charge. For more information see or

In a similar vein, most of the major computer companies are entering the market with major educational initiatives. Microsoft's is the most prominant of these: see Content providers, such as Disney, are also moving into education. See

The publishers have been the slowest to get into the market. They want to continue selling books, and have designed educational sites intended to supplement their books. In my opinion, they are making a major strategic blunder. See

My main point: the corporations are *already* in the field. They have spent the last 18 months getting ready. The marketing push has started and they should be a dominant force within 12 months.

Just as educational institutions today by-and-large do not produce textbooks (the exception of university presses is noted), so also institutions of the future will discover that they are not willing to invest the staff and capital in the equipment, software and training required to produce online learning materials.

It is important to keep in mind that online learning materials of the future will be at least as complicated to produce as CD-ROMs or videos are today.

The production of an online learning material will be the result of a team process. At Assiniboine, we often use the analogy of a major motion picture when describing our various roles. This chart might prove useful:

Major Motion Picture Online Learning Resource
Executive Producer Department Chair or Manager
Producer Project Coordinator
Director Instructional Designer
Screenplay Course Content Authors
Actors Online Instructors
Director of Photography HTML Author
Editor Editor / Wordsmith

As in major motion pictures, the Executive Producer is the liasion between the people who actually put the project together, and the people who invested in, and ultimately own, the production.

Above we talked explicitly about 'curriculum design'. As the table above shows, there is no 'curriculum designer' per se. This is because in the production there is no curriculum design per se. Insofar as there is curriculum in an online resource, it is an *emergent* property, the result of the interaction of the content author's work and the instructional designer's work.

We need to keep in mind that online educational resources are *distinct* from online courses. An online course is an assemblage of online learning resources supplemented with discussion and personal communication.

Here perhaps a curriculum may exist, depending on the environment in which this learning is offered. Such a curriculum would be designed either by the individual instructor, an institutional or divisional curriculum team, or an external agency such as a Ministry of Education. Such a curriculum would be expressed in terms of learning objectives, which in turn would reflect an associated skill set felt to define the course or program of studies in question.

I think that most curricula per se will be owned by institutions, insofar as they state institutional requirements for learning. At the university level, where there is considerably more autonomy for individual instructors, curricula may be owned by instructors themselves, depending on university policy and the collective agreement.

It is important to keep in mind that curricula, as I am describing them, do not apply to *courses* per se. Rather, they are best described as defining *competencies*. Attainment of an educational level, say, 'Senior 4', will be granted if the student demonstrates achievement of serveral core competencies, in addition to a number of optional competencies. A competency, in turn, is defined by a curriculum as described above.

When a student desires to attempt a competency, a sequence of learning activities would be designed for that particular student. These learning activities would be assembled by the instructor and presented for ratification by the student. With the instructor's assistance, the student would then proceed through those learning activities, demonstrating competency through a series of tests or assignments.

For example: suppose one competency for Senior 4 is in the area of internet communications. This is defined by a curriculum which includes (among other things), 'sending email', 'reading email', 'forwarding email', replying to email', and 'printing email'. Jill decides to attempt this competency. She has already passed the 'sending email' and 'receiving email' in other courses. She decides she wants to challenge 'printing email' ("How hard can it be?", she reasons) and to take a programmed course of studies in 'forwarding email' and 'replying to email'.

The instructor, upon receiving this request for a course of studies, assembles a learning program:

Senior 4 Email for Jill

  • Challenge Test: 'Printing Email'
  • (if the challenge is failed) - Learning Resource - "How to Print Email" by Harcourt and Brace (usage learning fee: $1.00)
  • Learning Resource - "Replying to Email" - by MIT Press (usage learning fee: $2.50)
  • Interactive activity: email practise (resource: Omega Conferencing System, Pegasus Plug-In emailler, usage cost: $5.00)
  • Learning Resource - "Forwarding Email" - by MIT Press (usage learning fee: $2.50)
  • Challenge Tests: "Forwarding Email", "Replying to Email"

This of course is a very skeletal description.

This program of studies is entered into Jill's account; it appears on her desktop as a course of studies, which she completes at her own schedule in a learning centre. The learning resources and tools are automatically available to her, embedded, as they are, into her learning system. The publishers involved autobill the institution when she accesses them; she (or her sponsor, or the government) in turn is invoiced a single fee for her entire course of studies.

The *curriculum* as traditionally defined is Jill's course of studies, listed immediately above. But the curriculum in such a case is very transient. It comes into existence when Jill begins her work in Senior 4 Email and ceases to exist when she completes her studies.

The instructor has performed a very useful and important task. But what he has *not* produced is something which can be packaged and sold later. Thus, the question of who 'owns' Jill's individual curriculum doesn't arise.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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