Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Future

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Feb 23, 2001

Subject: Re: [DEOS-L] The Future
Date: Wed, 07 Feb 2001 17:25:17 -0700

Gene Mckay wrote:
As part of my research into distance education, I am curious about what all of you believe is going to happen over the next 20 years.

I've thought quite a bit about the future of online learning and have concluded mainly that it will not resemble what we see as traditional classroom learning. The idea that we would use today's technology to simulate a person standing in a classroom is even a bit astonishing, given the other approaches we could follow.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: don't expect tomorrow's technology and methodology to be a mere extension of today's. The examples below are cases in point.

Do you believe that telecourses and courses delivered over cable TV are going to diminish as the Internet grows?

Television and cable TV will be replaced by the internet; the first stage of this process is already happening with the advent of digital TV. Obviously, anything currently offered on cable TV will be swallowed by this transformation.

Users of tomorrow's 'TV' will be immersed in an interactive environment; the visual display will be but one component of a more complex system. The user will have many more choices: e.g., to put on the goggles for full VR-TV, to pan, zoom, rotate or x-ray the images, to send instant feedback and plot suggestions, to vote on outcomes, to interact with other viewers, and more.

All this applies to 'telecourses'.

Are ITV classes going to be replaced by the Internet?

ITV will be replaced by the internet. Video streaming is but one form of information transmission. People will think that ITV is unecessarily limited. Already viable alternatives - such as, say, Centra's Symposium - are emerging.

Even some of the presuppositions in the question - that there will be 'courses' and 'classes', for example - should be questioned. In 20 years we will think that dishing out content in pre-timed intervals to groups of students proceeding through the material in lockstep is arcane and obsolete. Why would we pace students through standard material when learning systems will enable dynamic, interactive and personalized learning?

What new technologies or ideas are "just around the corner" that make present distance learning systems obsolete?

In a word: XML

Systems using XML - as described, say, by the IMS protocols or SCORM - will be able to retrieve, sort and deliver self contained learning objacts rapidly and efficiently. This in turn will lead to what we might thing of as the fragmentation of learning, where specialized applications for each topic covered in a field of studies will be delivered to the student when and as needed.

Finally, what impact will all of this have on the community colleges, especially in regards to the growing competition from for-profit institutions?

As the efficiency and effectiveness of for-profit online learning is demonstrated, community colleges will find themselves increasingly unable to justify their reliance on government grants. We already see this in some technical fields, such as web design or multimedia design, where provate institutions have attracted many students who would traditionally have gone to a community college.

Probably what will happen over time is that government support for education will be shifted from direct grants to institutions to direct grants to students (over the most vigorous of objections from traditional institutions). If this happens, then traditional community colleges will become at the stroke of a pen de facto private institutions, albeit not-for-profit institutions.

The biggest change, therefore, will not be technological but organizational. The greatest impact of technology will not be in Star Trek style learning (though that too will happen), it will be in the shift of power from the institution to the student. So if you want a quick guide to what will change, examine the features of a traditional college and eliminate those which exist only to satisfy institutional needs, and not student needs.

Subject: Re: [DEOS-L] The Future
Date: Fri, 09 Feb 2001 00:35:51 -0700

Art Joy wrote:
On 7 Feb 01 at 17:25, Stephen Downes wrote: The greatest impact of technology...will be in the shift of power from the institution to the student....

The preceding statement seems to imply that what students want and what students need are synonymous. Part of the process of providing an Education is to recognize that students may need to study subjects that they don't want to study, and to acquire skills that they don't want to acquire, and to insist that they do so. This is why educational institutions have defined degree programs and curricula and courses.

Well this is the nib of the problem, isn't it? We can break this out into several questions:

  • is it true that they need what educators say they need?
  • is it true that they do not want to study what they need to study?
  • is the best way to get them to study what they need to force them to do it?

See, even if we answer the first two in the affirmative, it may be that the answer to the third question remains negative. True, educational institutions currently force people to study subjects they don't want before they will give students degrees and certifications they do want, but that is only because they have never considered an alternative approach.

How might this work? Well, much current education works on a building block approach. You teach a student all the elements of knowledge he or she may need in order to become a certain type of person: a high school graduate, a BA, a PhD, even (this is how I ended up studying Continental Philosophy at a Phd level even though I have no interest in it).

But you might, say, take an alternative approach: say, a goal directed approach. You start with what a student wants to do - surely you can let them choose that, at least - and then require that the student show competency in doing that thing before he or she gets paid for it.

That's how it currently works in some disciplines already: art, for example. A person will get paid for paintings only if the paintings are of a certain quality. So if a person wants to get paid for painting, they have to paint well. Well, how to learn how to paint well? Well, you need brush strokes, colour mixing... all the tedious stuff. But the student won't want to do it until they need to do it; but thyey don't need to do it unless it actually helps meet their goal.

The problem with forcing a student to take something he or she doesn't want - but is perceived to need - is multifold:

  • the definition of 'need' is often stated in terms of the educators' goals for the student, and not the students' goals for themselves
  • the particular element 'needed' might not, in fact, be needed for a student to satisfy his/her own goals
  • even if the student does need some bit of knowledge, the desire to learn it will not occur until this bit of knowledge is perceived as standing between them and their goal

I'm perfectly willing to concede that not all knowledge exists in increments of 45 hours, and we may have to re-define the way in which we package "knowledge" for presentation to the students. However, to shift the power from the institution to the student, so that the latter studies only what he or she wants to study, IMHO defeats the purpose, and even the concept, of "education."

Well, that's why they call it "learning" now.

Sorry, that was a bit snarky. But you get my point: what's changing includes everything up to and including the peopse of and concept of an education.

The old concept of education involved a lot of propogation of traditional values, fosterings of Kuhnian "scientific communities", more than a bit of propaganda, a certain amount of socialization, a significant amount of taming and fostering of knowtowing to authority, the rote memorization of purported relevant information, and more.

The new concept of education focuses on enabling students to choose their own values, build and define their own communities, think and reason for themselves, define their own society, question authority, and to locate information when needed.

In the old system, the educators defined "good". In the new system students decide for themselves what constitutes "good". In the old system, external standards of "good" were applied and students compared to these standards; in the new system, standards of "good" are derived from their own interests, ambitions and values.

I should be clear, too, that I'm not merely saying that this new sense of empowerment is good - though I am saying that, because I believe it is fantastically good - I believe that this new sense of empowerment is inevitable.

What kept the transitional standards of "good' and other values in place was not their inherent superiority. What kept them in place was the system of checks and balances which ensured the advance only of those people who also believed in those standards - or at the very least, feigned a belief in those standards.

I can see the objection, that a student is in no position to define what constitutes "good", and that the instructor is in a much better position to do so. But what gives the instructor this privileged position? Why, the instructor is better educated! But what validates the instructor's education in the first place? The fact that it was "good" - which of course leads us to the very issue we were debating in the first place.

What constitutes "good" is not defined by a set of social sanctions, customs and traditions. These are guides at best: efforts we have made through history to characterize what we have learned through personal experience. No, what constitutes "'good" is a combination of a person's own desires and ambitions and of states of affairs in the world: a certain set of actions is "good" if, given the state of affairs in the world, it leads to a satisfaction of that ambition, "bad" otherwise.

All other accounts of "good" are based on power relationships: where one person has the power over another to decide what is good and bad - where that person has the power even to decide what that person ought to want to do, what that person's ambitions should be. But this power relation is precisely what is disrupted by massively increased access to information (since control over access to information was the locus of power in the previous era).

Studying Latin may be "good" only if I want a B.A., and not for any other reason. Getting a B.A. may necessary only if I want a Ph.D., and not for any other reason. If my ambition is to live a life of research and writing, then under the old system the only way to earn such a living was to become a college professor, Ph.D. in hand, and hence, to have studied Latin at the age of 18.

But in the information age I can live a life of research and writing without the hallowed degree, because the routes to publication - previously controlled by Ph.D. wielding academic referees - have been thrown wide open. I can live based on my own ability, not because I have the sanction of an established authoritarian structure; I can obtain my own "good" even if I have not received the official seal of approval.

I think that what motivates comments like Art Joy's above is the belief that the academic system of predefined educational programs is the only way a person can reach a certain academic level. When academics had control over the distribution of the knowledge, that was true. But this control has been lost, and I think that we will find more and more that there are many routes to the same goal, many of which do not require the guidance of the instructor and the tedium of "required" courses.

By the way, speaking now as a student (rather than as a faculty member), I absolutely detest working in groups or teams. (And I have had many of my students tell me the same thing.) If there is a "shift of power from the institution to the student," I suspect that a great many students would reject and refuse to participate in the team-based learning techniques that I have so often seen promoted in postings to this list. Where does one draw the line in shifting power from the institution to the student?

This insightful remark points to the fact that many of the new theories of education suffer from the same deficiencies as the old: the new schools, say, of construtivist learning, or collaborative learning, and so on, have that same hallmark: the instructors have derived the One True Path to knowledge, and woe betide anyone not among the chosen. Even Guy Bensusan's program - carefully and expertly constructed - suffers from this.

I would be miserable in Guy's program. I would be miserable because his program does not reflect my ambitions, preferred learning styles, or even my levels of social comfort. I hate step-by-step learning, I prefer to study on my own, and I prefer to do it on an ad hoc schedule, flitting from topic to topic as they attract my interests and needs (anyone who reads my web page can see evidence of this).

I also don't like writing essays (much less dissertations, even less books) - I find the linear style constraining, I find that constant revision is a detraction from, rather than an enhancement to the core message. Spelling doesn't concern me (much), grammar is a tool to be used or ignored as needed, and the most useless six hours of my life was spent replacing every instance of the word 'practise' with the word 'practice' in my Master's thesis (readers of this and other lists will perhaps notice that i continue to spell the word indifferently). My only criterion for a footnote or bibliography entry is: "could a reader find it?" and I have no patience of the Manual of Style. My only concern is: am I understood? My instructor may think that I should strive to be published in the Journal of Philosophy, but I don't. I have better means of distribution.

Yes - if a person doesn't like working in groups, then they shouldn't be forced to work in groups, even if business and industry are today demanding better "teamworking" skills. If that person ever finds him or her self in a position where group work is the only way to achieve a desired objective, then the resources should be available, sure. But not until the student feels both a need and a want to learn that particular skill.

Subject: Re: [Fwd: from your reply...]
Date: Fri, 09 Feb 2001 17:03:11 -0700

From: Clyde Croswell (via Michele Watson):
Michele -- I agree. What this means to me is that we are becoming wholly adept, not just partially adept. My world view is that we are process and not content alone.

Sure. Change the content and you change the process. Change the process and you change the concept. The two are elements of the same thing. When McLuhan said 'the medium is the message', what he meant was that medium (mode of transportation, filters and blinkers, processing, etc) and the message (the semantical content, i.e., statements about states of affairs in the world) are actually two dimensions of a single entity (a transmission, an interaction, etc).

We have changed the medium. This has profound implications on the content. Current distance educators are trying to push old content through the new medium. It won't work - at least, not as they conceive it - because the new medium will inevitably change the message. When I talk about the shifting of power relationships, I am talking about how this message is changed.

We are more than our bodies and mind. Technology is an idea, ephemeral, decaying, material, a thing, content, fixed and limited -- Organization is Being, spiritual, process, impermanent (growing/developing) and infinite, unlimited. The latter is who we are.

Yes. Professors think of students as a particular definite class of entities, in one dimension, abstracted from their existence as humans with hopes, wishes, dreams, relatives, clubs, hobbies, nationalities, languages, and more. All these have much more of an impact on learning than the course content. All of these are intensified and focused though new technologies.

A person's identity as, say, a person who knits wool scarves, is supported and strengthened by new technology, by meeting online with other knitters, by locating information about knitting, by an awareness that knitting is valuable and important, and that he is not alone.

This sense of empowerment carries over into other domains. Now when he takes a knitting class, the class is situated in the context of this new empowerment. Even if the content of the class remains unchanged, it would be viewed from a new point of view. Any interaction would refelect this point of view. The class itself is inevitably altered.

What a wonderful inquiry you have posed!!! Just you wait 'til Saturday. As you may recall, or will hear several times during our next sessions in both courses, Change has two aspects -- performance and learning. Academic institutions may have become more about performance, content. How can change occur if they are not also about learning, process?

Yup. Academic institutions were the guardians and propogators of knowledge. That role is superseded. They know must focus on a two-fold role: the creation of new knowledge, as researchers, and the facilitation of enquiry, by providing services (as needed and requested) for learners.

Academics will not be happy with this change.

We may not survive the next 20 years, so eat more ice cream, go barefoot more often, and for me, Be who I am, not somebody else's (i.e., the college's or corporation's or spouse's) agenda. Perhaps Rumi said it best -- There are love dogs noone knows the names of. Give your life to be one of them! Thanks for your inspiration. Peace and wholeness -- Clyde


We are leaving the Platonic age and re-entering the Age of Protagoras.

I like Geoffrey Klempner's remark:

One of the lecturers at Sheffield perceptively remarked, 'So you're a Sophist, then.' Yes, I thought. The Sophists of Ancient Greece were itinerant teachers of oratory and rhetoric, history, poetry, philosophy, as well as all the arts and skills you needed to make you into an all-round man or woman of arete - accomplishment, or virtue to give the nearest English translations. [reference]

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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