The Future of Online Learning


The mishmash of host institutions, provider institutions, and umbrella organizations is going to result in an increasing debate over standards and testing. It is going to get worse before it gets better. It probably won't get better.

One of the consequences of online learning is that anyone with a computer, a modem, and a little knowledge can set up shop in the Cayman Islands and call themselves a university. Examples of such institutions already abound and are well document as, for example, in Bear's Guide to Non-Traditional Learning. It will become increasingly relevant, standards bodies aside, to ask whether a graduate degree from Walden University is equivalent to one from the University of Manitoba, particularly when the latter suffers from underfunding and crowded, impersonal classrooms.

There will be no easy resolution to the debate over standards because there will be no widely accepted standards bodies. Because education is in many ways a culturally bound phenomenon, residents of one culture are not going to accept the verdicts rendered by representatives of another culture. We see this even today in the area of alternative religion-based schools. Graduates and diplomas are recognized in the religious community, but not generally in the secular community.

Learning, and the assessment of learning, will diverge. This trend will distress instructors who feel that class participation is essential to the learning process (and therefore must be evaluated), however, employers and standards bodies will become increasingly reluctant to recognize learning which is quantifiable by an index known only by the instructor. Independent standards based testing will be required for an increasing number of job or educational placements.

There is no reason why testing, in addition to instruction, may not be conducted online, and it is likely that host institutions will interact with testing bodies in the same manner as they interact with provider institutions (often, these will be the same institution). The host institution will be an essential component of online testing, because it will not be possible in the short term (or even the medium to long term) to verify a student's identity for the purpose of testing.

Tests quantify in ways project based or constructive learning do not. In an environment where everyone gets a pass or fail, it is not possible to distinguish between gifted students and those who succeed through endurance. Where opportunities narrow, as they do in higher education or entrance into the workforce, some quantification is required. The easiest, and fairest, way of reaching this determination is through testing. So while a constructive learning environment may get you through History 40S, it won't graduate you from high school, much less place you in the university of your choice.

Prior learning assessment and self managed learning will flourish in this environment, propelling to an even greater degree small, independent learning agencies which prepare students for testing but which do not themselves provide accreditation. Traditional institutions which accept such learning run the danger of relegating themselves into the role of testing agencies only, particularly if their fees are not competitive or their education substandard.

Successful educational institutions in an online environment will be those that realize that the fees they charge are for providing an educational service rather than for the distribution of information. Information, in an online environment, is cheap - many argue it is, or should be, free. With the increased emphasis on testing, students will not be required to attend a college or university to obtain post secondary certification. And unless colleges and universities offer something over and above mere information, they won't want to.

Education as a service, not a product, will be the dominant catchphrase of the early years of the next century. Already we are seeing this trend as institutions become more and more 'student focused'. But this mantra, now more a slogan than an operating principle at most institutions, will become essential for institutional survival. For without service, institutions will offer their students nothing over and above the Online Interactive Encyclopedia Galactica.

At present, few, if any, institutions are focusing on this aspect of online learning, so lessons must be drawn from traditional institutions which excel in student service, and online agencies which excel in user service.

The former tend to be small, specialized and personal institutions noted for a high degree of staff-student interactivity. Good examples to look at in Canada include Mount Allison and Queens University. These are institutions which focus not only on learning, but also, in the fostering of a learning community. They offer a nurturing and supportive environment in which student participation is actively encouraged. Their quality of instruction is excellent, not so much in the material presented (since, after all, calculus is the same everywhere), but rather, in the way it is tailored to individual student needs.

Few online agencies yet exhibit similar standards of service. Internet services have yet to move en masse from the dominant metaphors of catalogues or magazines to the emergent metaphor of the online community. Those online services which are successful - including Yahoo, Infoseek, and Firefly - offer a high degree of customization, comprehensive (and again, customizable) indexing, and many opportunities for interaction. These are again sites which provide a community for online users, but also which provide a wealth of partially digested and timely information.

Successful online educational institutions will probably combine these characteristics. They will likely be small, specialized, and personal. Even where institutions are large, success will depend on their ability to subdivide into small, community-sized units. Successful institutions will provide a supportive and nurturing community, and at the same time present educational materials and activities in a highly customized and student-centred manner.

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