Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ A Conversation On the Future of E-Learning

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Nov 15, 2003

This article Chapter published as A Conversation on the Future of E-Learning in Theoretical Foundations of Distance Education Online Course Sept 01, 2008. [Link] [Info] [List all Publications]

A Conversation on the Future of E-Learning - Stephen Downes

A Conversation on the Future of E-Learning

Stephen Downes

Final Version
November 15, 2003

1. Introduction

1.1 Abstract

In preparation for
his presentation
at TechLearn 2003, Mark Oehlert asked a number of reserachers to answer a set of
questions on the future of e-learning models and the language we use to describe them. This wide-ranging
discussion is my response, including various follow-up questions from Oehlert.

2. Models of E-Learning

2.1 E-Learning in Atlantic Canada

Why is your organization interested in or currently employing e-learning?

Though we conduct e-learning research, we don't employ e-learning. Our research is part of a regional development initiative intended to stimulate economic and social opportunities in Atlantic Canada.

This is very interesting. Is one of the contentions of your initiative then that e-learning will play a major role in stimulating "economic and social opportunities in Atlantic Canada"?

Atlantic Canada has historically been a depressed region in Canada, but some parts of it - most notably New Brunswick, have enjoyed a resurgence. A major explanation for this is information technology.

Starting about ten years ago, the NB government, under then Premier Frank McKenna, undertook a massive IT infrastructure project throughout the province. This involved broadband access to all public facilities (schools, hospitals, municipal buildings, government offices, etc) as well as incentives (eg., a tax rebate for computer purchases). This spawned the creation of information-specific industries, beginning with call centers and extending to a number of service-level IT firms. E-learning emerged as an early strength of these firms resulting today in companies like Innovatia, KnowledgePool, Learnstream and SkillSoft all having a major presence in the province.

As I said, though economic development is a complex area, IT is the likely cause of the resurgence, because the province's primary industries (fishing, forestry and tourism) remain depressed. It is not the sole explanation; major improvements in transportation (highways, airports, etc) have also played a key role.

At a certain point, however, we notice an upper limit to the economic benefits of this infrastructure. New Brunswick has not had for many years anything like an advanced research capacity, and this has kept its IT companies at the level of service companies; we do not see many products or innovations coming out of the province. So through a series of IT forums the province decided to adopt the (widely popular) 'clustering' strategy, in order to build vertical capacity. A major component of this is the development of a native research capacity, and accordingly both the federal and provincial governments invested in a number of initiatives, including our new 'e-Business' branch of the National Research Council.

Nobody would say that this initiative will guarantee prosperity; economic development is a complex process and depends on a lot more than simply job creation (something the Maritimes (Maritimes = another name for Atlantic Canada) know well). Economic development involves the creation of a productive capacity in a region, of which research and IT investment is only a part. Similar investments are taking place in transportation (our new international airport opened last fall), health, education, culture, and more.

I think that the province is firmly of the view, as I am, that IT is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for economic growth. It needs to be treated like a commodity, like electricity, natural gas (which was deployed this year), water, and the like. True, it is an informational commodity, which means it has difference attributes and dispositions, but in terms of economic role, it should be treated like the other commodities.

2.2 Masie on the Future LMS

A few weeks ago, at the Masie Center Summer Retreat, Elliott Masie remarked that he thought that the future LMS might look at lot like That is - an interface that customizes itself on the fly to the learner based on needs, past performance, etc. What do you think about that model? Does that seem feasible in the short run?

Elliott has the right idea for the wrong reason. Obviously fluid, personalized interfaces are the way of the future. But why does he think that e-learning will be sold in discrete chunks, like books? I don't think the Amazon model applies because I don't think that e-learning is the same sort of thing as books. More specifically, e-learning is better thought of as a type of environment, rather than a type of content. You don't sell environments the way you sell books.

I think I may have misrepresented Elliott's idea here - I really think he was talking of the LMS interface and suggesting the dynamically personalizable interface which Amazon employs might be a model for LMS vendors to look at. I don't think he was making any judgments on how the LMS would sell the content - just how the environment would present options, etc. to the user.

I would be the last person to say that the interface defines the back-end, but what is said about the interface is illustrative of what one thinks lurks behind the scenes. I realize that you (and Elliott) are trying to key in on certain properties of the interface, such as personalization, rather than function, but an understanding of these properties is inextricably tied to (perceived) function. So when Elliott talks about an Amazon-like interface, certain things follow: that there is a collection of resources (LOs, courses, books, whatever) that will be presented in a personalized way (by topic, region, previous selection) and around which a conversational community (or raters, reviewers, etc) will develop.

As a result of all this, I think that there is an ineliminable customer- centric focus to Elliott's approach, that is, one that depicts the learner as a sort of customer, and therefore, a type of consumer, someone who would be 'provided' with choices, options, customizations, etc. If you look at the language he uses when he talks about this sort of stuff, you can pull that meaning from it. It is a very different point of view than one would use when saying, say, that the learning is something that is created by the learner, that the environment is created, shaped, and even owned by the learner.

We want, though, to move in this direction in online learning, to think of a learner's learning environment as being akin to his or her online 'house', where learning resources - and all other types of digital content or services, form part of the infrastructure, like the power plugs in the way, the water coming from the taps, the gas being used by the furnace. It's something that can be tapped into, something that may be used by learning (and other) 'appliances', themselves nothing more than artifacts created by (or for) the learner and arrayed throughout this environment. I don't think Elliott sees this at all. But only he knows for sure; I could be wrong.

2.3 Customer-Centric Language

Do you think part of your perception of the language and its 'customer-centric' nature are created by a largely endemic mixing of the economic and the educational vocabularies? If so, is there one lexicon or the other that we should be using or do we need a wholly new one?

There is of course a large debate surrounding the commercialization of education and the commodification of education. This trend - and I think it is a trend - is frequently conflated with the deployment of new technologies in education. Part of the reason for this is that the new technologies assist in the commercialization of education, but the greater part of the reason is that the private sector is more swift to adopt new technologies.

So I think it's important not to confuse the two. Though the deployment of new technologies can connote the commercialization of learning, it need not do so, and were new technologies more widely adopted (or more widely seen to be adopted, as colleges and universities have actually been at the forefront in many cases) then this association would not occur.

To turn then to the question of language, we have several types of languages at work here: we have the language of commercialization, in which students are 'customers', in which design is 'client focused', and in which content is 'bundled'. And on the other hand, we have technological language, in which students are 'users', design is 'user-centric', and content is distributed as 'objects'.

The language Elliott uses is mostly technology centric. Of course, he is speaking to a largely corporate audience, and will of course use their language. And this comes out in his writing. But the point he is making is essentially technological, that a certain design of learning systems is approaching, and it is at that level I express my disagreement.

Confusing the issue, of course, is that the sort of design Elliott talks about is just the sort of design that would be adopted by a commercial enterprise. But that's not where I take issue. I take issue with the particular technological model he describes, whether or not the proprietor is public or private enterprise. I would make the same comment were he talking about, say, music distribution systems or video on demand.

We need to stop thinking of online content as analogous to things. That's the beginning and the end of it. Even if the language of 'things' is more suited to both contemporary academic discourse and commercial discourse, the reality is that when you find yourself immersed on an online environment it becomes evident and apparent that online content is much more like a stream than a collection of objects. That's why I use analogies like the electrical system or the water system, and not (as Elliott does) analogies like bookstores or warehouses.

3. E-Learning in a Global Environment

3.1 Global Issues in E-Learning

How does your organization deal with e-learning in a global environment? Is it even a concern? Are there prominent issues that surface outside the U.S. that the U.S. market is largely unaware of?

You may want to rephrase this for a non-American interviewee. ;)

The Re-Phrase: In your opinion, what are some of the global issues confronting e-learning today? Are you aware of any cultural or legal issues that could serve as road blocks to organizations trying to implement e-learning globally? Have you noticed that different issues get different levels of attention in varying parts of the world?

This is a difficult question to answer, because while there is a single over-riding issue, it is manifest in a layering and cross-weaving of a variety of different points of contention. To give you an idea of the scope and complexity of this issue, let me briefly list three major facets:

1. The question of content. As Jonathan Zittrain writes, ""We are in the midst of a cultural war over copyright, in which the salvos show the complete disconnect between the colliding copyright regimes of statute and practicality, law and life." We have seen the original concept of copyright and patents extended from the traditional domains of content and inventions to a coverage of all facets of the information culture, including today such things as business methods, algorithms, and even corporate images.

2. The question of access. This is not just the digital divide and censorship, it includes also the right and capacity to publish and be read. Online freedoms are on the retreat, and one might even fear, as John Walker, for example, warns, "an authoritarian political and intellectual dark age global in scope and self-perpetuating, a disempowerment of the individual which extinguishes the very innovation and diversity of thought which have brought down so many tyrannies in the past."

3. The question of law. By 'law' I mean not only the statutes which are written in, say, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, though that's part of it, but also law as it is expressed in RealPolitik, law is it is being written today in such international bodies as the WTO, WIPO, and WSIS, law as it is applied to the Ukraine via trade sanctions if it doesn't support a certain business environment, law, even, as it is applied through the use of naked force, as it has been in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The central issue in all three of these facets - and there are more - is not money, though it is often represented as such, but rather, power and control. At this point in history we not only have much greater powers of communication and expression than ever before, we also have access to greater riches than ever before. But there is a sense that we are at a peak, and with shortages in raw materials looming, there is a retrenchment happening, a vigorous conflict over the control of ideas, over the control of resources, and in the end, over control of people.

3.2 America and Global Issues

In a previous version of this answer I characterized the issue as being one of American dominance over the rest of the world, of the rise and coming fall of what has been widely described as the American Empire. And there is a lot of truth to that observation, but I do not want nationalism to obscure the main point, nor do I want it to mask the nuances. It simply happens that most of the power in the world in centered in the United States, and therefore when these issues come to the fore it is very frequently the United States against much of the rest of the world.

But to characterize it in nationalist terms would blur the important conflict. For there are, of course, many powerful people outside the U.S. who are advancing the same objectives, and there are many people inside the U.S. who stand in opposition to that that nation's powerful are doing. Thus it is more accurate to characterize the clash as that between those who favour world trade agreements as they are currently proposed and those who do not, between those who favour copyright and patent regimes as they are currently drafted, and those who do not, between those who favor the increasing restrictions on freedoms and liberties, and those who do not. These are not cohesive factions, and there is a lot of movement along the edges. But those who are directly involved in the conflict know where the lines are.

But of course, that said, America is the center from which the powerful exert their influence over the rest of the world, and in a very real sense, the rule of the powerful today is the American Empire expressing itself. We - those of us outside America - see the United States struggling with the difficulties and the contradictions of empire. The United States is, as Romeo Dallaire said in a talk at Idea City, a global nation that acts relentlessly in its own self-interest, and there seems to be no way to shake it from this attitude. ( ) Consequently, there is a continuous imbalance in American relations vis-a-vis the rest of the world, one which, again, Americans are insensitive to and yet toward which the rest of the world is hyper-sensitive. Make one wrong move when dealing with Americans and your whole enterprise will disappear into American hands, stolen with a flick of the wrist, international agreements and common courtesy notwithstanding.

The most obvious face of this is military, especially with the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but militarism is something that defines the American identity. It is perfectly natural, for example, for U.S. writers to use military examples, or military analogies, when describing most anything, yet these are surprisingly off-putting to foreign readers. When Wiley's "The Instructional Use of Learning Objects" came out, for example, the first comment I heard was oddness of a title like "Battle stories from the field..." for an article about education; yet past and present cultural, social and economic organization in the United States links the two, more strongly so than anywhere else in the world. Think of how this looks to non-Americans: your approach to educational standards is backed by the U.S. military, yes, the same one that just invaded Iraq. It is no coincidence that one of Norm Friesen's major observations in Three Objections to Learning Objects was the militarization of the discipline.

The second obvious face of this is the worldwide export of American culture, usually draped in the clothing of values and ideals. Many writers have remarked on this and so I don't need to go into a lot of detail: this not merely the export of McDonalds and everything it represents (wage-labour, corporate subservience, fast food production, massive advertising, and more) and Mickey Mouse (Scrooge style capitalism, greed, individualism and more) but also the twin towers of individualism and capitalism (and yes, I did use the analogy deliberately). These are wrapped in a dressing of 'freedom' and 'democracy', but these values are viewed very differently in the rest of the world. Americans, of course, are free to hold to these values, but those that must see them impregnating every book, movie, television show, and learning material (and also the IMF, WTO, and more) exported from the U.S. into the educational fabric must offer some form of resistance.

Most of the world is far more communually oriented than the United States, far more than most Americans realize, and the political and social agenda that is offered under the banners of 'freedom' and 'democracy' are perceived, even in modern industrial democracies as Canada, as undermining hard-won social and cultural values. This is not merely a cultural facade; it will not be addressed by merely 'localizing' materials; it runs deeply into the selection and presentation of learning. Renaming the 'French and Indian War' to the term everyone else in the world uses, 'The Seven Years War', isn't just relabeling, it is a change of context, of protagonists, of history. Rewriting the history of the War of 1812 to reflect what actually happened, an opportunistic (because of the Napoleonic wars) American invasion of Canada that was rebuffed by a rag-tag army of First Nations (ie., 'Indians') and militia volunteers, isn't just a case of rebranding.

The third face of this is economic. Many of the paramount issues in online learning today pit an American business ethos against that developed in other areas of the world. It is arguable, for example - and I have in fact argued - that the current copyright and patent crisis gripping the online world in general reflects more American efforts to stifle development and innovation overseas than it does any particular effort to reward creators and inventors (the evidence of this is that creators and inventors are so rarely rewarded; the people who tend to benefit are the new pirates). RIM suffered defeat in an American court in a case that would not have ever made a court in another country; developers are looking at royalties and licensing for things (such as the infamous 'business methods' patents) that in any other era, or in any other country, would be open to all. American culture, which as Lessig famously (and frequently) remarks benefited from the massive appropriation of world culture (and 'Disneyfied') is now impermeable to the same treatment from new, foreign, competitors. These arrangements are spread throughout the world, not through mutual agreement, but by means of force and intimidation, and America wields its two weapons - military and economic strength - very well and very frequently.

3.3 Copyright and Market Failures

Stephen, you are making a great many very interesting points here but I wanted to pause you for a moment since you hit one of my own personal hot buttons - copyright. I agree with your characterization above - I certainly don't see the Euro counterparts of Hillary Rosen, Jack Valenti or Mike Eisner (although I wonder if some non-American content producers are not simply happy to sit back and let American figures take the lead in this battle?). I also think that this slow chokehold being put on content could absolutely cripple e-learning. Since however, we are talking about the future - do you see any way to combat this? Creative Commons is a nice idea and has some very smart people working on it but do you think it will rise to the level of a viable alternative to traditional American copyright?

Well, I just characterized the issue as being one of power, so the short answer is to remove power from the equation. Remove the coercion and the sanctions that attend the current copyright regime, the emphasis on enforcement, the lawsuits and the criminal charges. But of course that quick answer is likely not to satisfy anyone. So instead of talking in terms of power, allow me to talk in terms of economics.

The copyright crisis has arisen because of a market failure. When we talk about market failures, we usually talk about how the market fails when shortages occur. In such cases, the price charged for a commodity escalates far beyond its actual value because, if the commodity is essential, people will pay whatever it takes in order to obtain it. Hyperinflation occurs and we find people spending a month's pay in order to buy a loaf of bread, a tank of gasoline, a simple operation.

When such a market failure occurs, then unless there is some form of government intervention the nation's populace will be impoverished and there will be general economic collapse. In some cases, governments impose a form of price controls. In other cases, governments assume direct control of the production and distribution of the commodity. Such remedies are frequently opposed by those who sell the commodity in question, of course, since they stand to earn substantial profits from the scarcity. And by and large the producers have won the day, though in certain exceptional countries - Canada being one - government regulation and management of the food supply, energy, health care and housing have prevented market failures from ruining the economy.

Market failures also occur in the other direction as well, and this is the case in the case of copyright. This sort of market failure occurs when, for whatever reason, the commodity in question is overproduced. In such a case, because there is an abundance, the price for the commodity drops through the basement. It becomes almost impossible to convince people to pay anything for the commodity because there appears to be no need: it is in abundance, and there is always someone willing to sell it for less, or some way to get it for free.

This is what has happened in the case of content. With the deployment of information and communication technologies, what was once scare has now become commonplace. Instead of having two or three newspapers to choose from, I quite literally have hundreds. Instead of selecting from one of a couple of dozen columnists, I can now choose from thousands. Because information is so easily available, its perceived value is near zero, and so people are not willing to pay for it.

We have seen this sort of market failure before, in other areas. In western nations, at least, food production has entered a state of oversupply. Food is so plentiful in the west that prices for wheat, rye and other crops has been pushed below the farmers' capacity to pay for growing them. The producers of certain raw materials - copper, nickel, iron - are also skirting the same line.

However, the consequences of leaving this situation unchecked are severe. In Canada, we had an oversupply of fish; the sea was literally thick with cod. But because of this, there was no evident return to stock management, and we fished the sea until it was empty. We are approaching this situation with our forests, where the economics of pulp and paper production made crop management unviable, until we are now in a situation of looming shortages. Environmental management in general has pitted an economics of oversupply - of clean water, of clean air, of landfills - against a realization that eventual catastrophe looms.

The producers' preferred remedy to oversupply is to create artificial shortages of the commodity, and then let market forces dictate a fair value. This is exactly what copyright does - it was, after all, implemented when the first bout of oversupply, caused by the printing press, occurred. Copyright places limits on the production and distribution of content. Thus, in order to buy a copy of On the Road, you must purchase from one of a very few publishers, from one of a very few distribution outlets. This hold on supply ensures that the production of On the Road will reap a fair return for all involved.

However, as the cost of information has dropped, there is increasing pressure on this approach. It is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain an artificial shortage in an era when information flows freely. It is not simply that On the Road can be easily copied, it is that for every copy of On the Road that sell for $14.95 a hundred equally good books (or equivalents) are being distributed online for free. The pressure on supply has been accelerated today not merely by copying but by the production of alternative content.

The only way to continue the shortage of supply is to control the market itself, and this is the approach many publishers have adopted. What is significant, for example, about iTunes is not that they charge 99 cents a song, but that competition from lower-priced, independent or free-lance musicians is not present. In the field of educational content you see much the same trend: control not merely of the content, but of the market in which the content is distributed. This is why we see specialized content repositories, such as Elsevier or Emerald online, rather than an Amazon-style open market for academic papers. This is why we see exclusive content agreements signed between LCMS companies and publishers such as McGraw-Hill.

The debate about copyright isn't about making people pay for content. It's about keeping the free content out. So the restrictions on distribution and the threats against producers of free content must escalate. That is why, in the current environment, producers attack distributors such as Napster or Kazaa, rather than the people who actually do the copying. That is why there is today a sustained legal attack against Linux from SCO and its silent partners. If free content gets a foothold, then the bottom falls out of the content market, and the market failure occurs: and if the producers are right, we would then see widespread shortages as the pricing model pushed producers out of the game.

Thus we have a situation where content producers are natural allies with those who, for other reasons, would like to control the production and distribution of content. Companies whose major asset, for example, is not any product or service, but rather, their brand. Political parties who would like to manage public opinion. In some cases, religious groups, who want to prevent the propagation of irreligious messages. Being able to control content not only helps publishing companies, it helps a wide range of organizations and industries that benefit from a tighter grip on a population.

But arrayed against this are the needs of the population as a whole, for access to information has become a necessity in today's society, and the aspirations of the general population, now in a very good position to view the wealth of contemporary society. Removing the restraints and allowing a widespread access to information would have a ripple effect far beyond the cost of a textbook or the fees for an online course. Such access would free the population from a wide range of constraint, indeed, any constraint that would emanate from a lack of knowledge or information.

As Zittrain says, "we do ourselves a fundamental disservice by fixating on current income structures and not thinking about future possibilities premised on amazing technological advances." In my view, the benefits of freeing content from the constraints imposed as a consequence of oversupply far outweigh the costs. Thus, I return to my original proposal, stated above, but expressed in a different way. We do not need to address the laws and the sanctions directly. All we need to do is free the market. If we can pit commercial content in a fair and free marketplace against alternative, free, content, then the price of commercial content will drop dramatically.

This is what I am attempting to do with my digital rights management system. I am trying to create a system where free content competes side-by-side with commercial content. Though I have already received criticism from the free content side of the equation for this, I expect (and have encountered) stiffer opposition from the commercial side, since while I leave their expensive content libraries untouched and uncopied, I create an alternative against which they cannot compete.

My belief is that content, unlike natural resources and agriculture, will continue to be produced even in an environment where people are not paying for it. But even if not, I think it is a risk worth taking.

In my own institution, I have proposed a two-pronged strategy: first, start making our researchers' content available for free through an institutional e-prints service. And to pay for this, second, stop paying for commercial content libraries and journals. The cost of the former is, of course, much less than the expense of the latter, and so we would come out ahead. And if every other organization did the same thing, then we would all have access to the same, and in some cases more, content, and we would all obtain considerable savings. Thus, we can continue to pay for the production of content, and therefore ensure its continued production, without having to endure the overwhelming cost of content.

3.4 America at the Crossroads

Look at the alternative?

Americans are living in halcyon days. Again from where I sit, innovation has stalled within its borders (look at the personalities leading the various fields (but don't look to the U.S. press for this information, since it continues to maintain that everything is invented in the U.S. (a modern day 'Checkov'), look at the actual documents). American's educational system is in a widespread state of disrepair and in danger of collapsing completely. Though a few high profile institutions, by virtue of publicity and funding, are able to lay claim to high profile invention and discovery, this capacity is not being widely distributed.

Many of the traditional economic spin-offs are now being realized overseas as U.S. corporations leverage favorable trade laws to offload production in East Asia and India - and as you know, this includes high tech production. Look at the staff of professionals in any major American city, at the teachers, doctors, the multimedia specialists, the software authors, and you will see a great proportion of Canadian, Australian, European and other staff.

While many Americans may view 9-11 as the renewal of the American spirit, most worldwide view it as the beginning of the end, the first tangible cracking of 'fortress America', and while none of us supports the aims, objectives or tactics of the terrorists, we, more so than Americans, realise that this signals America's immersion into a global culture. America has always profited by its isolation; it can and frequently does raise trade, travel and other barriers (Canadians see every day the barriers Americans regard as invisible). This isolation - far more than its particular economic system (contrary to American myth) has been the basis of its prosperity, and this isolation is now under siege.

Americans face a daunting and challenging future, one which is going to depend a great deal on global goodwill, especially as it tries to maintain a standard of living that depends on a worldwide influx of increasingly scarce resources. Its leaders no longer stand like Augustus astride the world; they resemble, rather, a fading Aurelius with the shadow of Commodus standing over him. Rome thrashed the western world for two centuries in its decline, and there is the fear on the part of a great many today that America will do the same.

As a post-script to these remarks: I speak of the old America (yes, a deliberate evocation of the 'old Germany', which is actually the new Germany). There is a new America, just barely a minority, the new America that marched at Seattle, that pioneered open source, that pines for the sort of freedom I describe below.

America is at a cross-roads: if it embraces the new America, it can survive the globalization of knowledge and control; if it rejects it, the new Americans will increasingly flee its shores. The old America is clinging to power with increasingly desperate measures (the War on terrorism is a desperate measure, the Patriot Act is a desperate measure, the DMCA is a desperate measure). If the new America can survive the lawsuits and the imprisonments and the loss of safety and security, a renaissance is possible. But history does not auger well: what we have traditionally seen, as the rise of America itself symbolizes, is a rebirth in a new land, and the increasingly desperate death throes of the old. Then irrelevance.

Well, I asked for an international perspective didn't I? One dynamic I think that has changed from your examples above especially the Romans but also the Germans, is that even at the end of WWII, there was room in the global environment to 'leave.' That is when you say "the new Americans will increasingly flee its shores," my immediate question is - whither will they go?

Well, Canada has a long tradition of accepting American refugees, from the Loyalists in the Revolutionary War to the slaves via the Underground Railroad to the draft dodgers of the sixties. They would be welcome here.

But less flippantly, there have been several high-profile emigrations in the two weeks since you posed your question, and both headed for Europe. But if there were a widespread Diaspora, I think we would see Americans living worldwide. Sri Lanka, the eventual home of Arthur C. Clarke, could, for example, become a new paradise for many refugees.

4. The Nature of E-Learning

4.1 Virtual Learning Environments

But let's talk about e-learning for a moment - how can it change the dynamic you describe? Can virtual learning environments be 'places' of both protest and reconciliation of conflict and resolution? If so (I'm hoping for a certain answer you see) then what are some of the necessary technologies/ideas needed to get us (little non-nationalized us) there? I'm not asking you to describe how you would use e-learning to save the U.S. but if it is possible for e-learning to help transcend the problems you outline. As an interesting point, I know of one study of Everquest in which a fairly large percentage of respondents identified themselves as mainly 'living' in the virtual world and merely 'commuting' to ours.

As a former inhabitant of an online multi-user community (Muddog MUD) I can certainly understand where the denizens of Everquest are coming from. The friendships I made on Muddog were deeper and more long lasting than the ones I made in the 'real' world, partially because while I was forced to move around the country to find employment, Muddog was always there, at the same address. Well, until it folded. And after that, the community that I joined when I became a regular on the old HotWired threads boards is with me to this day, and again, these online friendships are every bit as real, in some cases more real.

So I think that the answer to your question is "yes", and indeed, I would not be in this field today if I didn't think that the answer was "yes". Possibly unlike many others, I see learning as a means to an end and not the end in itself. Learning - and online learning - is for me a path toward (as I say on my website) "a system of society and learning where each person is able to rise to his or her fullest potential without social or financial encumberance, where they may express themselves fully and without reservation through art, writing, athletics, invention, or even through their avocations or lifestyle. Where they are able to form networks of meaningful and rewarding relationships with their peers, with people who share the same interests or hobbies, the same political or religious affiliations - or different interests or affiliations, as the case may be. This to me is a society where knowledge and learning are public goods, freely created and shared, not hoarded or withheld in order to extract wealth or influence."

Online learning is the key to this, a necessary (though not sufficient) condition. Online learning, as opposed to traditional learning, because it offers the potential to transcend what has historically been a learning shortage in society. Learning is what frees people: learning, and not armies and constitutions and diplomats. Learning, because once a person has reached a certain level of self-actualization, it becomes impossible to enslave that person, it becomes impossible to manipulate him, it becomes impossible to control them. Power, even raw, naked force, has no impact on the non-consenting, at least, not on a society-wide level.

What makes the internet - a free and open internet, not a channelized world of Disneyfied offerings - so key and so crucial is that we can learn from each other. If you look at the billions of pages on the World Wide Web, what you see is a spontaneous and massive uprising of a world of people passionately teaching each other and learning from each other. Look at this interview, conducted between two people in different countries who have never met: we are both (I hope) learning from this exchange, and the product will in turn allow others to learn.

Jay Cross, among others, talks about informal learning and how important it is. But possibly even he underestimates its importance. The internet in general and online in particular (though not the institutionalized sterilized stage-managed variety) has created a global learning culture. If - and the outcome here is not yet certain - we can enlarge and entrench a free and open internet for the peoples of the world, no force on earth will be able to prevent a mass enlightenment from taking place, and while it is true that even on the internet you see extremes, what you see in general is this massive, good-natured and peaceful dialogue going on.

When we see ourselves at least as much citizens of humanity, as experienced and expressed through our online exchanges, as we do today citizens of a nation or of a cultural group, we will be able to overcome some of the differences between us. When we realize that it's not possible to impose our wills on the people of the world, we will stop trying. When we can come to understand that people, although different, can still govern themselves, we will cease feeling the need to impose some sort of external structure and order.

One final note: implicit in your question is the question, "How could we do this." But there is no "how". It's not something that can be 'done'. It's like asking, 'How can you make a crystal lattice?" But you don't 'make' a lattice: you place the right ingredients in the right environment, and the lattice makes itself.

Are you aware of any groups or skill sets not currently represented as fully as they should be in the e-learning mix (e.g. anthropologist)?

Not really. I haven't really surveyed. I simply assume that every niche will be filled.

4.2 Pattern Recognition and Instructional Design

Here is a quote for your consideration: From William Gibson's recent book, Pattern Recognition:

"Of course," he says, "we have no idea, now, of who or what the inhabitants of our future might be. In that sense, we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which 'now' was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents? have insufficient 'now' to stand on. We have no future because our future is too volatile." . "We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moments" scenarios. Pattern recognition."

Let's assume for a moment that the same author who coined the term cyberspace is right again. How do you see ISD surviving in a world with very little 'now'?

It won't.

Do you see the 'course' surviving as a meaningful unit of instruction?

It won't.

What I am currently describing as the future for online learning is the design of learning environments. We may want to explore that more fully. I certainly need to refine my thinking here.

But the point is, anything static, is dead. That's the new reality. That's Gibson's point. We need to become used to perceiving what we perceive as something that is itself, essentially, dynamic. This is not merely a change of perception; it is a change of world view.

We could do the entire interview around Gibson's point.

Great! Let's push this around a bit. So ISD as we know it won't survive. Got any guesses on how long it has left?

Oh, gosh, it will of course live forever, but as a force in online learning, no more than five or ten years. But it won't simply die, it will morph imperceptibly. And its decline will not be seen equally in all places; it will linger on much longer in rigidly structured cultures and learning environments. Corporate and military learning, the first to really embrace it with open arms, will be the last to let go.

I agree partially on the 'death of the course' idea - I think that you are already seeing that in e-learning especially in the way the consumers of e-learning are relating to it - more as performance support than traditional training. I would think that in traditional, residential educational experiences, the course will survive in a heavily "e" augmented mode.

Tom Abeles sent me a quote the other day with so eloquently expresses the situation of the traditional university. "I have likened it to Poe's story of M Valdemer where a consumptive individual is kept alive because of a hypnotic trance. A snap of the fingers, the trance is broken and the body decomposes before your very eyes as if it had happened in an instance at that moment in time." He was responding to my observation that the only thing keeping the traditional university alive even today is its virtual monopoly on credentials, and when that monopoly is broken - which really could happen any day now - the system will crumble is a mass of confusion and chaos, the crisis having 'suddenly' erupted in the university system.

Peter Drucker presents some interesting viewpoints on this topic. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly Drucker stated that:

"The psychological impact of the Information Revolution, like that of the Industrial Revolution, has been enormous. It has perhaps been greatest on the way in which young children learn. Beginning at age four (and often earlier), children now rapidly develop computer skills, soon surpassing their elders; computers are their toys and their learning tools. Fifty years hence we may well conclude that there was no "crisis of American education" in the closing years of the twentieth century -- there was only a growing incongruence between the way twentieth-century schools taught and the way late-twentieth-century children learned. Something similar happened in the sixteenth-century university, a hundred years after the invention of the printing press and movable type."

Related more directly to your issue of credentials it seems, Drucker also wrote that:

"There are obvious dangers to this. For instance, society could easily degenerate into emphasizing formal degrees rather than performance capacity. It could fall prey to sterile Confucian mandarins--a danger to which the American university is singularly susceptible. On the other hand, it could overvalue immediately usable, "practical" knowledge and underrate the importance of fundamentals, and of wisdom altogether."

How do respond to either or both of those statements?

I think that skills are evolving, that students are learning new skills, that these skills are not being taught in schools, and that these skills are not being measured. This is what I tried to get at in my essay The New Literacy. In particular, what I think they are learning is not some mere skill or adeptness with computers, I think they are learning an entirely new language, and with it, consequently, new ways of thinking, of inference. Pattern-detection, for example, is something today's children will be skilled at in a way their parents cannot comprehend: the ability to see intuitively, for example, that some piece of content plays a central role in an online ontology.

But let's not forget that we are talking about a small number of children here, a subset of the children born and raised in western industrial democracies. Forget about access, even, for the moment. Even in the United States, a significant number of children do not get enough to eat. I've seen several studies conclude that the program that would have the single greatest educational impact today is a hot lunch program. It doesn't matter whether you are living in the Dark Ages or in the Space Age, if you are not getting enough to eat you are not learning: you are not learning the traditional material, nor either are you learning the new.

You talk about the children of the United States: what about the children of Ethiopia, or Guatemala, or even Argentina and Brazil? What sort of education do you suppose they are receiving? People talk a lot about the digital divide, and I don't want to underscore its importance. But it's pretty ridiculous to talk about a digital divide when we are still facing things like a food divide, a housing divide, a health care divide. Providing computers and access to online learning will produce great benefits in the United States and in the world as a whole, but all the computers in the world won't help if the social conditions aren't there.

And this is what you have to remember about Drucker. He is talking about a very narrow slice of humanity, a slice so narrow that it can almost be counted on the fingers of one hand. Yes, there is a new digital generation - and I am hoping and counting on the fact that they will be more tolerant and more generous than their parents - but it is such a tiny fraction of people it won't have a sustained impact. Not yet. And in the mean time, there is the hard, hard work of providing at least some kind of education that is not being done today.

Drucker's comments about degrees and fundamentals, similarly, speak to those in a rarified world where such things matter. This world is getting smaller - though everybody today, it seems, is getting a degree, the degree does not confer what it once did and is therefore much more easily (and accurately) seen as being replaceable, disposable. Our top programmer (and trust me, he is a top programmer) does not have a Master's, yet he can code loops around any graduate I have ever seen. I have no credentials in either computer science or education, yet in today's environment I can be judged by the quality of my work.

I am not so concerned about going too far the other way because I am not so concerned about 'fundamentals'. If a person cannot read, cannot do math, cannot read a map, these deficiencies will show, but are more likely to be remedied in an online environment (especially today's, where people, it seems, write constantly). As to the other fundamentals, well, they change. How many in the adult generation understand the fundamentals of database design? How many people in government could discourse on entity relationship diagrams or Normal form? Probably none - and yet these are absolutely basic concepts for understanding data management, ontologies, classification, and a host of crucial functions.

I think people will learn the fundamentals when they need them, if only because they are fundamentals. If we were dropped in the woods today, we would not have the fundamentals of wilderness survival. If we were dropped into a pioneer farm, we would not have the fundamentals of eighteenth century agriculture. But if the learning were available (as it is, at least, for our online children), we'd learn the fundamentals in a hurry.

4.3 Training, Tuition and Funding

What will happen to training departments when kids who have been raised with a PS2, broadband access, Pocket PCs, as their baselines hit the corporate world?

Good question. Let me think about that one. As you can imagine, it won't be pretty. I am wavering - either the training departments will be completely changed, or they will be ignored. It's hard to think of learning in the future as something that is packaged and delivered by a corporate training department.

I have been writing about the twin crises of tuition and funding since 1981 (indeed, my first published piece was on the subject). In the two decades since these have been following an unsustainable progression since: tuitions have been rising relentlessly, some years (such as this year) more than others, while public funding for education has been, in constant terms (for example, as a percentage of GDP (though GDP is a highly artificial number)) declining steadily. We have already seen the consequences of this, as universities have been in recent years more and more willing to seek funding from commercial and private sources, while at the same time the steadily increasing burden has been changing the university student demographic. The sixties opened the universities to the common people, and as a consequence spawned a social and cultural revolution; the same thing could never happen today, because the wrong people inhabit the hallowed halls, and the next revolution (and there will be one; it is happening already) will begin outside the campus, reaching in.

The cause is declining funding, the catalyst is the internet. We are already seeing widespread social empowerment, at great cost to more established institutions. The music industry will never recover from Napster; parts of it will survive, but it will never enjoy the same advantage it enjoyed over listeners (and, for that matter, musicians). The printed content industry is facing similar crisis; I monitor the commercial media discussion boards and hear on a daily basis the crises facing the newspaper industry as the very act of journalism itself is devolving into a personally constructed and distributed medium. Even today, the best, quickest and most accurate news about any given domain is available online. Yes, pundits will look at the recent successes of traditional media - almost exclusive access to the Iraq war, for example, a strong hold in coverage of the Columbia crash, its overwhelming edge over online sources during 9-11. But remember, these are still prior to the advent of widespread personal video and imaging technology, prior to ubiquitous broadband. In areas where print coverage usually holds sway, such as social policy, analysis, academic writing, and the like, the internet already holds the advantage and is gaining quickly. I doubt that academic publishers will survive the next five years. I can't see traditional publishers holding out much longer. Print publishing will become a niche industry, and that publishing that does occur will follow the model set by and others.

If you follow the news about higher education (and, for that matter, the public school system) you can see that it is already in full crisis. There have been a number of closures and mergers. There is cutthroat competition to recruit students. An increasing number of students are attending non-traditional institutions, such as the University of Phoenix. High-profile forays into online learning, such as California Virtual University, Columbia-Fathom, and Open University USA, have failed utterly, while others, such as Universitas 21 and WGU, live on life support. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the university system emanating from writings on the political right. The public system's only real response to 'No Child Left behind' has been to push low-achieving children out of school (thus 'improving' test results). Efforts to privatize (such as Edison) are collapsing in financial mismanagement. Informal learning is almost the only form of learning practiced by professionals, and this trend has spread to other industries, especially the computing industries. Mandatory training is increasingly served by companies such as RedVector.

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold."

With nobody to offer the course - how can the course survive?

4.4 The Traditional Institution

Is that different that the formal, resident school surviving?

Well, look, with the advent of the apartment building nobody had to live in houses, but people still did because it's nicer. With the advent of department stores nobody had to shop in boutiques, but they do. With the advent of grocery stores people no longer need to eat at restaurants, but they do.

There is a great deal to like about the traditional university, from the camaraderie of residence life to evenings in the Union Pub to the easy access to people with bright minds and people of the opposite sex. Some learning takes place, too.

Traditional universities will continue to exist, though the learning part of them will be transformed. Traditional universities will do away with classes and lectures and formalized instruction, but they will continue to develop and emphasize what really makes them valuable. And though education will, through online learning, be available to a much wider segment of the population (and will be something the begin before university and continue long after they leave), a certain (generally well-off) segment of the population will continue going to, and sending their children to, residential universities.

If I had to place money on the next major shift in the structure of the university system (aside from the complete transformation of how learning on campus happens), I would bet on the rise of new, specialist universities. Take the model of the religious university, for example, as a type of specialist university, and extend it in other dimensions. The 'ecology university', for example, set in the British Columbia wilderness. The 'oceanic' university, set in Hawaii. Universities dedicated to music, to sports, to world development, to public service.

But to be clear: the age where the majority of people go to a residential university is almost at an end. It is at an end; we are already into the downturn. Universities will return to being refuges for the elite: but what was really important about them, the learning, will be available to all. That's why universities will focus on the residence life and will specialize: these will be their only brand distinctions, the only way they can attract the exclusive, higher-paying crowd. This will be essential once governments realize that they are funding the lifestyle, and not the learning. This day is already here.

4.5 The Death of ISD

Back we come to the death of ISD - by virtue of the creation of dynamic learning environments? Does this analogy work? - ISD has been the city planners back East laying out town maps for the frontier in Oregon or California but as populations reached those lands and populated those areas - as those 'plans' became dynamic, living, breathing environments - they shrugged off the designs of the planners to pursue their own course of development.

The 'taming of the frontier' analogy - I hate that analogy. It has been used over and over. Canter and Siegel used it as a signature in their book on spamming. People forget that the 'taming of the frontier' was the systematic genocide and relocation of an entire culture, the decimation of forests and rangelands, the extinction or near-extinction of entire species, and that if it continues to occur on a world-wide scale (as it does, currently, unabated) the result will be widespread economic and ecological devastation.

The 'taming of the frontier' is what is killing the internet, choking it with spam, clogging it with subscription windows, polluting it with popup windows. The 'taming of the frontier' has offered no real benefit to the internet; it would have flourished with or without the commercial dimension, and any attempt to 'plan' the internet - efforts as widespread as metered access to learning object metadata - will in the end reduce it to a dust bowl. To live off the land we must learn to live with the land; and just to, to live off students, we must learn to live with students, and today, as always, students have reacted poorly to fences and barriers, channelization, manipulation, and more. Only today, students are in a better position to do something about it.

Believe me, with a degree in history and anthropology gained a western university in a state with 11 Native American tribes and having witnessed first hand the devastation wreaked on something as mighty as the Columbia River - I could not agree with you more about the reality of the "taming of the frontier". I would however, add two things: #1 While your description touches on the reality, the perception of this myth - even if it is only in the American mind/psyche is a powerful thing and thus relevant (I believe). #2 I could have just as easily used the "nothing is so fragile as a plan" quote, the "a plan never survives first contact with the enemy quote (with a nod to my above-noted militaristic heritage - doubly so being both American and formerly of ADL) or even "man plans, God laughs," - the point was, as I am sure you are aware, to point to an example of a rigid structure overcome by dynamic events.

Well if people believed that steel was no stronger than stone, would it still make sense to restrict the height of our buildings to six stories? I don't cater to myths; I can't cater to myths, I have too much trouble with the truth.

The other side of this is, some plans endure, even though they make no sense. Sometimes our actions have lasting consequences. Fly over the planned cities of the North American west and you still see the grid patterns laid our, a century later, despite the best efforts of man and nature. As Rory McGreal is fond of pointing out, the width of the tracks used to move the boosters for the space shuttle (and hence, the width of the boosters) is based on decisions made about the width of roads used in the Roman Empire.

In the same way, the decision to 'tame' the online environment is something that could become permanent. It is something that could have lasting consequences. I wonder whether the framers of the Statute of Anne could have forseen the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. I wonder whether they would have worded it differently had they taken more heed to the longer term consequences. But they didn't; the political exigencies of the day prevailed, and we got the language we got.

And when we look at online learning design today some of the same forces are at play.

ISD is the educational equivalent of dictatorship. Of sure, you are as a student given some choices - carefully designed state-sanctioned choices. But there is no freedom to explore, follow one's own interests, to wander through the hills and dales of the knowledge wonderland that lies beyond. Who, when given a choice, will elect to immerse him or herself completely and totally into a manufactured environment where every movement, every idea, is carefully guided and nurtured? Even cities have intersections; the design of a city is based not on the creation of 'routes' from point A to point B, but by the creation of an infrastructure that offers many routes, many modes of transportation, and even a certain large number of unstructured, even untamed, areas. Yes, it is true, people sometimes need a guide: they will have to ask directions - but this becomes a matter of statistical probability rather than one of underlying infrastructure. Place a hundred tourists in a city, almost all will elect to use a map to get from place to place; a lesser amount will ask for directions, and a small (and monied - this is no coincidence) few will opt for the guided tour. And once you have done the cathedrals and museums thing, what then?

History defines us. Which is why you want to be so careful when you're making it.

5. Learning Environments

5.1 Being a Student in a Learning Environment

Is then being a tourist the functional equivalent of being a student? The goal of the tourist is to wander - this is very different than the pilgrim setting out on long journey with a goal in mind. From whence comes the goal?

Well, many people travel to Mecca. Some have a specific purpose in mind, the Haj. Others simply wish to wander around the traditional capital of Islam. Others arrive on diplomatic or trade missions. There is no 'one goal' no more than there is any 'one route'. That's why we have maps instead of directions - we cannot tell in advance why a person is going where they're going.

The design of an environment is nothing like the design of a set of directions as the wide chasm between the 'play' analogy employed by IMS learning design and the 'game' metaphor employed by such theorists as Papert illustrates. Living in a city is like living in a game: the designers, when they lay out the maps, create rules, not roads: the means of conveyance come later, a consequence of the individual and collective acts of the citizens, on a piecemeal and often haphazard fashion. Go to any municipal government meeting and you will see that the primary order of the day is the 'variance hearing' - as broad as the rules may be, people want to define their own environment.

And more: in an online world there is nothing like the need for rules and planning that exists in the physical world. In a city, things like land and resources are limited: rules must be set for the allocation of each. Physical proximity matters in a city, which is why we don't like to put hospitals next to mines or daycares next to prisons, but proximity is (almost) meaningless online. It is hard to see why there would be any rules - but for the endless attempts of those who wish to apply the law of the land to cyberspace, to 'tame' the frontier, to build fences, and to create artificial scarcity (and hence, profits) in what is naturally a limitless environment.

But, is the human mind itself naturally limitless or inclined to wander over infinite distances? Is there anything innate in humans that would have them desire to replicate proximity, even in an online world? Neal Stephenson, in Snow Crash, when he is describing the geography of the 'metaverse' describes virtual neighborhoods clustered by various filters.

Why would you replicate proximity when you already have it? I once wrote: Proximity on the internet falls under the loosely defined category of 'online community'. Though only recently discovered by mainstream academics and corporate pundits, the proliferation of online communities is what has *always* defined the internet. In the early days, netizens populated particular MUDs, IRC channels or newsgroups. Today, people congregate around portals, mailing lists, discussion boards and chat rooms.

That is why I say proximity is meaningless. On the internet, proximity abounds! Sure, we can use the concept of 'neighbourhoods' as an analogy the way Stephenson does. But we need to resist the urge to migrate the properties, the irrelevant properties, of the analogy to the domain of discourse. Online proximity is create - that's why I talk about learning environments, which are the places where proximity is created. But the rules that apply offline don't apply online. Why would we impose a structure used to create proximity - such as predefined schedules and programs - offline be transferred to the online world?

You can find - as I have - studies in various places that show that the best learning occurs in learning environments, not structured courses. There is the major British study I cited a few months ago showing that most learning from the internet occurred outside school hours. Papert's work adduces more evidence, and the George Lucas Educational Foundation is a font of such research. But the bulk, the heart, of my own writing is based in an assessment of what people want - and as Mill would say, the best evidence that people want something is that they seek it out - and what people seek out, increasingly, are informational eductional environments. No online school or university (indeed, the entire sector as a whole) has ever approached the popularity of Google, just the opposite of what we would expect if people preferred to be led by design rather than by discovery. The failure of portals (quick - name one!) is another sign of this; the success of blogs is another. Yes, people want discovery, they want guidance, they want help, they want support - this is all true: the mistake occurs when this is interpreted as meaning that people want structure.

5.2 Personalized Environments

Will it be possible to feed requirements into this environment and/or to draw them out? Will the environment self-select itself to meet whatever the demand levels/goals are?

You write as though the environment is a piece of software, but to fully understand the environment you need to move beyond this frame of reference. Sure, the environment will be built with software, just as a house is built of wood, but we shouldn't say that the environment is software, any more than we would say the house is wood. Would we ask, "will it be possible to feed requirements into this house," and of course we can, both in the initial construction ('I want a shed dormer'), remodelling ('the living room would look great in green') and day-to-day ('set the thermostat to 25 degrees'). But we don't think of any of this as 'feeding requirements' into wood: we think of it as forming, molding, adjusting, adapting. These are better words: they are technology neutral, they reflect better the relation we will have (in some cases already have) with computerized systems.

The environment is not a piece of software. The environment surrounds us, literally, physically, as well as cognitively. The environment hangs from our living room walls, is embedded in our microwave, travels with us in our communicators and in our clothes. Our environment is in a constant state of interaction with the external world and with ourselves; one of the many functions it provides is learning, and learning is now something that can't really be separated from its other functions. Think of learning, on this picture, as like writing. Imagine, in the pre-textual (or even the pre-printing) era, the surprise and uneasiness people would have felt with the idea that text, writing, is something that could appear anywhere and everywhere it is needed, that it is portable, would travel with us, would be sewn into our clothing, would guide us, would be, indeed, our primary form of interaction with the world and with others. This is the future state of learning. Where once we would affix or embed some text, now we affix some content, some interaction, some learning. These 'digital objects' (a bad term) become the new vocabulary, they become the new form of expression, and define (as Wittgenstein would say) the new form of life.

There is still (and probably always) this deep desire to draw a separation between the physical world and the digital world, and correspondingly between the self and one's digital environment. But though these crass physical lines may always be drawn, we need, as McLuhan would say, transcend that, and view the digital environment (which includes, remember, the learning environment) as an extension of the self, as a part of the self. We will 'wear' our environment much in the war we wear clothes, wear a car, wear a house. It's the Zen 'become the arrow' apprach to archery: we don't think about what we want to do, we merely want, and our tools - our environment - does it. Sometimes expressing this want involves a physical action, such as the shooting of an arrow, but the physical action fades to the background of our cognition, and the objective comes to the fore. Every person can already do this in the physical world - perhaps not shoot an arrow, but walk, talk, write, ride a bicycle, and more. The environment fits into our personalities like a glove - and "if the glove don't fit" you must redesign.

So what does that mean in terms of concrete systems design. I've tried to express this in my Design Principles paper. It's an architecture that, at its heart, allows me to shape it, is shaped by me. System-wide, it is an architecture that endows to each individual the full communicative, economic and cultural capacities enjoyed by any other agency, redressing the gross imbalances we see today. It allows me to define myself - my name, my identity - and to do so authoritatively (personal information manager - FOAF is an early indicator). It allows me to express myself in any form I desire (blogs - early indicator) and to publish as formally as informally as I wish (Open archives - early indicator) and to profit from these or otherwise control and benefit from the distribution (ODRL - early indicator). It allows me to create, authorize and display my own educational credentials (e-portfolios, early indicator), to interact with others in a purposeful manner either synchronously (MUDs, IRC, IM - early indicators) or asynchronously. It allows me to manage the flow of information I wish to receive (RSS - early indicator; RMail - yet to be invented, but coming).

Think of learning design - on this new model - as you would think of designing a car. A car is never designed according to where you want to go (with some few exceptions, such as the Hummer, which are then co-opted for other purposes, such as Ah-nold's Hummer). A car is design to accomplish a small set of important things (start, stop, turn) which are supported by ancillary things (honk horn, open window, clean windshield). The operation of a car is subject to certain physical constraints inherent in the technology (it won't fly, it won't float, it breaks on impact with other cars) and cultural constraints (drive on the right side of the road, stop at stop signs). The use of the car is not inherent in the design of a car; the designers don't sit there and say "let's build a way to get from San Francisco to Los Angeles", rather, it's use is inherent in the design, though some specific uses (such as Interstate 5) may be designed externally to the car, for use by the car, for those that wish to accomplish that specific purpose, and which will be used only by a small percentage of all car drivers. The car is a 'movement environment' (quite literally) rather
than a 'movement design' (I have commented, cynically, that before the advent of learning object metadata, what people wanted was a way to get from LA to SF, what they wanted was a road, what they got (via LOM) was a battleship).

Or have I missed the point entirely and what you are really talking about is very different and more like the creation of a virtual learning world? Have you read Microcosmic God by Theodore Sturgeon?

I don't think I've read it, but as you can tell, I am steeped in his work, among others.

5.3 Informal Learning

I think you are dead-on about the not being pretty part - the military is struggling mightily with this one. I think that some training departments are already being ignored - witness the fact that most Web experiences today begin with Google. I also like Elliott Masie's little trick of asking an audience how many have engaged in online learning (a few hands) then turn the question to 'how many have learned something online'? (many many hands). If however the need for training is not going to go away - there will still be gaps in people's knowledge - how will training be arranged?

That's not Masie's trick - I think it belongs to Jay Cross originally. But I could be wrong.

I stand potentially corrected. ;-)

Anyhow. Fascism is often described as a "command" economy, and is often contrasted with democracy, which is sometimes represented (inaccurately - cf my comments about democracy, above) as a 'market' economy. Learning in the corporate environment - and in the military environment - along with everything else - remains defined and implemented as a form of fascism, not democracy. I think - I hope - that we are on the verge of a fundamental change here, one that will be prompted by the post-boom labour shortage in the western world (if I am wrong, then we will have to wait another generation, until the post echo-boom labour shortage, for a second chance, and by then it may be too late).

The corporate model of training - as you know - goes something like this. The corporation needs staff trained in a specific skill or function. It does not have the time or the money to convince government to provide this service for free through the 'public' education system, so it decides to offer the training in-house. It organizes the training, then instructs its employees to take the training. There are penalties if they fail to comply. This, of course, is a microcosm of our educational system in general, except that on the wider scale, the government (to a point) requires that everyone undergo training ('in order to become productive citizens'), the requirements for which are determined by economic need and (sometimes) cultural (including religious) insistence.

Education in general, and corporate education in particular, is and has been, as commentators from Holt to Illich, is a form of fascism, a command economy of knowledge. Modern information technology has enabled advanced in this form of educational advancement, mostly in the form of reduced expenses (the savings in travel and staff time are well documented). But there is a limit to such gains, a limit that improved ISD will approach asymptotically. In order to achieve the next giant leap in capacity, learning - including corporate learning - will have to cross that threshhold from command to laissez-faire. It is not a change that will come easily, and it is a change that will come most slowly in those cultures that have the greatest social, political and cultural investment in corporate governance as it exists today. ISD represents the hopes and the dreams of those who would like to improve education without letting go of the reins, but it eventually hits the limits of (as Foucault would say) the slave mind.

We are already on the verge of transformation, a transformation that will occur in patchwork across societies and through the corporate sector. We see already in the business literature discussion and methodology directed toward a freeing of the corporate mind: here I am not talking about Total Quality or Six Sigma, which are increasingly refined techniques for a demand economy, but rather the approaches I tried to sketch in My Future in Hardcover as described by Halal, Postrel, Shapiro and Varian. Education in such an environment must proceed in the same way - the educational bottleneck, to paraphrase Hamel, is at the top. Employees will have to be given the freedom to learn what they believe they need, in their way, and at their pace, and if it doesn't happen to correspond with the company's desire to manufacture widgets, then the proper approach of a next-generation company is to question whether the manufacture of widgets is a viable business - after all, if one's own employees cannot get exited about the product, what (other than a barrage of advertising (increasingly difficult to muster in a post-broadcast age)) would make their customers excited?

The learning environment merges with the work environment; each, in turn, an extension of the worker, who with a new capacity for empowerment and self-actualization increasingly enters relationships of mutual association with a corporate structure - it is a dynamic relationship, full of tacit assumptions and convenient fictions (the corporation promises security, which the employee knows is an outright lie; and conversely the employee promises loyalty, which the employer knows will last only as long as the good times do). Learning, then, becomes a tacit agreement between employee and employer, selected by the employee with an eye to personal empowerment and development, aided by the employer, with an eye to developing native talent in- house (if not, any more, specific skills).

I have been in the process of designing such systems - the PEGGasus system, for example, is in the final stages of developent for geologists, geophysicists and engineers working in Alberta's oil industry. The corporate training opportunities are arrayed alongside offerings from colleges, universities and private companies. The employers offer incentives in the form of tuition, certification and other benefits; the employees manage their own training and select from company-produced or externally produced learning materials. The employees, through PEGGAsus, track their own educational achievement: this achievement is recognized across corporations (non-transferable knowledge offered by a single corporation is thus at a disadvantage). It is the first instance of what I have called 'the learning marketplace' and though it will fall inevitably short of what I envision, it is an indicator.

6. Concluding Comment

So few people - Gibson among them - have grasped what it means to live and learn in the information age. Along with predicting the decline of America as a world power, precisely because the locus of innovation shifted elsewhere, he depicts like in a state of constant flux. Douglas Rushkoff describes people who have adapted to this new reality as people who 'ride the wave' - it is no coincidence, he asserts, the modes, means and manners of those who surf the waves, surf with skateboards, and surf the internet are so similar. It is not possible to grasp and hold a reality - those people who, for example, are only just now coming to grips with blogs will read with dismay the ebbing of this phenomenon, but this is life as usual in Cyberia (the inhabitants of which grin at the idea of some newspaper
columnist who believes he has finally 'got it'). The *only* way to survive in such an environment is to be free - not free in the sense of being able to vote for one's dictators every few years, but *really* free, in the sense of living (and working, and learning) autonomously, that is, in a self-directed (not isolated) manner. The very technology that makes self-directed (and self-motivated) learning possible, also makes it necessary. You don't get the benefits of becoming an agricultural society without also having to live on farms; you don't get the benefits of becoming an information society without also having to live in information.

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Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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Last Updated: Jun 20, 2024 05:13 a.m.

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