e-learning outlook for 2011
What’s in my crystal ball for e-learning in 2011? (For how well I did in my predictions for 2010, see e-learning retrospective – how good were my predictions?
1. Course Redesign
We will see increasing efforts at redesigning courses to incorporate both online and face-to-face teaching. Indeed, there was evidence of this occurring already in 2010. Instructors were realising that instead of just adding online components to their face-to-face classes, they could obtain more benefit from thinking clearly about what is best done online and what is best done face-to-face. This inevitably leads to redesigning the teaching and learning experience.
Stretching the LMS
The wave of new web 2.0 technologies, such as student blogs, wikis, and especially e-portfolios, and open source content management software such as WordPress, are beginning to expose the limitations of commercial or ‘off-the-shelf’ learning management systems. In particular, these new web 2.0 tools enable students as well as instructors to create, load and edit content. This increases active learning, and provides means to collect, organize and assess student work in more authentic ways than tests or essays.
However, learning management systems still have major advantages, in that they provide an institutionally secure environment, enable the management of learning, and integrate with administrative systems. Thus designers are looking for ways to integrate web 2.0 tools with learning management systems (Mott, 2010).
Also as students get more tools and more encouragement to use these tools for learning, there is the possibility of creating ‘personal learning environments‘, software interfaces that the learner can add to or edit, to facilitate their learning. These might include a portal to their courses that would include access to an LMS, but would also include links to their blog, e-portfolio, and social networks such as Facebook.
Open source LMS, such as Moodle and Sakai, have an advantage here in that designers in large research universities with access to open source developers can build and integrate open source web 2.0 tools into the LMS more easily than can institutions locked into commercial providers such as Blackboard, although these too are increasingly building in web 2.0 ‘lookalike’ functions.
Students now have access to mobile phones with camera and audio recording capabilities, access to low cost video cameras, and access to video editing through software on their laptops and video publishing through YouTube. Students now can collect data, organize and edit it, and publish it. In addition, through the Internet, they can access a multitude of resources far beyond the limits of a traditional class curriculum. They can do all this outside the confines of the classroom. This is resulting in new course designs focused on learner-generated content, but working to overall academic guidelines and principles established by the instructor.
One example is the use of e-portfolios for professional accreditation. The BC College of Teachers now requires students to provide an online portfolio showing evidence of their application of their personal philosophy of teaching during their teaching practica that meet the requirements set by the College (see Paul and Schofield, 2010).
New models for instructional design
The ‘old’ best practice instructional system design model of analyze, design, develop, implement, and evaluate (ADDIE) has served distance education and online learning well, but it is proving to be too rigid and cumbersome to handle the new, dynamic web 2.0 tools, and learner-generated content.
As a result, we are beginning to see some interesting, high quality design models that are developed ‘on the fly’, in response to changing input from students, the arrival of a new technology mid-course, or breaking news in the subject area. This allows courses to appear more spontaneous and more authentic, grounded in the real world. These new developments are happening more in the area of training and vocational education than academia, although they have potential especially for professional programs.
One example comes from the Justice Institute of BC’s Emergency Management Program, which created materials not only for the formal courses in emergency management offered by JIBC, but also made these materials publicly available over the Internet and through mobile technology, such as iPhones and iPads. These resources enabled all services involved in emergency response during the Winter Olympics in Vancouver to have common and shared information about procedures, contacts and terminology. Although these materials were created ‘on the fly’ in a short period, they were also embedded within an overall course design philosophy, working to a project management model and a tight budget.
These new developments are still occurring in a minority of institutions, and are mainly the result of innovative instructors working with professional instructional designers and media specialists. However, there was definitely a spike in these activities during 2010, and it is expected that these moves to new course designs will increase during 2011, affecting both campus and distance education programs alike.
2. The Future is Mobile
‘The notion of class time as separate from non-class time will vanish’ The Futurist, November 2010
The Futurist argues that ‘The next generation of college students will be living wherever they want and taking many (if not all) of their courses online…Work and leisure will be interlaced throughout waking hours every day of the week, and student life will reflect the same trend. In this way, self-directed learning will be the most important taught skill of the future.’
As reported last year, the technology continues to improve. The major technology development during 2010 was the launch of Apple’s iPad. The iPad has yet to prove its worth as an educational tool. It is valuable for ‘consumption’, for example access to media and e-books (a key factor for students lugging textbooks across campus), but has more limitations on ‘production’, as it stands at the moment. Version 2 is expected in February, and it will be interesting to see if it includes more ‘production’ functionality, such as a camera, and software to facilitate multimedia creation. With the movement towards learner-generated content (see above) this is a major limitation of tablets so far for educational purposes. However, with Blackberry and Microsoft also moving into the tablet market, competition is increasing, so expect functionality of tablets to increase rapidly, and/or costs to drop substantially. Furthermore, phones, tablets and laptops are converging, so that, combined with cloud computing, the full functionality of a computer will eventually be available on the smallest devices.
Also there were further improvements in 2010 on the functionality of mobile phones, although educational applications remain tiny compared with other areas, such as entertainment and publishing. One barrier to educational applications is the multiplicity of mobile operating systems; another is the lack of a clear model of design for mobile learning. The release of the HTML5 standard for web applications, which will provide a ‘standard’ platform for mobile applications, is unlikely before 2012. We will though see more attempts to provide unique educational designs and applications in 2011 that exploit the ‘affordances’ of mobile technology: immediacy, geographic location, convenience, multimedia, two-way communication, and user control.
Despite current limitations and barriers, the future of online learning is clearly in mobile technologies. Laptops and desktop PCs will remain necessary for specialized learning applications for the next few years, but in 2011 all educational institutions should be thinking of course design and teaching in terms of its transportability to mobile formats.
3. Open Educational Resources
The principle of making available online educational materials for free use for educational purposes is hard to argue with. Projects to develop open educational resources have received substantial funding from the Hewlett Foundation, and support from both the World Bank and the Commonwealth of Learning, as well as many institutions, such as MIT, Carnegie Mellon and the British Open University. However, it is a development that still falls far short of its promise.
Supply remains much greater than the demand. In other words, there’s lots of free educational content out there on the Internet, but not much use is being made of it, at least by the formal education system. (It is difficult to know how much use is made by students ‘unofficially’, i.e. not as a requirement or recommendation from their instructor.)
One reason is that although the content itself may be of the highest quality (such as MIT’s OpenCourseware), its format (in MIT’s case, 50 minute recorded lectures) is not appropriate for independent study. Another reason is that instructors often prefer to use their own material.
We have seen though some interesting shifts this year in the approach to developing open educational resources. First, Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative offers not just chunks of content such as lectures, but pre-packaged courses ‘based on the latest research into brain and cognitive science’ that can be adapted for local use by instructors (these are aimed mainly at the two-year college market). These are whole courses that include student activities, feedback to instructors and students, examination questions and recommended readings. This initiative is being widened into a consortium of institutions through the HP Catalyst Initiative. To date though, there is no information on the take-up of these programs, although it has generated a lot of research on the design of online materials.
Another development that is less spectacular and less well funded, but even more promising, is to make significant (but carefully chosen) elements of regular courses freely available over the web. (The Justice Institute of BC Emergency Response Program mentioned earlier is a good example.) However, this works best when there is a clear target audience with a need for that content. Another option is to make parts of a credit online course open to the public. UBC has done this with a graduate course (ETEC 522), where, as well as some of the core content, students’ final work (after assessment) is posted for all to see. It would be a short step from here for institutions to make sample contents of courses available over the web, to help students making choices about future courses or programs.
Open content is most likely to be used in a context where courses are explicitly designed around the concept of open content. This would not be limited to ‘official’ OER sites, or pre-selected open content. Instead, students would be encouraged, within certain guidelines and academic criteria, to search the Internet and to collect local data to create their own courses that would demonstrate their knowledge within a particular subject domain. However, until there are some strong design models that clearly demonstrate the benefits of open content, it is likely to remain an underused resource.
4. More Multimedia
Another strong development in online teaching we are likely to see during 2011 will be the increased development and use of multimedia materials, such as video, animations, simulations and, to a much lesser extent, games.
The use of video in particular is growing. It is now very cheap and easy to use video in short 3-4 minute clips to demonstrate processes, equipment or real life contexts, mainly to support direct online instruction, but also sometimes to encourage analysis of the video material by students themselves, or to enable learners to master a technique or process by repeated playing of the video clip as they practice. For instance, Vancouver Community College uses video clips to demonstrate repair processes for auto body work as part of a mainly online course for apprentices. These video clips are easy to make, with a camera recording the instructor (or a master craftsman) demonstrating the process.
A number of low cost tools now exist for creating, editing and publishing video. Low cost software such as Flash now enables quite high quality but simple animations to be developed at much lower cost than previously. Even high end simulations, such as 3D imaging, that used to cost millions of dollars, can now be done for under $150,000.
The main challenge here is not the technology or the cost, but getting instructors to think visually and hiring media producers and web developers with the skills to convert instructional ideas and abstract academic knowledge into concrete images. Again in the VCC example, industry standard video developed by the automobile industry is also used in the courses. Once good quality animations are created, there is a large potential market for their use.
Getting instructors to think visually
Simulations that require students to interact with digital materials and thus change the outcome are more expensive to develop, but again the cost is coming down as ‘generic’ software developed for games in the entertainment industry becomes available for re-use in other contexts. BCIT is creating more expensive simulations in partnership with Lockheed Martin for training aeronautical engineers and for health education.
However, developing multimedia materials is a high risk activity for a small or even medium sized institution. A collaborative media lab, shared by several small colleges, would provide economies of scale and sharing of knowledge.
5. Learning Analytics
Businesses have been increasingly using business intelligence software to dig down into the vast quantities of data they accumulate to enable front-line personnel to make better informed decisions.
Learning analytics is the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of data about learners and their contexts, for purposes of understanding and optimizing learning and the environments in which it occurs. In other words it is the application of business intelligence software to learning and learners.
Learning analytics is likely to be the next buzzword in online learning. Institutions accumulate a great deal of data about students. This is rarely used for the purposes of academic decision-making, mainly because it has up to now required a huge effort to analyze such data in terms of specific decisions, and also because of privacy reasons. However, learning analytics is focused mainly on aggregate data, and does not identify individual students. It provides information for instance on the changing demographics of students, such as age, gender, and location. It would allow, for instance, a program director to analyze the demographics of students in the program over the last five years. A move to older, better qualified, more part-time students might indicate the suitability of moving the course online, for instance. Learning analytics do this through software that ‘sits on top’ of the several different databases used in universities and colleges, such as student information systems, learning management systems, and financial systems. It provides the end-user with tools in the form of a dashboard on the desktop computer that allows the end-user to call up data and easily analyze it in the form of graphs, pie charts, or tables.
The main challenges to the use of learning analytics is making sure that data are collected and stored in ways that are useful for the kind of questions asked by end users (for instance, coding courses by the type of delivery, such as blended, hybrid and fully online), training end users such as faculty in the use of such tools, and ensuring that all concerns about privacy and data security are adequately addressed.
Athabasca University is organizing a conference on learning analytics at Banff between February 27th and March 1st, 2011.
6. Shared Services
The last development predicted during 2011 will be moves in some states and provinces toward shared software services between institutions. The rapid development of new technologies, the high cost of upgrading mission-critical software such as financial, student information and learning management systems, and the high risk of changing from one vendor product to another puts a particularly heavy burden on small to medium sized institutions. Moving to an open source system such as Moodle is difficult for small institutions with limited access to open source development staff; it would be more feasible through a shared services agreement with a large university.
The Alberta government is developing a plan, partly as a result of risk management, that will encourage sharing of services between its post-secondary educational institutions. In Pennsylvania, Drexel University has gradually accumulated the software services for a number of smaller colleges in the region. Thus as well as managing its own Banner student information system, it provides space and maintenance for several other colleges’ student information systems on a subscription basis. It now also provides hosting and maintenance for other institutions’ learning management systems (in this case, Blackboard.)
The alternative is outsourcing such services to private companies who would provide ‘Software as a Service’ (SaaS) through the Internet. For Canadian institutions, this is a very high risk activity though, since many of these services and servers are located outside the country, and are thus not subject to the same privacy and security requirements of Canadian institutions.
The growth of fully online learning (i.e. online distance education) continued at a rapid rate (over 20% last year), and increasing online enrollments will certainly continue through 2011. However, as the market approaches saturation, the rate of growth of fully online courses will level off, and this is likely to happen fairly soon. One reason for a slowdown in the growth of fully online courses, besides market saturation, will be the move to more flexible campus-based programs that will offer more options to part-time students and lifelong learners, rather than having to do a whole course or program online. However, market saturation for fully online learning is at least five to ten years away, and in the meantime we will see continued growth.
What I am hoping for 2011, though, is that this increase in the quantity of e-learning will start being accompanied by some major innovations in teaching, as instructors, instructional designers, and institutions begin to understand better the unique features of new technologies, and become more discriminating about the ‘affordances’ of both campus-based and online learning.
At some point soon, perhaps during 2011, we will see some institutions really looking at ways to increase cost-effectiveness through the use of ICTs, driven as much by their dire financial situation as by any ideal of being more efficient.
And lastly, there is likely to be something quite unexpected that will drive e-learning in a totally different direction – which is part of the fun of working in this field. So have an exciting and productive 2011.
Bates, Tony (2010) Blackboard acquires Elluminate and Wimba: the end of LMSs?
Mott, J. (2010) Envisioning the post-LMS era: the Open Learning Network Educause Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 1
Paul, C. and Schofield, A. (2010) e-Portfolios for teacher candidates Vancouver BC: UBC Faculty of Education (retrieved from http://ctlt.ubc.ca/2009/09/22/e-portfolios-for-teacher-candidates/, December 6, 2010)