‘That was the year that was, it’s over, let it go…’, as the old song says. But before it does go, let’s look back and see what happened in the world of e-learning in 2011.
First, a disclaimer. I sit here on the edge of the world, in my little office, and although I make the occasional sally into an institution of higher education, I see only a tiny fraction of what is actually going on around the world. No-one is more conscious of the problem of defining ‘reality’ as I am, especially in such a dynamic world as e-learning, where rhetoric is often far distanced from actual practice. So, no, this is not a scientific review of the year, but a personal view of events that seem significant to me looking back. (I will be doing an outlook for 2012 early in the year).
Learning management systems
LMSs had trundled on fairly quietly for nearly 15 years (apart from an aggressive but unsuccessful campaign by Blackboard to dominate the market) to the point where LMSs are now used by 95% of all post-secondary institutions in North America.
2011 though saw some dramatic developments. Blackboard moved into synchronous tools with the purchase of Elluminate and Wimba, and was itself bought by a shadowy private equity company which also gobbled up Sungard Higher Education and Datatel, positioning itself as a totally integrated software provider for the higher education industry. Despite this, Blackboard continued to lose market share to both commercial competitors such as Desire2Learn, and to open source systems such as Moodle and Sakai.
Into this already highly competitive and fragmenting market came several new companies, the largest and most immediately threatening to Blackboard being Pearson’s Open Class. Instructure is another company with a different way of looking at learning management, and in Europe, ‘its Learning‘ has been making large gains. I have a less clear picture of what’s happening in India, but if my e-mail is anything to go by, there are several large companies offering LMSs in that continent, and looking to expand internationally.
However, not only is there more competition, but views are changing about the desired features of an LMS. In particular, there are increasing efforts by the LMS organizations to incorporate social media, to enable mobile access, and to enable institutions to make their content ‘open’ from within an LMS. Some institutions are getting sick of continuous and costly upgrades and migration, and are taking care to ensure that any content created is easily exportable so that the institution does not become platform dependent.
I think the last strategy is very wise. There are too many players in a relatively small field and someone’s going to get concussion or even completely taken out of the game. What is clear is that institutional decision-making is going to get harder, not easier. Technological change outside the LMS continues at a rapid pace. Can an LMS be all things to all people? Probably not. It will become important then not just to focus on which LMS to use, but increasingly on how one wants to teach, and what combination of tools provides that flexibility. The LMS is not going to continue as a one-stop technology for teaching, if it ever did. But nor is it going to go away, at least not for the next few years.
Although I have seen quite a lot of innovation in pockets and on a small scale, I have seen little over 2011 in the way of major redesign of courses. Instead, there has been a large increase in lecture capture generally. The major design development seems to be ‘flipping’, inspired by the Khan Academy. Instead of having students come to a lecture in real time, the lecture is recorded and downloaded by students at home (sometimes the instructor does not record a lecture themselves but gets students to download lectures from the Khan Academy or other open educational resource sites such as MIT), and class time is spent on discussion or small group work. This is probably an improvement (anyone have any evidence yet?) but it is not going to start a revolution.
What I was looking for in 2011 was a major breakthrough in the redesign of large lecture classes, along the lines of the NCAT course redesign project. Although Carol Twigg is soldiering bravely on, there is still a huge way to go to change the traditional large lecture class across campuses in North America and elsewhere. We continue to add bells and whistles to the horse and cart, in the form of large screens, clickers, in-class tweets, lecture capture, polling via mobile phones, and real-time access to data and news events in class via the Internet, but it’s still a horse and cart. When are we going to get a railway, never mind a high speed train?
What I have found encouraging (in the isolated pockets of innovation) is the attempt by some instructors to give power to learners, through the use of blogs, wikis and e-portfolios. to enable learners to create their own learning materials, and to share and collaborate with others. Can we move this from the early adopters though to the cautious mainstream in 2012?
There has definitely been progress at an institutional level in mobile learning during 2011. Some institutions, such as Abilene Christian, Northeastern, Stanford, Carnegie mellon and Tufts have implemented institutional strategies to make mobile learning widely available. The iPad in particular has been integrated successfully, mainly into regular classroom teaching, but also in other areas, such as clinical practice.
However, the main uses still remain mainly administrative, for student support services, and for more flexible access to standard online content. I did not find many instances of redesigning teaching to exploit the affordances of mobile learning, such as use of location, data collection in the field, interviews, etc. Nevertheless, all learning is rapidly becoming ‘mobile enabled’.
Open educational resources
There were several important developments in open educational resources in 2011. Perhaps the most noticeable was the formation of the OERu, which is attempting to combine open access to content with institutional accreditation. A growing number of institutions and individual instructors are making their online content freely accessible, and some institutions, such as the University of British Columbia, have extensive cross-institutional blogs and wikis created by instructors, students, and ‘experts’ or interested parties from outside the institution that are often linked to formal courses, but sit outside the LMS, and are open to the public.
Apart though from special cases such as OER Africa, special collections or repositories of open educational resources did not seem to me to be gaining traction in 2011. This is one area where the rhetoric seems at odds with the reality. I don’t see a lot of take-up of OERs in post-secondary institutions. There is plenty of supply and lots of ‘hits’, but it is hard to find extensive application within formal learning environments. ‘Open-ness’ is growing, but in ways that are not quite what was anticipated by the more dedicated proponents of OERs.
Yes, content is becoming more readily accessible, but what really matters to many learners is open access to and interaction with quality faculty or instructors, leading to recognized qualifications, and many institutions that proclaim the principle of open content deny open access to learners, either through too expensive tuition fees or through too rigorous entry requirements. This is the reality of limited resources.
Online learning continues to grow
Growth in enrollments in online courses was again up, by 1o%. The pace is slowing a little, but this is still impressive, given the impact of the economy and the very slow growth rate of conventional enrollments, at around 2% last year in the USA.
There were several other topics I predicted in my outlook for 2011. I will come back to learning analytics in my outlook for 2012. Otherwise shared services did not take off in 2011, as I had hoped, but I did perceive increased use of video in particular, not just in the form of lecture capture, but an increasing number of short video clips for education on YouTube. Gaming and simulations remained on the periphery, and virtual worlds almost disappeared off the e-learning radar in 2011 (except in Finland, but they live in another reality anyway!). Blended learning continues to grow, but I’m not sure what the term means anymore.
Slow but definite progress in online learning was made in 2011. Certainly growth continues, and there is a great deal of innovative activity around the fringes of formal courses, and especially in informal learning. The LMS and lecture capture remain though the bedrock for most online learning, and that’s not the future I’m looking for.
And I do miss Amy, a great singer. Let’s see what happens in 2012.