April 18, 2015

Why predicting online learning developments is risky but necessary

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A probabilistic approach to prediction is wise

Before drawing up my outlook for 2013, I want to discuss the important topic of prediction in online learning, in particular how predictions are made, and what value they may have. Nate Silver’s excellent book (references are at the end of this article) looks at prediction in a number of fields: weather forecasting (excellent up to three days, useless after eight days), economic forecasting (hopeless by both media pundits and professional economists), baseball players’ performance (pretty good and improving), earthquakes (bad for major quakes, but promising for lesser quakes), poker and a number of other areas. He also has some interesting reflections on big data as well. Unfortunately though he doesn’t discuss prediction in online learning, so I’ll try and help out with this!

Factors associated with reliable predictions

Silver’s book is valuable because he sets out some of the factors associated with good prediction (or forecasting):

  1. Well understood and empirically supported theory about what drives the field under inquiry (excellent in weather forecasting and earthquakes; poor in politics and economics)
  2. Large, reliable sets of relevant data and the ability to crunch large data sets
  3. Relatively stable movement within the data (i.e. not too much ‘noise’ or randomness)
  4. Elimination of or accounting for as far as possible the unknown
  5. Above all, a probabilistic approach to prediction that takes account of uncertainty.

Factors associated with online learning

The problem for online learning is that few of these factors exist. In terms of theory, we do have some some empirically supported theories about what makes for effective online learning (e.g. Linda Harasim’s Learning Theory and Online Technologies) and some standards for best practices. However, these are often not practiced, or are ignored, in the field of online learning, and more importantly we lack good, empirically based theories of organizational decision-making in post-secondary education. This makes the application of what theory we have to understanding data and looking for the signal in the noise particularly hazardous for online learning.

The situation is even worse with regards to data. Weather forecasting data is detailed, localized and goes back over 60 years. Online learning is itself barely 20 years old (at least as we now know it), and is continually changing (as is the weather of course, but at least meteorologists know why the weather changes).

We have very little data on what is actually happening in online learning, and over-reporting in some areas (e.g. MOOCs) and under-reporting in others (for-credit programs). We are almost entirely dependent on the Sloan/Babson annual surveys for online learning enrollments and the Kenneth Green survey for IT developments on campuses, both covering just the USA. These surveys are invaluable, especially because they use a consistent methodology from year to year, enabling comparisons to be made, but they depend on the voluntary participation of selected staff within institutions, which tends to provide a bias to over-reporting online activities. In Canada, we have nothing, except a 2010 survey in Ontario which is unlikely to be repeated. So the statistical basis for reliable prediction in online learning just isn’t there.

With regard to ‘unknowns’ in online learning, they are everywhere but of course not visible until they hit you. MOOCs are a good example of something suddenly jumping out of the bush at you. But we have had other scares as well, such as for-profit universities. And some of the scares or unknowns quickly become very real in online learning, while others disappear almost as quickly as they came.

Fairy stories are perhaps a better basis for understanding online learning than scientific prediction. This is how I see MOOCs

The last factor though, a more probabilistic approach, is one we can apply to online learning. Silver makes the distinction between hedgehogs – pundits who have a strong view on everything, a ‘biased’ or strong ideological position, and who tend to make statements with a high degree of certainty, but who are frequently and routinely completely wrong- and foxes, who tend to be more cautious in their statements, are more equivocal in their predictions, but in the long haul have a better track record of accurate predictions. Foxes take a more probabilistic approach, recognizing degrees of uncertainty in their predictions (not necessarily in mathematical terms).

Timing as a factor in online learning predictions

A particular problem with prediction in online learning is the timing. The Horizon reports deal with this by having one, three and five year projections which is a more probabilistic approach, but I would argue it is more of a hedgehog than a fox because it focuses mainly on technology and not on pedagogy, and usually does not hedge its bets. Jon Baggaley, in a forthcoming analysis of the Horizon reports, also shows how unreliable their predictions have been.

In online learning, technology moves faster than people, and people move faster than organizations. So where you see changes in individuals, it may be another 10 years before that filters through to true organizational adoption. Also when does a prediction become true? Let’s take hybrid learning. Does 100 instructors moving to hybrid learning constitute a ‘trend’? However, if 100 institutions move in that direction within a year, that would be more significant. So as well as timing, the level of analysis matters too.

Why prediction in online learning is still necessary

Audrey Watters, who is my favourite blogger on online learning and educational technology, has also read Nate Silver’s book, and is aware of many of the problems I have just laid out. For these reasons, she has decided not to make any predictions for 2013. She is no doubt wiser than me, but I think it’s a pity she’s opting out. She is in a much better position than most of us to make predictions about online learning because she has a very broad overview, a full picture, of what is going on, even if the details are not always clear.

The fact is, we have to make predictions, every day in our lives – is it going to rain (so I take an umbrella), will the stock market go down (so I won’t invest $5,000), will my house still have enough equity when I need to go into an old folk’s home (yes, so I’ll go on holiday this year), will my bosses want to do MOOCs (yes, so I’d better be prepared)? And we always have to make these predictions with biases, less than perfect data, and lots of nasty unknowns lurking in the garden.

Silver’s book in fact does not argue against predictions, but doing them as well as possible. You do the best you can, and take a probabilistic approach. (If I don’t use the umbrella, and it doesn’t rain, no big deal, I’ll wait two months before reconsidering my investment, I’ll chose a budget holiday, I’ll suggest a way to do MOOCs that enhances their quality). We will all have to make some predictions, some intelligent guesses, as to what’s going to happen in online learning this year, so we can at least be prepared.

Go for it, baby

I will be making some predictions, not because I have all the data I’d like (you never do, even in meteorology). I also have my biases and prejudices. However, I do have a lot of experience in online learning, which provides at least some sort of theoretical framework for analysis, I do get to see what’s happening in about 10-15 universities and colleges a year (not enough but more than many), I do read a lot of the research literature on online learning, and I cover a huge amount of news and developments for my blog. So you decide whether or not my predictions are likely to be better than yours. At least you can make a comparison. (Silver points out that the average of multiple sources of predictions is usually more accurate than single sources of prediction, so let’s all share).

So, yes, you will get an outlook for 2013 for online learning from me. I will make some firm predictions, but I will use a one to five year horizon, and there will be caveats, and the unknowns will still jump out at you during the year – but at least you’ll have an umbrella to fend them off, and you can then blame me if it all goes wrong.

Silver, N. (2012) The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – but Some Don’t New York: The Penguin Press

Watters, A. (2013) Why I’m not making Ed-Tech predictions for 2013 Hack Education, January 1

Baggaley, J. (in press) Shifting Horizons, Distance Education

Online learning in 2012: a retrospective

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© The Greening of Gavin, 2012

Well, 2012 was certainly the year of the MOOC. Audrey Watters provides a comprehensive overview of what happened with MOOCs in 2012, so I won’t repeat what she has done. Instead in this post I will focus mainly on trying to explain with regards to MOOCs what appears to me to be highly irrational organizational behaviour, more akin to lemmings than pillars of higher learning.

Why MOOCs?

For those of us who work mainly in universities and colleges, the hype around MOOCs is like living in two parallel universes: what we do every day in online learning, and what we read or hear about in the media. (I leave you to judge which is the true reality.) Even organizations that should know better think that online learning started at MIT in 2002 with OpenCourseWare. So why have MOOCs in particular got so much press?

This is an exercise in social anthropology.

To quote from Wikipedia:

It is unknown why lemming populations fluctuate with such variance roughly every four years, before plummeting to near extinction.

Now some evidence suggests their predators’ populations, particularly the stoat, may be more closely involved in changing the lemming population

Lemmings can swim and may choose to cross a body of water in search of a new habitat. In such cases, many may drown if the body of water is so wide as to stretch their physical capability to the limit.

 I believe there are several themes that have led to MOOC hysteria in 2012:

  • they appear to be free. The direct costs of higher education, especially but not only in the USA and the UK, have been systematically transferred from the tax payer to the individual student or parents through cuts in government funding and increases in tuition fees. In other words, the cost of higher education has become more transparent. It’s really expensive. Free of course is better than expensive. MOOCs have been promoted as being free. However, there are no free services. All services have a true cost. At least to date, MOOCs are the opposite of transparency on the true cost. We do know that over a hundred million dollars have been invested this year alone in MOOCs, but what are the costs of the professors’ time, the cost of managing large numbers of students, and above all, the cost of ensuring student learning (however it is measured)? We just don’t know. Until we do, it’s a shell game
  • it’s also a numbers game: input matters more than output. The focus of the media has been on the massive numbers enrolling. However, there has been little focus on what students are actually learning. All we know is that completion rates are pathetic (less than 10%), and many of those that do complete are already well educated. Nevertheless it is argued that on a global perspective, the completion numbers are still large. However, so are the numbers in traditional higher education, and also in credit-based online learning. Sloan and Babson have been tracking the online credit numbers for years. They have been growing at a steady rate of between 12-20% a year. Ontario alone has over 500,000 online course registrations in its public universities and colleges, with completion rates in the 75-85%, matching completion rates in face-to-face classes. Millions are taking online courses for credit in Asia. But does this get mass coverage in the media? No.
  • technology triumphs over teaching: MOOCs in general have been driven by computer scientists who believe that just ‘delivering’ content over the Internet equates to learning. It doesn’t, but broadcast content delivery is something that lazy reporters can easily understand.
  • it’s all about the elite institutions. The media love to focus on the ivy league universities to the almost total neglect of the rest of the system (the cult of the superstar). Here is an appalling irony. The top tier research universities have by and large ignored online learning for the last 15 years. Suddenly though when MIT, Stanford and Harvard jump in, all the rest follow like lemmings. MOOCs are seen as an easy, low risk way for these universities not only to catch up, but to jump into the front line. But they are hugely wrong. Moving from broadcasting to learning is not going to be easy. More importantly, MOOCs are a side issue, a distraction. The real change for universities is going to come from hybrid learning – a mix of on-campus and online learning. Those top tier research universities though are going to miss out on this, by sidelining their online learning to a peripheral, continuing education activity.
  • don’t forget the politics: There’s just been a presidential election in the USA. A number of corporate leaders and some in the Republican party want to privatize the US higher education system. Anything that will undermine it is heavily promoted. MOOCs to some extent have been a tool in the hands of the media for suggesting that education need not be expensive and could be ‘free’, or at least much lower cost, if left to business. This fits the agenda of the right.

Having said all this, I believe that there is a future for MOOCs, but that’s for another post, my outlook for 2013, which comes in January.

In the meantime, there were, believe it or not, several other interesting developments in online learning, but before exploring those as well, let’s see how right I was in my outlook for 2012.

What I predicted

  1. The year of the tablet: 99% probability
  2. Learning analytics: 90% probability
  3. Growth of open education: 70% probability (depending on definition of open education)
  4. Disruption of the LMS market: 60% probability
  5. Integration of social media into formal learning: 66% probability
  6. The digital university: 10% probability
  7. Watch India
  8. The great unknown: 10% probability

Well, not a great record at prediction. I suppose you could include MOOCs within ‘growth of open education’. But look at what I actually wrote:

open access to high quality (all right, highly qualified) instructors is likely to be limited to idealistic volunteers, or to limited events (e.g. a MOOC), mainly because of a mis-match between supply and demand. Too many people want access to what they may incorrectly assume to be high quality instructors at elite institutions, for instance. This is partly an institutional barrier, as institutions try to protect their ‘star’ faculty, which is why this form of openness depends largely on individual volunteers.

Not actually wrong, but it certainly didn’t capture the mania that would develop around MOOCs in 2012.

Although there have been lots of interesting individual uses of tablets, particularly in k-12, they certainly haven’t taken off to the extent to which I predicted, at least in post-secondary education. However, so much in prediction depends on timing – maybe it will happen this year. For instance, mobile learning, one of my predictions for 2011, certainly expanded in many institutions in 2012, and will certainly continue to grow in 2013. The use of data analytics definitely increased, but still in a minority of institutions, in 2012, but learning analytics are still being used by a very tiny minority. The technology isn’t quite ready yet. (Again, this depends on definition – I’m talking about the hope that learning analytics will help instructors to achieve better learning outcomes, or put another way, will help students to improve their learning.)

What you read

Another way at looking at 2012 is to see what you chose to read. There are just over 1,800 posts on the site. Here are the top 14 posts in 2012, with the number of hits. (If you missed one, just click on it.)

Recommended graduate programs in e-learning


What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs


e-learning outlook for 2012: will it be a rough ride?


New technologies for e-learning in 2012 (and a little beyond)


A short critique of the Khan Academy


Can you teach ‘real’ engineering at a distance?


What Is Distance Education?


Why learning management systems are not going away


E-learning quality assurance standards, organizations and research


A personal view of e-learning in Saudi Arabia


A student guide to studying online


10 types of plagiarism (and why I’m pleading guilty to at least one charge)


Daniel’s comprehensive review of MOOC developments


Designing online learning for the 21st century


The numbers of course are skewed by their date of  posting. Those posted early in the year have more chance of being accessed than those posted later. Timing also matters in terms of external events. Despite all the hype about MOOCs, only two of the top 14 posts were specifically on MOOCs (although there were several others posted). I am though surprised at the amount of interest in prediction, especially given how bad I am at it!

The inclusion of ‘Can you teach real engineering at a distance?’ at no. 6 is really interesting. This was posted originally on July 5, 2009, but it has sustained a long discussion that is still active today. I was also pleased to see that designing online learning for the 21st century squeezed in, as this was about design of online learning. I’m glad there’s still at least some interest in this issue. There is also evidence that the site is being used by  a lot of online students (or potential students), which is very gratifying. I need to do more posts targeted to students next year.

What I did

Since I’m not free and open (except here), this is some indication of what institutions were interested in this year (at least enough to pay me for it).

Site visits for consultancies or discussions with faculty/staff on strategies or designs for online learning

  • Mexico City: to develop a business plan for a national Mexican virtual university
  • Edmonton: Campus St-Jean, University of Alberta: informal review of online learning activities
  • Université de Sherbrooke, l’université Laval and Université de Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Québec
  • Vancouver Community College, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and University of British Columbia, BC
  • University of Manitoba, Winnipeg
  • EFQUEL conference, Granada, Spain
  • COHERE conference, Calgary, Alberta

Online consultancies

MOOCs and Webinars

  • planning and managing online learning: participant in #Change 11 cMOOC
  • costs of online learning: guest instructor for University of Maryland University College/University of Oldenberg, Germany
  • Elections Canada: online course design

Institutional site visits and reports on gamechanging institutions

  • Western Governors University
  • Open University, UK
  • Open University of Catalonia, Spain
  • London Knowledge lab, Institute of Education, London, UK.

It can be seen there was a great deal of interest in:

  • strategies and management,
  • new course designs,
  • design and organization of online institutions,
  • the costs of online learning

during 2012. These issues are not likely to disappear next year, either.

Politics and economics

In 2012, there were major developments in both the politics and economics of online learning. Governments in the USA and Europe accelerated cost cutting in post-secondary education. Nearly one billion dollars has been cut from the community college system in California alone since 2008. Student tuition fees have risen dramatically over the last five years in both the USA and the U.K. Even in Canada, provincial governments are facing the need to constrain public funding.

In Ontario, Canada’s largest province, the government threw down a challenge to the post-secondary institutions. Enrollments will need to increase, quality must be obtained, but there will be no new money. What can the institutions do to increase productivity through innovation? It’s a good question. Business cannot go on as usual. There is surely room for improvement and change in our institutions.

This theme is likely to continue into 2013. Governments, parents and increasingly students will be looking to online learning to increase productivity: better learning outcomes for less money. Are we up to the challenge?

Goodbye, 2012

I asked the question last year: will it be a rough ride? It’s certainly been a fast ride and quite bumpy at the same time. I don’t know how you feel, but I feel I’m hanging on, but only just. It’s good though that it’s exciting, stimulating, infuriating, and frustrating. It means that online learning is alive and well, growing in both breadth and more importantly depth.

So to all my readers, thank you for coming along for the ride. Have a great break, merry Christmas, happy Hanukah, or just have a good time, whatever your religion or beliefs. And I look forward to sharing my outlook for 2013 in the new year.


1. What pleased, surprised or disappointed you in 2012 with regard to online learning?

2. What do you think was the most important development in 2012 for online learning? Obama’s re-election? MOOCs? New course designs? Or something else?

3. Are we up to the challenge of using online learning to increase productivity through innovation? If so, what would that look like?

Developing a strategy for lifelong learners in Canadian universities and colleges (and its implications for online learning)

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© Pat Cegan’s ‘Source of Inspiration‘, 2012

Council of Ontario Universities (2012) Increased numbers of students heading to Ontario universities Toronto ON: COU

Changing demographics

This press release from the Council of Ontario Universities shows that students NOT coming direct from high school now constitute 24% of all new admissions, and enrollments from this sector are increasing faster than those from students coming direct from high schools.

This trend is likely to continue and grow, given the demographics of Canada. Birth rates are low (the City of Vancouver has 60,000 less k-12 students than it did 10 years ago, although some of this is due to families migrating to Surrey and other cities/suburbs, where house prices are more affordable), whereas the demands of the workplace and in particular the growth of knowledge-based industries is requiring continuous and lifelong learning.

Also, many two-year colleges and particularly Canadian Institutes of Technology are now seeing a large proportion of university graduates applying for admission. (BCIT once claimed that 50% of all new enrollments were university graduates).

Canada relies heavily on immigration (over 260,000 new immigrants a year) and most of the adults among these immigrants will need to spend at least some time upgrading their qualifications to meet Canadian professional and vocational requirements.

It is then just a matter of time before lifelong learners outnumber high school leavers in Canadian college and undergraduate programs (I suspect that this is already the case in some inner city two year colleges). But our systems are still designed to cater primarily for 18-21 year old, full-time, campus-based students. It is no surprise then that in some colleges and universities in Canada, enrollments are actually dropping, despite governments pushing for and even providing funding for more enrollments.

A strategy for lifelong learning

In a recent report by the Canadian Virtual University the report notes:

Other countries, including the United Kingdom, Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Japan, and Australia, have recognized and seized upon the importance of lifelong learning in improving skills and innovation and are devising ambitious strategies to help their citizens become lifelong learners. Canada does not have a lifelong learning system in place, nor a plan to transform the rhetoric of lifelong learning into a coherent vision and a plan for action.

In my review of the report, I commented that the current Conservative Federal government is unlikely to develop a lifelong learning strategy for Canada. Education is a provincial responsibility, and this federal government believes in less rather than more intervention in provincial matters. It would make sense for a provincial government to develop a strategy for lifelong learning but this means working across several ministerial silos, such as economic development, education, immigration, and social services, and working collaboratively with the educational institutions. It would also require a vision and commitment rarely found in Canadian provincial politics.

More importantly, I see lifelong learning as a responsibility mainly of the institutions themselves. Their mandate is to provide post-secondary education to all students who can benefit from it. There should be no discrimination on the grounds of age. If the target population is getting older, then institutions need to adapt their policies and strategies to meet the needs of that changing demographic.

This means of course more flexible delivery and a greater focus on online learning. However, it means much more than that. Here are some strategic considerations resulting from a change in the demographics of university and college students.


Many lifelong learners have already been through the public post-secondary education system. Many will already have diplomas or degrees. They also usually have life experiences that are highly relevant to the topic or subject area under study. This means developing methods of teaching that both engage and involve learners (yes, it means treating students as adults).

Fortunately, there are already well developed methods for teaching adults (with the ugly name of andragogy), but this of course will require systematic training of faculty.

It also suggests to me that web 2.0 technologies in particular will be appropriate for this type of learner, enabling them to draw on their work and life experiences, take responsibility for their learning, develop multimedia projects, learn collaboratively, and use these tools in the way that they will often do in the workplace.


In any class, students are likely to be increasingly diverse, with some students straight from high school weak on the basics, some older students needing revision but not wanting to start from scratch, and other students secure in the basics but more interested in recent developments in the subject, or the application of their basic knowledge to new topic areas. This will require much more individualization of the curriculum.

Again, the technology can be really useful here. All content can be digitized, loaded on the web and indexed or tagged, activities can be set that require knowledge and application of the content, students can be placed in groups for collaborative learning around topic based or inquiry based curricula, and students can work in collaboration with the instructor to develop their own learning goals, outcomes and path through the materials.

One area where online learning can be particularly valuable is providing coherent qualifications for newly emerging areas of knowledge through inter-institutional collaboration. There may be only one specialist in a newly emerging area such as nanotechnology in one institution, but by combining expertise on this area from two or three universities, it would be possible to develop a full masters degree, and sufficient mass of students internationally for such a topic.

Organizational structures

The reconsideration of the strict division of credit from non-credit programs is now much overdue. Post-secondary institutions have ghettoized non-credit learning into Divisions of Continuing Education or Extension, whose main mandate for the last 25 years has been to make a profit from non-credit programs to help cross-subsidize the credit programs. Many institutions refuse to recognize even their own non-credit courses for credit. The main effect of MOOCs will be to destroy the for-profit continuing education programs. Why pay Hicksville State University for a non-credit course on advanced web design when you can get one free from MIT? More importantly, though, continuing education programs are often run completely independently of the credit programs in terms of curriculum content.

Academic departments in particular need to see post-secondary education as a continuous and ongoing process that will engage their students throughout their lifetime. As Martha Piper, a former President of UBC, once said: “Once a UBC student, always a UBC student” (a frightening thought in some cases). Thus there should be a smooth integration of undergraduate and post-graduate programming, with careful consideration given to the role and purposes of non-credit, certificate, and applied masters programs.

For instance, it should be possible to transfer individual non-credit courses, and certificates, from the same institution, into a masters program. Certificates can have a more open admission policy, but students can transfer into a masters program by demonstrating competence in the certificate program. Also, in many Canadian jurisdictions, inter-institutional transfer of credits will become increasingly important to support lifelong learning.

Admission policies

Admission policies and course requirements designed for 18 year olds leaving high school are not likely to suit a 35 year old immigrant with a degree in engineering. Institutions in Canada vary considerably in their recognition of international qualifications. Lifelong learners provide an equal challenge to admission policies. However, institutions run the risk of missing out on brilliant ’rounded’ students because they don’t fit the square holes needed to get into an institution. Even elite institutions will need to look at more flexible admission policies for lifelong learners.

Funding models

Whereas I believe that everyone should have a chance of a state-subsidized post-secondary education, how long should this commitment last? For one degree? Two degrees? Should people in the workforce with university degrees and the means to pay full cost be subsidized by other taxpayers who may not even have been able to take a university education?

One way to expand lifelong learning would be through developing full cost-recovery applied masters programs. This would allow institutions to increase enrollments and hire additional research faculty from the tuition revenues alone. However in such cases, once a charge for general university overheads are paid off, the funds should be controlled by the academic department(s) offering the program. This would provide incentives for departments to treat lifelong learning seriously. There are already some successful online examples of this strategy (see the Masters in Educational Technology and the Masters in Rehab Science at UBC).

And perhaps our public institutions can then also return to the old UK Workers’ Educational Association model of free adult education for those just interested in learning (as in the graphic). It will remind us that lifelong learning covers a wide range of different learning needs, and different models of funding will need to be developed.


This is a big topic and I’ve hardly scratched the surface. Also, there are others better qualified to sound off about lifelong learning. However, both demographics and economic development require post-secondary educational institutions to focus more seriously on lifelong learning and the implications for the institution. Online learning can be – indeed has to be – an important part of the solution, but as always, there are many other important factors as well to be considered.

In essence, this is an institutional strategic planning issue and should be tackled as such. Data needs to be collected on demographic and enrollment trends as part of a broader environmental scan. A SWOT analysis will also be needed. But as with all strategic planning, what matters most is strategic vision, thinking and  and commitment. But the earlier institutions start to address this issue, the better.

Rapid growth of online learning product market

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Ambient Insight Research (2012) The North America Market for Self-paced eLearning Products and Services: 2011-2016 Forecast and Analysis Monroe WA: Ambient Insight Research (note: $1,225 for the full report; free abstract available at: http://www.ambientinsight.com/Reports/eLearning.aspx)

PRWeb (2012) North American eLearning Market to Reach $27.2 billion by 2016 PRWeb, July 31

The Ambient Insight Research reports examine the current and potential markets for e-learning products such as packaged content, custom content development services, cloud-based authoring tools and learning platform services, installed authoring tools, and installed learning platforms.

Some results from the free abstract (I don’t have $1,225 unfortunately for the full report):

  • the market is growing 4.4% per annum in the USA and 16.8% in Canada
  • by 2016, the North American market will be worth $27.2 billion
  • North America had 62% of the market in 2011
  • the fastest growing products (9% per annum) in North America will be cloud-based authoring tools and learning platforms
  • ‘the global  market has largely been a story of corporate adoption in developed economies. That has changed dramatically in the last two years and the narrative is now one of rapid adoption in all the buyer segments, particularly in the consumer, academic, and government segments in developing economies.’
  • in particular, growth rates predicted between 2011-2016:
    • Vietnam: 44%
    • Malaysia: 39%
    • Romania 37%
    • India: 32%
    • China: 30%.


Although Canada has some significant players in the market (Desire2Learn in particular), I am wondering if there is a lost opportunity here. In particular, there seems to be a large gap between institutional developments (content and applications) and corporate developments (software and equipment) in Canada. This report suggests that there are tremendous opportunities if the main institutional and corporate players in Canada would only get together to look at collaborating in the international online market.

The impact of online learning on the future of higher education: a response to the study from the PewResearchCentre

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Armageddon for the US public university? Art: © Jonsibal.com, 2012

Anderson, J., Boyles, J., and Rainie, L. (2012) The Future Impact of the Internet on Higher Education Washington DC: The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project

The study

This is a Delphi-style study where over 1,000 ‘experts’ in the USA were asked to choose one of two possible scenarios that describe the likely impact of the Internet on the higher education system, and then provide comments or a rationale for their choice (see the full report for more details on the methodology).

The results

39% agreed with a scenario that articulated modest change by the end of the decade: 

In 2020, higher education will not be much different from the way it is today. While people will be accessing more resources in classrooms through the use of large screens, teleconferencing, and personal wireless smart devices, most universities will mostly require in-person, on-campus attendance of students most of the time at courses featuring a lot of traditional lectures. Most universities’ assessment of learning and their requirements for graduation will be about the same as they are now.

60% agreed with a scenario outlining more change:

By 2020, higher education will be quite different from the way it is today. There will be mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning to leverage expert resources. Significant numbers of learning activities will move to individualized, just-in-time learning approaches. There will be a transition to “hybrid” classes that combine online learning components with less-frequent on-campus, in-person class meetings. Most universities’ assessment of learning will take into account more individually-oriented outcomes and capacities that are relevant to subject mastery. Requirements for graduation will be significantly shifted to customized outcomes.

The Pew researchers grouped the arguments that participants used to justify their choice under the following themes:

  1. Higher education will vigorously adopt new teaching approaches, propelled by opportunity and efficiency as well as student and parent demands.
  2. Economic realities will drive technological innovation forward by 2020, creating less uniformity in higher education.
  3. “Distance learning” is a divisive issue. It is viewed with disdain by many who don’t see it as effective; others anticipate great advances in knowledge-sharing tools by 2020.
  4. ‘Bricks’ replaced by ‘clicks’? Some say universities’ influence could be altered as new technology options emerge; others say ‘locatedness’ is still vital for an optimal outcome.
  5. Frustration and doubt mark the prospect of change within the academy. Change is happening incrementally, but these adjustments will not be universal in most institutions by 2020.
  6. Universities will adopt new pedagogical approaches while retaining the core of traditional methods.
  7. Collaborative education with peer-to-peer learning will become a bigger reality and will challenge the lecture format and focus on “learning how to learn.”
  8. Competency credentialing and certification are likely……yet institutional barriers may prevent widespread degree customization.


This provides an excellent overview of the current thinking about the future of higher education in North America, at least.

I did not participate in the study but I would have been in the 60% who would have voted for the second scenario, but with one caveat: 2020 is too soon, mainly because of theme (5) above. However, I do believe that this is the direction public higher education will go, indeed will have to go.

There was a third scenario that was not discussed in the study, and I believe should have been:

The publicly funded higher education system as we know it will no longer exist in the USA. Elite universities funded mainly through endowments, corporate donations, and very high tuition fees will provide a campus-based education for the very rich and powerful. The majority of government funded research will be allocated to these elite institutions, which will also provide non-credit online free education for the masses. Three or four large for-profit institutions will provide low-cost, tuition-funded medium quality degrees and vocational diplomas using a combination of class-based and online learning, frequently enabling students to transfer in credit from their non-credit certificates from the elite institutions. These for-profit institutions will provide the vast majority of post-secondary education in the USA, helped by Federal and state student grants that require rigorous quality standards from qualifying for-profits. Many states will have either no or at most one of two large, publicly funded research universities. Meanwhile, the USA continues with an accelerated economic and social decline.

Although this last scenario is in my view less likely than the second, I believe that it has a similar if not greater probability than the first scenario, and needs to be treated as a serious threat to the USA’s public post-secondary education system. If my third scenario prevails, it will be because of theme (5) above. Faculty will have only themselves (and the Tea Party) to blame.

Meanwhile, thanks to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project for a very interesting and thought-provoking study.

Your comments, please

How do these scenarios match your view of the future of higher education? Is there one you like but would amend?

Do you have a fourth scenario?

Will it be different in Canada or other countries? Or is the USA unique?

Is this kind of study useful? Or does it just further add to the hype and hysteria around online learning?