January 23, 2017

Two design models for online collaborative learning: same or different?

Image: © Campaign Brief, 2013

Image: © Campaign Brief, 2013

I am now about to wrap up my Chapter 5 on Design models, for my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

Here I am looking at the work of two separate and important Canadian theorists and practitioners, what we might call the Toronto school, Linda Harasim and her former colleagues at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) in Toronto (although Linda has been firmly based for 25 years at SFU in Vancouver/Burnaby), and the Alberta school, Randy Garrison, and colleagues Terry Anderson and Walter Archer. However, they are not the only contributors to the design of online collaborative learning, as the following post makes clear.

Perhaps more importantly, I believe that online collaborative learning is a key model for teaching the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age. So here’s my first draft:

From the quite early days of online learning, some instructors have focused heavily on the communication affordances of the Internet. They have based their teaching on the concept of knowledge construction, the gradual building of knowledge mainly through asynchronous online discussion among students and between students and an instructor.

What is online collaborative learning?

The concurrence of both constructivist approaches to learning and the development of the Internet has led to the development of a particular form of constructivist teaching, originally called computer-mediated communication (CMC), or networked learning, but which has been developed into what Harasim (2012) now calls online collaborative learning theory (OCL). She describes OCL as follows (p. 90):

OCL theory provides a model of learning in which students are encouraged and supported to work together to create knowledge: to invent, to explore ways to innovate, and, by so doing, to seek the conceptual knowledge needed to solve problems rather than recite what they think is the right answer. While OCL theory does encourage the learner to be active and engaged, this is not considered to be sufficient for learning or knowledge construction……In the OCL theory, the teacher plays a key role not as a fellow-learner, but as the link to the knowledge community, or state of the art in that discipline. Learning is defined as conceptual change and is key to building knowledge. Learning activity needs to be informed and guided by the norms of the discipline and a discourse process that emphasises conceptual learning and builds knowledge.

OCL builds on and integrates theories of cognitive development that focus on conversational learning (Pask, 1975), conditions for deep learning (Marton and Saljø, 1997; Entwistle, 2000), development of academic knowledge (Laurillard, 2000) and knowledge construction (Scardamalia and Bereiter, 2006)

Core design principles of OCL

Harasim emphasises the importance of three key phases of knowledge construction through discourse:

  • idea generating: this is literally brainstorming, to collect the divergent thinking within a group
  • idea organising: this is where learners compare, analyse and categorise the different ideas previously generated, again through discussion and argument
  • intellectual convergence: the aim here is to reach a level of intellectual synthesis, understanding and consensus (including agreeing to disagree), usually through the joint construction of some artefact or piece of work, such as an essay or assignment.

This results in what Harasim calls a Final Position, although in reality the position is never final because for a learner, once started, the process of generating, organising and converging on ideas continues at an ever deeper or more advanced level. The role of the teacher or instructor in this process is seen as critical, not only in facilitating the process and providing appropriate resources and learner activities that encourage this kind of learning, but also, as a representative of a knowledge community or subject domain, in ensuring that the core concepts, practices, standards and principles of the subject domain are fully integrated into the learning cycle. Harasim provides the following diagram to capture this process:

From Harasim (2012), p. 95

From Harasim (2012), Figure 6.3, p. 95

Figure 6. 1: Harasim’s pedagogy of group discussion

Another important factor is that in the OCL model, discussion forums are not an addition or supplement to core teaching materials, such as textbooks, recorded lectures, or text in an LMS, but are the core component of the teaching. Textbooks, readings and other resources are chosen to support the discussion, not the other way round. This is a key design principle, and explains why often instructors or tutors complain, in more ‘traditional’ online courses, that students don’t participate in discussions. Often this is because where online discussions are secondary to more didactic teaching, or are not deliberately designed and managed to lead to knowledge construction, students see the discussions as optional or extra work, because they have no direct impact on grades or assessment. (It is also a reason why awarding grades for participation in discussion forums misses the point. It is not the extrinsic activity that counts, but the intrinsic value of the discussion, that matters – see Brindley, Walti and Blashke, 2009). Thus although instructors using an OCL approach may use learning management systems for convenience, they are used differently from courses where traditional didactic teaching is moved online.

Community of Inquiry

The Community of Inquiry Model (CoI) is somewhat similar to the OCW model. As defined by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000)

An educational community of inquiry is a group of individuals who collaboratively engage in purposeful critical discourse and reflection to construct personal meaning and confirm mutual understanding.

Garrison, Anderson and Archer argue that there are three essential elements of a community of inquiry:

  • social presence ” is the ability of participants to identify with the community (e.g., course of study), communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop inter-personal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities.”
  • teaching presence  is “the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes
  • cognitive presence “is the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse“.
Image: © Marguerite Koole, 2013

Image: © Marguerite Koole, 2013

Other design principles

However, I consider CoI more of a theory than a model, since it does not indicate what activities or conditions are needed to create these three ‘presences’. I also see the two models as complementary rather than competing. Since the publication of the original CoI paper in 2000, there have been a number of studies that have identified the importance of these ‘presences’ within especially online learning (click here for a wide selection). Partly as a result of this research, and partly as the result of experienced online instructors who have not necessarily been influenced by either the OCL or the Community of Inquiry literature, several other design principles have been associated with successful (online) discussion, such as:

  • choice of appropriate technology (e.g. software that allows for threaded discussions)
  • clear guidelines on student online behaviour
  • student orientation and preparation, including technology orientation and explaining the purpose of discussion
  • choice of appropriate topics
  • setting an appropriate ‘tone’ or requirements for discussion (e.g. respectful disagreement, evidence-based arguments)
  • defining clearly learner roles and expectations
  • monitoring the participation of individual learners, and responding accordingly
  • regular, ongoing instructor ‘presence’
  • ensuring strong articulation between discussion topics and assessment.

These issues are discussed in more depth by Salmon (2000); Paloff and Pratt (2005; 2007); and Bates and Poole (2003).

Therefore, although there has been a wide range of researchers and educators engaged in the area of online collaborative learning and communities of inquiry, there is a high degree of convergence and agreement about successful strategies and design principles.

Strengths and weaknesses of online collaborative learning

This approach to the use of technology for teaching is very different from the more objectivist approaches found in computer-assisted learning, teaching machines, and artificial intelligence applications to education, which primarily aim to use computing to replace at least some of the activities traditionally done by human teachers. With online collaborative learning, the aim is not to replace the teacher, but to use the technology primarily to increase and improve communication between teacher and learners, with a particular approach to the development of learning based on knowledge construction assisted and developed through social discourse. This social discourse furthermore is not random, but managed in such a way as to ‘scaffold’ learning:

  • by assisting with the construction of knowledge in ways that are guided by the instructor,
  • that reflect the norms or values of the discipline, and
  • that also respect or take into consideration the prior knowledge within the discipline.

Thus there are two main strengths of this model:

  • when applied appropriately, online collaborative learning can lead to deep, academic learning, or transformative learning, as well as, if not better than, discussion in campus-based classrooms. The asynchronous and recorded ‘affordances’ of online learning more than compensate for the lack of physical cues and other aspects of face-to-face discussion.
  • online collaborative learning as a result can also directly support the development of a range of high level intellectual skills, such as critical thinking, analytical thinking, synthesis, and evaluation, which are key requirements for learners in a digital age.

There are though several limitations:

  • it does not scale easily, requiring highly knowledgeable and skilled instructors, and a limited number of learners
  • it is more likely to accommodate to the epistemological positions of faculty and instructors in humanities, social sciences, education and some areas of business studies and health and conversely it is likely to be less accommodating to the epistemological positions of faculty in science and engineering. However, if combined with a problem-based or inquiry-based approach, it might have acceptance even in some of these subject domains.

It could also be argued that there is no or little difference between online collaborative learning/Communities of Inquiry than well-conducted traditional classroom, discussion-based teaching. Once again, we see that the mode of delivery is less important than the design model, which can work well in both contexts. Indeed, it is possible to conduct either models synchronously or asynchronously, at a distance or face-to-face.

However, there is certainly enough evidence that collaborative learning can be done just as well online, which is important, given the need for more flexible models of delivery to meet the needs of a more diverse student body in a digital age. Also, the necessary conditions for success in teaching this way are now well known, even though they are not universally applied.

Over to you

I am of course inviting Linda, and the Albertans, to respond to this (well, it is Grey Cup tomorrow: Calgary, Alberta vs Hamilton, Ontario, in a curious game called Canadian Football, which is almost as good a dust-up). However, I’d also like comments from some less committed educators with regards to the following:

1. Can you see the differences between ‘Open Collaborative Learning’ (OCL) and ‘Communities of Inquiry’? Or are they really the same model with different names?

2. Do you agree that either of these models can be applied just as successfully online or face-to-face?

3. Do you see other strengths or weaknesses with these models?

4. Is this common sense dressed up as theory?

5. Has anyone had any experience of using either of these models in the quantitative sciences such as physics or engineering? If so, do you still have a job?


Bates, A. and Poole, G. (2003) Effective Teaching with Technology in Higher Education: Foundations for Success San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Brindley, J., Walti, C. and Blashke, L. (2009) Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Vol. 10, No. 3

Entwistle, N. (2000) Promoting deep learning through teaching and assessment: conceptual frameworks and educational contexts Leicester UK: TLRP Conference

Garrison, R., Anderson, A. and Archer, W. (2000) Critical Inquiry in a Text-based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education The Internet and Higher Education, Vol. 2, No. 3

Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Laurillard, D. (2001) Rethinking University Teaching: A Conversational Framework for the Effective Use of Learning Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Marton, F. and Saljö, R. (1997) Approaches to learning, in Marton, F., Hounsell, D. and Entwistle, N. (eds.) The experience of learning: Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press (out of press, but available online)

Paloff, R. and Pratt, K. (2005) Collaborating Online: Learning Together in Community San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Paloff, R. and Pratt, K. (2007) Building Online Learning Communities: Effective Strategies for the Virtual Classroom San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Pask, G. (1975) Conversation, Cognition and Learning Amsterdam/London: Elsevier (out of press, but available online)

Salmon, G. (2000) e-Moderating: The Key to Teaching and Learning Online London: Taylor and Francis

Scardamalia, M. and Bereiter, C. (2006) Knowledge Building:  Theory, pedagogy and technology in Sawyer, K. (ed.) Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences New York: cambridge University Press


Distance Education journal: November 2012 edition

Volume 33, No. 3 of Distance Education does not have a particular theme. But all the articles in one way or another discuss critical factors for student success in online or distance learning:

  • the design of the student learning experience
  • the role of tutors (student learning facilitators)
  • students perception of their inter-connectedness with other students and their teachers
  • the organization of learning.

I am not covering all the papers here but just the ones that were of interest to me (e.g. focused on post-secondary education) and seemed to have significant results, roughly in my order of interest, with the most interesting first.

Halverson, L. et al. (2012) An analysis of high impact scholarship and publication trends in blended learning Distance Education, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 381-413

This was by far the most significant article for me in this edition, because the authors recognize that while blended learning is ‘likely to emerge as the pre-dominant model of the future‘, ‘the research on blended learning lacks a centre point.’ This is basically another meta-study, looking at where the conversations about blended learning are occurring. What this article does is to identify the 10 most cited research articles, book chapters, books and authors on blended learning. (No, I’m not on the list).

Furthermore the authors analyze what kind of studies they are: ‘most of the seminal work in blended learning to this point has not been empirical in nature, but rather has focused on definitions, models, and [its] potential.’

This is a really useful article, directing us to the most significant literature on the topic – and also indicating its current severe shortcomings.

Latchem, C. (2012) Reflection on the new dynamics of distance education: an interview with Sir John Daniel Distance Education, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 42-428

This interview is at a completely different level of analysis than most of the other articles in this edition. Sir John takes an eagle’s eye view of international developments in open and distance learning, drawing on his vast experience of working in international agencies such as the Commonwealth of Learning and UNESCO – as well as having run the odd open university.

His views on the need for more focus on open schooling in developing countries, the need for institutions to make fundamental changes to their organization and the role of faculty if they are to fully exploit online and blended learning, and the futility and frustration that comes from new practitioners ignoring all previous research on open and distance learning are just some of the themes of the interview. Well worth a read.

Borokhovski, E. et al. (2012) Are contextual and designed student-student interaction treatments equally effective in distance education? Distance Education Vol. 33, No. 3, pp.311-329.

The authors provide a concise but comprehensive overview of the literature comparing online, blended and classroom learning (overall conclusion: little difference in learning effectiveness although there is wide variation within each condition). They argue (and I agree) that it is more important to focus on ‘how different instructional interventions in DE compare to one another‘ than how DE compares to other forms of learning. The latter topic has been studied to exhaustion. In this article the authors ask: ‘Are inter-action treatments that intentionally promote collaborative and co-operative learning superior to other forms of interaction treatments in terms of student achievement outcomes?’

In more normal language, they looked at just putting students into a context where the interaction was left open to the students to those where the instructor  purposefully designed collaborative learning opportunities. This is in fact a meta-analysis of 36 studies on this topic, which found – surprise, surprise – that students had significantly better learning outcomes (as measured by grades) when collaboration and/or co-operation were organized by an instructor or course designer. Just hoping for collaboration or student discussion is not enough; it has to be organized. The paper, drawing on other research, also suggests a number of ways in which collaboration/cooperation can be facilitated. If you can wade through the technical jargon, this is a worthwhile paper to read.

Forster, A. (2012) Book Review: Burge, E. et al. (eds.) (2011) Flexible pedagogy, flexible practice: notes from the trenches of distance education, Edmonton: Athabasca University press, 348 pp.

A thorough and thoughtful review of a book written by a large collection of golden oldies of distance education. Valuable to me because the review helped me to decide whether to get the book (I won’t, but this shouldn’t discourage you, particularly if you are new to the game of online learning – at least read the review first.)

Slagter van Tryon, P. and Bishop, M. (2012) Evaluating social connectedness online: the design and development of the Social Perceptions in Learning Contexts Instrument, Distance Education, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 347-364

This study looks at the use of a research tool for measuring students’ perception of their social connectedness in an online course. They found that the tool was relatively reliable and valid in measuring student perceptions of social connectedness, but still needs further work (of course.) Unfortunately there was no evidence in the article as to the how this tool can help identify factors leading to social connectedness, but just the extent to which it exists – hopefully this will come from further studies.

Xiao, J. (2012) Tutors’ influence on distance language students learning motivation: voices from learners and tutors. Distance Education, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 365-380

This paper from China looks at the role and influence of tutors on the motivation of students learning at a distance in China. The study found that teacher competence, personal characteristics, subject matter expertise and the relationship between student and teacher all influenced the motivation of distance learners.

Kozar, O. (2012) Use of synchronous online tools in private English language teaching in Russia Distance Education, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 415-420

The title says it all. An interesting paper for those of you interested in one way in which the Internet is being used for teaching in Russia.


It is good that research is being conducted on these issues, because too often now people launch into online learning without any consideration of what is already known and hence continue to make unnecessary mistakes that reduce the effectiveness of the learning experience. (No, I’m NOT going to mention MOOCs).

However, despite the valuable research published in this journal, you have to either subscribe or have access to a university library to get it. And too often researchers write in a way that seems to deliberately obscure the value or the main outcomes of their research. This journal in other words has good stuff but should be much more accessible.

JET&S: Special journal issue on technology supported cognition and exploratory learning

The Journal of Educational Technology and Society, Vol. 15, No.1, has a special edition on technology supported cognition and exploratory learning.

From the editorial:

The IADIS CELDA 2010 conference aims to address the main issues concerned with evolving learning processes and supporting pedagogies and applications in the digital age. There have been advances in both cognitive psychology and computing that have affected the educational arena. The convergence of these two disciplines is increasing at a fast pace and affecting academia and professional practice in many ways. Paradigms such as just-in-time learning, constructivism, student-centered learning and collaborative approaches have emerged and are being supported by technological advancements such as simulations, virtual reality and multi-agents systems. These developments have created both opportunities and areas of serious concerns.  

Editors of this special issue selected a number of papers presented at IADIS CELDA 2010 conference that were very highly rated by reviewers, well received at the conference, and nicely complementary in terms of research, theory, and implications for learning and instruction. These papers have been edited and revised based on feedback from conference participants and subsequent review by the editors of this special issue and reviewers recruited to assist in this process. The organizing committee of IADIS CELDA 2010 proposed a special issue of Educational Technology & Society Journal based on selected papers from IADIS CELDA 2010. The result is the five papers included in this special issue. 

As well as the five special papers, there are another 26 papers in this issue covering a diverse range of topics, including (at the post-secondary level):

  • Effects of Different Levels of Online User Identity Revelation
  • Student Satisfaction, Performance, and Knowledge Construction in Online Collaborative Learning: a cross-cultural perspective
  • A Context-Aware Mobile Learning System for Supporting Cognitive Apprenticeships in Nursing Skills Training
  • Exploring Non-traditional Learning Methods in Virtual and Real-world Environments
  • Providing Adaptivity in Moodle LMS Courses
  • Agent Prompts: Scaffolding for Productive Reflection in an Intelligent Learning Environment

Although the papers are in English, most of the authors are from either Eastern Europe or East Asia.

Book review: Learning Theory and Online Technologies

Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Linda Harasim is one of the pioneers of online learning and this book brings together theory and more than 20 years of experience in online teaching.

From the publishers

Learning Theory and Online Technologies offers a powerful overview of the current state of e-learning, a foundation of its historical roots and growth, and a framework for distinguishing among the major approaches to e-learning. It effectively addresses pedagogy (how to design an effective online environment for learning), evaluation (how to know that students are learning), and history (how past research can guide successful online teaching and learning outcomes).

What’s it about?

Two quotes from almost the first page of the book give an indication of why this book is important. Linda states:

‘Educators who restrict their use of the Internet and the Web to making traditional didactic teaching easier or more efficient are missing opportunities to introduce better, different or more advanced ways of learning.’ (p.2)


‘There are few theory-based or research-based guidelines to assist educators to develop more effective pedagogies for online learning environments.’ (pp. 2-3)

Her goal in this book is to address ‘the need for a theory of learning for 21st century realities and presents educators with new ways of thinking about teaching and learning using online technologies.’

What’s in it?

The book is organized in four main components:

  1. Introduction to learning theory and technology, which examines different epistemologies, particularly objectivism and constructivism, and the historical links between technology and learning.
  2. Three major theories of learning and technology from the 20th century: behaviorism; cognitivism and constructivism. Harasim provides a comprehensive overview of these theories and links them clearly to developments in computer-based learning.
  3. Online collaborative learning: a theory of learning for the 21st century, which is proposed as ‘a new theory of learning that focuses on collaborative learning, knowledge building, and Internet use as a means to reshape formal, non-formal and informal education for the Knowledge Age.’ Three chapters cover the theory itself, its practice, and cases of institutional innovation based on online collaborative learning. There is lastly a chapter on scenarios for online communities of practice.
  4. Conclusion, which is basically a short summary of the preceding chapters.


This book is essential reading for anyone teaching online, especially those with no background in educational theory. The psychologist, Kurt Lewin, once said: ‘There is nothing so practical as a good theory.’ This holds true particularly when entering a new field of activity, such as online learning. Theories are like a torch or a map which can help you through difficult and unexplored terrain.

However, Harasim goes one step further and proposes a new learning theory that fits the needs of a knowledge society, a theory based on online collaboration and knowledge construction.

‘Despite the rise of the Internet in the real world, teachers are reluctant to adopt it in the educational world…but the solution is not to advocate educational adoption of the Internet without a theory or strategy to guide the pedagogical transformations required’ (pp. 82-83).

You will need to study this yourself to see if you are convinced that this is essentially a new theory, or is just a specific application of constructivism. In a sense though that is an issue for professors of education. What is valuable for practicing teachers is that Harasim offers an approach to teaching online that is distinctly different from moving a face-to-face classroom online, and is also different from an up-front, instructionally designed course. Her theory also emphasises the importance of teachers in ensuring that knowledge is constructed and advanced, and that the language and fundamentals of a discipline are learned and applied. The theory is supported by examples and cases, although personally I would like to have seen more empirically-based evidence that linked the practical applications of the theory to measurable learning outcomes or qualitative changes in how students learned, or whatever measure of success that would be appropriate for testing the theory.

It should be noted that there is no discussion of other theories of networked learning, such as connectivism, which is a pity. It would be have been fun to see Linda Harasim critiquing George Siemens (and vice versa) but I am sure this will come. (Linda and George: please feel free to use this collaborative learning space as a boxing ring).

Lastly, theories are neat but life is messy. I’m not sure that teachers should be or are willing to limit themselves to one theoretical approach. Although I am a constructivist by inclination, there have been moments in my teaching when a strictly behaviourist approach has been clearly the best solution. (Arguing with two fighting seven year olds in the back seat of a car when I am trying to find the right exit from the Oakland freeway is not my preferred strategy). The online collaborative learning approach starts with idea generation, but where do the ideas originate? I also don’t accept that all learning (or at least all meaningful learning) is necessarily collaborative or social; it is usually a mix of individual and social activity, and each seem to me to be equally important.

Nevertheless these are quibbles on my part. This book is well written, easy to read, and we need good theory to support our teaching decisions. This book offers an important contribution to the debate on online teaching and I highly recommend it.

European report on the future of learning

Redecker, C. et al. (2011) The Future of Learning: Preparing for Change Seville Spain: Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, JRC, European Commission

What the report is about

From the preface:

To determine how education and training policy can adequately prepare learners for life in the future society, there is a need to envisage what competences will be relevant and how these will be acquired in 2020-2030. The report identifies key factors for change that emerge at the interface of the visions painted by different stakeholder groups and arranges them into a descriptive vision of the future of learning in 2020-2030. In a second step, the report discusses future solutions to pending challenges for European Education and Training systems and outlines policy options

The vision

From the executive summary:

Personalisation, collaboration and  informal learning will be at the core of learning in the future.  The increased pace of change will bring new skills and competences to the fore, in particular generic, transversal and cross-cutting skills….

With the evolution of ICT, personalised learning and individual mentoring  will become a reality and teachers/trainers will need to be trained to exploit the available resources and tools to support tailor-made learning pathways and experiences which are motivating and engaging, but also efficient, relevant and challenging…

Most importantly, traditional E&T institutions  – schools and universities, vocational and adult training providers – will need to reposition themselves in the emerging learning landscape . They will need to experiment with new formats and strategies for learning and teaching to be able to offer relevant, effective and high quality learning experiences in the future. 

Policy implications

The visions presented in this report are not necessarily new or radical….. but to reach the goals of personalised, collaborative and informalised learning, holistic changes need to be made (including, among others: curricula, pedagogies,assessment, teacher training, leadership) and mechanisms need to be put in place which make flexible and targeted lifelong learning a reality and support the recognition of informally acquired skills.

Some of the challenges the report tries to address

  • an aging labour market in Europe
  • need for a higher proportion of knowledge workers and decline in jobs requiring minimal education or training
  • high youth unemployment associated with lack of appropriate educational qualifications and lack of jobs for unskilled/trained workers
  • immigration and multiculturalism

Implications for education and training

  • technology enabled lifelong learning (from cradle to grave, any time anywhere)
  • shift of focus from institutions to individuals: Institutions will need to re-create themselves as resilient systems with flexible, open, and adaptive infrastructures, which engage all citizens and re-connect with society
  • a shift from public to private funding based on individual rather than institutional needs: the responsibility for the provision of individual education will increasingly move from the state to the individual and family groups. While state involvement in early years’ educational provision will remain central, the influence of the private sector on curriculum and policy will continue to grow.


First, this is a very important, interesting and stimulating report. It raises fundamental questions about the nature of learning and of the institutions that support learning. It warrants careful reading in full by anyone concerned about the future of learning.

As the report itself notes, ‘the visions in this report are not necessarily new’, but its recommendations are a major challenge – indeed I would say threat – for existing educational institutions, and in particular, for universities.

There are parts of this report with which I strongly agree, and other parts where I think there are some fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of learning, particularly at a post-secondary level. I agree with setting an ambitious and broad general vision for the future of learning – it’s just that I disagree with or don’t like some elements of the vision.

What I agree with in the report

I agree completely with the need to make learning more relevant, more engaging for young people, and more heavily dependent on the intelligent use of technology for teaching and learning. Lifelong learning is essential, and so is the need for major institutional change to adapt to the learning needs of the 21st century. We are heading for disaster socially and economically by failing to meet the needs of young people who are increasingly being shut out of the labour market at a time when the workforce is aging. Part of the reason for this is external: globalization, and a particularly short-sighted and uncontrolled version of capitalism. But part is also due to the failure of our institutions to adapt to the changes in society, in particular the technological revolution and the changing nature of our students, and thus far too many young people drop out or underqualify because formal education is not seen as relevant or motivating.

More specifically I agree that technology offers the potential for the personalization of learning and this is highly desirable but the reality of making that happen on a mass scale is another matter. Collaborative learning is also critical for the future, but although I accept the importance of informal learning, I will argue later that it does not meet all learning needs.

What I disagree with or missed in the report

The first disagreement is with the assumption that all levels of education will require the same changes and the same vision. First we need a multiplicity of visions because predicting the future is fraught with difficulties and it would be foolish to put all our eggs in one basket. Also there is not a universal set of needs for learning for the future. There will need to be different goals and different solutions. I would prefer to have seen a document that looked at different markets or needs for education and training, that dealt with a diversity of learning needs.

The second is more an omission. The report is very weak on the infrastructure or organizational changes needed to implement the vision. For instance, take the personalization of learning and particularly the goal of individual mentoring. How would this be organized and paid for? It is one thing to set a vision; it’s quite another to find sustainable ways to pay for it. How would or should institutions respond to this? I understand that the important thing about a vision is to define it, but there also has to be some suggestions about how it could be realised.

Although I fully agree with the need to emphasise the development of ‘soft’ skills such as problem-solving, communication, critical thinking, reflection, I disagree that these are generic, transversal skills (what an ugly Europeanization of English). Problem-solving is not the same in medicine as in business, for example. Not only is the knowledge base (the information needed to solve a problem) different, but so is the method (one is science-based and deductive, the other is more intuitive and with more willingness to accept risk). These skills need to be embedded within a specific domain (although I do agree that we need more interdisciplinary studies, which is not the same as developing transversal skills).

Lastly, I do wish people would realise that there is a difference between scientific or academic knowledge and everyday knowledge. Academic learning is about generalization, abstraction, hypothesising, testing and critical thinking. It is about questioning and challenging, based on logic and evidence. I am not arguing that this is more important than everyday knowledge, but it is different and there is a strong need for academic learning, because it takes us into areas that would not imaginable otherwise. The report does not deal with this issue, assuming that all learning needs in the future will be the same.

And this brings me to my concern about an over-emphasis on informal learning. Informal learning will be increasingly important in the future, but on its own it will not meet all learning needs. Learners often need a structure and guidance, feedback and assessment, to know what standards of learning are expected, etc. This means the demand for formal learning will still be there in the future (although its provision may/should be very different). The real challenge is whether we should combine both formal and informal approaches or whether they will be more effective if kept separate. This decision has major implications for how our institutions should be organized. (It would also help if we had a less ambiguous and more detailed understanding of what we mean when we talk about formal and informal learning respectively).

Above all, this report should force our universities to think very carefully about what their core values and beliefs are, to what extent these can or should be modified to meet changing needs, but also what they should not give up or lose, because those values or principles are critical for a free, open and knowledge-based society based on reason and evidence.


Despite these criticisms, this is an excellent report. It should stimulate a really useful debate about the future of learning, and how educational institutions need to change, or whether new models of organization that may not be institutionalized will need to be developed. Although it is set in a European context, the issues it raises are common across developed countries and also relevant for developing countries. I just wish it had come up with some concrete proposals or models for how these forms of learning that they are proposing would be established and sustained.


For those of you with a LinkedIn account there is a discussion of this report at: http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Future-Learning-3960155.S.78957225?view=&gid=3960155&type=member&item=78957225&trk=eml-anet_dig-b_nd-pst_ttle-cn