Another year, and online learning, e-learning, learning technologies, educational technologies, digital learning, or whatever you call it or them, will continue to grow, become more prevalent, and more a central part of teaching and learning in higher education – but exactly how and in what ways?
The general trends are not going to change much from 2011 (which I identified as course redesign, mobile learning, more multimedia, learning analytics,and shared services), but some of the specifics are becoming clearer. Below I’ve ranked my predictions in order of significance for higher education, and also given a probability rating of the prediction actually happening.
1. The year of the tablet: 99% probable
Tablets – iPads, Kindles, Aakashes (Sky), etc. – will become a regular component of teaching and learning in many institutions. This will be mostly initially in traditional classroom and lab settings, but increasingly in more mobile applications outside the campus. Why?
- tablets are more flexible, convenient and mobile than laptops and more practical for learning activities than even smart-phones
- most LMSs already have almost transparent mobile capacity
- tablet prices will continue to fall with increased competition, and applications and power will continue to increase with new models in 2012
- textbooks will increasingly become digital and the tablet will become the mobile textbook library for students
- functionality will increase, enabling tablets to become creators as well as distributors of learning materials
- expect to see an iPad 3 with increased functionality released in April, 2012; this will generate even more interest in tablet applications for education
- expect to see an enormous explosion of online teaching in developing countries, as cheap tablets such as the Aakash penetrate a world hungry for low-cost Internet access.
During 2012, we will see a small but increasing number of educational applications that build on the unique affordances of tablets, rather than merely moving LMS material to a tablet.
Likely barriers to the use of tablets:
- institutional and instructor inertia
- possibly some concerns over cost and equitable access
- lack of standardization (although HTML5 will ease this)
2. Learning analytics: 90% probable
Learning analytics enable easy access to data on the desktop or tablet for instructors, administrators and even students about how students are learning and the factors that appear to influence their learning. The rapid expansion of learning analytics in 2012 is probably going to be the biggest surprise for many people outside the small coterie of people currently using learning analytics. Again, this is not likely to explode in 2012, but it will gain traction quite quickly, and again, there are strong reasons behind this prediction:
- the biggest driver is going to be appeals and accreditation. Learning analytics enable institutions (and those appealing grades) to access hard ‘evidence’ of student performance, particularly online. Institutions can demonstrate to accreditation agencies what and how students have learned through the use of learning analytics. These may not be the best reasons for using analytics, but they are a very powerful ones, especially as quality assurance boards start latching on to learning analytics.
- LMSs will increasingly provide the software necessary as part of the standard service
- identifying ‘at-risk’ students. There is growing evidence that at-risk students can be identified almost within the first week of a course through indicators that can be tracked through learning analytics, such as amount of activity in an online class, response to e-mails, etc. The challenge will then be to find ways of supporting at-risk students
- tweaking teaching; learning analytics provide instructors with useful data about how and what students are learning, enabling quick changes to materials and to teaching approaches while the course is still running
- course review and planning: learning analytics will improve the evidence for both internal and external course reviews and future course planning.
- identifying and collecting the data in ways that are useful for decision-making
- concerns about student privacy
- data overload for instructors who are already busy
- lack of integration between LMSs and other student information systems
3. Growth of open education: 70% probable (depending on definition of open education)
I find this the most difficult area to predict, because so much of what is claimed under open education is either not new or not significant in terms of how it is actually implemented. Also open education covers so many different areas, such as content, access to instructors, learner support, badges or peer-to-peer assessment, recognition of prior learning, shared resources, and on and on. So let’s try to unpack some of this:
- ‘raw’ digital content is already nearly 100% open, but a great deal of well designed commercially-produced digital instructional materials is likely to remain closed, or at least partially covered by copyright, because of the high cost of development. Nevertheless, the trend is towards openness, especially for digital materials created with public money, and this will continue in 2012. The Obama Administration’s $2 billion fund for OERs in community colleges which will start flowing in 2012 will add an immense amount of new OERs. The challenge then will be to find models that ensure massive adoption and use of such materials in formal learning during 2012, as there are few examples to date.
- 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.
- one area to watch in 2012 is whether institutions otherwise requiring high academic qualifications for entry to degree programs start opening access to learner support to the general public. This is not necessarily direct instruction, but would include counselling, awarding certificates for successful completion of open courses (such as MITx), even automated exams. There is a cost in doing this, but it is far less significant than opening up faculty to those not meeting formal entry requirements. This would be a welcome move back towards public service rather than for-profit or full cost-recovery continuing education, but is unlikely in the current economic climate.
- qualifications for open learning. I do expect to see institutions such as the OERu, the University of the People, and possibly the Khan Academy, putting in place ‘challenge’ exams that students will pay for that will provide a qualification such as a degree. Will any of the established open universities move in this direction? This would seem an obvious move if they are to remain competitive and relevant. More importantly, will employers and conventional institutions recognize such qualifications, particularly for entrance to graduate school? In the meantime, expect to see a growth in badges, especially for informal learning.
- lack of recognition by conventional institutions of qualifications obtained through the use of open learning (this resistance has always been there, and won’t go away quickly)
- lack of cost-effective models for incorporating open educational resources in formal programs
- demand from students for formal qualifications from elite or ‘closed’ institutions
- general concerns about the quality of OERs (although I suspect this will diminish during 2012, as more and better quality OERs become available)
4. Disruption in the LMS market: 60% probable
LMSs aren’t going to go away in 2012, but expect to see some major changes here. Competition has suddenly ramped up, with several new entrants such as Instructure and Pearson. I don’t think the higher education market is big enough for all the players, so expect some large changes in 2012. Your guess is as good as mine as to what these changes will be, but here are my guesses
- either Blackboard or Desire2Learn will be acquired/absorbed by another company or will go bankrupt: it may not happen in 2012 but it is inevitable over time (I hope you have created your digital materials in an easily portable format)
- LMSs will begin to look different, with a greater emphasis on learner control of the interface, learner input, and the ability for instructors to plug and play ‘external’ applications at will
- continued rapid incorporation of social media, either directly or (more probably) through seamless links
- whatever, Blackboard’s market share will continue to drop, but there is no obvious winner in sight yet; more likely is a continuation of a fragmented market
Likely barriers to the predictions coming true:
- Blackboard’s future is secured through sale to a major IT corporation (think SAP or Microsoft), resulting in greater R&D and higher license fees
- inertia: faculty not wanting to change and so unwilling to move to better products/designs
5. Integration of social media into formal learning: 66% probable on a large scale
In some ways, this is more of an opening of education than a technology move. However, expect in 2012 to see many conventional universities incorporating ‘open’ blogs and wikis as an increasingly important part of formal courses. The University of British Columbia’s wiki is a good example. There are several reasons why this is going to expand rapidly in 2012:
- once the infrastructure is in place (and it’s not difficult to do technologically), it is easy for faculty and students alike to create their own materials
- campus wide log-in provides security and quality control so that content cannot be tampered with externally, but allows for open access to other faculty and authorized users from outside the institution
- interaction between students and instructors and assessment remains private (within the LMS)
- such sites gradually build centres of excellence around academic topics – especially interdisciplinary areas (take a look at The Evolution of Insect Wings at UBC)
- topics can be developed as ‘stand-alone’ wikis that transcend a course, or as course related topics, reducing over time the need to create online course materials from scratch
- because these are open access materials, under a Creative Commons license, materials can be accessed from a growing number of institutions worldwide as well as creating local sites.
- central IT units fearful of losing ‘control’
- overload for faculty and students if merely added to existing course work
- lack of consensus across the institution about infrastructure and organization
6. The digital university: 10% probability
Will we see an announcement from an elite university that in 2012, it will go truly ‘digital’, by starting to redesign all its programs from scratch, so as to incorporate digital learning as fully as possible? This would not be an online or distance university, nor one where digital technology is used to enhance classroom teaching, but one which by design tries to integrate the best features of online and campus-based learning.
A good place to start would be the very large first and second year foundation courses. For instance if you were starting from scratch, how would you design a science foundation course, using a combination of small study groups, inquiry-based learning, OERs, remote labs, simulations, hands-on labs, social media and ‘modern’ instructional design, focused as much on the development of intellectual skills as on the acquisition of content, within the current constraints of staffing and facilities? How could the campus best be used in such a program?
This would follow the MIT precedent of having the President and Vice-President/Provost announce this, but (unlike MIT) after full consultation with faculty and students, and the process (also unlike MIT) would extend, gradually, over time, throughout the whole university, based on trial, error and evaluation. The degree qualification would remain the same, but the teaching, and also the learning, would be vastly different.
We really need something like this if we want high quality, sustainable higher education for a mass market. Nothing would better prepare economically advanced countries for the growing competition from fast developing countries. Universities need to get ahead of the economic and technology curve, and shape it, not follow it. Such a development has to come at an institutional level, but government funding and encouragement would also be extremely helpful, as there would be a relatively high cost of change.
It’s unlikely that such an announcement will be made in 2012, because it needs a lot of advanced preparation, but at least the process could begin this year in some institutions. This of course requires leadership and commitment at a scale that has been notably lacking in most institutions and from most governments in recent years.
- where does one begin? Probably risk: why would an elite institution risk its market competitiveness which depends more on restricted access than quality teaching?
- the need for faculty training: this won’t succeed without a massive effort in this area
- the high cost of start-up: this will need extra resources to enable faculty to have time to work on the design and implementation, extra training, and for communication with students, faculty, board and employers; however, there may be significant savings down the line
- getting consensus across the institution, which would be necessary for it to work
- faculty in elite institutions don’t care enough about teaching to go through the inevitable disruption
- add your own…….
7. Watch India
I will be writing a full post on Indian e-learning later, but there are several reasons behind this prediction:
- the Indian government’s decision to subsidize 12 million Aakash tablets at US$35 per tablet will open up online learning to a vast number of Indians (800 million) who currently have no Internet access, but who do have mobile phones
- the Aakash deal will also put great pressure on Indian higher education institutions, who in general have been highly resistant to e-learning, to move more quickly, if they are to access additional government funding for tablets.
- this will also stimulate India’s already burgeoning e-learning industry to produce content, programs, degrees and learner support for such students. In 2009 Researchandmarkets estimated the market size to touch $603 million by the end of calendar year 2012. The Aakash deal is likely to inflate this figure by an order of magnitude.
- up to now, most e-learning companies in India have been marketing externally, and have focused on corporate training and informal learning, but there are signs that in 2012, the focus will be on providing e-learning products, services and programs for Indian students.
- English is widely used in Indian post-secondary education, and the move to OERs will enable Indian institutions to move quickly into online learning with what will be perceived as quality learning materials from reputable organizations (such as MIT).
- institutional resistance to online learning
- costs of Internet access
- lack of bandwidth in many rural areas
- lack of attention paid to instructional design and learner support leading to high drop-out
8. The great unknown: 10% probability
Lots of possible developments could really put the spanner in the works for e-learning. The biggest threat could come from the US Congress. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), also known as H.R. 3261, could have massive implications not just in the US but also across the world, given the location of servers and companies that provide critical Internet services to whom the law will apply. Other attempts to counter terrorism, or attempts by telecommunications companies to throttle access to media, or changes to copyright laws all have possibly negative implications for online learning. Publishers are doing their best to block open access.
Technology problems could also impact e-learning, for instance, the large-scale loss of data through an LMS failure, or a major class action suit for invasion of privacy through the use of social media.
Despite some of the risks outlined, the overall outlook for e-learning in 2012 is generally highly favourable, with the ‘good’ developments much more likely to dominate.
Although it is difficult to be precise, the trends towards more openness, more mobility, more innovation in teaching and learning, and more powerful tools for instructors and especially students, are clear and are consistent with developments in previous years. Yes, history is on our side!
In another post, I will look particularly at individual technologies that are likely to impact on e-learning in 2012.
In the meantime, how do your predictions differ? Have I missed something important? Do you disagree with any of these predictions? How do you feel about e-learning in 2012? Over to you!