© Firehorse Blog, 2012

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)
The Aakash $35 tablet

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.

Likely barriers:

  • 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.

Likely barriers:

  • 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)

The OERu logo

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
Instructure's Canvas is a new LMS player

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.

Likely barriers

  • 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

From ‘The evolution of insect wings’, UBC wiki

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.

Likely barriers:

  • 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…….

Using the best of online and campus

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).

Likely barriers:

  • 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
© Heyday Solutions 2012

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!



  1. Hi Tony,
    that is a good collection & analysis. I fear that my favourable trends, like last year, would again not make it in 2012:
    – Sustainability: a megatrend which you also could map to learning looking at the social, environmental and business facets of learning and challenging simple questions like: how can the training/ education department reduce its CO2 footprint or support to reduce the company footprint.
    – Transformation of the training/ education department: without a clear focus on this it will be hard to deliver to new challenges like GenY expectations, new war for talents and above trends. Extending the competency model like towards community facilitytators can be seen in certain companies.
    In the LMS section above I see the further trend that companies manage learning across the company boarder along the supplychain (from suppliers to dealers & channel partners) – because there is a growing demand for managed learning (whereas inside the enterprise demand will get less due to more use of informal, ondemand learning)

  2. Hi Tony,

    Thanks for the mention in your blog. But I can confirm that we at Desire2Learn are happy focusing on our growth and will not be acquired. Just wanted that clarified quickly as you may have us confused with some other company in the space.

    We added over 160 new people to the Desire2Learn team in the last year (our 12th year in business) and still have about 45% of our people working in research and development. I think you will be surprised with advancements our R&D team will be launching this year to keep our clients and users very happy. We are making a number of the above predictions a reality (some are already out), and will share some new ideas with the market soon. We will work hard to have a very positive impact on teaching and learning in 2012 and beyond.

    I always welcome conversation around education, where it is going, and how you think we can help.


  3. Tony,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your annual Outlook blog for 2012. As always, stimulated a great deal of thinking.

    I had been reading an interesting piece by Ben Levin (OISE) who was commenting that “too much innovation in education can distract us from the core work of improving performance”, though he was speaking of the K-12 system. In particular he observes that, after fifty years of holding out promises for educational technologies of various kinds, there is no compelling evidence of any significant and sustainable impact of school outcomes as a result of multi-billion dollar investments . Caution in terms of impact, if not adoption is the mantra he suggests.

    Some of the outlook items you cite have a familiar ring to them. For example, you see Learning Analytics as a key item for 2012. It certainly is getting a lot of air time and ink. I invite you to also consider and comment on the real possibility that Learning Analytics may be the right new tool at the wrong time. A time of austerity such as the one we are all facing may well bring a move away from evidence based decisions. When college and university administrators as well as government decision-makers are wrestling with the need to make deep budget cuts under tight timelines thay may not have the latitude of time to do in depth analyses. As reductions are being made in non-essential investments, analytics may end up playing a minor role in real decisions in colleges and universities, many of whom are hunkering down in survival mode.

    Similarly, social media is clearly something that will play a part in how students learn and how they network knowledge and co-create knowledge. But will it really play an increasingly significant role in teaching online? There does not seem to be a lof of evidence.

    The one surprise on your list for 2012, which makes me wonder if you have some “insider trading knowledge”, is the suggestion that there could be an elite and major university going truly digital. I suspect a lot depends on the meaning of “truly” here.

    Overall, Tony, a stimulating and thought provoking contribution to my new year.

    • Many thanks for your comment, Maxim.

      The question of whether we have too much innovation in education is well worth a detailed response, which I will do in another post. In particular I agree that the continuing cost of changing technologies is causing angst and resistance to technology for teaching in a growing number of administrators and faculty.

      I think the increasing pressure on institutional funding could work either way for learning analytics. The cost of installation is relatively low (the basic software development has usually been done for the business sector then modified for educational use) and will become a standard package within a learning management system (see Blackboard’s recent announcement). Unfortunately the analytics could be used to identify areas for cuts (or rather to justify unpopular decisions) as well as for other more positive purposes.

      The social media question is another issue that needs more extensive discussion and depends to some extent on how social media are defined. However, I am seeing increased use of social media at this stage mainly to enrich and extend more formal teaching.

      Best regards

  4. […] 1. The year of the tablet: 99% probable … 2. Learning analytics: 90% probable … 3. Growth of open education: 70% probable (depending on definition of open education) … 4. Disruption in the LMS market: 60% probable … 5. Integration of social media into formal learning: 66% probable on a large scale … 6. The digital university: 10% probability … 7. Watch India … 8. The great unknown: 10% probability …” Tony Bates, e-learning and distant education resources, 2 Januar 2012 […]

  5. Very thorough analysis, Tony. Do you think faculty will be (has been) very receptive to incorporating tablets into how students are taught? Would costs be subsidized in order to offer an equal opportunity among all students (not just for those who can afford the extra expense)?

    • Well, we are certainly seeing faculty and students in some areas (e.g. medicine and applied arts) using iPads and other tablets within classroom teaching, sometimes for more mundane but important things, such as assignment submission to TAs with tablets, for marking using the iAnnotate function, for example.

      What we are not seeing so much at the moment is the redesign of teaching around the use of tablets, so that the features of tablets, portability, high quality media and larger screens are fully exploited. One reason is that tablets are at the moment less powerful for generating content rather than receiving it.

      Once again, as with all new technologies for teaching, affordability is as much about timing as overall cost, in the sense that costs usually drop dramatically over time, as take-up and competition increases and the technology improves. Also there are savings in other areas, such as print textbooks, that can be offset against the cost of the tablet.

      The real barrier at the moment is our imagination as teachers – how best to use tablets in teaching? I think there will be quite a bit of trial and error this year, before it really begins to take off.

      Other views on this?

  6. Hi Tony
    Interesting stuff here – just wondering – which countries (if any) do you think are leading re elearning innovation and utilisation at the moment? Cant find a thing anywhere on this – probably a good reason though…

    Many thanks

    • Good question, Sue. I don’t travel enough outside Canada these days to answer that question, but from what I have seen, Finland has many interesting, innovative projects and well thought out strategies at government level. Anyone from Finland like to comment?

  7. Hello Tony,

    Could you tell me what community college or university certificate programs in Online/E-Learning are the best to take? Which ones have the best reputation in Canada for delivering practical training?

    I currently have an M.Ed. in Adult Education from OISE/UT, and am looking to upgrade my skills so I can develop and deliver online courses for Ontario community colleges and the Ontario government.

    Presently, I am looking at the University of Toronto’s “Certificate in E-Learning” and George Brown College’s “Online Instruction Certificate”, which are offered through their Continuing Education Departments. Are these good, or would you recommend any others or perhaps doing another Master’s level program (e.g., UBC Master of Educational Technology).

    Thanks for considering this.


    • Hi, Jason

      There are a now quite a lot of certificates or diploma programs available in Canada about how to teach online. It is always an advantage to take local online courses because the qualification is more likely to be accepted locally (Ontario I’m afraid has a terrible record in accepting credits from out of province, compared with say BC or Alberta).

      However, I would look to see if you can eventually ‘ladder’ the certificate or diploma into a masters degree. You can do this with UBC’s MET program for instance (provided you already have a bachelor’s degree). There are some restrictions so read the fine print carefully.

      If you go to https://tonybates.wpengine.com/resources/recommended-graduate-programs-in-e-learning/ you will find a list of certificate/diploma programs that I can personally recommend. However, if a certificate is not on the list, it might still be OK, but I can’t personally say I know what it’s like.

      Good luck with your studies

  8. Hi Tony Bates,

    I thank you for giving a comprehensive report on the predictions. I live in Kenya and some of our universities and middle level training institutions have embraced e-learning. For example Kenyatta University have a virtual learning department which I believe has students.


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