Articles / The future of online learning

I was asked recently for my thoughts on the future of online learning, especially with the continuing changes to my working and educational lives.

What follows is my first pass through those thoughts. They may change following feedback and debate. So please treat this as a “starter for 10”.

Much as I might like to think that online learning means the same in every context, I’m afraid that’s just not true. Its meaning will change considerably depending on who you’re talking to.

So, in this article, I will focus on a handful of big picture contexts: Primary & Secondary (K-12) Education (school), Further Education (colleges and apprenticeships), Higher Education (universities) and Professional Development (workplace). In each of these contexts, “online learning” takes a specific meaning. Please forgive any generalisations!

Primary & Secondary (K-12) Education (school)

Schools have a requirement to “deliver” an extensive and complex curriculum to as many children/young people as possible, with minimum cost. Without getting too political, we’ve also seen recently that schools really do have a role in providing childcare.

Now, whether that mandated curriculum is necessary is outside the scope of this article. As is any discussion of the purpose of schools. Although that is an essential discussion to have, since online learning can and will have a massive impact on that purpose.

How can the online environment best support the work that schools do now? Which is helping children through a structured programme of work leading to high stakes qualifications after about 11-13 years.

It’s tricky, mainly because of that childcare role that schools (especially primary schools) have.

At both primary and secondary school level, I’d argue that there’s a limit to what should be done remotely or mediated by technology. Yes, the technology can play an important role when direct human contact is impossible. And good online teachers can make that technology sing - with personalised activities for each child, meaningful interactions and constructive feedback - just as a good classroom teacher can do.

The problems are those of access and motivation. Remote teaching usually relies on the person being taught having some level of self-motivation, or, at least, someone nearby who will give the necessary pushes. It also relies on having access to the necessary kit and internet connection.

Neither of those can be guaranteed for many children. So, for now, we run the risk of deepening social divisions if online learning becomes a significant component of our children’s education.

However, one of the exciting developments over the past ten years has been the rise of Minecraft™ and other simulated environments. Just like Lego™, these environments allow free rein with creativity, but also allow very sophisticated concepts (even nuclear reactors!) to be taught and experienced. It’ll be interesting to see how and if these become used by the mainstream teachers and not just the techie enthusiasts.

Further Education (colleges and apprenticeships)

At risk of generalising wildly, Further Education is about gaining skills that will help to find a job.

Assuming that the motivation and access is sorted (again not guaranteed), then this is an area where online learning is already making a huge difference in our current society. Think of almost any skill and you will find someone (often an expert) teaching it via videos on Youtube or similar.

What that doesn’t provide is the practice, coaching and feedback that you get with a good teacher.

There is a lot of experimentation happening at the moment around just this sort of activity. Some places are looking at augmented reality to provide on-the-job support and virtual reality simulations to provide safe places to make mistakes with immediate feedback. Some are using video assessments so a remote tutor can see a student demonstrating a particular skill. And many are using video meeting tools for ongoing coaching conversations.

Further Education has always been at the forefront of developments in technology enhanced learning. That’s certainly the space where the most exciting work is happening now. It will change the role of the teacher/tutor into much more of a coach, but you could say that’s already happening with many apprenticeships.

Higher Education (universities)

Higher Education is probably one of the most conservative contexts in terms of how teaching and learning happens. [Ed: Waiting for the letters to roll in!] In most universities, the lecture is still the most common teaching method, regardless of the evidence to its effectiveness (or not). During the lockdown, many lectures were simply moved online, so students could be bored to sleep in their own rooms.

Thankfully this isn’t the reality for those students doing courses that have been specifically created for distance learning. Many of these courses have had learning technologists involved in their design from the ground up. They are using research-based evidence and comprehensive theoretical frameworks to maximise the potential of the online environment. These distance learning courses are often some of the most well-designed and effective university experiences going. They’re not just about reading or watching. They’re about conversations and deep, rigorous thinking, supported by rich data and analytics.

Again, motivation is the key to getting the most out of an online university course. That’s where face-to-face can win out (if you have a good tutor).

Professional development (workplace)

For the past twenty years or so, online learning in a professional development context has been primarily focussed on “Computer Based Training”. This has had various guises, from the early video discs and CD-ROMs, through SCORM-based elearning, and these days using technologies like xAPI/CMI-5. The common factor here is that they are packages of learning material, some small (micro-learning), and some way too long. Most seem designed to bore people into submission.

Here are there, there are pockets of innovation, such as Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping approach - where the focus is on improving performance rather than delivering knowledge.

As many training organisations have found this year, moving from a face-to-face model to an online model is not just a matter of capturing a trainer’s slides and delivering them over the internet. Effective training is about much more than just knowledge. It’s about emotion, practice and experience.

All of that can be done using online tools and techniques, but they need to be explicitly designed in, from the ground up.


Posted: 03 November 2020

Tags: Learning Technology