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Five Great Promises of eLearning: Excerpted from The Wired Tower

I have no memory of life without some form of a personal computer. Far from inoculating me with a worldview that takes the rapid change of technology in stride, I am aware and astonished by how much has changed, so quickly. When I was in elementary school, I tapped away text BASIC commands on a home Atari 800 system. To this day, the most mind-blowing advance in technology I have ever experienced was when I saw my first hard drive (external, of course) attached to a friend’s computer.

Fast forward to today, and whereas six years ago not a single one of my undergraduate courses used any form of electronic support beyond word processing, today every single course I once took now has a course Web site, assigned Web readings, ongoing Web-based discussion postings and the like.

There is no doubt in my mind that in its fifth year of mainstream adoption, the sophistication of eLearning in higher education today is giving us an exciting glimpse of what’s to come. Indeed, it is just the beginning. With the humility of someone who knows the power of change firsthand, I have outlined five predictions regarding the future of eLearning in higher education.

Convergence of Modalities

It is difficult to engage in a discussion of eLearning today without someone asking the question, “What do you mean by eLearning?” Segmentations exist between eLearning that supplements a traditional classroom experience and eLearning that involves complete distance learning where students never meet face to face. Synchronous versus asynchronous. Instructor-led versus self-paced. The distinctions are endless.

It is curious but not surprising that entire educational programs and companies have built fences around a single modality. Their champions tend to argue the merits of one approach at the expense of another. And as a result, perhaps 90 percent of eLearning builds on only one or two of the myriad modalities available.

Prediction #1

My first prediction is that modalities will converge, and the basis of description for an eLearning program will be its subject, pedagogy, and target learner, with modalities that best suit all three.

Indeed, over time, what we describe today as an “eLearning/asynchronous/self-paced” course will simply become a “course” again, with modality selected and described based on the preference of the learner. Breezing through a course catalog, students will expect courses that meet twice a week, once a month, as a whole, in smaller groups, and so on without thinking of them as different per se.

New, and More Sophisticated Academic Technologies

Not too long ago, the term academic computing or instructional technologies would have elicited visions of HyperCard, the popular technology from Apple Computer that has long been used to develop instructional supplements. Today, when adopting a course management system, faculty and specialists are provided bundled tools in areas as diverse as communication, collaboration, authoring, assessment, and more.

Yet while most course management systems provide a wealth of features, we still are only at the beginning. The tools that exist today are designed to support the generic activities of teaching with technology (i.e., quizzing). What are missing are tools that support the varied subjects and teaching styles that comprise the full constellation of instruction that exists (i.e., specialized mathematical notation tools which allow a faculty member to walk students through complicated math formulas over the Web).

Prediction #2

I suggest that a broad range of learning applications will be available for faculty and institutions to assemble as their needs require.

The technologies will support common standards for greater interoperability, and will run on the course management platforms that most institutions of higher education have adopted. For example, a quizzing product from one company will be “launched” by a virtual chat tool from another, in the same way that a user can click on an attachment in an e-mail and know that the computer will load the appropriate software application needed for the file to open.

Indeed, much as in the desktop computing world, a few large companies will provide a common operating system platform—the course management system—while boutique companies and campuses themselves will specialize in specific eLearning technologies that meet the needs of specific disciplines or teaching styles. Most importantly, university-developed applications will become a big piece of the puzzle, and institutions will share tools as shareware or for profit.

The Emergence of Data Mining

As a broad range of new learning technologies are deployed, new forms of data follow closely behind. Already, colleges and universities have modernized many of their administrative systems. As a result, they have access to a variety of new demographic and performance data in relational databases.

As you might imagine, however, administrative data is only part of the overall equation. While a student record system may know that I passed with a B+ in a general math course, it has no idea what my performance was on the specific assessments delivered over the semester that formed the grade. This data would naturally be useful for mapping decisions about future courses that specialize in various topics covered in the course.

While the discussions and activities that occur in a physical classroom leave few artifacts, those that are supported by a Web environment are fully tracked and leave well-structured data for as long as the course is archived. Sitting in databases on campus is information on everything from course attendance to the frequency of postings in course Web sites, to topic-by-topic student performance, and more.

Prediction #3

My third prediction is that data mining will be an effective and common practice at colleges and universities.

The new information being generated through eLearning environments will merge with traditional administrative data, opening a new degree of insight with which administrators and faculty can make decisions.

Realizing the Potential of the Learner Profile

Perhaps the most important frontier of data that will expand and take shape is in the area of the learner profile. Despite the importance of human capital in our society, no single profile aggregates formal and informal education and training records to provide employers with a comprehensive view of someone’s ability. A need exists to provide one source for verifying both broad credentials and specific skills—what Art Levine has described as a “learning passport” and what I would describe as an “Equifax”/credit-like service for human capital.

Prediction #4

My fourth prediction is that we will see the emergence of a learner profile that will redefine and give meaning to the permanent record, including letters of reference, example work products, training certificates, and formal degrees.

Each of these high-level accomplishments will have specific skill competencies mapped to them, enabling a granular view of a person’s capabilities to inform admissions, hiring, and training decisions.

The challenges of making this service a reality are immense, yet imagine the potential of a venture that generates per-degree/credential-verification fees associated with the hundreds of millions of hiring and admissions decisions made each year. Indeed, universities could flip the current expense approach of verifying credentials at no fee into a revenue stream.

Ubiquitous Web Communities Will Flourish

In my experience, the place where eLearning can be leveraged most effectively to improve education is in the support of community in the traditional campus model—social structures, not physical, technological, or administrative structures. Indeed, when partisans of total virtual campuses or total brick and mortar campuses sit down and plead their case, they often describe a common underlying strength to both approaches

—community (a.k.a. social capital).

Prediction #5

My final prediction comes straight from the heart: I believe universities will maintain ubiquitous Web environments that are personalized, cohesive, and as critical to campus community as the “quad” of old, and become the spark for a renewed focus on social networks in the education process.

As I visit campuses, I am struck by the degree to which many of the most popular uses of eLearning technologies are those that reinforce the notion of an academic community. It is no surprise that users, not “experts,” have demonstrated the real value of a technology. The most widespread Internet usage on campus has taken off with activities that augment traditional campus-based education—a remarkably conservative and sustaining use of what popular media have portrayed as a disruptive technology.

Take for example the ability for students, outside of their regular class sessions, to engage in an ongoing dialogue on the subject of the course through the Web. Students in class for an hour on Monday morning no longer need wait until Wednesday to ask the questions that came to mind after they left class the first day of the week. Every afternoon, or possibly that evening, students can e-mail their professor and get answers that same day or the next, thereby saving class time later. Faculty members are free to dispense with tedious administrative details before even coming to class, allowing for a full hour of lecturing and exchanges with students, instead of 45 or 50 minutes after papers are handed out and the like. Towards these ends, faculties are increasingly embracing the Internet with enthusiasm.

These then are my five predictions. Taken with a grain of salt appropriate to a person who still considers the advent of hard drives to be the most amazing technological breakthrough of the PC era.

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