Five Great Promises of eLearning: Excerpted from The Wired Tower
- By Matt Pittinsky
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.
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
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).
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,
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
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).
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
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.