In its 2010 Speech from the Throne, the Government of Ontario, Canada announced its intention to create an Ontario Online Institute (OOI) to support online learning in the province as part of the Open Ontario Plan. I was asked to provide some initial recommendations for that initiative, in the form of responses to five questions. This is my response. (PDF Version)
What is the biggest challenge facing online and distance learning in general today?
The biggest challenge for online and distance learning is the challenge the field was developed in the first place to address, which is the provision of access to learning opportunities to those who would not otherwise be able to obtain them. It is a fact that even in a country with as many opportunities as Canada, there are many people who would like to be able to obtain a higher education, but who are unable to because of time, resources or distance. Online and distance learning represents our best, and probably only, solution to this demand.
A secondary but nonetheless no less pressing issue is the cost of providing access to education generally. The great expansion of Canada's educational sector that has enabled a full 65 percent of the population under 44 to obtain a post-secondary diploma is now under increased stress because of the need to reduce federal and provincial budgetary expenditures. This stress extends across the full educational spectrum, from kindergarten to graduate programs, and in all fields. Though some feel distance and online learning will not reduce costs, many are looking to new technologies not only to increase access but also to reduce the load borne by government. The alternative, as we have already seen, is increased tuition, reduced access and reduced services.
This creates a central issue revolving around the strategic design of distance and online learning. If these are viewed as simply the replication of existing educational design in an online environment, it is unlikely costs will be decreased, which decreases the likelihood that they will support any great degree of increased access at all. It is therefore only through the creation of new delivery models that e-learning will achieve both the primary and secondary goal. The challenge of defining this new delivery model is the central issue of the field, and most discussion and research revolves around it.
Without entering into a detailed discussion, the following are some of the approaches and ideas that have been advanced in this direction:
- Open educational resources (OERs) - the suggestion is that the production and distribution of freely accessible learning support materials and services will reduce the overhead created by reliance on commercially published content
- Open online courses (MOOCs) - the suggestion is that by opening enrollment in massive online courses, the potential for student co-facilitation can reduce the overhead involved in teaching small and institutionally-bound classes
- Rationalization - the suggestion is that the creation of online courses and programs can eliminate the need to offer the same program in multiple institutions, and make less popular courses (especially at the K-12 level) more widely accessible to geographically dispersed populations
Countering these proposals are arguments that point to the cost of e-learning technology, especially to students, the cost of service provision and bandwidth, the need for additional training and support required for instructional staff, mechanisms to ensure the appropriateness and quality of learning materials, and alignment with national and international standards and curricula.
What is the biggest opportunity that online and distance learning in general has today?
While post-secondary educational attainment in Canada is very high, globally it is much less. At the same time, internet access is expanding rapidly across the globe, with 5.1 billion mobile subscribers and 1.6 billion internet users.This creates not only an opportunity to provide increased access to learning opportunities, but much greater potential for online and distance learning providers to greatly increase their existing markets. Already we have seen a rapid expansion of the corporate distance and online learning sector. The market for self-paced learning materials will double to $49 billion over the current five years.
It is not difficult to reconcile the rapidly expanding commercial e-learning market with the publicly-mandated (and publicly-funded) K-12 and post-secondary system. The former, simply, requires the latter. The existence of a continually expanding global market in online and distance learning products and services depends crucially on a market well-position to consume those products, which presupposes a certain level of education to begin with. In essence, education and educational services represent one of the largest examples of the value-add online services distribution model. Just as Skype offers a free basic service to all customers, education providers in general offer a free basic service to all potential learners.
If we understand the value of online and distance learning in this way - as the creation of the essential service that makes possible a commercial marketplace of enhanced products and services - then it becomes clear that the greatest opportunity for online and distance education today is the possibility of the creation of that marketplace, not only in Canada but globally. There is a clear link between educational attainment and economic activity generally. Increasing our capacity as an education provider increases markets not only nationally but also globally.
Though the provision of accessible online and distance learning is often depicted as though it were a charity it is in fact an efficient and effective economic development strategy. The development of expertise, the growth of target markets, and the preparation of a recipient population all flow from the provision of basic and fundamental learning services and products. The first jurisdiction that successfully leverages its capacity to deliver an effective and low-cost online learning model to its own population will be in a position to offer a wide range of goods and services globally.
Keeping in mind the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity for online and distance learning today, what is the one overriding step that Ontario ought to take as it attempts to take its online learning system to the next level?
It should be possible to obtain a university-level education, from kindergarten to graduate degree, and be recognized for that achievement, without once ever having to step into a school or attend an in-person class. That is not to say that every student could, would or should learn in this way. There is no end to the number of studies asserting that students are unable to manage their own learning by themselves. But such a change in the depiction of the default model of learning support constitutes an essential first step.
Such a change represents a transition in outlook from that of scarcity of educational services and resources to that of abundance. It represents a change of outlook from one where education is an essential service that much be provided to all persons, to one where the role of the public provider is overwhelmingly one of support and recognition for an individual's own educational attainment. It represents an end to a centrally-defined determination of how an education can be obtained, to one that offers choices, resources and assessment. The Canadian educational system is already moving in this direction. The current proposal represents an alignment of resources around the terminus.
In order to establish the possibility of a completely self-managed education, two major first steps are required:
- The provision of full curricular resources, from class outlines, teaching aids and assessment tools, readings and texts, library support, learning tools and activities, and sociality support, in an open online environment freely accessible by any learner.
- The establishment of a mechanism and clearly defined metrics for a system-wide recognition of learning, similar to what exists today under the heading of 'prior learning recognition and competency assessment'.
While it is clear that not all, and not even the majority, could obtain an entirely self-managed education through such a mechanism, the remainder of the educational system can and should be viewed as support for this core. In particular:
- Schools and teachers would have the option of accessing and using the freely available curricular resources to support learning (note that it would be contrary to the philosophy of enablement to require that they use these resources; not also that voluntary use is concurrent with a recognition for and encouragement of contributions to the curricular resources bank)
- The mechanism for system-wide assessment and competency recognition would be made available to all students, whether or not enrolled in an in-person school. Note that this is not the imposition of system-wide standardized tests. A wide range of possible recognitions is anticipated, generally focused on specialized domains or disciplines.
- A regulated infrastructure of commercial supports and services may be encouraged to develop around the core infrastructure. Services similar to home-study support and test preparation services today may be established. Self-study learning support materials may be published.
Ontario is already recognized as having one of the best educational systems in the world, its graduates among the best-educated citizens of any nation or any era. The development of a system as described above, staged through the implementation of opportunities and supports for the existing system, enables the provision of an 'Ontario education' to citizens of any nation around the world.
Conversely what is the one thing it should absolutely avoid?
The temptation to manage, and especially to manage for outcomes, in the provision of any good or service, is overwhelming. It should and must be avoided.
One of the great strengths, not only of the Canadian educational system, but also systems that fare equally well in international testing, is the generally decentralized nature of the system. Educators and school boards in places like Canada and Finland have a high degree of latitude in how they manage learning and support. Respect for excellence and equity are key to their success.
None of this is to say that providers ought not be sensitive to outcomes and attentive to the facilitation of improved outcomes. What makes systems like Ontario's and Finland's worth emulating is the fact that they produce highly competent graduates, capable of excellence not only on standardized international tests but also of flourishing in a complex technologically advanced environment. The success of any educational system is important and must not be ignored. Rather, this caution applies only to a certain approach with respect to that success.
Organizations such as the Canadian military and IBM are realizing that in order to manage a complex system it is not productive to impose direction from the top, even if that direction is motivated to achieve positive outcomes (and it is even less productive when those at the top are not so altruistically motivated). In order to be successful, "Command and control corporations are no longer going to be there. People need to be freed to share what they know." It is through this rapid sharing and response to dynamic and changing circumstances that decentralized and locally managed systems are able to adapt and achieve excellence. Management for outcome does not make the outcome more likely; it makes it less likely.
Which current or emerging technology has the potential of radically transforming online and distance learning?
As predicted in the early days of online learning, the personal access device, or 'pad', is proving to be transformative. Apple's release of the iPad in 2010, combined with this year's release of the iPad 2, has resulted in what might be called a tablet boom. In addition to the iPad, Motorola is shipping Xoom and Samsung is producing the GalaxyTab, both run on Google's Android operating system. Amazon continues to produce the Kindle while Barnes and Noble distributes the Nook. The leading Canadian tablet is RIM's Playbook.
The impact has been immediate, widespread and game-changing. As one small example, the e-textbook market, which was 1.5 percent of the overall market a year ago, has doubled this year and will reach 25 percent of the market within five years. Far more than simply an e-book reader, the iPad already supports hundreds of educational applications, ranging from games to communication apps to organizers to math and music. It is not possible to measure how much learning is taking place using these new platforms, as the bulk of it is informal. It is however hard to believe it is anything but substantial.
The arrival of pad computing is also significant in that it represents the first significant realignment of the technology infrastructure in ten years. Through 1995 to 2010 most computer users lived and worked in an environment dominated by the Mac and the PC, the desktop and the laptop. In this environment operating systems manage system communication and storage, and applications are loaded and installed locally, using (and dependent on) the operating system for most user interface and functionality.
The new pad computers change the environment in some significant ways:
- Applications and data are no longer stored locally; more and more they are stored in personally managed or centrally managed services. Consequently, we have begun to shift from localized computing to distributed computing.
- As a result of the increasing prevalence of mobile platforms, and greatly accelerated by services such as Facebook and Twitter, sociality online is an increasingly important feature of online applications and services, changing the meaning of concepts such as 'self study' entirely, from being an experience had by one person, alone, to an experience enjoyed with a network of friends.
If it were not evident before the arrival of pad computers, it must certainly be evident now, that network technology will change learning in deep and fundamental ways. At the same time learning becomes more individualized and more localized, at the same time it reaches out of the schools and into the lives, workplaces and hobbies or individual learners, it also becomes more network-based, more dependent on a wide variety of online sites and services, some (such as Facebook and Google) very centralized, others (such as Skype and SMS) much more distributed.
A single model for online learning, even were it desirable, will not be attainable in this environment. At best funders and providers can hope is to influence the system, not through regulation and control, but rather by the provision of resources and services that will be both supportive of public and social policy objectives, and found to be useful by the recipient population.
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