Future Learning Interview

by Stephen Downes

Hiya Peter,

Answers to questions follow.

1. What do you think will be the long-term effects of tools like Cousera and Udacity, as well as the online material posted by such schools as Stanford and MIT? Could these tools, combined with the increasing cost of higher education, lead people to follow an alternative model of higher education that does not require attending a four-year college or university?
I just saw an announcement today http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-19505776 to the effect that these institutions will be offering ‘real world’ exams in a global network of invigilated test centres. This does not surprise me at all, and has long been one of the predictions I’ve made about the future of education. What the net effect of such a development will be is to separate the functions of teaching and testing. I discussed this many years ago here: http://www.downes.ca/future/accreditation.htm
I am not so certain about the speed (it could be very rapid, especially in Asia and South America) but I’m confident of the end result: the fragmentation of educational institutions. At a certain point, there will be pressure on colleges and universities to open testing to any person who wishes to attempt it. When this happens, this will create competition for learning, and people today paying large tuitions will look to less expensive providers. It’s hard not to predict the layoff of thousands of academic staff, beginning with the lowest paid graduate assistants and adjuncts, ultimately reaching professors themselves. It is possible institutions will consolidate and close.
There is substantial commercial pressure for such a reworking of the system; indeed, they envision it reaching right down into the public school level, with testing allowing the proliferation of private schools, charter schools, home schooling, and other non-public school offerings. This is the reasoning behind such initiatives as Common Core. This creates an especial challenge for governments and school boards if these testing centres are privately owned and managed.
To my mind there is no evidence that attending a 4-year college or university is a necessary condition for obtaining the degree of expertise indicated by a degree. However, I do think that this expertise consists of more than what is simply tested, and that a wider range of certification mechanisms will be required, including ultimately the evaluation of a person’s entire online data trail. This is already the mechanism employed in various fields, at least to a degree – journalism, graphic arts, and computer science spring to mind as instances where student portfolios are evaluated.
So, yes, these new models are harbingers of much more sweeping changes to the education system.
2.What, if any, distance learning tools or ideas do you think are overrated? What tools should we pay the most attention to?
I think the idea of blended learning is over-rated. To my mind, blended learning is a concept that allows sceptics to hold on to traditional learning. But I see blended learning as a bit of an anchor, holding back people who are ready to thrive in an online environment.
I think learning analytics, as currently conceived, are overrated. Most such are based on tracking access and length-of-time on LMS pages, checking test and quiz scores, and the like. There may be some predictive value to these, but I think analytics needs to look at wider and more varied data, and especially, data outside the LMS. Systems that can analyze data online inside a walled-garden will have to my mind a short lifespan. The future is in network-wide analytics, using non-structured data, to support dashboard functions for learners themselves.
3. If you were placed by your government in charge of an initiative to promote wider adoption of online learning, what actions would you take?
Government will play three major roles in education going forward: infrastructure, promotion of the public good, and accreditation. Additionally, with respect to the post-secondary system, government will continue to be a major promoter of research and development.
- I would begin to design and deploy an open public education infrastructure. This in the first instance refers to the physical assets to a large degree already developed and deployed, such as fibre-optics to the schools. I would extent this and ensure wide community access, not just in-school access, in order to support lifelong learning. Also related to physical infrastructure, I would put in place measures and incentives to improve choice in access providers, preserve network neutrality, and ensure portability.
In terms of application infrastructure, I would make available tools to all educators, including private citizens who wish to offer educational opportunities (to me, ‘educational’ refers to anyone who want to teach, not just formal institutions of learning). This includes support for and deployment of open access educational support software, such as conferencing environments, simulation software, and the like (I don’t want to prescribe a precise list because in my view the community should to a large degree determine its own needs here).
- There is a public dimension to education, which is to promote the public good and preserve social order. To a large degree, this is reflected in curricular and pedagogical decisions made at school boards across the country. To a significant degree, communities should have autonomy in decisions regarding education. Nonetheless, in order to promote the public good, the federal and provincial governments should be primary providers of open access learning resources. These have the primary role of ensuring that every citizen has free of *very* affordable access to a quality education; accordingly these resources consist not only of digital content and services, but also a network of support centres (formerly known as schools) where learning professionals are available to meet specific individual education needs.
Therefore I would approach this from two directions: first, to create a mechanism for the authoring and deployment of high-quality digital educational content and services (recognizing that this is not a one-time investment but most likely an on-going process). This isn’t simply a case of hiring publishing companies to create content; it is a process of mobilizing communities to contribute to, create and support educational resources, employing vendor support where needed. For example (this is only an example of process, not necessarily what I would do), in a given domain a domain wiki would be established, where an ISP would manage the technical aspects, where individual experts would be hired to set up content, and where registered members of the community could make changes, add resources, request additional features, etc., where the wiki would be open and accessible to learners, and employed by learning professionals in support of educational activities.
In addition, I would put into place a mechanism for defining, educating, evaluating and accrediting educational professionals.
- This feeds into the third major element, the maintenance of mechanisms to ensure educational services and resources are meeting the interests of public good and social security. This in the first instance entails the creation of an office of ‘education inspectors’, analogous to health inspectors, who review and rate educational content (ie., any content offered for sale or distribution publicly or privately). It is imperative that a more open educational community avoid incidents such as the ‘baby genius’ scam (where educational products are sold which have no educational value at all). Additionally, education provided must not be harmful to students or society – while wide latitude in content is desired, education which leaves wide gaps in knowledge or skills, which deliberate propagates fictions, or which inculcates violent and unlawful behaviour, needs to be curtailed.
I would not develop a ‘Common Core’ approach as in the United States – that’s like using a 200 pound anvil when a scalpel is required. But beginning with broad and widely accepted definitions of what is agreed to be harmful or useless, educational inspectors can draw on scientific research and community consultation to provide an ongoing monitoring and accreditation of educational resources and practices.
4. What schools or organizations are creating a model of best practices for distance learning?
Hm. Google?
The best practices are being developed outside educational institutions by communities that are sustaining and informing themselves.
I would direct the bulk of my activities toward these communities, rather than toward either educational institutions, or existing corporate entities.
5. What do you think of the argument that even well-developed online courses are inferior to face to face courses?

I think it oversimplifies what is a complex discussion. It presumes that education ought to take the form of ‘courses’, that these must be ‘developed’, that there is some common measure by which some could be classed as ‘inferior’, and that these are actual alternatives in the educational sphere. People who are still debating this question have not to my mind taken the time to learn about the nature and needs of specific educational environments.

Things about playing football, for example. The question would read, “are even well-developed online football courses inferior to face-to-face football courses.” My first reaction is to ask, why do you think there should be football courses? Most people learn football by playing it; instruction is usually in the form of coaching. But people who become serious about football soon turn to other media as well. There is, for example, the playbook to be created, read, memorized and practiced. Is a face-to-face playbook better than an in-person one? The question makes no sense. Then football players also spend time reviewing videos. Need these games be re-enacted by people, or will digital copies of the games be sufficient? Learning football is a complex task. Almost none of it involves ‘courses’. I content that most disciplines are like football, but that we teach them very poorly. When our practices catch up, questions like this will be obsolete.


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