The 2016 Look at the Future of Online Learning

When I wrote The Future of Online Learning in 1998, I took into account three major sets of factors. The first was the obvious basis in technology. Internet and digital systems were advancing rapidly, in ways that could be known. The second was human nature. Here I refer not only to the inherent conservatism in society, but also in the infallible human inclination to use new things in new and unexpected ways. So while I did not predict that the internet would become the largest distribution network for cat photos in history, this development would not have surprised me a bit. And the third was the set of global changes happening, from the rise of Asia to the increasing urbanization of society, and the stress on resources and reserves.

Contact North's look at the future of online (Part One, Part Two) learning captures the first part, I think, but misses completely on the second part. And it's too bad, because the internet is now rich in lore that makes the second part easier to predict and project than ever. From the outburst of Napster, fan fiction, selfies, friending, phishing and LOLcats, the internet serves up a daily dose of humanity, served on a platter for all to see. It's a beautiful thing.

So I'm going to work through the Contact North predictions (note that I refer to the 'Contact North Author' throughout because the author is not named). We'll take them in the same order they do, but we'll paint, I think, very different pictures. Listen to this, from the 'Context' section: "it it is not technology that drives adoption; it is the institutional strategy, the changing nature of the student population and the decisions of individual instructors and faculty members." This is wrong on just about every count:

- the technology is the driver (thinking otherwise forces us to disregard the impact of the Winchester rifle, the telephone, flight, and nuclear weapons).
- there is no longer any 'student population'. This terminology is a holdover from the days where a privileged class of individuals was able to stop working and take a four year learning vacation
- the decisions of instructors and faculty members are irrelevant. The future will happen, and peeople will respond to it, with or without their support.

OK, let's look at the actual predictions.

Seven Key Technology Patterns

1. Machine learning and artificial intelligence will increasingly be used to enable adaptive learning.

So says the Contact North author, at least. But there's a mismatch here. 'Adaptive learning' is essentially a name for differentiated instruction. The idea is that, based on your previous work, you will be presented with new content or assignments. But you don't need machine learning or artificial intelligence for this, and for the most part, adaptive learning won't work that way.

Existing adaptive learning systems are a lot like computer programs. Basically the human operator runs through a set of decision trees and loops, and the processor serves up resources according to a pre-defined algorithm. To the extent these will improve (and they will!) they will become more like sites such as CodeAcademy, where the person is now working in an environment that responds to the student's influences. But now the contributions the students make look like computer code as well, and the system changes behaviour according to student input.

2. Handheld, mobile and integrated devices will continue to develop and become the de facto tools for learning, communication and peer networking.

The evidence disagrees. Oh, yes, for communication nothing beats the handheld. And the tablet is an invaluable work environment for people who need to be mobile (we see cases such as tablets for pilots and health care workers, for example). But the future lies not in extending the utility of such devices through apps, it involves the integration of these into other devices. The tennis racket that teaches you, for example. And the large computer isn't going away; people need their space.

As for third part apps and add-ons, we are in the midst of a transition from a centralized computing environment, where everything is based on the single device, to the distributed computing environment, where applications live in the cloud and are accessed on an as-needed basis. It would be a mistake to expect today's world of proprietary platform-dependent apps to continue into the long term. Nobody's making money on them - except the platforms.

3. Predictive analytics will grow in significance in terms of student retention and learner support.

I did a double take when I read this, since I thought we were done with analytics, but the author assumed (I guess) that we need a whole second class of analytics, this time to predict what students will do. This is core to the future of the instructor-led model of learning, but unfortunately, the instructor-led model of learning will be on the decline. The only people who really need predictive analytics are advertisers (their task will be to advise companies to create products people want, rather than to influence people to want the products they create).

Where analytics will be really useful in learning is in the as-yet largely unremarked environment of personal knowledge networks and feedback mechanisms. I say 'unremarked', but of course outside education there is a boom in the quantified self movement (I use RunKeeper myself). And we don't need predictive analytics, we just need good sensors and good calculation mechanisms - how many calories did my 13 km walk burn? What blood pressure does my heartbeat indicate? How can I track my increasing knowledge of French. We need feedback, not prediction.

4. Interconnectivity of devices and systems will be a significant feature of the “Internet of things” and activities.

The 'Internet of Things' will be a lot of fun, and at the same time, it will be a giant annoyance. It's great to have a car that is connected with the mobile phone, bit it is not so great when my driving habits are reported to the insurance company. It's fun to use 23 and me to do genetic tests, but no fun when I'm denied health coverage because of my family history. In Canada we look at cases like this south of the border and this reinforces our desire for public (non-discriminatory) health and auto insurance. Interconnection is going to have to be accompanied by a renegotiation of the social contract, or it will face an increasingly large number of outliers.

In my own work, I am trying to develop systems where the exchange of information - whether they be performance results, test results, environment and infrastructure, or any other personal data, is genuinely voluntary and based on a fair exchange for services, not denial of employment, insurance, or other necessities for life.

5. Gamification and virtual reality will enable significant advances in teaching a range of subjects, especially laboratory based subjects.

By 'gamification' we mean the addition of game elements (such as points, competition ladders, badges, etc.) to traditional learning. A really good example from the Gamification Wiki is the use of frequent flyer points. This is not the same as converting learning into games (this is known as serious gaming, which is a very different thing). I think both will play a role, but that their impact will be limited and will be quite different.

Gamification is a motivation mechanism. It feeds back into performance. Eventually, it will be subsumed into the quantified self. People will begin to mistrust gamification after being subjected to disappearing points or diminishing prizes (a.k.a. points inflation) too many times. Serious games will move through various phases, from simple memorization games (such as versions of Jeopardy) to simply branching storyline games to more complex gaming environments intended to stimulate deep knowledge and causal reasoning.

6. Translation engines will continuously improve and become embedded in a great many applications.

Translation will be everywhere. I can use my phone to translate Turkish signs. But for a while it will be really interesting, because people express themselves very differently in different languages. Everything I translate from Arabic Facebook accounts, for example, sounds like a prayer, which of course it is, but it is also an expression of intent and meaning; the same words carry multiple layers. It will be interesting to see how translation services are able to approach direct translation without losing the cultural and metaphorical flavour behind it.

7. Collaborative technologies and knowledge sharing will emerge as key resources for all forms of learning.

Every set of predictions of the future include a section on collaborative technologies (my 1998 paper was no exception) but I think today that collaboration is over-rated. We will need to think in terms of cooperation, rather than collaboration. Why? because in collaboration, you're basically playing 'follow the leader' for the benefit of the leader (which means you need to be paid, or coerced, or something , while in cooperation each person contributes and each person benefits.

The leaders in this space - Slack, say, or Atlassian - are based around the idea that groups are self-organizing, that each person defines their own contribution, and that the purpose of the software is to help with communication rather than coordination, to share rather than to direct. It's the digital instantiation of digital-age forms of organization such as agile development or wirearchies.

Five Key Features of Online Learning Which Technology Patterns Will Enable

1. Learning is Mobile – Anywhere and Anytime

It is true that learning will be available anywhere and any time. I have often said that learning will be like a utility, like electricity in a plug, or water in the pipe. Or learning will be like text, available exactly where it is needed. But this is only half the story. In order to make this work, we need to have an advanced understanding of environment and especially context. When we are trying to rescue a crashing airplane, we do not have time for a three-week course. When we are working in an explosive environment, we can't just pull out a mobile phone. Sometimes we need to figure out how something works, and sometimes we just have to remember the code.

2. Learning is Interactive and Engaging

This prediction from the Contact North author takes a bit of interpretation, because beyond the initial statement it's hard to find substance. Do they lean that learning will be engaging because it is interactive? Why link these together. Pushing a bit, we find it to be a restatement of the first point: "Given (that) collaboration is the key, not just to knowledge development and learning, but also to finding work, students will use the emerging technologies to collaborate and connect." But engagement and interactivity are two very different things. Learning is engaging if it's something you want to to. And of course, it's interactive if it includes exchanges with other people (and maybe devices).

It would make far more sense to say that learning is immersive and engaging. By 'immersive' I don't mean simply based in virtual reality (though others do), I mean that the learning and the doing become one and the same. 'Learning by doing' is a well-recognized and increasingly popular approach to learning (indeed, we can't imaging learning sports or acting or baking without doing). YouTube is a wealth of learning materials that help you do this. Sure, learning and working with other people can be fun and productive. But it's not space cold 'interaction' people are looking for - it's support, competition, reassurance, and someone to taste my latest pie.

Educators who talk about collaboration  (or even 'personal learning networks') often depict other people as agents to be used to support something or another. But this is to misunderstand the motivation for working with other people. Mostly, when we work with other people, it's because we like other people. Educators have to stop objectifying them with notions like 'interaction' and 'collaboration'.

3. Learning is Personal and Instruction is Differentiated

I wrote a thing a few weeks ago drawing out the distinction between 'personal' and 'personalized'. In a nutshell, something is 'personal' if you do it for yourself, while it's 'personalized' if someone (or some system) does it for you.

What the Contact North author is writing about is personalized learning, and we read the list of the newest personalization darlings: Knewton, ALEXS, Capterra, DreamBox, Cognitive Tutor, Knowillage LeaP, Planet Sherston and Grockit. These all focus on differentiated instruction. Fair enough. But the jury is still out on whether it works. And the early evidence is what it will not. The success of adaptive learning depends on the presumption that the problem being solved is that of selecting the right learning materials. But there's no real evidence that this is the case.

We've been through this with learning objects, with learning design, and more: the problem of learning is not a search problem. The problem of learning will not be solved by discoverability. At best, it will improve material selection. But ultimately, learning is something that's done for you, it's something that you do for yourself. Learning is improved, not with less learner control (which is what these systems provide), but with more learner control. This is where the future lies.

4. Learning is Intelligent

Again, it's a bit difficult to tease out what exactly was meant by the Contact North author. Presumably they mean that learning systems are intelligent. But sans a definition of 'intelligent', it's difficult to understand what exactly is meant. There are various types of intelligent systems, but the author doesn't mean anything in particular, except perhaps to restate the point about discoverability: "Doctoral students can be connected not just to their own instructors, but to the communities of interest and practice associated with their field and up-to-the-minute developments. They can be much more engaged researchers, especially if the volume of new material is filtered through intelligent filters. Imagine courses which automatically update themselves, based on new research and newly available, quality assured open educational resources."

These are useful, but as I suggested above, they don't solve the prroblem of learning. Moreover, we are being told what happens, but far more interesting is why it happens, as it gives us clues to the affordances these new systems will offer. Here's a quick (and partial) taxonomy:

- decision engines - these are expert systems that are based on rule-driven strategies drawing on an established knowledge base that assist the user in making decisions.

- pattern recognition - these are neural-network type perceptual systems that identify patterns from partial or disorganized data (sometimes even if the pattern is not actually there)

- cluster detection - these are graph-based algorithms for detecting nearest neighbours and categories of things

Notice that these are ways that machines can be intelligent. But they do not speak to assisting human learning at all. It's nice to have a tool that will recognize patterns or divide things into clusters. But we will want to be able to use these tools to do far more interesting things than to simply pick out the best movie to watch. What sort of things? Well, for one, helping us understand the thing we are studying by using these algorithms, tweaking their major parameters, to see different things, organize data differently. It's when we do stuff that we learn, not when stuff does something for us.

5. Learning is Global

I think that very few people are actually global. We may interact with marginally more people internationally than we used to, but we remain rooted in our families and our communities. These connections may help us think globally, which is good, but human nature forces us for the most part to act locally.

There's a phenomenon called 'hashtag activism'. It's the idea that you can influence global events through online interaction. I think that the Arab Spring taught us very clearly the limits of that concept. Even as I write (yes, in Istanbul) we watch helplessly while the remnants play out in a violent and destructive civil war in Syria.

It's easy to read, "There is no reason for a student to be disconnected from peers, experts or sources of knowledge and understanding from anywhere in the world, especially given the growing efficacy of translation engines." But it takes the disappearance of only one long-distance friend to realize how tenuous that connection may be.

Institutional Context for the Development of Online Learning

I am in fact rather less interested in the future of institutions than just about everybody. There is no doubt that they have played both positive and negative roles through history; civilization as we know it is impossible without institutions, but so also is fascism. That which giveth, taketh away.

Having said that, there is no doubt that new technology, and the social and environmental context in which is is developed, is causing significant changes to institutions. It is causing some to retrench, others to adapt, and others to disappear. The word 'institution; connotes defiance to change. Maybe. But with institutions changing all around us, society is far more fluid than people realize.

1. Institutions are Complex and Competitive

The writer means more complex and more competitive. It's not clear that either is true. After all, the word 'byzantine' refers to an institution (or more accurately, a set of institutions) that organized around this very city a thousand years ago, and is today a synonym for 'complex'.

What the author means is that institutions are becoming more interdependent. Complexity is a byproduct of interdependence, since simple principles of cause and effect no longer appear to be in effect (they are still in effect, but in systems with many interdependent parts, they become impossible to use to make predictions). Increased interdependence is a natural result of increased communication (increased interactivity, if you will). And it's also a result of the fact that there are more of us - from three billion the day I was born to seven billion today.

What interdependence means is that competition is a very bad idea; hurt your neighbour and you may well find you have hurt yourself. The concepts of collaboration and competition are artifacts of the days when society was organized into large and largely independent corporations, nation-states and other institutions bumping against each other like giant icebergs in a global sea. Today, however, the heat has literally increased, and bodies that collide are just as likely to shatter into nothingness. Bryan Alexander has coined the 'Queen Sacrifice' as a metaphor where universities cut entire departments in an effort to survive; what is key here is that once invulnerable institutions now have to make an effort to survive.

The only way to succeed in an era of interdependence is to cooperate, to disregard parochial interests, and work toward the betterment of society as a whole.

2. Resources are Constrained

What is meant by the Contact North author is that "public per capita funding for post-secondary institutions in some parts of the developed world is falling at a time when demand for student places (at least in most jurisdictions) is rising."

In fact, there has never been enough money to offer everyone a university-level education, at least, not using the mechanism of universities. This has been true as long as there have been universities. This shortage was originally addressed by reserving universities for the rich. The post-war universities were fueled by the post-war boom and veteran's spending. The last forty years have been funded through debt (which many of us spent decades paying back).

What has changed is the demand. In my lifetime, a post-secondary education has changed from being optional to being mandatory. A modern technological and industrial economy cannot function without highly skilled labour. The more labour is squeezed - both in terms of funding for education, and in terms of wages and benefits - the harder it becomes to run a modern economy. Skills shortages develop, and the skills shortage becomes a barrier developing nations find it increasingly difficult to surmount.

3. Demographic Shifts Impact Activity

The 'demographic shift' is mostly a phenomenon of the western world (that is, North America and Europe).

4. Quality Is an Imperative

This is honestly more a propaganda point than it is a projection of a future state. It is based on the presumption that institutions are now "in a highly competitive environment" where only the best will survive. Competition rarely has that result.

Even more to the point, as noted in previous points, students are assuming more of the cost, and we have the astonishing situation in which states fund a minority of the costs of state universities. And with this decline in public support, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify demands that universities satisfy public objectives such as "learning outcomes based on achievement measure." To the chagrin of professors, students begin to act like customers (not surprisingly when they are paying the freight).

Colleges and universities will be increasingly torn between their two major constituent groups: rich students who are looking for a lifestyle experience, and less affluent students looking to learn. They will probably divide into two types of institution. If history is any judge, the lifestyle institutions will continue to be subsidized by the state, while the learning institutions will be on their own.

5. Change Is Inevitable, but Difficult for Colleges and Universities

This is possibly the laziest prediction in the entire Contact North piece. The bulk of it concerns the rise of MOOCs (that is, large-enrollment courses masquerading as open online learning).

As I've related elsewhere, I think the educational system will fragment, with different entities taking on different roles. To a large degree, the massive institutions will be replaced with an interconnected network of specialized providers. In particular, we will find networks of individualss and small companies offering the following services:

- hands-on tutoring and support services (a lot like Sylvan learning centres)
- educational testing services, ranging from test-prep to proctoring to certification agencies
- content and resource providers
- advanced privately and publicly funded research organizations

A century from now, the word 'university' will have as much of its original meaning as the word 'guild' does today (and for the same reasons).

6. Relevance and Value Shape Strategy

This is another propaganda point, based on the introduction of business principles into university administration. It think that people do not understand that the conversion of universities to business principles will result in the end of universities, and not a salvation of their mission.

I've seen this from both sides. On the one side, we have the conversion from academic principles to business principles. These latter are driven by what is called 'value-based management'. The purpose of all activity is to 'create value'. Value is measured by revenues; the enterprise is customer-driven, and customers recognize value by providing revenues. In turn, the description of the product or service to the customer is not in terms of process or features, but rather, in terms of outcome, which is the value realized by the customer.

The university environment is not remotely configured to operate in this way, and the bulk of academic staff have made the conscious decision to avoid the value-driven workplace, often at the cost of lower salary expectations. I have written in the past that people study physics not because they want to learn to teach, but because they want to study physics; if this is true, it is doubly true that people study physics precisely because they do not want to work for some business enterprise. There are exceptions - Stanford and MIT spring to mind - but the vast majority of professors prefer scientific, conceptual or cultural challenges rather than business challenges.

The structure of publicly funded research will either collapse entirely or be reshaped significantly (I predict the latter, and I think that public funding will accrue to individual researchers or reseacher cooperatives (the dystopian version of this is that all research becomes the domain of private corporations, and all public funding of reserach is driven to those corporations, which retain the profits).

There is no model in which the university as a business-value driven organization has a future as an academic or research-driven enterprise.

Transformations in Students, Programs, Teaching and Learning, and Policy and Government

This moves us into the second part of the Contact North article, and the structure of the presentation changes somewhat, but I'll try to keep it consistent here.

Student demand will continue to grow and change
As I commented above, the term 'student' refers to aa model in which there is a privileged group of people who take four (or more) years away from life to 'study' (a.k.a. live a certain vacation-like lifestyle). The bulk of the predictions offered by our writer are as regards demographics: more older students, more international students, etc.

We can really read the language of value based management here: "More international students seeking credentials from Canadian colleges and universities, but doing so on the basis of a competitive value proposition when compared to USA, UK, Australia or other opportunities. Canada competes with the USA, UK, Australia, and other countries for these students who make their decision on the basis of quality, price and relevance. So as to attract more students, Canadian institutions need a strengthened value proposition. Flexibility may be an attractive proposition for many of these students."

The key sentence is the last: "Flexibility may be an attractive proposition for many of these students."

What it means - beyond lower prices, which is a given - is that traditional standards and expectations of a university education will be waived. We've already seen this phenomenon in the executive MBA where you "earn a full MBA without taking time from your career." In the 'competitive international market' a similar sort of 'convenient' education will be the norm, such as Nottingham's 'Flexible MA' with a range of "module options to create a personally and professionally meaningful qualification" and "modes of delivery to take account of individual needs and professional."

The same people offering these programs will resist to the end the idea of the average (low-paying) student designing their own programmes. But these models will emerge. The Contact North writer even picks up on some of them: the need for programmes that lead to employment, and the need for shorter (micro) programmes. At a certain point, however, the concept of the 'programme' becomes meaningless.

What puzzles me is why any of this counts as student demand. It assumes an environment where, first of all, the primary interest of a 'student' is to get a job, and second, the training required for that is "shorter programs, which are skill-based and work-read."This is based in part on this value driven management model, where "it will be skills that matter," and partially based on a mythology of the economically competitive marketplace, a mythology that I would project is about to end. Students don't demand any of this.

If we want to understand the 'changing nature of the student' we need to understand the following:

- there will be more people than jobs; at a certain point the increased productivity created by the information age will have to be returned to people, rather than companies, in the face of growing economic instability, either through guaranteed incomes or dramatically shorter work days.

- at the same time, those jobs that remain will demand higher order skills, not the sort of skills you can get from short-term training; this is what produces the skills shortage. At a certain point, the expectation that students pay the cost of addressing the skills shortage will be confounded.

- as indicated before, we are shifting from an era of competition to an era of cooperation (though some companies, countries and political organizations are slower to realize this than others), which speaks to an environment of mutually supportive and integrated workplaces

The idea that we should transform institutions into businesses producing economic value by providing students with job-ready training in shorter and more flexible intervals is pernicious and destructive, and will cause a lot of harm before we reconfigure education into a diverse and multipart publicly funded support system driven by personal and professional needs and interests. The 'institution', as we know it, will no longer be there, or, more accurately, the to the extent that it remains, will also be the extent of lingering (and destructive) economic competition and inequality in society,

Programs will look very different

1. More flexible program designs

As I mentioned above, it doesn't seem reasonable to think of a thing called a 'programme' when it's different for everyone. The idea of a 'mix and match' program is at best an intermediary notion; the idea of introducing menu selections at a restaurant instead of a plat du jour instead of moving immediately toward a buffet or a grocery store. A program model is ultimately rooted in certification, but as I've suggested elsewhere, certification will look very different in the future, and the idea of institutional structures such as PLAR and credit articulation will appear archaic. Indeed, even the outcomes-based model will be archaic - what is an outcome worth, if we have actual performance data? Nobody cares about the 'outcomes' of spring training; what counts is the regular season.

The focus on 'outcomes' and 'competencies' is a very transitory phenomenon. It's the last refuge of Taylorism, taking shelter in educational institutions, where it couldl be decades before it can be dislodged.

2. More use of open educational resources

There is no denying the phenomenon of open online learning (if I do say so myself). However the future of open educational resources, properly so-called, is less clear.  The idea of an open educational resource is that it is used in teaching, which presupposes, first of all, a teacher-student model of learning, and secondly, adherence to a certain educational structure (for example, the requirement that a learning resource contain some sort of assessment). The key to the definition, however, is that the resource be used to support learning, and this goes far beyond more traditionally 'educational' objects, to include free papers and videos, blog posts, online communities, and that much more.

As a consequence, the concept of the 'course' changes, and in the long run (I argue) will be much more like the Connectivist MOOC than the more traditional courses offered by, say Coursera (which have in fact ceased to be instances of 'open online learning' now that they charge tuition fees). As I said when we started the first cMOOC in 2008, the meaning of 'course' in my vocabulary is more of the traditional 'course of lectures', where a professor will hold forth on some topic of interest, suppleme3nted by a host of open online resouces, and where it's up to the students to attend or not, or to conduct activities or not.

3. More creative assessment processes

The Contact North writer trots out the usual distinction between formative assessment (assessment used for learning) and summative assessment (assessment of learning). Most people are interested mostly in the former and almost not at all in the latter (unless, of course, they're assessing other people). I've mentioned assessment before in a few places: first of all, in the quantified self movement, and second, in new social-net forms of assessment based on performance. But aside from producing personal feedback, let me say that I think assessment is highly over-rated. In the future, our assessment will be our work and our performance, which ultimately will be inseparable from our learning.

4. More micro-credit and nano-degrees

If we just called them 'points' would we be saying there are 'more points'? It reminds me of pinball machine inflation. In the early days of pinball machines, you play for hundreds or maybe thousands of points. By the time the electronic pinball machines rolled out, you were playing for billions of points (and yet bumpers still scored 25 points). But more points did not mean more gameplay - indeed, games were typically a lot shorter on the new machines, and the play a lot less satisfying. Getting more 'degrees' doesn't mean you're getting more education, and there's no real purpose for it except to disguise the fact that your getting less for your money.

5. More co-op and experiential components within programs, more international collaborative programs, more transfer and qualification recognition agreements for programs between nations, blurring of lines between college and university.

None of this matters. None of it is relevant. It's disposed of in four short paragraphs in the Contact North article, which suggests to me it's there only because the author felt obligated.

Teaching and learning will change

1.  Learning will no longer be defined by time, place or institutional offerings.

If this is true, then almost none of what the Contact North author had to say about institutions is relevant. And, yes, this is true. And, indeed, even the paragraph that follows this statement is irrelevant.

Why, for example, would there be "admission to programs and courses will allow for multiple start dates?" And why would there be " a growing number of short courses (2-3 weeks in duration), which carry credit?" These remind me of modern arcades, where the games get shorter, the lights flashier, and you get less and less for your quarter. Ultimately, there are no more arcades and people play the Sunless Sea on their own computer.

2. Learners will create their own learning agendas, which reflect their own career, personal and lifelong learning goals

It is true that people will design their own online learning, but it will be far more likely to meet the needs of the moment that to satisfy long-term goals. That doesn't mean that there won't be long-term goals, but a person will work toward these goals in all facets of their lives (or not, as they wish - some people (quite legitimately) drift with the tide). Nobody will "set the agenda" - the idea that we can plan for a lifetime during a four year period in our late teens and early twenties does not respect the fact that we are entering a complex and rapidly changing environment. We learn as we need to; with some few exceptions, recognition is through performance, not certificates.

3. Learners will secure their learning outcomes through a combination of formal, informal, self-directed, instructor delivered, in class and online learning

The best that can be said of this point is that it doesn't include seances and divine intervention.

Again, though, the problem here is the employment of education-centered language - that learners "will secure their learning outcomes". One of the distinctions Jay Cross used to make was between formal and informal learning, and one of the markers of informal learning is that it is intended not to satisfy learning outcomes but rather to get something done. Credit recognition and the rest don't enter into it.

4. Learners will expect personalized learning services and supports for their learning agenda

I think that in the chaotic and turbulent economy and environment of the future, nobody will expect anything. Why would they?

There will probably be a marketplace where "personal investments of time, money and energy in education increase expectations of service and quality." By the same token, the investments we can actually afford to make may well lower our expectations. We may all want more, but in learning as in everything else, we'll take what we can get (but it won't matter so much, because we'll be a lot more self-sufficient, and our entire futures won't depend on the quality of a particular education provider).

It is instructive to look outside the formal education market for good guidance about what to expect, to the fitness, sports and hobbyist communities, for example. Sure, you can get a full personalized fitness plan. But most of us will settle for bodbot. Or perhaps will buy a bicycle. Why would anyone expect this to be different in learning? When the Canadian government decided fitness was important for the country, it launched a national program, distributed guides, and ran commercials. It did not set up a personal gym for everyone in the country. The fact that we have done so for education is absurd.

5. New mechanisms for meeting personal learning agendas will appear in the market as the “unbundling” of learning continues.

I mentioned the many roles in education above. I point out here that if 'unbundling' is a fact - and it is - that all of what was said above about institutions is moot.

6. Courses will be less important than mentoring, coaching, counselling, advising and assessment

None of these will be more important that the educational equivalent to bodbot. And the assessment functions in a tool like this are the least important part. What matters is the network of support and encouragement the application can bring you.

7. Diverse and new forms of credentials will appear which reflect the varied needs of learners, employers, social agencies, innovation organizations and entrepreneurs

Another way of saying the same thing is that we are about to enter a credential bubble. Credentials will still be deemed to be valuable, but everybody will be able to create credentials. It's hard to imagine that people will display reams of credentials on their resum├ęs, but it could happen. This will be an intermediate stage, but an important one, because as the educational institution loses its monopoly on the credential, its marketplace advantage essentially vanishes. This will be a difficult time for institutions - their funding will disappear, their market will disappear, and yet they will have experienced and professional staff. Just like newspapers had.

Policy and Government

In this section the Contact North author purports to describe "what we can expect to change in terms of public policy." What we actually get are (bad) policy recommendations framed by a systemic misunderstanding of the environment. It is important to address these:
  • Continued pressure on public finance as a result of demographic shifts, shifts in the energy economy and the new financial implications of international trade and related agreements;
The facts listed have nothing to do with the continued pressure on pubic finance. There are two major causes: first, the power to tax business and industry is at a nadir, and second, spending decisions lean toward business subsidy and military. Public finance is reflective of pervasive income inequality,
  • The increasing complexity and competiveness of higher education systems placing new demands on governments to re-think their roles as stewards and regulators – the demand being to reduce controls so as to enable institutions to make effective responses to market conditions, while at the same time protecting the public interest and the efficacy of their investments; and
What this point says, in so many words, is that the pressure is now on to privatize education. This is in no way a response to "increasing complexity and competition in education" - these are (as discussed above) artificial contrivances. The key question here is: has deregulation worked in other key economic sectors? The answer, almost uniformly, is no.
  • Growing investment in education within the private sector and a growing number of public - private partnerships to deliver to educational outcomes.
There is no doubt that there are more public-private partnerships in education. How is this working? The charter school phenomenon is an excellent case study. There's growing evidence that charter schools are failing. Nearly 2500 were shut down over the last decade or so. And educational outcomes are indifferent, at best. What would the point of such an initiative been except to continue to drive public money into private hands, increasing the fiscal inequity that is already paralyzing the economy.

Now let's look at the policy recommendations projections:

1. Significant Changes in the Way in Which Higher Education Is Funded

The author asserts that "the shift will be to funding social, economic and learning outcomes and away from funding processes and enrolment." I've seen no good evidence to support this (and the author provides none). The description is essentially that of the No Child Left Behind act in the United States, but this program did not actually improve outcomes.

The author suggests that "a comprehensive re-think of the role of government is what will unfold," but what is meant is that such a rethink is required. But if the rethink is still ahead of us, then how is it that the redefinition of the funding process has already happened? No - this is a policy recommendation, and a bad one.

What is needed from government iss not evaluation but support, not funding to companies and public-private-partnerships, but direct support to individuals. I think that we will see a shift in the funding model, but it will be one where institutions are consolidated and in which they achieve greater efficiency through free and open learning resources and support systems. It is costing us more to make education expensive than we would lose were we to make it free.

2. Strong Focus on Quality Assurance, with a New Understanding of Quality

In what the Contact North author calls "a growingly complex market" (sic), a focus on quality assurance is a necessary precondition for privatization. This serves two functions. First, it is an offloading of some of the more significant costs of an educational system, accreditation. And second, it prevents private industry from delivering low-quality product to consumers, which it will do if unregulated.

One wonders, if students really are able to manage their own education, why we would need a special program of quality assurance to ensure "programs which have meaning and value and engage them in authentic learning, faculty members defined by how engaged they are in supporting the learning needs of students and how creative they are in designing engaged and authentic learning," etc. This section appears to be written as though the entire and existing structure of higher education will be privatized, with these mechanisms in place to ensure it doesn't change.

3. A Commitment to Learner Mobility

The author cites without naming it the European Bologna Process, which ensures that students will be able to transfer from one institution to another across the European Union. Given the complexity of the European process, it appears difficult to imagine how a global equivalent would work. We are told "Canada currently is lagging behind many other jurisdictions with respect to learner mobility," which is code for "Canada needs a Bologna Process". But all this presupposes a model in which credentials (and indeed, a credential monopoly) is very important. Which we were told above will not be the case.

At a certain point, we will need to interpret learner mobility a different way. The Contact North author has already suggested that education will be "unbundled", something that has been in the works for may years. At a certain  point in time, when the credential monopoly is broken, the educational system will split into two major parts, again as suggested above, a system that provides learning, and a system that evaluates learning. At this point, 'mobility' takes on a completely different form. And in restrospect, it will seem very backward to imagine that a student could or would) attend only one institution; learning will be everywhere and the idea of monopoly providers will be long forgotten also as soon as the monopoly ends.

4. More Public - Private Partnerships

We read once again the recommendation that the public education system be wholly or partially privatized, presented as a fact when it is in fact an opinion. It is in fact very difficult (nigh on impossible) to entice private enterprise to contribute to the public good, and it will be vital to remember (though it is often forgotten) that the only objective of private enterprise is to make money. It's a model that has been touted for decades, but has failed to fulfill its promise. Given the essential public purpose served by education, a different model - one in which private enterprise acts solely in the role of service provider - is preferred.

5. A Strong Focus on Outcome-Based Accountability and Public Assurance

Why would we pay "more attention... to measures of student engagement, learning outcomes, value added to the economy, and impact of the work of colleges and universities on communities, industrial sectors, innovation and health" when students are paying most of the cost of education?

In fact, in a more privatized system, we should expect a more consumer-oriented system of assessment, one in which public policy is secondary (if it is allowed to play a role at all). Such a consumer-based system would fall under trade regulation, and (if the past is any indication) while outright negligence would be punished (to a degree) quality control would be a case of caveat emptor. There is no reason to believe that regulation in the educational sector would be any more effective than it was in the financial sector.

What Do Colleges and Universities Need to Do?
As I have remarked before, you cannot argue from an 'is' to an 'ought'. What we should do is far more a matter of policy preferences, priorities, values and principles than it is some sort of necessary response to a projected future. This is all the more the case when the future is so poorly predicted. I cannot believe that Canada is headed toward a privatization of higher education; this does not speak to thee nature of the country, nor the shared assumptions Canadians have had about the role of public policy over the years. having said that, let us consider the proposals:

1. Start engaging in strategic foresight as the basis of strategic planning

Strategic foresight is a good idea, but it cannot be based on an alternative reality or wish list. Increasing competition, privatization and a job-focused learning system is not a reasonable response to a future environment in which jobs are increasingly irrelevant, cooperation is essential, and the institution in its present form becomes increasingly irrelevant.

2. See students as partners, not customers

Students will be unlikely to see themselves as partners when they pay tens of thousands of dollars, when they are in a power-relationship with graders and assessors, and when they have a basic income one tenth that of their professors (though roughly equal to that of the people actually teaching the courses). And the goals and objectives of business value management and full or privatization are undermined if students are not seen as customers. The real goal here is to make them think they're partners, when in fact they're customers. I'd like to think they'll see through this.

3. Re-think the Role of Faculty

When I was in university the predominate ethos was that we the faculty are the university. The reference in this recommendation to 'the faculty' in the third person is telling. The university has shifted in my lifetime from an institution in which the faculty collectively performed a valuable social service to one in which the faculty are employees, under increasingly tenuous employment conditions, and in some cases (notably sessionals and term lecturers) exploitative conditions. So the role of the faculty should indeed be rethought, though perhaps not in the manner intended.

The old constructivist model of faculty shifting "from instruction to coaching, guiding and mentoring" does not apply in this instance. If the university would like to hire coaches and mentors, it should hire coaches and mentors; faculty are quite by contrast legitimate and recognized experts in their fields, and the idea of their not sharing their insight is an affront. If we are to rethink the role of faculty as anything, it should be to move them out of the role of wage-labour instructional staff, and to move them back into the world of research and development, doing the things they actually studied ten years or more to do.

What of teaching, then? It can be managed more efficiently. But not by deprofessionalizing faculty.

Colleges and universities will themselves be forced to rethink their role in society (it's fascinating that the Contact North document does not make this point at all). Who do these institutions serve? I think there are several choices here, and room for several models for the future:

- the public mandate - they serve the public through the development and dissemination of research for the public good, including full and open access to the means of production and distribution of that research, in return for sustainable financing from the public

- the scientific mandate - they serve the goals of science - original and pure enquiry, contemplation of the difficult questions, with no particular regard as to the present or future utility of the work, and are funded through the public, through foundations, and through the activities of scientific societies

- the innovation mandate - they serve as a research and development organization, operating as a self-funded research institution serving shorter-term needs of business and industry, which in turn underwrites the full cost of this work

All three models serve a teaching function, but not through the mechanism of classes. As with all professions, people interested in working in any of the relevant fields actually work with these institutions, being paid and gradually assuming greater responsibility as they capacities - as demonstrated by their work - increase.

4. Re-think outcomes and impacts and re-imagine assessments and accountability

Some institutions will transform away from research and teaching institutions entirely, with a desire to focus on certification and assessment. I wish them the best of luck.

5. Build collaborations (local, provincial, national and international) and partnerships

This is written as though it never happens. That is far from the case. There are numerous associations and organizations fostering inter-institutional and departmental cooperation (collaboration is a lot harder). There's nothing wrong with that, but it would be a stretch to imagine it would address the issues addressed in this report.


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