In fact, distance education dates to 1728, when a Boston when a local educator began offering distance correspondence courses (by post or mail). The first correspondence degree was offered by the University of London in 1858.
So the innovators go back aways. They aren’t just the people we read about today, like Daphne Koller, Richard Saul Wurman, or Salman Khan, who are certainly innovators in their own right. But they are standing on the shoulders of people who long ago realized that students didn’t have to be present to learn.
And someday, somebody will stand on theirs. But what kind of learning innovations will they dream up?
What’s Next In Online Learning?
Let’s parse out some critical components of distance education on which the next ideas will be built on.
It will be flexible. If the fact that distance education began in the 18th century tells us anything, it’s that technology has little to do with it. The printing press, the postal system, the phone and fax machine, the internet, the social sites, mobile devices and virtual environments and devices like Google Glass shouldn’t matter. Any learning system should probably be built so that the next big thing doesn’t mean throwing the whole learning model out.
This means there should be a focus on the lightest footprint possible for a course, whether it means crowdsourced data, cloud storage and delivery, or use of a peer-to-peer network. The course should be available on many platforms without too much modification.
It will be enduring. Every item out there on the web is available to view and learn from. Many articles we find when gathering information may be several years old. That doesn’t mean they’re outdated. Despite advancements in healthcare, software, robotics, and other areas, many core principles remain stable. This could mean that the fundamentals of any curriculum area are easily translated to online learning, even years after the course was created.
So there is no need for an innovative course platform to emphasize a finite duration overall, only for the individual learners. As long as teachers are available, numerous courses can run for long periods of time and educate thousands of users in an asynchronous manner.
It will be measurable. Communication is critical in any kind of learning system, and a distance education makes it even more important. Besides having numerous ways to coordinate efforts between teachers, students, and other parties that have an interest in their education, an innovative course platform should include ways for the trainer or teacher to review feedback from students as well as monitor their progress. It should also give the students ways to see how they are doing over time, as well as see up-to-date responses from the teacher.
Some online learning tools emphasize one type of measurement system over another, largely based on which kind of technology is their bread and butter. Content-based platforms focus on viewership stats, while tools that are communications platforms at heart focus on statistics related to discussion. True learning tools will include that, while focusing on feedback and outcomes as a snapshot and over a time period.
It will be accessible. This word means many things. The learning tool should be easy enough to use that it doesn’t hinder the learning process, and it should be readily used by people who are disabled. It also means an innovative tool should not rely on one kind of device. If people are able to use technology they already own to take part in the course, that’s the best approach.
The accessibility of a learning tool puts a great emphasis on the design of the course platform. Even more than the user-experience design practices favored by website and e-commerce designers, a learning platform needs to make clear what students are supposed to do throughout the process, as well as allow teachers to create and modify their courses easily.
It will be visual. Whether that means users share a presence in video, animation, images, or graphics, making it easy for them to create ideas in a visual format will be paramount. Visible concepts are more readily grasped, and are more widely shared. Yet, most graphic design tools are still seen as the domain of professionals who specialize in their art. Infographic-building tools are on the rise, as well as visually-focused sharing platforms, and it’s no stretch to imagine that learning can take some pages from the social media and content marketing realms.
A learning tool should include a way to gather data and details and display it in an immediately-publishable visual image. Barring that, the tool should integrate with other graphics-development platforms that emphasize ease and share-ability.
Obviously, these rules don’t have to be taken as dogma. It’s possible that the next big advancement in distance learning will be built for one type of platform, be difficult to use, be almost unmeasurable and yet be wildly popular. Stranger things have happened. I believe the ideas that will endure over time will be those that follow at least a couple of these ground rules.
At some point, we’ll be reading about another innovation from a visionary building on the accomplishments of those who have captured our admiration today.