Thursday, November 11, 2010

We do not yet realize how big the elearning change is.

I'm thinking about this because the USDLA today released a white paper entitled, "Enabled by Broadband, Education Enters a New Frontier." (Find the paper here). There's not much new inside the document; that's not its purpose. It's a recap of how mainstream online education has become, and a call to make it more so. It does present some important data, including:

-- The number of high school students taking a class online has doubled in the last couple of years.
--Seventy-five percent of school districts have online coursework of some sort.
--Fully a third of parents have taken an online course.
--The learning results (ie grades) tend to be better for online classes than traditional, when compared apples to apples.

That last point has been known for a while, and I've posted on it previously. But all the numbers and percentages keep growing, and will continue to grow. The point is that since elearning has become part of the warp and woof of education in America, the have-nots now have even less. The USDLA is calling on policymakers to redouble efforts to provide broadband access all across the economic scale.

This is a worthy goal. How to achieve it is another matter, but it's important because I believe we do not yet realize how big a change elearning hath wrought. As a nation we are still on horseback, watching with interest and sometimes even admiration as those loud contraptions bounce by trailing an odor of gasoline and an air of triumph. Sure, we know those machines will keep improving, but it's not yet possible for us to imagine a future without our steeds, which have after all been man's foremost mode of transportation since the most ancient of times. That an era is just ahead in which horses will be utterly irrelevant, except for two minutes annually on a quaint track in Kentucky? Completely unthinkable.

Yet with elearning, the highways are already built, and only those remote and isolated outposts are unable to avail themselves as yet. With the Internet, of course, the remote outposts are often in the heart of our cities, but that is beside the point. The road has arrived. The automobile is here. Sure, it's not very stylish yet, and it's a bumpy ride. We've got Model A and Model T and very little else. But it's here. And it will get better. And when it does, as it does, the classical methods of instruction with which we all grew up will begin, like the noble steed, to fade into the past. The 40-person classroom, the 600-seat auditorium, the daily routines of ringing bells and moving to the next scheduled lecture will likewise fade.

I don' t mean that schools will go away. Universities, profs, curriculum, campuses--all these will remain. But the classroom experience is destined to undergo a dramatic shift. Why? Because elearning works better. It can be applied in many different ways. Learning at its core is a highly personal activity that the 20th century converted into a mass production process. We industrialized it, and organized it, and processed it so that we could get big numbers of students through a system with a predictable outcome. Digital changes that. Everything can be highly personalized, uniquely mine.

I've said it before, but the entire daily educational process was designed to solve a people-moving, time and space problem. Classes, class schedules, class periods, classrooms, semesters, semester hours, credit hours, even the well-worn pattern of lecture-lecture-lecture-quiz, lecture-lecture-paper-exam... all of it is a manufacturing process. The university's daily, weekly system, the high school and middle school systems, and to a lesser extent the grade school system are our answer to the same problems that those Imagineers had to solve at Disney World: How do you get huge numbers of people into the park and through the rides while assuring that everyone has an equal experience?

When we didn't have digital technologies, that was the best way to get everyone educated. Now our technologies do not require any of that. Really, think about it. We may desire it for a long time to come, but nothing on my list above is required anymore, regardless of numbers. We have digital and web-based assessments, digital content delivery, meaningful social and instructional interaction, electronic testing, online grade books, Learning Management Systems to capture all the significant data and issue authoritative reports. We can get every student after a certain age a good education, include personal contact with professors, the best available content, and deep assessment of learning. And we can get every student moving at their own speed, everyone filling in the gaps of their own learning.

What about labs, you ask, what about group projects, what about social contact for the purpose of maturing? Well, I'm not including those things. You won't find them in my list. I am not saying we should abolish the campus--we should not and we can't. I'm just saying that the entire system within the campus, the organizational structure, the learning architecture, can now be rethought to suit the needs of the students. And, yes, the faculty, when they're up to it.

The technologies now available allow us to schedule everything flexibly, to utilize physical space in ways that matter most, like creating new knowledge, or applying what we've learned. We can get knowledge a thousand different ways, a million different places. Applying it, testing out theories, grappling with the larger meanings? That's worth some bricks and mortar. Not a gathering place where we all sit in silence while one individual gives his or her unique view of the world. I suggest that this is today's horse and buggy.

The USDLA report is a good one, and accurate, and its call to action is worthy. But I think we don't realize how big all this is, just yet. The frontier is already won. The horse is fading.

And we've got the car keys.

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