The future of learning

Stephen Downes has published a “ten-year-after” update of his classic essay on The Future of Online Learning.

The Hennistalk blog has an extensive presentation of this important 40-page document, which includes the key excerpts.

We’ve chosen those that highlight the general stance taken by Stephen Downes (in italics, general commentary is from the Hennistalk blog).

Main argument

Today, and for the last century, education has been practiced in segregated buildings by carefully regimented and standardized classes of students led and instructed by teachers working essentially alone.

Over the last ten years, this model has been seen in many quarters to be obsolete. We have seen the emergence of a new model, where education is practiced in the community as a whole, by individuals studying personal curricula at their own pace, guided and assisted by community facilitators, online instructors and experts around the world.

Though today we stand at the cusp of this new vision, the future will see institutions and traditional forms of education receding gradually, reluctantly, to a tide of self-directing and self-motivated learners. This will be the last generation in which education is the practice of authority, and the first where it becomes, as has always been intended by educators, an act of liberty.”

Schools and Learning in the Future

There is not a single school of the future. We are still in a classroom based paradigm, which will slowly erode, making place for a number of different schools and learning methods.

As learning evolves slowly from a classroom-based and deliver-based type of instruction, and toward wide-ranging learning activities that are largely selected and managed by the students themselves, the dedication of space in schools to classroom instruction will be reduced. Instead, schools will be converted into meeting facilities, workrooms and laboratories, multimedia studios, and more.

The convergence of digital life with in-person life is not, therefore, a mere addition of a digital dimension to the in-person life we lead today. It transforms and reshapes that life, removing from it elements that could be done more efficiently (or more pleasantly) in a digital environment, and opening up opportunities for new and more types of in-person activities.

We should also look toward the development and deployment of learning facilities in traditional working environments. Students of all ages will be able to learn about law in learning facilities made available at courtrooms. Galleries at legislatures and town council meetings will be equipped with internet access (of course) and supported with installed facilities for learning and visualization (such as, say, a zoomable hologram of the city, allowing members and visitors along to see zoning changes and planned construction). Farms and greenhouses will employ student workers, who will study and catalogue plant and animal life as they work with it.”

Learning is a social activity, and happens within communities, where knowledge and skills are demonstrated, criticized, and merged: it is not merely the acquisition of new information and skills, but becoming educated in a discipline is..

to learn the habits, patterns, ways of thinking and ways of thinking characteristic of that discipline.”

Downes proposes two distinct types of learning communities; communities of interest and peer-based, real-life communities. The value of a community lies in its diversity.

The role of the technology, or tool (such as a weblog, or Second Life), was

to create a space – virtual or otherwise – in which people can communicate, and then the members built the rest.”

Identity building in such communities is crucial, and as Dana Boyd would say;

-“Profiles are digital bodies, public displays of identity where people can explore impression management. Because the digital world requires people to write themselves into being, profiles provide an opportunity to craft the intended expression through language, imagery and media. Explicit reaction to their online presence offers valuable feedback. The goal is to look cool and receive peer validation. Of course, because imagery can be staged, it is often difficult to tell if photos are a representation of behaviors or a re-presentation of them. This is very relevant to my personal occupation of the validity or value of someone’s profile or online being, if it is only authored by the person him or herself. Rather, I would see my network write me into being through the contributions I have done. You rate this blogpost > your rating is now part of my online being. How to translate this, is a difficult, but interesting question..”

Learning is not so much acquiring of knowledge or to accumulatex but to develop or grow your own identity. Hence, learning communities will be ..

in which learners can immerse themselves and grow into something new.”

Downes suggests the following;

In any given learning situation, there are three major participants: the student, the instructor, and a local coach or facilitator.

These elements will persist in any description of online learning, though over time their description may be refined to reflect actual practice.

Online, for example, we would expect not only to find the instructor and any administrative services, but also resource libraries, other students, and digital tools or platforms on which distributed work may be performed. The online component of a person’s learning environment will tend to me more distributed, based on communications and connections of a cognitive nature.

Offline and locally, by contrast, we would expect to find not only coaches and facilitators but also one’s immediate friends and family. We would also expect to find local facilities, along with facility managers and other support staff. The offline component of a person’s learning environment will tend to be more localized and immediate, based on personal relationships, support and emotional attachment.

Typically, the role of the online environment would be to inform and assess, while the role of the local environment would be to reaffirm and to advocate.”

A bit further, he describes the different roles of institutions, including a role for Open Acces and Open Educational Resources. There are hosts, agencies that manage physical facilities, connectivity, mentoring and coaching, and other services. Schools and universities will likely be the ones fulfilling this role. On the other hand, there are providers. These are online services, repositories (such as Delft OCW), and commercial media and learning providers, not necessarily related to or active at a host. Moreover, the role of the specialist is returning to the educational ecosystem;

These are specialist tasks, and as suggested ten years ago, it is likely that different educational professionals will fulfill different roles. Some will become testing and evaluation specialists, others will become coaches and advocates, still others will become content creators and presenters. As these disciplines evolve, tools will become more specialized, and practice will become more professional.”

Changes in accreditation will also take place. Currently, still in the hands of the traditional institutions, but you cannot expect it to stay there, as has been shown by Learning and testing will diverge, as can be seen in industry.

As it becomes more and more possible to teach oneself online, and even to demonstrate one’s achievement through productive membership in a community of practice, there will be greater demand for a formalized system of recognition, a way for people to demonstrate their competence in an area without having to go through a formal program of study in the area. These formalized systems of recognition are then made and maintained by communities, similar to the medieval guilds maintained their standards. Tony Hirst, Open University UK, proposes an Open Achievements API in order to syndicate qualifications and make them understandable and comparable between communities.

Customized learning opportunities and education as a service will accelerate some of the mentioned trends.

Online learning, if it is to offer economic advantage, must be based on the idea that learners are able to provide for their own learning, using both resources provided by educators, and by assisting each other through collaborative networks.

Consequently, educators, rather than engaging in the traditional practice of directing education, will instead focus on providing educational services into self-directed networks of learners.”

Regarding reputation and accreditation, something of great relevance to my professional and research stuff, are the following quotes;

As more and more of a person’s life becomes available online, the need for certification will diminish, as people acquire reputations of their own. A person’s standing in a community can be recognized by members of that community, and is acquired through months and years of participation in the work of that community.

Reputation systems based on data that can’t be replicated or imitated will acquire the most trust, and these will most likely be based on verifiable identity and interactions within social networks.”

The learning marketplace

If you have read the above, you will probably see that things will change the coming decade. That means a lot of opportunities, but what is the bottom line there?

What should be understood, however, is that the bulk of educational content online will be free to access and reuse. It will be created by governments, foundations, companies and individuals, and will be permitted to freely circulate, used by students and instructors worldwide to support their own learning.

As with the market in open source software (and perhaps even more so) the commercial presence will be seen most of all through the provision of services.

Today, much of the value derived from the learning marketplace is based on an artificially imposed scarcity – a scarcity of seats in classrooms, a scarcity of credentialing agencies, and a scarcity of educational publications, for example. These scarcities will disappear as governments prefer to fund education directly, and at cost, rather than support such business models.

Content providers will discover there are much larger markets to be had when they help people create their own content. This will be the basis for the educational marketplace of the future. In general, helping people provide for themselves – helping them, in other words, save time and money – will provide the best opportunities.”

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