There’s a Light at the end of the tunnel #3
As I wrote in Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning” (Jossey-Bass, 2010), it is not possible (for me anyway) to predict or describe what the organizational forms that accomplish these learning and learning-support tasks will look like. What I can do, however, is describe the forces driving the change and some of the characteristics that the change will carry.
The reason that the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train of change is because the society within which our institutions reside is changing around them. As the society changes, the tools available to support and offer higher education learning, the economic incentives to provide it, and the cultural forces which shaped higher education into its current and historic form, are all changing. And as they change, they will increasingly “disrupt” the traditional model. The truly disruptive characteristic in web-enhanced and web-supported learning is the core fact that its source of power lies outside traditional institutions just as surely as the source of power in the Arab spring lay outside of the oppressive government hierarchies being challenged. With that in mind, consider some of the following characteristics of future post-secondary programs.
Abundant information: With thousands of good courses taught by well-regarded faculty available at little or no cost to the learner, the new institutional (I call it a “College for the 2st Century” in the book) model will draw from multiple and ever-increasing content sources for its curriculum. Students will “make” content and crowds will source content as they do with wiki-pedia. Imagine being able to scan an existing course and know what in it affects the academic objectives that you need to meet the goals of your learning plan. Instead of learning 10 things in a course – five of which you already know and two of which do not pertain to your objectives - you can pull out and focus on the three you need. Personalizing learning to the needs of the learner without sacrificing quality will be a more effective and efficient way to do it; allowing each learner to proceed purposefully throughout life on their own personal path with external validation..
Mass customization: Learners will be able to ascertain with a high level of accuracy what knowledge, skills and abilities they bring to the learning moment. They will be able to do an educational “gap” analysis between what they know and what they need to know to attain their objectives. And. like an “eHarmony” in which the “e” stood for education, they will be able to quickly survey learning resources that help them align the resources they need with their learning goals and pursue them. Learners and employers alike will know that, if they achieve the learning outcomes and develop the competencies required, they will be ready for the work and living requirements contained in a given job or other category. Socially-networked conversations will allow learners to converse, study with, and learn from others. And mentors – paid and unpaid – will help them plan and assess their “arrival” at academic destinations.
Outcomes: Along with “mass customization”, learners and other third parties, like employers, will be able to compare the learning achieved with the requirements that exist using learning outcomes. This opens the door to high levels of consistency and validity in the assessment of learning while simultaneously encouraging mass customization.
The “New Ecology of Learning” is just that: a new ecosystem which will support a wider and in some cases very different variety of “educational life forms” than the one it is replacing. So, although it is conceivably accurate to assert that online courses are hitting a plateau, it would be wildly inaccurate to infer that the “plateau” is anything but the end of an early stage in disruptive transformation and change in what we now know as post-secondary education.