Transformations in Students, Programs, Teaching and Learning, and Policy and Government
In this two-part consideration of the future of online learning, we look at the patterns and trends which will shape online learning in the future and how the various components of the post-secondary education system, such as student population, course design and delivery, assessment, resource bases, teaching and learning models, and partnerships will be different from what we have now.
The first part, A 2016 Look at the Future of Online Learning: Advancing Technology and Online Learning – An Ideal Match for the Future looked at developments in technology and what potential they offer for better learning, teaching, collaboration, mobility and other key aspects of online learning.
The second part, A 2016 Look at the Future of Online Learning: Transformations in Learners, Programs, Teaching and Learning, and Policy and Government, is a more in-depth consideration of the inter-related changes we see taking place across online learning and the implications of this for post-secondary education.
What does the future hold?
Given these observations, what will online learning look like in the future? What does strategic foresight suggest? How will online learning support and be affected by the changes and shifts imagined here?
Overall, it is the system of post-secondary education that will be different. What we have outlined here are the inter-related changes most likely to occur within the key components of the system – students, programs, teaching and learning, and policy and government.
Student Demand WILL CONTINUE TO GROW AND CHANGE
Demand for higher education from Canadian institutions will continue to grow, but who will be making these demands and what they expect are likely to change significantly. In particular:
More mature students looking for flexible learning options will seek access to, and success in, programs. This in turn requires programs to provide varied routes to completion, some of which will be online.
More international students, seeking credential recognition and completion, having started or completed programs elsewhere in the world, are not willing to start an entire program again. This gives emphasis to transfer credits, international credit recognition and more focus on the assessment of knowledge, skills and competencies as a basis for prior learning assessments.
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.
More students seeking knowledge combined with employable skills programs. This speaks to the need for more collaborative programs between colleges and universities and more joint credentials. More students will be making decisions on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis, linked to the long-term value of their learning investment, with more lenders undertaking these calculations for their student customers.
More students seeking shorter programs, which are skill-based and work-ready means the demand for micro-credit, nano-degrees and badges, will grow. This is already occurring, with colleges and private providers partnering with firms, professions and industry associations to develop competency assessments which can be used irrespective of whether or not the person being assessed has studied formal programs or courses: it will be skills that matter.
We can summarize these developments by saying there will significant niche markets for learning, each of which has different needs and requirements: one size will not fit all. We can further observe that learners will increasingly be looking for the institution to fit in with their learning rather than the learner having to fit in with the institution. This in turn speaks to the requirement for much more flexible programs, more personalization and more use of a range of means of assessment.
PROGRAMS WILL LOOK VERY DIFFERENT
One implication of the changes presented above focused on student characteristics and demand is that program design will be very different. The new focus on outcomes and what learners know, can do, and how they can apply their learning, means very different program designs, whether the program is online, blended or more traditional.
Here are some of the changes we can expect to see:
More flexible program designs. More programs will be offered with a small core of courses focused on basic knowledge and skills (4-6 courses), which then permit the learners to construct the balance of their program from a very wide range of options. A design such as Athabasca University’s Masters of Arts in Integrated Studies or other mix and match programs will be more common than the rigid requirements of many current diploma and degree programs. In addition, using e-portfolios, transfer credit and prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR), as well as adaptive learning systems, learners will take varied routes to the end point that matters to them. Rather than residency requirements and quality being linked to time in class, the focus will be on outcomes.
More use of open educational resources. The open learning and open source movement has created close to one billion open educational resources (OER) ranging from complete courses, to modules that can be used within courses, to simulations, games and learning activities that can form part of the learning agenda. These are freely available on iTunes University, OERu, OER Commons, Merlot and many other platforms. Many Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are accessible year round as learning materials, with mentors and coaching available. Faculty can build OERs into courses or learners can find their own route through these materials, especially if they also access machine intelligent assessments to track their progress.
More creative assessment processes. Now that many aspects of cybersecurity and verification can be managed with biodata, the integrity of online assessment in terms of who is taking the test can be assured. Assessment has two purposes:
Assessment for learning – aimed at helping the learners progress through their learning journey by highlighting areas they are strong in and those needing more effort; and
Assessment of learning – which is a learning outcomes assessment at the end of a course, stage of a program or the program itself.
New methods of assessment, which leverage cognitive neuroscience, machine and artificial intelligence, simulations and games, and real world challenges are now appearing which speak to a renaissance in assessment (Hill and Barber, 2014).
- Assessment for learning – aimed at helping the learners progress through their learning journey by highlighting areas they are strong in and those needing more effort; and
More micro-credit and nano-degrees. The growth of short programs, badges and other forms of recognition for learning will continue. Some of these will be employer designed; others will be undertaken collaboratively between industries and post-secondary institutions or between institutions. The narrow range of routes to recognition will dramatically expand.
More co-op and experiential components within programs. There are growing demands within Canada for students to have international experience and for learning to be undertaken in real world environments and through project-based or lab-based work. Currently, some 55 universities, 26 colleges and three institutes offer some 1,100 co-op programs. This will continue to expand, as will other forms of experiential learning and work-based learning. While students are off-campus, their learning will be supported by online communities of practice, technologies, and learning resources.
More international collaborative programs. Colleges and universities in Canada are already very active as partners with colleges and universities around the world. Joint programs, collaborative programs and faculty exchanges are common. What we can expect to see in the future is a significant and substantial expansion of these developments, with more institutions partnering to offer more options within programs.
More transfer and qualification recognition agreements for programs between nations. The European Union and the Commonwealth both have substantial trans-national qualification agreements and these are now being negotiated into trade agreements, such as the Canada and European Union: Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement or the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement. We can expect more reciprocity, especially for professional qualifications, and more transfer agreements for partially completed qualifications. Learner mobility will be a dominant theme of public policy world-wide.
Blurring of lines between college and university. With the growing number of joint programs between colleges and universities, a student can graduate with both a degree and a diploma, demonstrating expert knowledge and practical skills. We can expect the number, scope and level of these to increase and for laddering (apprentice to diploma, diploma to degree, diploma with a degree, degree to diploma) to continue to be the cornerstone of program development.
Not all of these developments rely on online learning, but all of them are aided by the opportunities such learning affords. Most of these developments require regulatory change, change of quality assurance regulations and a relentless focus on outcomes, rather than process.
TEACHING AND LEARNING WILL CHANGE
Just as the pattern of demand and the nature of programs will change, so too will the way in which students learn and faculty support this learning. Seven key developments we see in this future are:
Learning will no longer be defined by time, place or institutional offerings.
Learners will expect and secure access to learning anytime, anywhere on their schedule. This will include a growing number of short courses (2-3 weeks in duration), which carry credit, weekend and intensive learning sessions, as well as longer compressed learning periods (6-8 weeks). Admission to programs and courses will allow for multiple start dates, the cycle being driven by demand, not availability of academic or instructional staff. New forms of support for learning - instant mentoring, online peer networks, and coaching from global support structures – will meet this demand. Learners will drive provision – they will no longer have to fit in with the schedules designed by others.
Learners will create their own learning agendas, which reflect their own career, personal and lifelong learning goals.
The shift from institutionally determined programs to skills and competency-based programs determined by labour market needs or individual learner preferences will reduce the reliance on formalized program structures and increase the ability of learners to mix and match their learning activities against their learning agenda. Some of these agendas will be set by the professional bodies and accrediting organizations, while others will be set by individual learning interests, passions and commitments.
Learners will secure their learning outcomes through a combination of formal, informal, self-directed, instructor delivered, in class and online learning.
One key difference between now and future learning relates to how learners acquire knowledge and skills. In the future, routes to knowledge and skill acquisition will become much more varied. Students might take courses from post-secondary institutions (as a great many will continue to do) or obtain their knowledge and skills through self-directed learning, informal learning networks, intense workshops, online learning from public or private sources, open educational resources, mentors, coaches or other means. As we move from time in class to knowledge, skill- and competency-based assessment as the basis for credit recognition, employment and professional development, how a person gained knowledge and skill will be less important than the fact of mastery.
Learners will expect personalized learning services and supports for their learning agenda.
As personal investments of time, money and energy in education increase, expectations of service and quality will rise as well. Learners will expect fast, reliable and quality services not just in terms of courseware and coursework, but also in terms of all of the related services – mentoring, coaching, guiding, advising, knowledge management, financial services, and information and registration services.
This in turn will require a refocusing of our understanding of quality to one based on learner engagement and satisfaction with the learning experience. Assessing the quality of peer-to-peer and instructor-to-peer interaction, assignment feedback, learner engagement and other essential components of learning will all form part of this different approach to quality assurance.
New mechanisms for meeting personal learning agendas will appear in the market as the “unbundling” of learning continues.
“Unbundling” refers to the separation of the components of the learning and credentialing process, potentially separating course design, development, delivery, support, assessment, and credentialing. Learners will be able to select the providers of content, the mentoring and coaching for mastery and then undertake assessment in dedicated assessment centres so as to secure recognition by professional bodies, credit coordinating agencies, and/or colleges and universities. Given that quality no longer relates to residency at any one institution but to competencies and mastery, unbundling is the key to personalized learning routes and differentiation of providers.
Courses will be less important than mentoring, coaching, counselling, advising and assessment.
The implications of unbundling are that the real focus for the future is on providing opportunities for the assessment of learning and guiding learners towards their assessments. This is aided by significant developments in our ability to assess competencies and skills, supported by immersive technologies, simulations, machine intelligence and adaptive assessment. Hill and Barber capture this in their 2014 paper Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment and we can see employers and professional bodies moving quickly to create rich assessments offered frequently so that learners can be assessed “just in time” and on the learners’ timetable.
To support this focus on assessment, learners will turn increasingly to coaches and guides to help them navigate their learning journey. While some instruction may be necessary for some components of learning, it will be the case that many of the learning needs associated with needed competencies can be acquired through a range of different routes: navigating these requires expertise.
Diverse and new forms of credentials will appear which reflect the varied needs of learners, employers, social agencies, innovation organizations and entrepreneurs.
As has been suggested, many significant employers now look less at what the credential is and look more carefully at what an individual can actually do. To help them assess this, more and more employers are looking to proofs of work-based learning, badges, evidence from learner portfolios of projects completed and other forms of evidence of knowledge, skills and competency.
In the UK, answering this question has led to a new kind of document known as a Higher Education Achievement Report, which documents more of what the learner can actually do than a traditional transcript. Similar developments are occurring in the US with the development of a Postsecondary Achievement Report. Both of these developments are in their infancy.
Digital badging – recognizing competencies and skills based on agreed rubrics – is also emerging as a way of recording learners’ mastery. A number of MOOC providers are also offering credentials. Udacity, for example, has over 10,000 individuals enrolled in nano-degrees, designed in partnership with major employers. Coursera is offering verified certificates (verified by partner academic institutions).
Alternative credentials are unlikely to replace the traditional degree or diploma any time soon, but they offer another option for professionals and learners alike, and may eventually become more integrated within formal programs. For a time, these various credentials will present a confusing landscape for employers and learners, but some of these will emerge as leading the pack of credentials as essential for employability.
Policy and Government
We have explored significant developments in technology and online learning and their implications for teaching and learning. Now we look at what we can expect to change in terms of public policy. Before we do so, it is important to see three contextual factors shaping this work. These are:
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 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
Growing investment in education within the private sector and a growing number of public - private partnerships to deliver to educational outcomes.
The context of public policy is changing.
Five key developments can be anticipated:
Significant Changes in the Way in Which Higher Education Is Funded.
While per capita funding will continue to reflect overall economic conditions, the funding mechanisms used for higher education will change. This is already clear in Canada with Ontario, Alberta and the Maritime Provinces in the midst of funding model changes. The shift will be to funding social, economic and learning outcomes and away from funding processes and enrolment. Governments will recognize that changing the funding model also means changing the extent of regulation and control. A comprehensive re-think of the role of government is what will unfold, but it will not take place quickly.
Strong Focus on Quality Assurance, with a New Understanding of Quality.
In a growingly complex market, becoming more international and competitive, quality assurance will play an increasingly important role. Students will have more input into quality assurance standards and measures. The new focus will be on the experience of learning rather than the design of programs and courses. Quality assurance will look for:
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.
Flexibility in how, when and where students are able to learn.
The affordability of learning and the relevance and benefits of achieving learning outcomes.
Recognition of learning (past and present) by post-secondary institutions and employers and the authenticity of assessment.
- Programs which have meaning and value and engage them in authentic learning.
A Commitment to Learner Mobility.
The European Union is committed to learner mobility as a principle, and this drives a great deal of public policy amongst member states with respect to higher education. Ensuring transnational qualifications alignment (e.g. Bologna process) and credit transfer arrangements within and between nations enables learners a great deal of flexibility. Canada currently is lagging behind many other jurisdictions with respect to learner mobility. We also lag behind other jurisdictions in terms of the international experience of higher education students. Both of these features will change as governments require better transfer credit arrangements.
More Public - Private Partnerships.
Many colleges and universities in Canada are partnering with private education and educational technology companies, seeing them not just as vendors but as true partners in providing learning pathways. We can see strong partnerships between employers and higher education institutions in delivery and the recognition of learning. Badges and micro and nano credentials are often negotiated in partnership with major employers. We can also see a slow but gradual expansion of the recognition of work-based learning activities for credit within college and university programs.
In the field of apprenticeship, which has always been a partnership between employers, unions and colleges, we can expect an acceleration of e-apprenticeship and the development of outcomes-based and skill centred assessment centres.
A Strong Focus on Outcome-Based Accountability and Public Assurance.
As governments focus more on outcomes and impacts, they will strengthen the evaluation and measurement regimes, which provide the evidence base for public policy and public assurance. More attention will be paid 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. The higher education equivalent of the secondary school based Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and widely used for policy development within jurisdictions, will emerge, despite failed recent attempts to introduce such a measure.
There will be other developments, but these five are certainly evident in current public policy discourse and are likely to grow in significance.
What Do Colleges and Universities Need to Do?
When we examine these suggested patterns, trends and likely developments, the obvious question is: “What should college and university leaders do?”
There are several responses to this question, but we outline five here as a basis for stimulating an inspired conversation.
Start engaging in strategic foresight as the basis of strategic planning.
A great many strategic planning processes begin with the present and project development to the future. A different approach, widely adopted in a number of sectors, is to start with the future and come back to the present. Planning for a different future begins by committing to that different future and then working to make it happen.
See students as partners, not customers.
The period 1990-2000 saw the language of customer service and service quality begin to shape some institutional practices in colleges and universities. The argument was that as students were paying more for their learning, they should be seen as customers, not just as learners Students should be increasingly seen as engaged and active partners in the design and development of institutions, as well as actively involved in all aspects of program and course design and deployment.
Re-think the Role of Faculty.
A key to the future is an understanding that the focus for and the nature of learning is changing. As program design, learning activities and learner engagement change, so too will the role of faculty. Faculty roles will shift from instruction to coaching, guiding and mentoring, while learners make more extensive use of online learning and open educational resources. Blended learning developments and moving from a limited to much larger number of course start dates, for example, will change faculty roles. While constraints are significant, experimentation is required to increase the productivity and nimbleness of institutions.
Re-think outcomes and impacts and re-imagine assessments and accountability.
Anticipating both a different focus for learning and for public assurance and accountability, institutional leaders should shape the agenda for institutional outcome and performance assessment, while at the same time accelerating significant developments in terms of assessments of learning and assessments for learning. The next decade will see significant focus on learner and institutional assessment and outcome evaluation. Smart institutions will want to shape how this work unfolds.
Build collaborations (local, provincial, national and international) and partnerships.
Collaborations and authentic, value driven partnerships will shape a great deal of the future of higher education. Institutional leaders, having identified key elements of their strategic intentions and shaped their future, need to find the natural allies and collaborators to accelerate their journey to that future. Few institutions will be able to make this journey alone.
The key message here: think back from the future, leverage collaboration, and re-think key roles and accountability as part of an accelerated route to a different future. As learning and the public policy context shifts, colleges and universities need to be seen as driving this agenda rather than playing catch up.
DISRUPTIVE CHALLENGES AHEAD
Working from a substantial and ongoing environmental scan, we have focused here on online learning and developments in higher education. Many will disagree with the observations and implications outlined here – the future is always a contested space. What is clear is the future is not a straight line from the past – there are challenges, disruptions and far-reaching opportunities ahead.
We hope to inspire a conversation about what work colleges and universities might be engaged in the next few years and to create a sense of urgency about a change and development agenda for higher education in Canada. The future really isn’t what it used to be.
Download the complete two-part series A 2016 Look at the Future of Online Learning.
 Hill, P. and Barber, M. (2014) Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment. Available as an e-book at http://pageturn.co.uk/pearson/preparing_for_a_renaissance_in_assessment/ (Retrieved 11th November 2015).
 Source: University Affairs at http://www.universityaffairs.ca/news/news-article/co-op-programs-are-popular-and-growing-at-canadian-universities/
 2015 was in fact the most significant year for such investments – see http://hackeducation.com/2015/12/23/trends-business / for an analysis of these investments.
 OECD introduced an outcome based assessment for higher education known as Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO) in 2011-12, but this work has not yet been widely supported. Several regional evaluation and analysis models are in development and use and Ministers return to this theme frequently as meetings of OECD and the Commonwealth.