Colleges and universities throughout the world are changing both what they teach and how they teach to reflect the new work of teaching and learning in a digital age. They are also seeking to expand access, increase openness and flexibility so they can attract and retain a broader range of students. Because of these new modes of teaching and designs for learning, colleges and universities are also rethinking assessment and developing new delivery tools and resources for learning. As they do so, the business models and organizational design of our universities and colleges are changing.
Let’s look at the current state of play and raise five big questions about the future.
Is Online Learning Growing or Has It Reached a Plateau?
Let’s begin by understand where things stand in the United States (US):
- 2.85 million students are taking all of their courses online.
- A further 2.97 million are taking some, but not all, of their courses online.
- More than twice as many now take a class online as live on campus.
- There are more undergraduates enrolled in an online class than there are graduate students enrolled in all Masters and Ph.D. programs combined.
- At the current rate of growth, half the undergraduates in the US will have at least one online class on their transcripts by the end of the decade and a great many will complete their entire post-secondary program through online study.
- In the US, online learning is growing at around 4% per annum – more traditional forms of learning are growing at just less than 1.5%.
- So far as we can tell, the situation in Canada is basically the same as the United States. Online learning is part of the standard mix of programs and course offerings across Canada, with very few higher education institutions not offering online learning to some degree.
- Blended learning for all students is now the norm. There are few courses not making use of technology-enabled learning, whether its access to learning materials with an LMS, using digital libraries, OERs and other resources.
Indeed, many working in higher education suggest online learning is so much a part of what we all do that we should actually stop seeing it is a distinctive and separate way of working, but rather see it as part of new approach to teaching and learning – what Contact North | Contact Nord Tony Bates refers to as Teaching in the Digital Age (Bates, 2015).
What are some of the biggest gains in online learning since 2010?
There are a great many gains (and some losses), but these five appear to be the most significant:
- Wider acceptance of online learning as being not significantly different in terms of learning outcomes than face-to-face learning. We have close to 30 years of evaluation data which shows this clearly.
- A deeper understanding of the importance of instructional design and the ways in which course design can better engage students in their learning.
- A strong investment in the professional development of faculty and instructors – more focused engagement in how best to leverage online environments for learning.
- A renewed focus on learning outcomes and, more recently, competency- and capability-based learning. Online learning design really demands us to be explicit about what it is learners need to focus on.
- Really great uses of simulation and gaming, especially in health sciences and science, to engage students in their learning.
While the list many produce will have a variety of different elements – scale of adoption, leveraging of learning management systems and so on – these five are important since they are all foundation components in the thrust to ensure online learning is mainstream and not a side track.
Do we still have issues with quality in online learning?
Without a doubt, we continue to have issues with quality of the student experience and with completion rates in online learning. Some courses are outstanding in their design, deployment and delivery and others are not. Some are “tired” and many are simply attempts to move what is done in a classroom into a learning management system and often this is not done well.
Three things need to happen:
- We need to see the work of creating online courses as requiring a team of people – we should stop relying on an individual faculty member or instructor to do the work of three or four people. The ideal team comprises a faculty member or instructor as a subject matter expert, an instructional designer, an expert student who has studied the subject and knows where students struggle, a technology advisor and a librarian familiar with open educational resources (OERs). Together they will create a learning experience much better than anyone of them doing this on their own.
- We need to make much more use of available open educational resources with proven track records of effective deployment in our design – stop creating everything from “scratch”.
- We need to do much more to align learning processes with the capabilities of technologies and the work of instructional design – we are not using all the technologies available to the learner effectively in many of the courses we offer and we could do much better with more imaginative and challenging designs which seek to strongly engage the learner, both on their own and with their peers.
We also need to rethink our understanding of quality – moving away from a mechanistic, tick-box approach to quality assurance practices and towards an approach which gives greater emphasis to learning processes, engagement, analytics and outcomes.
Where is technology taking online learning?
People drive learning, not technology. Learning by design can leverage emerging technologies but in the end, it is a deeply personal and human experience. What changes understanding, develops knowledge, supports new capabilities and competencies are the exchanges between people. Technology just makes more of this possible.
Five technologies can be identified as being “in the race” to have an impact on learning in higher education. These technologies include:
- Artificial intelligence and machine intelligence will generate new ways of assessing and supporting students, using adaptive learning systems and automated assessment. Such developments may also lead to a growing use of robotic technologies to support learning and student services.
- Enhanced simulations and games using augmented virtual reality to permit life-like laboratories in science, engineering, music, art and other disciplines but also make remediation for struggling learners more manageable when combined with adaptive learning technologies.
- More visual and aural learning than text and graphics – with the growth of voice and gesture recognition and an increase in computing power, learners may make more use of audio, video, graphics, gesture and 3D imaging in their study and in their assignment activities.
- More personalized and differentiated use of adaptive learning and analytics – as the technology becomes more ubiquitous (the so-called “Internet of things”), then learning can shift from batch-processing (classes with an instructor) to a more individualized and self-paced experience.
- Far more extensive use of open educational resources by both learners and their instructors, both because of the ease of access and cost but also because of quality assurance now being attached to such resources.
While in the past, the barrier to accelerated adoption of such technologies was the willingness of faculty members to utilize them, student behaviour and the other trends and patterns listed here will lead to more colleges and universities adopting these technologies, not simply for competitive advantage but also for survival.
Some colleagues have suggested robots will have a significant place in higher education in the future – but these are essentially devices that deliver machine and artificial intelligence and leverage adaptive processes to support learning. While we may have to learn to “dance with robots”, most learners will encounter few of them in colleges and universities before 2025.
If you were to highlight one key feature of learning in the future, what would it be?
It is likely a completely new approach to the way we assess learning outcomes, competencies and capabilities will emerge in the near future.
We have done a great deal on course design, simulations and games and so on, but our assessment practices have not moved at the same pace. In 2015, Sir Michael Barber and Peter Hill issued a document calling for a renaissance in assessment which is key to what we need to do next.
Imagine assessment being available as a rich, focused online resource available to the learner at any time and on demand – both to help with their learning but also for outcome assessment.
Imagine these assessment instruments, supported by artificial intelligence, so they change constantly, in line with changes in courses, in knowledge related to these courses and with student behaviour.
Anytime, anywhere assessment of competencies and capabilities could be independent of courses – the basis for prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR) or credit arrangements with employers, or agreed national standards for programs like nursing, medicine, etc.
This prediction that the next transformative revolution in higher education will be focused on assessment is based on some real developments, for example, the online assessment of competencies for vocational skills now occurring globally or the development of transferable standards and assessments for a range of engineering professions. As Hill and Barber (2014) suggest, we should be prepared for a renaissance in assessment.
 Source: The Digital Revolution in Higher Education Has Already Happened – No One Noticed. Available at https://medium.com/@cshirky/the-digital-revolution-in-higher-education-has-already-happened-no-one-noticed-78ec0fec16c7 (Retrieved November 5th 2015).
 See It’s All About Design at https://teachonline.ca/tools-trends/designs-for-teaching-in-the-digital-age/its-all-about-design
 See, for example: http://www.vametric.com/learning-management-validation-assessment/
 Hill, P. and Barber, M. (2014) Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment.