Albert Einstein said: “Your imagination is a preview of coming attractions.” When we consider education, does this mean that we will eventually live in a world where learning feels more like play and everyone has access to equal education? Will we live in a world where learning is individualized so every student maximally benefits from the learning experience? We might.
Let’s rewind a bit and appreciate how far we have come. Hundreds of years ago, learning was all about copying and memorizing. Learning happened verbally out of a tablet called a Hornbook and eventually on a chalkboard. Back then, it’s unlikely anyone could imagine the internet, let alone MOOCs, virtual reality technology, or any of the mobile devices that exist today and are increasingly utilized in the classroom.
Then learning resources abruptly changed in the late 20th century.
As education spread across the country and infiltrated various socioeconomic groups, technology spread as well. Initially, computers seemed quite removed from the classroom. However, even as far back as the 1960’s, linked computer terminals allowed students to access informational resources while concurrently listening to a related lecture. With the popularization of the web several decades later, possibilities in elearning grew exponentially.
The elearning domain has evolved over several iterations. At first, a typical instance of elearning involved video clips that demonstrated a task. Learners were prompted to answer multiple choice questions to advance, but this model did not take place of instructor-led training. Next, elearning became more interactive. Advances in graphics and storage allowed for more complicated programs, and learners could start participating in simulations or choosing the path of their lesson. Then came the Social Learning Management System, which allowed for blended learning. For the first time, designers could build courseware that involved content or interaction with experts within any organization, and learners had control over how and when they absorbed the content. Learners could track their progress and improve on past scores. Some courses even replaced the role of instructors, and more and more learning institutions adopted elearning platforms. In just a few years, nearly half of all college classes may be elearning-based. Similarly, over 40% of the global Fortune 500 companies use some form of educational technology to train employees (ELearning Magazine, 2013). So where is all of this going? If we place ourselves in the perspective of the 16th century learners, what could emerge that may not possible be able to imagine today?
Futuristic elearning will probably involve technologies and platforms that derive from current trends. In this section I will outline some of the recently popular and emerging trends, which could easily develop into exciting, advanced, and helpful learning models.
These are just what they sound like. These open, online courses allow millions of people to take the same course at once from just about anywhere in the world. Someone may be in Australia chatting with their classmate in Canada in real-time. Originally, MOOCs emphasized the open access features such as the open licensing of content, structure, and learning goals. However, newer MOOCs involve closed licensing for course materials, while maintaining free access to students. It is suggested that MOOCs may eventually not be free. However, a $7,000 computer science degree via a series of MOOCs from Georgia Tech sure is a lot more affordable than the actual tuition for four years (http://elearningindustry.com/georgia-tech-unveils-first-all-mooc-computer-science-degree). With this model, learning is possible for just about anyone with an internet connection. Though MOOC providers are still figuring out ways to monetize this platform, free online education will probably just get better and better, become more accessible, and permeate throughout more avenues.
Soon, online courses will become readily accessible on mobile devices. Not only do mobile devices allow you to learn from anywhere, newer devices are equipped with digital compasses, dual cameras, incredible audio, etc. Imagine the learners of the future who will be able to watch a lesson on-the-go while utilizing apps and features of their mobile devices to actually take measurements, do science experiments, or communicate with other learners. For instance, why do a geometry word problem on paper when you can actually go into the field and take measurements and make calculations, such as finding the length of the hypotenuse between the ground and the Statue of Liberty, which they can then input into their mobile device and use as part of the lesson?
In 2014, there is a sharp distinction between formal and informal learning. However, elearning, and especially mlearning, makes “informal learning” so accessible that much more “informal learning” could be incorporated into the curriculum. Students will eventually have nearly unlimited access to topics that interest them. Perhaps students will eventually have much more choice about what topics they explore, as long as they are developing necessary skills and meeting a basic set of requirements.
mLearning also introduces the possibility of incorporating social media into the learning atmosphere. Why does “social” have to mean sharing cat photos and selfies? Social media could become the primary forum for idea sharing, tutoring, etc. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites share the common attributes of “instantaneous idea sharing.” If those ideas were directed towards academic or training content, we might rethink using Facebook (or other social platforms) in the classroom.
In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, IMAX and 3D movies gave viewers a somewhat realistic experience. However, futuristic virtual reality technologies could actually put learners in the role of discoverer, astronaut, historical figure, businessman, etc. Technologies like Google Glass and other wearable tech devices might become so readily available that they can permeate throughout learning institutions. Sometimes called “immersive multimedia,” the possibilities of virtual reality are endless (literally), because if you can imagine it, you could virtually design it, interact with it, and incorporate it into the learning experience. CAD software and multimodal devices are advancing rapidly, and so a futuristic learning experience could incorporate recreated sensory experiences including virtual taste, smell, sound, touch, and visuals.
elearning courses of the future will likely resemble an interactive video game rather than a traditional lecture. Candy Crush and World of Warcraft have taught us a lot about the cognitive psychology behind engagement. Learners like games. They like challenges, interactive elements, and opportunities to develop strategies. They also like mastering concepts (leveling up), immediate feedback, and characters with distinct personalities. Great courses of the future will likely include many of these elements which will make the learning experience so exciting, interactive, and fun that learners can’t wait to participate and reap the benefits by mastering the content.
In 1997, Peter Drucker said, “Universities won’t survive. The future is outside the traditional campus, outside the traditional classroom. Distance learning is coming on fast.” Distance learning very well may be the future of schools, but if you’re a teacher, principal, administrator, or professor, don’t get scared quite yet. eLearning certainly will revolutionize our traditional notion of classroom or campus, but that does not mean anyone’s job is on the line. In fact, elearning can be a great resource because it frees up time and provides much richer content, and educators’ roles will evolve to fit the times. Laboratories, social outlets, activity hubs, sports teams etc. may remain as important amenities of schools, but the classroom will function differently. Students may be able to choose a virtual setting for their courses, and this setting may change depending on what they are studying. A teacher may become a facilitator, motivator, and confidante rather than a transmitter of knowledge or disciplinary figure. Teachers may be the people designing the content, organizing the flow of courses, making sure students stay on-track, and supplementing the online content. Also, there may be no such thing as a “class” with thirty or so students, because students may join many different online learning communities with students from all over the world.
Education today is certainly a diamond in the rough and elearning could be the polish that cleans up sub-par teaching, provides equality across socioeconomic groups, and makes learning a whole lot more exciting. In 2014, the possibilities are slowly emerging, but let’s stay true to Albert Einstein’s suggestion, so that in 2075, what we imagine can actually happen.