Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Roadmaps for online learning

Navigator by Tabsinthe, on Flickr
"Navigator" (CC BY 2.0) by Tabsinthe

There is no shortage of trend reports and guides on the future of online learning but sadly too few institutions who are using them as a base for their strategic planning. The challenges ahead for higher education are complex and require new approaches and innovative solutions in a sector that is so deeply rooted in tradition and history. This tradition coupled with the high level of respect and credibility that university qualifications still command makes it all too easy to think that a business-as-usual strategy is the safest course to plot.

The Canadian educational technology support organisation Contact North published earlier this year an excellent trend overview entitled The future of online learning. This describes the increased complexity of today's educational landscape with new actors, models and credentials jostling for attention and challenging the traditional setup. At the same time universities are under increasing financial and regulatory pressure to be more efficient, result-oriented and accountable with a wider than ever range of students with high expectations in terms of personalisation, flexibility and work relevance. The report examines what this means for higher education institutions and notes that a new ecosystem is developing to cater for a much more diversified and demanding target group. The gold standard of the university degree will be challenged and augmented by new types of credentials including micro-credentials like badges. Short and flexible programmes with strong links to workplace experience will allow many to combine work and study without the need to spend several years on campus. This will demand new methods for assessment, recognition of prior learning and the development of new forms of quality assurance. This doesn't mean that the traditional university model is going to be overthrown but it does mean that there will be more alternative paths to learning.

Source: UOC eLearn Center, Witthaus, Padilla, Guàrdia and Campillo (2016, p.6). 
An example of how to use these trends and feed them into a university's strategic development is seen in the results of the FUTURA (Future of University Teaching: Update and a Roadmap for Advancement) project. This describes the process of applying trends in online learning to teaching practice and university strategy at Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC); read more in an article from the UOC's eLearn Center, IDEAS: a new framework for next generation pedagogy.

FUTURA identified pedagogical trends and innovations globally, and analysed related institutional examples. The FUTURA report proposes a framework for describing current and emerging practice in teaching in online higher education under the acronym, IDEAS.

The IDEAS model (explained in the image on the right) provides a sound basis for re-examining pedagogical development at any university and reinforces most of the conclusions of Contact North's analysis. Everything described here is already taking place but mostly in a fragmented way through projects or innovative faculty with few institutions developing a comprehensive strategy. I suspect that the prime movers are distance education universities since their focus is online but campus universities ignore this at their peril.

These alternative paths are already attracting an increasing number of school leavers who are becoming less likely to head straight to university campus. A new article in eCampus News, Could these 3 burgeoning nontraditional pathways be a boon for traditional institutions? describes how many American students are trying one or a combination of the following before considering campus:
  • a gap year or two with internships and self-directed learning
  • online studies via open courses
  • getting hard skills by practical experience
“College costs keep growing and student debt is over one trillion dollars,” explained Richard Wang, CEO at Coding Dojo in a statement. “These alternative education options can help keep student debt under control, while providing individuals with real-world experience and skills employers are looking for in job candidates.”

Trends are becoming reality though not always in a revolutionary and disruptive way. New opportunities and pathways emerge often largely unnoticed until they reach a level that cannot be ignored. I have previously likened these changes to a glacier; the landscape is being radically changed but the changes and the pace of change are not always evident to those who are standing on the glacier itself. Only when the glacier melts will we see the full extent of the change. Those institutions who realise they are on a glacier and start changing now will be able to meet the challenges ahead. The most dangerous option is business as usual, thinking that the ground under our feet is solid.


  1. Something for the corridor!!

    'Top universities to offer full degrees online in five years'

  2. Thanks for the link Jonathan. As I wrote, many new paths to learning and the one doesn't rule out the other. Actually many universities have been offering full degree programmes online for many years so I suspect the article has got a bit caught up in the general media hype on MOOCs and Coursera in particular. The difference now is that the elite universities have now discovered online learning via the MOOC boom.