I read an article from eSchool News this morning about the future of online learning as a disruptive innovation and it got me thinking.
The article from Horn, the co-founder and executive director of the education practice of Innosight Institute, suggests that like all disruptive technologies/innovations there are periods where there are experimenters who seek to use these technologies in different ways. Some are successful while others are not. Additionally, the technology developers and designers do likewise and this results in easier to use and smaller technology that is more intelligent in customising the learning to each individual learner.
Currently, we have two clear levels of online learning--one that is developed by altruistic enthusiasts who wish to share their knowledge and skills, and one that is developed by institutions and corporations whose clear goal is to make money by being at least competitive in the educational market place--preferably ahead of the competitors (corporations).
The altruistic enthusiasts have done a great job, and together produce some excellent content that enables just about anyone to learn outside of a formal course of study. These practitioners are not "blinkered" by formal course structures as is the case with schools and tertiary institutions, and typically produce small bits of key content that can be searched online to meet a learners specific needs. This content is often highly innovative and can take the form of different media which allows learners to choose the type of learning media that best suits them and their learning preferences. Additionally, search engines like Google rank sites according to their popularity, so the best learning content is at the beginning of the page. To see this in action undertake a specific search on something like "adding a column to Excel Spreadsheet". The first page of the search brings up all of the best content to answer your question (this is learning--user generated questions answered quickly). Notice that there is a variety of content--text, images, links and video, all just to answer this relatively simple question.
This ability to answer simple learner generated questions quickly speeds up learning far beyond what can be achieved in a classroom, or when locked into a poorly designed online learning tertiary education course.
While the altruistic enthusiasts model is fantastic for skills based learning, it is not designed for bigger picture learning. This is where schools and institutions have the ability to leverage the online content with a particular emphasis on high level objectives/goals. Horn (2012) sugests that like all disruptive technologies, online learning faces challenges from institutions that have a large inertia that, in many cases, actively works to curtail the disruptive innovation. Universities want to lock up what they see as their their intellectual property and this where many of them believe they make their money. MIT, however, provides all of its content freely available on line. They contend that it is the interaction with teaching staff and their assessment that sets them apart from other institutions.
Many schools lock down the use of Internet resources using "Black" and "White" Lists to "protect" students from what the schools consider unsuitable content. Not all schools do this and many non-government secondary schools in Australia use a contract arrangement with parents and students where they initiate agreements that specify students will not seek to view unsuitable content. Breach of this contract can result in student suspensions. While the checking of server log files might seem somewhat tedious, I know of one school in Central Queensland that have allocated this duty to their IT person who is able to complete the task relatively quickly at the end of each day.
Government schools are subject to State regulation and the Government Minister for Education is ultimately responsible for what goes on at schools. In what is a volatile public environment where the press are continually looking for stories involving children to sensational to sell their content, many government schools take a very conservative approach to Internet access.
Ultimately, schools and universities that persist in teaching traditionally skills and knowledge that can be better learned online will find themselves no longer relevant and overtaken by a world that wants to see examples of what you can do and how you think rather than bits of paper (qualifications) produced by traditional institutions. As learners realise that they can learn better outside of classrooms there will be a quantum shift in attendance at institutions. Already today learners are being asked to justify and demonstrate skills, knowledge and their ability to think critically and analytically. Assessment by portfolio will need to become more prevalent is schools and at tertiary institutions in the future as a rapidly changing work environment demands much more than institutional certification. It is the ability to effectively and efficiently demonstrate an ability to continually learn throughout one's life and to clearly demonstrate your skills, knowledge and abilities that will ultimately count in acquiring employment and help throughout life.