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Online Education of the Future


By Melissa Venable

The Internet makes information available in a way that may shape the future not only of the learning process, but also of learning institutions themselves. Networked communication systems, collections of data, publications, and multimedia presentations allow us to access all of these resources at times of our choosing to both retrieve information and interact with each other.

Higher education is in a dynamic place where many factors, from economic challenges to technology innovations, are influencing where, when, what, and how you can learn. We are perhaps most familiar with the formal, instructor-led model of online education. This model places the instructor more in the role of facilitator, helping students work through course content and evaluating their learning through course assignments.

However, new models are emerging that include opportunities for you to engage in learning activities on your own, in informal ways, and with more varied formats. My goal in this post is to introduce you to some of these models, provide a few examples for you to consider, and outline some of the trends you'll want to watch as you move forward with your own adventure in online learning.

Mixing it Up

New and different approaches to learning and content management are gaining ground. Academic course content is being repurposed, learners are generating their own content, and access for large and diverse audiences is being realized. A new level of customization and personalization is also more possible than ever.

Competency-Based Approach

Western Governor's University (WGU), a non-profit online university, awards degrees based on demonstrated competencies, as opposed to the more traditional model of "accumulating credit hours." Through series of assessments (e.g. papers, projects, and exams) students' skills are evaluated and awarded credit toward graduation. Students at WGU work with personal mentors to navigate the degree requirements and determine what learning resources (i.e. online courses, books, and other materials) are appropriate in preparation for the assessments. While earning credit for prior learning and knowledge is not a new idea, WGU is one example of how this non-traditional model is gaining ground in online delivery.  

Open Courseware

The OpenCourseWare Consortium, is just one example of an open content catalog. It provides access to the content of over 5,000 courses from over 60 different sources. Through this model, schools and instructors may adapt course content that has been developed by another college for formal use in their institution. This content may include components such as recorded lectures, lecture notes, multimedia interactions, practical exercises, reading assignments, and discussion questions. Open courseware is also available freely online so that you can work through this kind of course content more informally, to find out more about the subject area covered.

Multiple Components

According to a recent article in The Australian, "there is no longer any technological barrier to prevent students from enrolling in one degree program but picking up online subjects for credit at any number of universities across the world." It may be possible in the not-so-distant future to design your own plan of study – selecting courses and experiences from multiple institutions located all over the world. These kinds of collaborations might also include modules or content from private business, government agencies, and organizations in your local area. 

Peer-Based and Crowdsourced

What if you could take courses online for free? Full curricula are available, with online courses that are developed by academic professionals. The University of the People, while not accredited, advertises "access to structured, tuition-free online degree-level programs." Orientations and library services are included and courses are facilitated by instructors, but the model is built on active student participation. P2PU, or peer-to-peer university, is a "grassroots open education project" that is managed by volunteers running semester-based courses in which students and teachers all contribute. The focus here is on lifelong learning, community building, and the development of quality learning experiences.

The Do it Yourself Approach

Questions and concerns about the value of a college degree have received a lot of recent media coverage. From DIYU to Peter Thiel's 20 Under 20 Foundation (offering $100,000 and mentoring to those willing to try entrepreneurship instead of formal education), there are new approaches to learning on the horizon. These are considered by some to be radical approaches, centered on open, informal, and experiential learning. While these models may not be aligned with traditional thoughts about higher education, they do bring attention to the importance of experience as a critical component of learning. Join the online discussions and coverage of these new projects and follow reports on their progress via websites and learner/participant blogs.

Challenges to Consider

While there are a lot of benefits to having easy access to educational materials online, the informal experience of self-directed learning presents several challenges. It lacks the guidance of a content expert in the role of instructor, personalized feedback on performance and learning achievement, and interaction with others for collaboration and social learning activities. As described by the Illinois Online Network, "self-directed learning places the responsibility for learning directly on the learner."

A group of education researchers in Australia reminds us that "self-directed learning is the prototype of all learning" and may take place before, during, and after formal education and training events. In both formal, instructor-led, courses and informal, self-directed, experiences, online students can benefit from finding and using additional resources in the forms of facilitators and communities. 

Translating all of these new methods into academic credentials can be very challenging. While there are schools and programs leveraging competency assessments and open courseware in their accredited, degree-granting programs, this is not widespread. The full results and potential of these new approaches are as yet unrealized. Time will tell if these are valuable in terms of learning achievement and career preparation, and a lot of people are watching. 

Imagine the Possibilities…

… and explore the opportunities. How can you use the resources in the examples presented here?

  • Consider how you might use available materials to supplement, complement, and extend your learning in a formal online program. Where do you need extra practice or more review?
  • Consider how you might apply your existing knowledge and skills to receive college-level credit.
  • Consider how adding practical experience to your educational plan might have an impact on your career readiness.

What, where, and how do you want to learn? Your preferences and experiences may help shape the future of online learning. New models and approaches will continue to emerge through the use of new technologies and communication techniques.

July 21st, 2011 written by (learn more about our authors)

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