This year I participated in twelve education and technology conferences, including EDUCOM, WebNet98, and Asynchronous Learning Networks 4. Online learning is simultaneously exploding and imploding. On the one hand, there is a vast expansion in offerings and technologies, but on the other, there is little coherence in pedagogical models, and the learners are simply not there in the numbers predicted. Here is what I see happening:
- The interest in online learning among universities and corporate training departments continues to grow unabated. A recent survey by the American Society for Training and Development shows that over 75% of US corporations have tried Web-based training in some form, and more are likely to do so in 1999; over 50% of US universities are now offering some online courses. There is an explosion of online learning products and technologies. The U.S. Education Department's project (America's Learning Exchange) expects to list over one million online courses from over 10,000 suppliers by next year (I find it hard to believe this number, but was told so by a representative of the Education Department, who referred me to the America's Learning eXchange page). Tele-education Canada already lists 12,000 online courses in its database and is expanding by a few thousand each month.
- Although everyone seems to be trying out his/her own style of course delivery and calling it online learning, no single model or even set of models of effective online learning is emerging. Some providers offer completely self-paced, self-regulated, self-tested courses; others offer courses supported by e-mail from content experts; still others use bulletin boards and chat rooms in addition to e-mail to create online courses. Widely discussed in the profession is one promising model: "online learning communities," which refers to the phenomenon of groups of learners communicating online across class, school, and national boundaries in order to learn about subjects of mutual interest. An example is the online course on "Internet-Based Teaching" in which learners from several countries come together to explore how to be effective online teachers/facilitators (http://www.esocrates.com/cgi-bin/socrates.cgi?wshop001).
- A number of efforts are currently underway to meet the great need for standards, evaluation tools, and objective-based assessments. EDUCOM's IMS Project (Instructional Management System) is developing very detailed technical standards to facilitate mass sharing of content; this is one of the most prominent efforts. It is developing the means to customize and manage the instructional process and integrate content from multiple publishers in distributedor virtuallearning environments.
- There is a major trend towards joint ventures and mergers among large providers of online educational services. The Western Governors University is joining Britain's Open University to form the Governors Open University System. Many countries are rushing to form their own virtual universities, which will exchange online courses among themselves and with corporate providers.
But the paradox in all this flurry and rush towards online education is that learners are not rushing to this medium in the numbers that were anticipated. Yes, there are phenomenal successes such as the University of Phoenix distance learning program (most of which is not online), but by and large the registrations in online courses are not where the providers expected them to be. There is little empirical data on registration for online courses, but casual conversation with dozens of providers suggests that few, if any, are achieving their registration goals.
Shouldn't this give us pause to reflect why, despite the many touted benefits of online learning, the revolution is not happening? We need to look more carefully at the effectiveness of online learning, and the means of acquiring facility in its use. We also need to think of online learning not simply in terms of its attractive economics, but also in terms of the socio-cultural context in which it is making its appearance. Social and cultural issues involving what constitutes knowledge, and who can legitimately deliver it, may explain some of the delay in the arrival of online learners.
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