The future of (online) learning?

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

For those who know me or have followed this blog for some time you’ll know that I’ve been involved in the field of distance education and online learning for well over 30 years now. You’ll also know that I’m a sort of ‘systems’ thinker when it comes to finding ways of designing and supporting sustainable approaches to distance/online learning. For example, my early work in distance education was focused on designing and developing print-based materials, with embedded ‘conversations in print’ to guide learners through the instructional content etc. When the WWW come along I switched to using notepad on my computer to create individual web pages in raw HTML that I could then upload using FTP to a server somewhere (generally in-house) so that anyone with a browser (likely to be Netscape in the early days) could access the pages and work through the instructional materials online.

A real break-through came with the emergence of the Learning Management System (LMS). These platforms spared me the pain of coding individual pages and made it progressively easier to upload content, add activities and assessment tasks, and to include embedded conversations with the students (and they with each other) all within the one environment. The driving design principle for these systems was to somehow create an environment within which one could replicate the teaching and learning dynamic of the in-person classroom. In the past 20 or so years, these platforms have changed enormously, but not a lot has changed regarding the underpinning design principles. That is, the environments a structured to support the traditional teacher/institution-student power dynamic of the traditional school or classroom.

Of course, many people have identified these shortcomings of the LMS approach, looking instead at a range of alternative approaches that have emerged, including the learning ecosystems provided by Google and Microsoft. High hopes were placed in the emergence of MOOCs, and initiatives such as the Khan Academy, each of which provide insights into how things may lead us into a new paradigm of online learning. But for the most part, the teacher-student power relationship remains the fundamental design principle – i.e. here’s something we think you need to know and we will present it to you in a way we think with enable that to happen and then provide some mechanism to ensure it has happened and perhaps even reward you with recognition of that achievement.

So where might we look to find the direction(s) that online learning might evolve to become truly learner-centric, with learning enabled by the network itself rather than by the ‘system’ that supports it? This has been a key focus of thinking in several of the projects I’m currently involved with, and as I’ve pondered I’ve been considering what we might learn from some of the applications that are already in use, and how the design principles they’re based on might inform the future of (online) learning. Here are some examples…

Fitness apps

My personal favourite is Strava – but there are plenty of others. Key design features that may inform future learning include:

  • completely personalised – I set it up in the ways that suit me to monitor my activity. Everything that occurs in the platform is based on my preferences and my activity.
  • caters for a range of activities meaning my personal preference is catered for
  • instant feedback on activity
  • incredible levels of data analysis, with prompts to inform further goal setting
  • can link with a personal network to share achievements and encourage each other
  • can also link for team challenges
  • results can be shared on social media or other apps
  • in-built stages of challenge with badges to reflect progress – all based on personal goals
  • ability to look back on personal progress over time

Digital Enablement

New to me is Nulia Works – described as a new way of getting users using digital productivity suites, like Office 365, to help them become more productive on a continuous basis. It’s an application that sits on the navigation bar of Microsoft Teams and it taps into the Microsoft Graph into the back end. What this one has me thinking about is…

  • it’s actually learning from what you’re doing rather than you completing set tasks or covering learning content
  • it gets a ‘picture’ of your competency level and digital skill level and then serves up personalised support based on areas you could improve
  • as you work on this over time you get recognised for the level of competence you’ve achieved (user, producer, master)
  • the badges you earn in this way can be shared over any open badging platform or environment

Community Apps

I belong to our local Neighbourly group which connects me with everything going on in our local neighbourhood – from notices about community events, conversations about local government matters and posts from neighbours with things to give away or sell. These sorts of community apps can teach us something about…

  • the ways in which a platform can remain ‘neutral’ and enable the community to grow based on what is of interest and importance to that community
  • the importance of having well articulated community guidelines that are enforced by other members of the community


Yes, people still use them 🙂 While they haven’t replaced the traditional university, they have succeeded in doing what any good ‘disruptive’ innovation will do – that is, cater to a whole new dimension of the market which is not currently served by such institutions. I’ve personally used Coursera and Udemy to access short courses that I’d otherwise be unlikely to enrol for at a university. While the actual course delivery inside them is typically ‘delivered’ through a series of videos, readings and (sometimes) activities, it is the interface that allows those offering courses to connect with those seeking them that I find really interesting here. Other features of these environments that will likely impact learning into the future include:

  • there is no stated ‘start and finish’ time for each course – you can complete them entirely at your own pace.
  • the enrolment process is entirely automated, including payments and access to the course.
  • the information provided for selecting courses is very comprehensive, and includes full information about the facilitator/teacher, recommendations from other users, ‘taster’ videos to try things out etc.
  • the key focus is on learning – formal assessment is available for most courses if you choose to do that, for an additional fee.
  • courses can vary in length and level, to the particular need or interest you have.
  • badges are available on completion, and these are accumulated in your personal profile and can be shared externally.

Online Language Learning

There is a plethora of online language learning apps now appearing – and it’s not difficult to see the appeal. Apps such as iTalki allow you to choose from over 15,000 teachers for 1-on-1 lessons based on your goals and interests. I use Kupu and Drops to assist with learning Te Reo Māori for example. Key features of the learning design here include:

  • the learning is in ‘small chunks’ and accessed over time based on your personal growth and development of the language
  • provides aa personal ‘teacher’ in your pocket is that you can access the short activities at a time and place that suits you
  • builds a record of your learning over time with various sorts of rewards and feedback offered
  • uses a game-based approach that includes repetition, challenge, use of different levels etc.

Now I need to emphasis that I’m not advocating any one of these apps specifically as a necessarily good or bad example of online learning. The point I’m trying to make is that each has something for us to consider when we are seeking to understand how best we might design learning into the future that will be engaging for learners, and could be adopted as part of how we might conceive of and design learning environments into the future (online and offline).

The difficulty for me is that these sorts of apps are designed for an individual user and operate then within a ‘closed’ system to make it all manageable (apart from the exporting of badges which is now enabled through the use of an agreed international set of standards). The challenge then is to conceive of how the features of these sorts of apps that are easy and motivating to engage with inform the design of similar features within a broader, system-wide approach to learning that blends the best of online and offline opportunities for learners.

Of course, such a proposition pre-supposes that we want to retain a ‘system’ of education – the alternative perhaps being what the OECD refers to as an ‘outsourced’ model in their four scenarios for the future of schooling. But that is a post for a different time 🙂

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