What Might the Future of Online Education Look Like? Imagining Several Scenarios

Which way is Online Learning Going to go as the Years Roll by? Gradual Growth? Global Domination? Near Extinction?

Ever found yourself wondering what the world of online education might look like a decade or two from now? Will it expand explosively and become the dominant approach to education? Will it fall by the wayside as the world gets scared away from technology due to issues like cybercrime, loss of privacy, and techno-terrorism?

Online Education Future Scenarios ImageOriginal Image Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Crystalball.jpg

When envisioning how various technologies might impact a given situation over time, futurist and educator Bryan Alexander likes to use a technique in which he examines a number of scenarios, several of which may be at extreme ends of the spectrum of possibilities (Alexander). This is a thought-provoking approach that can be both fun and disconcerting. Let us borrow from this technique to consider the possible future of online education, supported with research and commentary from experts and thought leaders.

Scenario 1: “Online Rules!”

In this somewhat extreme scenario, online becomes the predominant form of education, possibly even eliminating “in seat” classrooms.

In February of 2014, Dr. Anant Agarwal of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology insisted that, “children in nurseries will soon be learning through MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) as the internet revolution changes the face of learning, according to the man who first pioneered their use in higher education” (The Indepedendent News (www.independent.co.uk), 2014). With this predication in mind, it is not hard to envision a future in which even the youngest children are being immersed in a world of online education, and the physical classroom becomes a thing of the past.

In this scenario, categories like “elementary” and “high school” could fall by the wayside as truly independent pacing allows students to move through their education at the speed their intellect and related factors permit. Education services, and most pointedly teachers, will evolve their focus towards creating the richest online experiences, developing and delivering formative assessments, and supporting those who lag behind minimum progress expectations.

In a future in which education is fully online, higher education and lifelong learning can truly become one, and students may very well construct their own degrees by combining content from a buffet of MOOCs, certificates, full degree programs, continuing professional education and more. Organizations like Accredible.com may evolve to become accredited aggregators of credentials, authorized to confer degrees of higher education that combine certified courses with lifelong learning in ways once thought unattainable (Accredible.com).

Scenario 2: A Natural Evolution

In this scenario, we assume online learning will continue to evolve on pace in a manner similar to how it has evolved thus far (with the pace quickening, as it has in the current century).

There is no shortage of documented expertise predicting that online forms of education will continue to grow. For example, the Ambient Insight Premium Report, The Worldwide Market for self-paced eLearning Products and Services: 2011-2016 Forecast and Analysis, predicated an aggregate growth rate of 7.6% over this 5 year period for “self-paced e-learning services” (Adkins, 2-13). It would seem that the farther out you look, the higher percentage of online learning you will encounter. When that might level off is quite unclear.

The Article College 2020 by Vance H. Fried suggests that, “College in America will look very different in just a few years, thanks to remarkable innovations taking place in technology and business models in higher education. The advance of Online 2.0 will trigger structural changes in what we mean by a “college education.” Students in the future will be more likely to pursue their studies in an “unbundled” system in which different institutions provide different parts of a student’s higher education experience. Students will be more likely to learn through a blend of online coursework and a residential experience and will likely assemble a guided and rounded transcript of courses and experiences that are independently credentialed, allowing future employers to have a better measure of their skills.” (Fried, 2013)

This latter quote provides some excellent insights into what this highly likely scenario could look like for higher education. Perhaps a good deal of these constructs could find their way down into high schools, but what about the younger grades?

While many school aged children will still gather in buildings and attend school in brick-and-mortar classrooms, for more and more a portion of their learning would take place online, both in and out of the classroom. In the youngest grades (Pre-K through Grade 2) students would be gradually introduced to the tools common in online learning. These include tablets and other mobile technologies, along with the software that provides learning experiences, assessments, academic communication, socialization with other students, and so on. “Wearable” technologies like Google Glass and other tech-enabled devices worn on the body may also play interesting new roles in the classroom of the future (Delgado, 2014).

It is also encouraging to think that we will get to a point that throughout elementary grades and on into pre-high school, students are effectively taught how to be self-directed learners, using technology that is readily at their disposal.

Scenario 3: “The Decline of Online” – A Radical Shift Back to the Physical Classroom

Here we envision a major shift away from, even a total shut down of, online learning.

A dystopian vision could potentially come about in a world weary of lost privacy, rampant cybercrime, and/or regional failures of overburdened technology infrastructures. It is not terribly difficult to depict a future in which the downsides of technology lead to worst-case scenarios in which government or populations decide to turn away from systems that have been used by criminals, enemies, and others to wreak havoc, or that have become untenable due to resource constraints, electromagnetic storms, or other fearful “sci-fi” scenarios.

If some combination of events led to a disabling of, or major move away from, information technology dependence, education might be expected to return en masse to the physical facility. Perhaps computer technology might still play some role in this unexpected future, but in a less connected manner.

It is also possible that teaching may have evolved in a positive manner, having embraced the “guide on the side” mentality. Even if there were limited information technology available, might it be possible that teachers would guide students to leverage libraries, experts, and other ‘alternative’ information sources in self-directed learning?

Could an evolved appreciation of the social side of learning lead us back to more face-to-face interactions in the classroom? The emphasis on active learning in the online classroom might lead to more active projects in the “unplugged” classroom of this unlikely future. Gamification could be devolved, turning back to the use of established games like Scrabble or Jeopardy as regular part of learning. The employment of more active games in learning could also become more commonplace, facilitating both fitness and learning-readiness.

Even in a future in which the technophobe rules, it is still possible to imagine a classroom that is better off because of the evolution that occurred in the decades prior to some imagined “techno-apocalypse.”

So, what do you think? Are seemingly outlandish outcomes more plausible than many today might realize? Are there subtle yet significant changes that you see coming that others don’t? For example, maybe wearable technology like Google Glass will be the predominant learning tool in 2030?

Go ahead, go out on a limb – imagine a scenario of your own …

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