The Future of Online Learning
Henrik Køhler Simonsen, PhD, MA, MBA
The future of online learning is already here. Online learning is already part of our lives and virtually all learning providers already offer online learning. The big question is how we combine the best of both worlds. This article offers a number of research and practice-based answers to this and a number of other questions.
Who am I?
I am Director of Resources & Projects at SmartLearning, which is one of Denmark’s most innovative online learning providers. Online learning is what we do and everything is 100% online. I am responsible for LearningHub, which is SmartLearning’s R&D department. At LearningHub
we manage national and international R&D projects, offer research and practice-based consultancy to higher education institutions (HEIs) and design
innovative learning and experience events. I am also external lecturer at Copenhagen Business School where I teach and supervise. Finally, I am an active researcher, a trusted advisor, an experienced speaker and author of 80+ publications.
What are the trends in online learning?
The trends in online learning and digitalisation of education are relatively clear. It is of course difficult to say anything definite about the future, however, based on the latest research and comprehensive experience with digitalisation of education and strategy development consultancy to HEIs, I believe as I said that the future is already here. I would, however, like to mention five clear trends towards:
Personal and personalized learning
An increasing number of students and learners prefer online learning because it meets the needs of the modern learner – to learn whenever and wherever. Moreover, online learning solutions increasingly focus on adapting learning content to the learning needs of the individual learner to be benefit of both HEIs and learners. At LearningHub, we manage two international projects on adaptive learning. In other words, I believe that we will see much more personal and personalized learning by means of adaptive learning solutions.
Artificial Intelligence in learning
A large number of HEIs and learning providers make large investments in artificial intelligence in education and AI plays an increasing role in learning. At LearningHub, we are managing and are part of three national and international projects on different aspects of AI in learning and teaching. Like it or not, AI is already here, and I believe that we will soon be able to use AI-based teaching assistants in our role as teachers and students will be able to use AI in their learning activities.
Experience and packaging in learning
Research and extensive practical experience show that modern learners demand more than just bare-bone learning content. They are increasingly seeking experience-based learning that matters and in this context, the design and learning distribution platform matter. It used to be content is king. Now it is packaging is king. In other words, I believe that an increased focus will be on the experience element, the design, look and feel of the learning content and the usability of the learning distribution platform. Packaging matters more than ever.
Online socialisation, learning communities and human relations
With online learning also comes an increased focus on enhancing teacher-student and student-student relations. The need for co-creation, learning communities and student involvement is huge, especially in online environments. This is often referred to as online socialisation (Salmon, 2013) and this trend will continue. Teacher-student relationships are according to global surveys the most important factor in student retention, so the need for personal feedback and human relations between teacher and student will still be in fashion in future.
Blended and hybrid learning
Online learning is already here and the Covid-19 crisis has taught us that we can continue our teaching and learning activities. However, nobody in their right minds believe that we will abandon conventional teaching in F2F environments. The sense of togetherness and the sense of being part of something bigger are part of the human DNA so I would argue that we will see much more Blended Learning and Hybrid Learning in future. At LearningHub we have developed an innovative hybrid learning model, which enables us to offer hybrid conferences where people can both attend the same event – in person and online. This is not rocket science, but we will see more of that in future.
Microlearning or Just-in-Time-learning
Another trend is microlearning or what is sometimes called Just-in-Time-learning. Microlearning is focussed learning bites that support an immediate learning need arisen in a specific work situation. Consequently, learning is here accessed by means of the learner’s mobile phone in small “bite-sized units”. Microlearning is not expected to replace conventional learning, but it may very well supplement conventional learning and when it comes to just-in-time-learning it may have an important role, especially when it is supported by a personalized and feedback-approach (Simonsen, 2020).
Research shows that online relations in for example gamer communities can be strong and meaningful.
How can technology amplify communal exploration of self and meaning?
Technology must be socially constructed otherwise it is just technology. However, using technology to amplify the communal exploration of self and meaning is not easy. It requires a clear pedagogical strategy and probably extensive pedagogical (re)training of teachers. But technology can to a very high extent be a very useful tool in community building. Research shows that online relations in for example gamer communities can be strong and meaningful. So technology can enhance the communal exploration of self and meaning. The use of conventional e-tivities (Salmon, 2013) such as online forums, online diaries, peer-to-peer elements, group assignments, and known technologies such as ZOOM Breakout Rooms, MIRO Online Whiteboards for Visual Collaboration, SLIDO Student Involvement Software, Big Blue Button webinar software, Google Meet or KUULA Virtual Tour software. It is not the same as standing in the same room, but these and other technologies can enhance the communal exploration of self, creativity and meaning if of course it serves a clear pedagogical purpose. Otherwise, it is just technology.
What is microlearning and how does it provide value?
Microlearning is usually defined as “learning mediated via handheld devices” – that is in practice mobile phones or tablets. The learning distribution platform, the mobile phone, means that the learning content should be particularly easy to access and digest, which is why we talk about “bite-sized units” in microlearning. At SmartLearning, we have so far developed 14 different microlearning courses to different target groups. Microlearning is particularly value adding in professional contexts – especially in specific job situations, where you need to learn a specific thing. The so-called “sweet spot” between learning need and access to specific learning content (Grovo, 2020). In some industries, for example the hotel and hospitality industries most employee training is delivered as microlearning. Microlearning is also value adding when the learner wants to change specific habits, because the “change agent” if you like is close by and easy to access, almost like a smart watch that helps you monitor your sleep.
I believe that the future role of the teacher will be to facilitate learning – not define the didactical design, prepare learning content or design the platform.
What is the future role of the teacher?
Based on research and a considerable amount of experience with business development in the learning industry, I am absolutely convinced that our roles as teachers is radically changing. In fact, it is quite simple. The business model of HEIs and the learning industry has changed immensely the past five years and we are moving away from what I call the Holy Trinity, which is based on a business model from 1407 where there is teacher, a student and a campus. I argue that we should embrace the Holy Hexagon instead, which is based on a new business model with a learning facilitator, learner, place of learning, employer, learning content and learning distribution platform.
I also believe that we need to be much more professional and more business-oriented in the learning industry. I strongly believe that we need to utilize the old principles of specialization and division of labour. Specialization means that we assign specialists to specific tasks within a product process – here the learning value chain. By specializing, we will be able to benefit from economies of scale, reduce costs and increase output. Consequently, we need to see it all as a value chain. At Southern New Hampshire University and to a smaller degree at SmartLearning this value chain approach is used. It means that different experts are assigned to do specific tasks. Consequently, I suggest these roles in the learning value chain: Didactical Designer, Content Designer, Platform Designer, Learning Delivery Facilitator. In conclusion, I believe that the future role of the teacher will be to facilitate learning – not define the didactical design, prepare learning content or design the platform.
What could learning providers do in the area of digitalisation?
This is of course a big question, but I believe that it is crucial for any learning provider to remain loyal to one’s own DNA. Everything boils down to the strategy of the learning provider and to answers to questions such as what gains would you like to ensure and what pains would you like to remove to meet the demands of your learners? However, I believe that any learning provider might find the following six items of advice useful:
1. Revisit your strategy and make sure it still valid.
2. Analyse your core competences – both technologies and people.
3. Make the digital transformation a strategical task and appoint a Director of Digital Learning.
4. Implement a virtual learning platform as soon as possible and focus on the packaging.
5. Establish a digital learning lab with people with the right competences. To help teachers succeed.
6. Offer hybrid learning and combine the best of both worlds.
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