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elearnspace Interview
Stephen Downes

Stephen's Web & OLDaily

August 15, 2002

elearnspace: How did you become involved in online learning?
Downes: My educational background is in philosophy. I studied at University of Calgary, completing my Masters, and then studied for my Phd (all but dissertation) at University of Alberta. While at University of Alberta, I was hired to teach philosophy at University of Athabasca. This was my introduction to distance education. In 1994 I started as a Distance Education and New Instructional Media Specialist at Assiniboine Community College. I did this for 4 ½ years. I then went to University of Alberta as an Information Architect to build an online learning resource for the municipal sector in Alberta called Munimall. I completed this project in fall 2001, and obtained current position as a Researcher at National Research Council. I research learning objects, learning objects metadata, standards, repositories, online learning communities, knowledge management. It’s a dream job; what I’m doing now is what I’d be doing any ways, except I get paid for it.

elearnspace: You produce a significant amount of resources. On your site you list almost 300 articles that you have written over the last several years, in addition to which you also compose a daily news digest (OLDaily). This must take must take a considerable amount of time.
Downes: Actually no. All the software on my site I have written myself to help me organize content - because I’m lazy. What I have now is a good content management system that allows me to create my web site and newsletter with a minimum amount of effort. The work involved in doing the newsletter is what I would be doing anyway. I just make it available to others.

elearnspace: What is it about online learning that draws you?
Downes: There are a variety of things. I’m naturally interested in the subject matter. I’m naturally interested in communications technology, computers, and the Internet.

I also have a motivation that compels me: I’m interested in accessibility and ways to make education more accessible and more affordable. Part of that motivation is because I was not able to afford a university education when I graduated high school, so I had to enter the work force for five years. After I was admitted, it was student loans all the way through. Today, or any time in the last 10 – 15 years, I would not be able to get into university. I didn’t have the grades, I didn’t have the support, I didn’t have the finances. Being unable to get in has stuck with me.

Also, I am a strong supporter of democracy and the democratic process. That’s not possible without education. Even getting a good government in democracy is not possible unless people are educated. All of my views are reflected in my writings. You see various strands expressed on my site – communication, technology, access to education, affordability, openness, democracy.

elearnspace: OLDaily has been going on for over a year. What is your concept and purpose behind OLDaily?
Downes: The web version was started in 1998. The email version was launched in May of 2001. Basically the email version is a emailed web page.

The original purpose is once again me being lazy. I needed access to materials I had found for quick reference. So basically I’m building a knowledge base for myself. That is still reflected to a certain degree. In late 2000, I had the nagging urge that I needed to start getting it out to people via email, that people wouldn’t visit the site on their own.

There isn’t a deep purpose behind OLDaily except it being a part of the overall program…and the overall program is to work in the field of online learning, to try new technologies to do new things. OLDaily is intended explicitly as an educational tool. It is intended to demonstrate an alternative form of learning online - non-class based, non-course-based, open-ended form of online learning. It’s a teaching tool, it’s a reference tool, but it also helps me to advance my ideas. I have an audience of more than a thousand readers, so when I write something it actually gets out there, as opposed to writing a journal article.

elearnspace: What are future goals for OLDaily?
Downes: It’s not just a newsletter, web site, or resource base. The idea here is to turn it into a general-purpose tool. So, for example, after each link you see refer, reflect, research link, and I have more planned. The idea is to create a tool that can be used for all aspects of people’s work with elearning. I’m trying to provide an overall environment for the development of the elearning profession. The model of continuing professional development, and to a certain degree preparatory work, is the overall direction learning is headed. Learning will become a lot less structured, more open-ended, where the educative process is part of the work, where we don’t have this artificial separation between learning and doing. Work becomes part of learning and vice versa. The newsletter is the tool to enable that, and what I’m trying to do is model this process in a public way with real users.

"Learning will become a lot less structured, more open-ended, where the educative process is part of the work, where we don’t have this artificial separation between learning and doing."

elearnspace: You briefly touched on the new way to learn, and over the last several months, frequent articles have posited the notion that “the course is dead”. What would you say are current trends in elearning? What are forces that will impact the industry?
Downes: I have to preface it with the comment that the field is very much in flux right now. There are some tugs of war going on, and it makes it hard to predict. On the one side, is the set of publishers and content producers, and to an extent the colleges and universities (Which is still largely business as usual, except things are a little more efficient, but nothing really changes. You still have classes, except there is an online component. You still have courses, except they may be online. You still have textbooks, except now they are ebooks). That is the one school of thought. I’ve been referring to it as the industrial age model. I refer to anything before the Internet as the artisan model, but now larger online organizations like the University of Phoenix or McGraw-Hill are beginning to industrialize that. I think this is an intermediate stage. How far this stage rises is a bit of a question mark. It will certainly come to play – I think we will see more of it in the future, not less. Whether it catches on with learners depends on how well developed and marketed the alternatives are. These are unknowns.

The alternative is what I would call the information age model. This is a decentralized model, where we don’t have courses, but rather we have continual online learning. It’s a model characterized by widely available, cheap (if not free), educational content. Money is made by educational providers through the provision of services, rather than the provision of knowledge. Learning is not class or course-based, it is customized and individualized. It is learning characterized by communication technologies such as RDF and RSS. The information age model, more than industrial age model, will be the type of learning that will be delivered via handheld. Learning will also be embedded into other products and services. For example, a microwave will give you cooking lessons, or your fishing rod will give you fishing lessons. This cannot even be conceived in an industrial course-based program model. Once education is sufficiently decentralized and distributed, education and learning can flow like a utility or a resource to the different corners of human enterprise. The information age model will come to the fore eventually, it’s a question of how quickly.

"Once education is sufficiently decentralized and distributed, education and learning can flow like a utility or a resource to the different corners of human enterprise."

elearnspace: What about the challenges that confront elearning? For example, there is confusion and social resistance to models like the University of Phoenix where instructors have become sub-contractors and control has shifted to administrators. Is this a real issue? Or is it something that will be absorbed and accepted as more institutions move online?
Downes: There was an article recently in the New York Times pointing out that 43% of all the staff in American Universities are adjunct. So we already have this happening in traditional systems. What the University of Phoenix has done is to skip the part where you hire very expensive professors, and simply rely on the adjunct. The pay for adjunct staff at University of Phoenix is similar to the pay for adjunct staff at a regular university. If I didn’t have this research job, I would today be very seriously looking at the University of Phoenix as an employment possibility. People talk about the University of Phoenix as a threat, but it’s also an opportunity. It’s hard to get into the traditional systems.

I don’t think any current professor should be threatened by the U of Phoenix. But don’t forget, a lot of these online universities are not tapping so much into existing university markets, as they are creating new markets. People who could never take a university course because they are at home with children, or they have a job – they are the ones that the University of Phoenix appeal to. Traditional universities aren’t really going to feel the pinch until people have a real choice between taking a job and going to university. That will be impacted by a range of factors; for example with the declining work force in the western world, and assuming immigration rates don’t rise dramatically, there will be substantial pressure on young people to work at an earlier age. This will create a greater demand on alternative forms of learning.

In terms of challenges, currently elearning is a mess. People aren’t playing well together. It shows up in a variety of different areas – standards initiatives, proprietary content, difficulty in installing a new LMS. The big problem right now is that there are still companies out there that think they will be THE elearning company. As a consequence, there is no real desire to work with the competition. WebCT for example, doesn’t see any upside for having a quick and easy program transition to Blackboard. From the WebCT point of view, there is no upside. So we have closed systems, we have proprietary formats. This is not getting better.

If you look at the field of standards you have the same thing. IMS thinks that it will be the standard for elearning. But IMS isn’t everything. There are initiatives in Europe. For example educational modeling language (EML) can be used to codify units of instruction – a pedagogical model. IMS has just come out and said they will do a version of that (EML). Well, my question is, why don’t they just pick up EML? People have to get over this type of idea (one standard, one platform), and this will be a while before it happens.

People have to get over this type of idea (one standard, one platform), and this will be a while before it happens.

elearnspace: Where do you go to dialogue with other elearning professionals to debate and disseminate the role and practice of elearning?
Downes: Well, the mailing lists are the big thing. They always have been. Recently, I’ve been offering comments on the Online News mailing list. It’s populated mostly by journalists working in the online field. Why? Journalism or online media is a little bit ahead of online learning in some critical areas - particularly in the area of syndication and content management.

elearnspace: There is increased tension in the area of acquiring and using content. Thomson learning, as an example, has positioned itself as a major force in content and content publishing. What is the solution to the closed, proprietary, for-profit model of content that we see evolving?
Downes: Cheap tools. In 1994 AOL, Genie, Prodigy were trying to create an empire of expensive online services. The system was destroyed by the web server. The same will happen in elearning. A learning object browser, searching third party evaluated content, will provide a similar transition that the web browser did.

We need cheap tools for publishing learning content or learning objects, and we need cheap tools for harvesting the learning objects. I expect these tools will be publicly available in the next 12 months.

Cheap tools, after all, embody the essence of a free, open market place.


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