For people who have been involved in online education for the past 15 years, or distance education for the past 40 years, the current hype and energy around learning at a distance must be a bit odd – like waking up to discover that your life’s work is suddenly being “discovered” by others and labelled as “new”. I’ve been playing with online learning since late 1990′s, but colleagues at Athabasca University and other open university systems have been at it much longer under the term of “distance learning” or “distance education”. Today, it’s rare to read commentary on education that doesn’t a) call for urgent reforms, and b) tie reforms to online learning.
Today, the NYTimes details the University of Wherever, focusing on the Stanford open course in Artificial Intelligence. The article acknowledges, briefly, the history of online learning in community colleges, and then goes on to detail how “elite” universities like Stanford will disrupt education. Quoting the lead professor in the course, Sebastian Thrun, the article author states:
Thrun acknowledges that there are still serious quality-control problems to be licked. How do you keep an invisible student from cheating? How do you even know who is sitting at that remote keyboard? Will the education really be as compelling — and will it last? Thrun believes there are technological answers to all of these questions, some of them
being worked out already by other online frontiersmen.
“If we can solve this,” he said, “I think it will disrupt all of higher education.”
Open online courses offer the prospect of scaling what was previously unscalable. The printing press enabled large scale reproduction of text. The web enabled content reproduction and sharing with dramatically reduced costs. The emerging web (web 2.0 or whatever term you prefer) allows a new kind of scaling: social interaction, and, by extension, teaching.
I’m quite interested to see how the Stanford courses will manage the social aspect. The first approach – opening lectures and giving students tools or techniques for experimentation and self-evaluation – is about content scaling. The second approach of creating an ecosystem where learners can self-organize and form sub-clusters for learning activities is a more complex challenge. This challenge, however, is critical if the course is to move past traditional course model and into something quite new. The “quite new” aspect in this case is the ability for individuals to not only interact with the curriculum Thrun has created, but to build, extend, improve, challenge, and enhance the knowledge domain of the course. In addition to expanding the course knowledge domain, learners also need to engage in shared wayfinding and social sensemaking techniques to learn. Thrun is not scalable. Social interactions between learners, on the other hand, are scalable. This latter aspect is where all the fun stuff and innovation in education will happen.