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New Technology and Online Learning: The Possibility and the Promise

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

New Technology
The excitement inherent in digital technology is that future innovation cannot be easily anticipated. The new technology of today spawns new ideas, which lead to future innovation, which, in turn, leads to more new technologies, which arrive on an almost daily basis. The unpredictable nature and exponential advancement of innovation in the 21st Century necessitates a focus on technologies that are firmly on the horizon or potential future uses of existing tools. Here are four of the most likely new technologies to impact education in the near future and how they might be used:

  • integrated content devices
  • collaborative learning tools
  • augmented reality
  • Web 3.0 – personal learning environments

Integrated Content Devices
Always-on Internet and the portability of the tools to access it are some of the most significant changes that will come to online learning in the near future. Ultra-portable computers, tablets and smart phones embody the convergence of several technologies that lend themselves to educational use such as e-books, video conferencing, applications for media creation, social networking tools (and, potentially, collaborative learning tools), augmented reality and the old stand-by, text-based composition tools (2011 Horizon Report K-12 Edition). These devices are already having an impact in education, particularly in the K-12 realm, as significant initiatives are underway using the iPod Touch and iPad to provide students with e-books, powerful calculators, easy Internet access and a wide variety of educational apps all in one package. This innovation is allowing students to leave their desks, the classroom and the school itself while still using powerful learning technology and to engage in learning experiences.

Higher education and particularly online education can make use of these tools in the same way and, due to the freedom from the constraints of working with K-12 students (such as the need for adult supervision in the field), even more creative ways. Online education already embraces an anytime, (mostly) anywhere philosophy that allows students to work in ways that suit each individual. Further advancements in these tools, and advances in free, universal Wi-Fi access (more in line with what is available in other technology-rich countries – The United States currently ranks 17th in the world in terms of percentage of people with broadband access) will allow students to truly work where- and when-ever they choose. Ultra-portable devices with features such as video chat and collaborative content creation tools could ultimately lead to a change in the very meaning of education. Students will have the potential to personalize their educational experiences by learning in real-world contexts.

Envision a scenario in which a student studying medicine is able to use their portable device’s collaborative learning tools, professional applications and augmented reality tools in a hospital to learn within the actual context of their future employment. This model will obviously necessitate some changes in the way our educational system functions regarding individualized rather than standardized curricula, but, in fact uses technology to return to previous educational models such as apprenticeship and John Dewey’s ideas of hands-on learning. Constructivist learning theory supports the idea that the most enduring understanding happens when students are able to actually engage with the material they are learning in real and meaningful ways. Integrated content devices will allow students to stay connected to resources that will help them understand what they are experiencing in real-world learning environments.

Collaborative Learning Tools
Collaborative tools have already been mentioned as an important part of integrated content devices, but are deserving of a deeper look because they are the cornerstone of social constructivist learning approaches made possible by technological advances. Some of these tools are already available in Wikis, Twitter and “Like/Dislike” interactivity, but they have some growing to do and full integration into more applications and portables are the next steps. If online education is to fulfill its’ potential as a medium in which truly social constructivist learning is the standard, then these tools will have to become central to the process.

The idea that collaborative meaning making, rather than knowledge dissemination, is the way of the future, necessitates software, hardware and teaching methods that allow students and their professors to interact seamlessly in ways that not only parallel the interpersonal relationships developed in brick-and-mortar classrooms. These changes also go beyond traditional learning to support an interactive, collaborative approach in which students are supported in searching for, synthesizing and generating their own understanding within real contexts. Flawless voice activation, brain wave operation, connected clothing and cybernetic implants seem like science fiction today, but some or all of them may allow students of the future to interact with each other, their instructors and technology in new and innovative ways to learn from their environment and each other.
This list from the Web 2.0 Teaching Blog demonstrates some of the collaborative learning tools that are currently being used in education. Educational technology expert Kathy Schrock maintains a list of articles about the use of portable devices in education.

Augmented Reality
While the most recent Horizon Report for higher education sees augmented reality as 2-3 years away, its use in education has already begun to a small extent. The Handheld Augmented Reality Project (HARP), a collaborative effort between Harvard University and the University of Wisconsin – Madison allows for learning to take place in authentic environments but with educational content added to the context to make it a much richer learning experience. This effort and others like it combine integrated content devices, always-on Internet access and collaborative tools to provide students with an opportunity to be actively engaged with the academic content they are studying.

Writing about augmented reality simply cannot do it justice. Here are two current examples (Layar Reality Browser and Hitlab which provide a nice overview of the potential power of augmented reality for education. Add these concepts to the ideas discussed above for integrated learning devices and collaborative tools and you can begin to see the rich potential that augmented reality holds for higher education.

Web 3.0/Personal Learning Environments
"Learning analytics promises to harness the power of advances in data mining, interpretation, and modeling to improve understandings of teaching and learning, and to tailor education to individual students more effectively. Still in its early stages, learning analytics responds to calls for accountability on campuses across the country, and leverages the vast amount of data produced by students in day-to-day academic activities. While learning analytics has already been used in admissions and fund-raising efforts on several campuses, "academic analytics" is just beginning to take shape."
(The Horizon Report, 2011, p. 28)

One potential use of the learning analytics discussed in The Horizon Report is to create personal learning environments which would provide a similar function as traditional learning management systems (LMS) but would focus less on the administrative tasks associated with learning (calendars, assignments, and such) and more on the learning itself by crafting experiences on an individual-by-individual level (Horizon Report, 2011).

"In concept, personal learning environments would encourage students to approach learning in ways best suited to their individual needs. Visual learners, for example, might be able to obtain material from a different source than auditory learners. Students using PLEs may further benefit from the practice of keeping track of, and curating, their own resource collections. Personal learning environments are seen as a way to shift the control over learning–particularly its pace, style, and direction–to the learner." (THE Journal: 6 Technologies That Will Change Education)

The technologies for constructing PLEs are somewhat available now; but PLEs are identified as longer-term technologies for learning by the most recent Horizon Report because of the relatively primitive state of semantic web technology and the fact that they’re still fairly conceptual in nature and lack a solid foundation of supporting research for their efficacy. This is a technology that is still firmly in our future, but a look at its’ potential is still valuable.

A brief window into the debate about Web 3.0 is a good place to begin in understanding the potential of PLEs. The basic concept behind Web 3.0 is that technology in the future will be intelligent enough to customize itself to your interests based on past preferences (This article from Digital Inspiration explains it in more detail). You already see a shadow of this when Amazon recommends new books based on previous purchases or Gmail pops up advertisements based on Google searches you have performed in the past. Some consider this marketing tactic to be an invasion of privacy, but when applied to learning, the potential may not seem so nefarious.

Actually, thinking about writing this next paragraph, it still sounds a bit sinister, but bear with me. The concept behind the sematic web according to JISC Science and Technology Watch is a smarter system which not only tracks your past digital life (literally everything you read, view, search for or produce in the digital world) but also understands what it is tracking in ways that are only beginning to become possible. In addition to understanding you, this smarter, connected technology will also understand all of the content available online (in the world?) and be able to make intuitive connections between different things in much the same way the human brain does. For example, your apparently disparate interest in sports and learning science may prompt your Web 3.0 enabled Internet browser to begin directing you to educational opportunities leading you to the field of sports psychology, something you may not have known you were interested in or that even existed.

The potential, when applied at an individual level to education is amazing. This technology will be able to align information and learning opportunities to each individual learner’s interests. With some development, these types of systems could also be aware of educational standards and be able to integrate individualized content with desired educational outcomes. In this way, innovative thinking can be supported while the desire for accountability in higher education can be addressed.

Discussion Anyone?
This blog has been largely focused on collaborative meaning making as one of the most important innovations in higher education. Let’s collaborate. Having just scratched the virtual surface here, I’d be interested in hearing your take on any of these technologies or suggestions regarding other future technologies that you believe will be important to the future of higher education or online learning. This is an opportunity to make our own meaning and to understand the future on our own terms.