A recent Sloan Consortium workshop on The Seven Futures of Online Education, presented by John Sener of Sener Knowledge, LLC, provided a gateway into examining Sener's "Six Futures of Cyberized Education." The six futures are currently contained in a series of blog posts on the Sener Knowledge website and are the basis for an in-progress book on the topic. For me, they provide an excellent foil against which to examine some of the possible futures of education and online learning. Here are Sener's six scenarios and my take on the likelihood of each coming to pass.
Scenario 1 — Free Market Rules: In this projection for the future, formal education as we know it will dissolve in favor of private business-oriented online sources because of overwhelming forces in the free market economy.The dissolution of formal education will happen in large part because for-profit online learning will dramatically alter the landscape of higher education. In addition, initiatives like DIY learning, MITx, Khan Academy, and digital badges all provide sufficient force to collapse the formal education system and replace it with a free market system.
Analysis: While Sener does not project any timelines for his scenarios, I see this one as unlikely to happen on a large scale within the next 10-15 years. For starters, most of the free-market alternatives to traditional, formal education lack sufficient structure and universal buy-in to appeal to the majority of would-be learners. Competing formats, standards, and a lack of any sort of evaluation process will make this scenario near impossible to come to fruition, as many competing entities will try to carve out their own niches in the free market economy rather than work together to establish a firm alternative to traditional education. Essentially, the field is big enough for both formal education as we know it and countless smaller private options to coexist as long as no one dominant alternative educational source holds sway.
Scenario 2 — Standards Rule: In the second of Sener's scenarios, formal education becomes even more formal because of strict regulation and an imposition of standards by governing bodies. Online education falls in line with these standards in large part because of recent legislative efforts, a critique of the for-profit online sector, and uncertainty about the quality of informal learning.
Analysis: In all truth, this is probably one of the most likely of Sener's scenarios to actually happen. The constant pressure to compete in the global economy and the belief that American schools are failing could bring about a reawakening of a No Child Left Behind-type legislation that implements strict standards throughout K-12, higher education (recent NCLB waiver requests could also spark a backlash), and the online sector. Such standards would kill the informal education model. In addition, societal belief that stricter, assimilationist education models of the past are superior to the innovative potential of online and informal learning will push this scenario into reality.
Scenario 3 — Free Learning Rules: Sener actually proposes various levels of change based on this scenario, with results ranging from disaster for formal education, to a relative balance between formal and informal sources. The basic premise is that free alternatives such as The Khan Academy, Udacity, MITx, and countless other free online learning alternatives, coupled with a systematic recognition of informal education like digital badges, will lead to a dissolution of the formal education system because it simply is not needed any longer.
Analysis: While I love the utopian feel of this prediction, even though it means that most of my friends and many family members would be out of jobs, I really have a hard time seeing the free online model taking over completely in the foreseeable future. For starters, there is always going to be a market for hands-on, F-2-F education that happens via a formal residential experience. While the overall number of students choosing to invest so heavily in their education may certainly diminish – there is already some evidence of this –the market is unlikely to completely vanish.
The second major obstacle to the rise of free online learning as the dominant means of education in the U.S. is the accreditation issue. It is unclear how the quality of free alternatives will be measured, evaluated, or guaranteed. Higher education itself will resist implementing a formal system of accreditation for free online learning because acknowledging its worth is dangerous to the establishment. Business will be more accommodating, but still hesitant because the bottom line rules and if there is no assurance of quality for a new employee, the risk of believing in free credentials obtained online may seem too great.
Scenario 4 — Cyberdystopia: Like all dystopian visions, the basic premise here is that digital technologies diminish the humanity of education and the learning experience, causing an educational disaster. In this model, business takes over education and turns schooling into hyper-efficient, vocational training centers by using technology to replace any human elements in the system (Sener).
Analysis: Seldom do truly dystopian (or utopian) futures come to pass. Things simply just don't go to such extremes – except in the movies. Now, while we do tend to give business far too much leeway in a Friedman-esque nod to "freedom," I have to believe that eventually, the rest of the "99%" will wake up and realize that they are being duped by the business sector. Hopefully, that will happen before free public education, federal subsidies for universities, and any other social services are completely gone. Initiatives like The Khan Academy, for example, explicitly view the use of online learning as a way to humanize the classroom by flipping the burden of learning to students, thus allowing teachers to interact at a more personal level with their charges. Here is a video of Khan founder Salman Khan explaining how this works:
Scenario 5— Steady As She Goes: Sener's projection for a future of cyberized education in which there is some incremental improvement, but in which little actually changes, is the safe bet for what will actually happen to the educational system.
Analysis: Looking back at past dramatic innovations such as radio, television, and the computer paints a clear picture of how innovations move through the education system — they arise, great impact is projected for education, there is a brief honeymoon period where lots of resources are devoted to incorporating the new technology, but then the fad passes and education remains largely unchanged. This is a very likely scenario for online learning too. There is hope, however, that because of the rapid pace of technological innovation and because online learning represents an entirely new paradigm for learning, that schools may actually have to adapt and change their method of doing business. This is probably more likely for higher education than K-12, simply because of the demands on higher education to produce more tech-savvy graduates.
Scenario 6 — Education Improves: This would be the best-case scenario for a cyberized future of education. In this scenario, traditional and cyberized education play nicely together, leading to substantive improvements in both models and education as a whole.
Analysis: There is no reason to think that this couldn't become our educational reality. Looking at well-funded, innovative efforts like The Khan Academy and the way that it is already being integrated into schools to make their core mission better, easier, and more humanistic, makes a bright future seems possible.
All in all, technology does have a remarkable capacity to improve our lives – particularly in regard to what we learn and how we learn it. This has held true for every age of our history. The information age and the power of the Internet should inspire a new era for education as well. Despite our human penchant for entropy, the organizing and stabilizing potential of a connected world could lead to an improvement in education and the society it serves. That bright future could well be one in which students at all levels learn through a well-integrated and well-planned blend of online and traditional education.