Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Real Story About Online Learning - Revisited III

Donald M. Norris, President and Chief Scientist, Stratgeic Inititaives, Inc.
Paul Lefrere, Partner, Strategic Inititaives, Inc.

This is the third of four blog posts on this subject.

III. Evolution of Learning Settings from Institutional to Open

The learning settings described in the first vector of evolution are institutional: Traditional colleges and universities (including their extension and continuing education divisions), for-profit universities, and learning enterprises in corporations. These so-called “institutional” settings will continue to be the primary players in traditional learning. But they will see their dominance shrink in the face of open learning environments that are the property of the student, not the institution. The challenge institutions face is to keep pace with both the changing nature of knowledge and competence, as well as the inexorable move toward greater value in learning and competence building experiences. Over time, open learning with the student at the center of a personal learning environment (such as a free-range learner) will be the predominant mode for the next generation of learners over the course of their lives.

Clear “stages” of open learning have not yet revealed themselves. They may emerge over time – or not. Several prototypes and expeditionary experiments have been described in earlier blogs. Some of the new forms of open learning environments and experiences are described below.

Peer-to-Peer Voluntary Associations. A recent article in Fast Company, “How Web-Savvy Edupunks are Transforming American Higher Education,” described the growing movement toward high-tech, do-it-yourself education. Some of these experiments reside within existing institutional settings, such as classes structured like role-playing, serious games that are being tested out in universities across the globe. Others are occurring in start-up organizations, like Peer2Peer University and the University of the People, attempting to bridge the gap between free online materials and low-cost education.

Neeru Paharia and Jan Phillip Schmidt have hacked together Peer2Peer University, which uses a Web site to enable would-be-students to convene and schedule courses, meet online, tutor one another, all facilitated by a volunteer. This is very much a demonstration of concept. Shai Reshef founded University of the People and has enrolled the first class of 300 students from nearly 100 countries. His goal is to offer bachelor’s degrees in business and computer science using open courseware and volunteer faculty for a price of about $4,000 for a four-year degree.

Other pundits, such as Richard Vedder, have mused about US associate degrees for as little as $2,000 (low by US standards, but not globally).

Formal Communities of Practice.
Informal and formal communities of practice are common in the world of business and professional practice. These sorts of communities will become the focal points for open learning experiences in the future. Earlier blogs described the efforts of Oregon State University to create an Open Campus dedicated to community-based learning. Extension Divisions in land grant universities across the U.S. have offerings that could become the basis for community-based learning. Another example is the Food Safety Knowledge Network.

In their partnership with the Global Food Safety Initiative, Michigan State is developing the Food Safety Knowledge Network (FSKN), a program of food safety resources to efficiently and effectively reach competency at all levels of food safety. The FSKN will use open resource techniques (social networking, dynamic knowledge sharing and evaluation tools) to harmonize standards, practices, and training criteria. The FSKN pilot platform will be in place in late 2009 and will be rolled out globally in 2010. The FSKN will create a curriculum for food safety competency through partnerships with industry, government, academia, local/regional authorities, and other stakeholders. Coupled with a unique learning environment using face-to-face sessions, seminars, formal courses and on-line learning, it will present a low cost, fast and efficient way for professionals to achieve competence across all sectors of the food safety industry.

Community-of-practice learning is likely to thrive in the Web 2.0 environment. Its permutations are virtually limitless. One of the advantages of learning based on real communities of practices will be the capacity to receive early warning of the emerging competences that are essential in particular fields of endeavor. Communities of practices will be able to identify, promote, and develop fresh competences at warp speed among large bodies of participating practitioners.

Free-Range Open Learning.
Over time, individual learners will have access to a vast constellation of open-learning experiences and resources. These will range from formal communities of practice and competence building networks, to easily configured, temporary learning cohorts. Using these tools and experiences, individuals will be able to develop, maintain, and extend their competence in a variety of ways and at very reasonable prices, or even at no cost. Even when “mature”, this array of alternatives will be perpetually changing, adapting, and improving.

This environment will constitute a “free range” option for learners who appreciate alternatives to traditional or even transformed institutional learning. These options will enable most adult learners to more easily advance and maintain their competences by acquiring new and emerging skills at a pace that institutional learning cannot match – at least not today (just as there is no “I” in team, there is no “academic senate” or “curriculum committee” in open learning).

Open learning environments and experiences will interact with institutional learning, assessment, and certification experiences. Institutions that do an excellent job of competence-based learning may become certifying entities that charge a fee for authenticating competences acquired through open learning, and awarding credit, certificates and degrees for a fee. This is one way in which the two evolutional paths of learning and competence with link together. Mash-ups to encourage, facilitate these linkages are under development in Europe, in partnerships between business/industry (a primary source of information on the skills that graduates need to be employable) and universities. By way of an example, read through the description and materials on Project Role, co-funded by the European Union (http://www.role-project.eu).

Many more examples exist across the globe, in a virtual archipelago of open learning experiments, prototypes, and expeditions. Recently, some pundits have questioned whether open learning endeavors can survive when they lose the seed funding from foundations, the European Commission, and other parties that have sustained ‘first gen’ open resource initiatives. A more apt set of questions may be: Which government(s) or corporate entities from across the globe will step into the breach to invest in open resources in the future? Will they do so in a manner that will disrupt traditional offerings and create opportunities for continuing reinvention of learning and competence building? How will this foment a change in the balance of competence power and the competition for talent across the globe?

Many Models, Competing for Learners. These two evolutionary paths do not suggest that any single model will become dominant for all learners, at all stages of their development. But they do mean that institutions will need to sort out their competitive position and determine how to provide a range of options that will be optimally attractive to their learners. Merely digitizing the traditional and hoping for the best will not be a winning strategy.

It will be possible for institutions to learn from emerging best practices and skip stages of evolution. In particular, institutions that aggressively practitice online, blended, and e-learning at Stage I can raise their sights and transform their practices to make a jump shift to Stages III and IV, with further evolution to Stage V. Such leaps could become feasible with strong campus-level leadership, recognizing the strategic potential ob online learning.


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