Five Possibilities for the Future of Online Learning

Where is the future of online learning? Which providers will grow and which will diminish? In a regulated industry like education, it is often hard to predict. Yet, there are certain potentials futures that are far more likely than others. As I review the landscape and the developments over the last twenty years, I suspect that there are four especially strong potential futures. There may well be a blend of these four, but each represents a strong trend that is likely to traction.

Also, before I get started, I should explain that referencing these five is not necessarily a claim that all other forms of online learning will cease to exist in the future. Rather, I’m referring to futures where certain forms dominate over others. This is a matter of emphasis more than existence. You might even find it helpful to think in terms of market share. With that important caveat, here are for strong potential futures for online learning.

Regional Influencers

One possibility that seems to have gained significant attention in the last few years is the idea of the online learning regional influencer. In contrast to the national and international brands in online learning, many regional non-profit state Universities and private higher education institutions have captured market share. People resonate with and trust these schools, and that is extending to online learning. These may be online programs of hundreds or thousands, but they are often not the massive populations that we see with some of the past online programs. Some of these schools are also marketing their online programs nationally and internationally, but they get the majority of students in their own backyard and through a robust alumni network that extends beyond the region.

This is a promising future because regional online programs can find far less expensive ways to recruit students. They don’t necessarily need to spend the countless millions on digital campaigns across the country to get traction. More people already know them in the region, so a small but focused mixed channel marketing effort can be all that is needed to connect degree seeking student with their online programs.

A Few Massive Providers

At the same time, there are some for-profit and non-profit providers who might have started with a regional focus, but they have definitely extended their influence nationally and internationally. These programs have awareness, large marketing budgets, impressive and sizable teams (on the recruitment/marketing and academic side), and they are striving to set the bar for innovative programming.

There is the possibility that these will continue to grow and gain market share, pushing out many of the others who dabble with online learning. This could happen with some of the known and established online Universities today. It could also happen with elite Universities that choose to leverage their brand to establish a low-cost portfolio of online programs. While distinguishing these programs from their face-to-face counterparts, these schools could potentially pass by existing groups, using their longstanding brand reputation to become online program providers of choice. Granted that such schools establish cutting edge research to inform their design and practice, this would be a powerful force in the online space, allowing them to recruit large numbers with a limited marketing budget, simply because of the strong brand awareness.

Storefront & Partnerships

Then we have the large MOOC providers like Coursera and EdX. While they are not moving quickly into offering degree programs, the way in which they are set up could be preparing them to eventually becoming providers for small and massive online courses and programs. Universities could partner to offer courses that contribute to a shared degree, or one could take individual courses with a single University.

The MOOC providers have a compelling storefront model that has interesting possibilities. Instead of people simply conducting broad searches to find the right online degree, imagine a future where there are a few massive storefronts. Now imagine corporate and other partners playing some sort of role in this, providing pathways to certain jobs, aligning professional programs more closely with the needs of specific employers, and much more.

This approach is a strong possibility amid the unbundling experiments that we are seeing in education. Challenges with accreditation and inconsistency across organizations prevents a more such shared programs today, not to mention competitive element. Yet, if a storefront provider were to establish some sort of cross-organization standard, it is not hard to imagine a situation where there is greater transferability from one organization to the next. We could see programs created out of courses or even smaller curricular units from a few or even a dozen organizations. This future downplays the differentiation and distinctions from one organization to the next. It is a stronger possibility in ares of study where there is already a great deal of standardization due to external regulatory bodies. For example, this could work in a healthcare field where you have pretty much the same outcomes and courses regardless of where you study.

This future requires a type of partnership that is less common today in the degree-seeking world, but if an organization is successful in creating a well-known storefront, we could see a future of online learning that is not unlike the grocery store experience, only with courses and degrees. This leads me to a distinct but related idea, the competitive marketplace approach.

Competitive Marketplace

Another potential future is the Amazon model of online higher education. Imagine a future where you could go to a marketplace not unlike to search for online programs. We certainly see sites that collect and present many online options today, but those are largely simple sites with inquiry forms. These companies make money by charging schools to advertise their programs on the site. It is a basic business model.

We’ve not yet seen the growth of more advanced versions of this concept in education, truly bringing to reality a marketplace approach to searching for degree and non-degree training. Yet, there are some influential voices and organizations interested in creating something like this. It could begin with a regional partnership among 5-10 large state Universities, for example. Unlike the last example, where it might include more collaboration among course providers, this is mainly a storefront. It certainly could include collaboration, but it doesn’t need to. People can shop for courses and degrees across organizations.

The Free & Open Online University

We see open universities outside of the United States, but there are emerging financial innovations and political moves that may well drive a new type of online degree program, namely a free and open one. This could be government funded, but there are other possibilities for funding a completely or almost free online degree provider. Given the growth of the open learning movement combined with some political interests pushing for tuition-free college, this type of massive and online degree option has a possibility of coming into existing in the next decade.

Again, futures in education are influenced by a myriad of factors, and regulatory changes make it a challenge to see too far ahead. Yet, these four possible futures are rooted in some clear, persistent, and growing trends in the online learning space. I am confident that we will see one or more of them gain significant traction in the upcoming decade and beyond.

When does an Online Course Stop Being an Online Course?

What is an online course? When does an online course cease to be an online course? Since my days in graduate school, I’ve been drawn to a simple but helpful exercise to get at the “essence” of something. It consists of asking three questions. What is essential? What is important? What is merely present? Asking these three questions helps find out the attributes so significant that removing them causes that item to become something else. Amid the growth of online learning and talk about “online courses”, perhaps it is time to use this exercise to consider the essence of an online course. What are the attributes that are so central to an online course that removing them causes it to no longer be appropriately labeled an online course?

To illustrate how this works, consider asking these three questions about a ball. What are the essential attributes of a ball? Some people start by talking about its shape, that a ball must be round. Yet, we need to adjust that definition to consider something like a football. As such, we might revise our first statement to say that it must be round on one plane. From there we go to the second question. What is important? These are the attributes that impact its use and purpose but it remains a ball. Shape, size and weight fit into this category. Finally, we ask about those attributes which are merely present. These are the traits that do not significantly impact the use or purpose. In many cases, the color might be such an attribute. By going through such an exercise, we don’t just come to better understand the essential attributes. We also develop an overall, deeper, nuanced, and more multi-faceted perspective on whatever we are studying. Let’s apply this to the idea of an online course, a concept that continues to evolve.

If you go the route of studying the history and etymology of the word “course”, you will likely end up with something like a “planned series of study.” In the United States, we tend to use “course” to describe a part of a larger program, but “course” is used to describe the entire program in other parts of the world. What people call a degree program in the United States, people in parts of Europe might call that a course or course of study.

If you are speaking with people in a K-12 or traditional University setting in the United States, it is easy for people to describe what they think of as a course. It is something led and organized by a teacher for a group of students. It has a start and end date. There is a teacher. There are students, planned lessons, assessments, and assignments. There might be lectures, larger and small group activities, projects, quizzes and tests, discussions, homework, papers, readings, and dozens of other elements. Which are essential? Which are important? Which are merely present? What are the attributes of a course that make it a course and not something else?

One of the difficulties with educational innovation and the adoption of new practices is that we get used to and comfortable with certain constructs. Whether they are better or worse than an innovation, their familiarity gives them superiority in our minds. We are quick to defend them even when we are something unhappy with them. I suspect that this is part of the reason why we run into problems with the changing idea of a course, especially an online course.

There have been innovations to challenge or stretch our idea of a course for many years. Self-paced or correspondence courses, for example, conflict with traditional ideas of a course. There may be a teacher, but not one that fulfills the same role that we think of in traditional courses. There may be no scheduled time when people gather together, and the start and end dates for the course vary by learner. There is also likely like to no student-student interaction. Yet, we still call it a course. At the same time, because it is new and suspect, it is common for these new ideas of courses to be given lower status or credibility, at least among the most mainstream people in a given domain.

In the digital world, this becomes even more complex. Scan the web for what people call courses and you will find countless models. A course might be a series of three or four webinars led by one or more different people followed by a short quiz. It might be 3-credit class in a learning management system, part of a larger degree program. It could be non-credit or credit-based, offered by a school, a company, a government agency, even an individual. Students might have scheduled activities, readings, assignments, and graded participation in weekly discussion groups. We use “online course”  to describe a MOOC led by one or a few people, largely consisting of short videos and readings with a few quizzes or peer-reviewed exercises shared among hundreds or thousands of learners. An online course might also be something like what you often see on a site like Udemy, largely made up of a bunch of small video recordings, possibly with some quizzes or checks for understanding and a Q & A area. Sometimes there is an “instructor.” Sometimes there is not. Sometimes there are assessment of learners, but not always.

With such a broad use of the term, is there anything essential to an online course? Yes, but it is still important to recognize that it is a rapidly expanding term. With that caveat in mind, consider the following traits. Despite their differences, each of these examples includes a planned course of study. Whether explicit or implicit, something was established to be learned, explored and/or studied. Resources and/or activities were included in that plan. The other part, of course, is that these resources or activities relied upon online resources and/or environments.

That is all that I can come up with for essential attributes of an online course in today’s world. The rest is important or merely present. This includes whether or not it is for-credit, part of a larger program, includes student-instructor interaction, includes student-student interact, the nature of the learning activities, whether it is teacher-directed, learner-directed, or peer-directed and organized. The same is true for the length, complexity, and host/provider for the course. These all play an important role in how the course is valued, how it is experienced, and the impact of the course. Yet, people can implement diverse experiments with these attributes while still calling it an online course.

I’m sure there are many implications for such a broad and popular use of the phrase “online course”, but one comes to mind for me. Because people use the phrase so widely, it is not adequate to make broad assumptions about the idea of an online course. Blogs and other media sources report and reflect about online courses and online learning, but they sometimes jump from example to example without recognizing the distinctions. Studies come out about online learning, but people do not always take the time to consider the type of online courses represented in the study. This has led to widespread confusion, sometimes unnecessary debates, misrepresentations, and often overly general statements about online learning.

Consider the example of MOOCs. As soon as people started writing about MOOCs, most failed to compare them to more traditional online courses. In fact, some wrote about MOOCs as if they were the beginning of online learning, ignoring decades of practice and research that preceded MOOCs. Instead, people compared MOOCs to traditional college courses leading toward traditional degrees. It created a debate that led to a more guarded and often dismissive tone to the conversation instead of allowing us to just be curious about the affordances and limitations of this new construct. This was likely intensified by using the word “course” and people’s pre-existing notions of what constitutes a course.

MOOCs were not, however, the first alternative use of the word “course.” Long before MOOCs we used, people used the word “course” to describe a vast array of online learning experiences. Many of these mentions didn’t have the widespread media attention of MOOCs, so people skipped over them, missing the chance to compare MOOCs to multiple concepts of courses. If this happened early on, it could have transformed and expanded our thinking about MOOCs, their benefits, limitations, and positive potential use moving forward.

What is an online course? It is a course that relies heavily upon online resources, activities and experiences. What is a course? Now that is the important question. Its’ essential attributes involve planning and learning, but in the evolving use of the term, a course can be almost anything. Until we recognize these developments, we will continue to miss promising possibilities, talk past one another, and fall prey to overly simplistic understandings of learning in a connected world.

What if You Were in Charge of the University of Phoenix

The Apollo Group, parent company of the University of Phoenix, was just sold for 1.1 billion dollars, and Tony Miller was appointed the new board chairman.  Let’s use this as a chance to engage in a little imaginative play, a sort of thought experiment. If you are up for it, please keep reading.

The UoP has new leadership on the board level and you just received a cryptic email. It is from Tony Miller with the subject, “seeking your leadership.” You open it and read the following:

Dear ___________,

As you may know, I was recently appointed the chair of the board for the Appolo Group. What you probably do not know is that we have been following and noticing your work for quite some time, and I have a proposition for you. Would you be willing to spare a few minutes for a brief phone conversation?

Of course, your first thought is that it is a scam, although it was not flagged as spam or junk mail. After inspecting the email address and inspired by pure curiosity, you send a reply, accepting the invitation to chat. Moments after sending your email, you get a response asking if you are available now.

You call the provided number and Tony Miller answers the phone. He restates what he wrote in the email and continues.

As you probably, the University of Phoenix has declining enrollment. It has been through a fair share or challenges ranging from investigations to lawsuits, enrollment declines to critiques that have tarnished and weakened its brand. As state Universities and others have entered the online space, the UoP, an ealry leader in online learning, has struggled to find its distinct niche. I would like to hire you to turn it around, to help establish a grand and bold vision for the University of Phoenix moving forward. We will pay you well and, more importantly, provide you with the resources that you require. All that we ask is for you to submit a short vision for the UoP with a sample of 3-5 key initiatives that will represent that vision.

Assuming that you were inclined to accept the offer, what sort of vision would you cast for the UoP? What would you establish as key initiatives moving forward? Of course, the UoP is a for-profit entity, so your plans must make fiscal sense. They must promise a reasonable return on investment. Beyond that, it is up to you. As a place to start, here is the current UoP mission statement:

University of Phoenix provides access to higher education opportunities that enable students to develop knowledge and skills necessary to achieve their professional goals, improve the performance of their organizations, and provide leadership and service to their communities.

I’d genuinely love to hear some of your ideas. Consider sharing them in the comment area. How might you refresh, refine or completely change the mission and direction of the organization? What sort of initiatives would be signature efforts of this new direction? As a way to get things going, here are five elements that I’d consider if I had a go at it.

I would take a new direction with the mission statement.

It might be something like this. “We help people build lifelong learning networks, competence, confidence, and the capacity for mission-minded impact in current and future vocations.

Move away from marketing and leading with the promise of degrees.

We would still issue degrees, but we would now put all of our marketing and improvement efforts upon the people of UoP. Our promise would not be focused on getting a degree to get a job or promotion. It would be upon becoming a personal of such great value and impact, that people would seek you out to help lead the charge.

Everyone builds a world-class, digital age, personal learning network.

This would be a core part of every program and every core offering. Austin Kleon warned that, if it isn’t online, it doesn’t exist. We are going to make sure that everyone from employee to student at the UoP becomes an influencer and is building a robust and useful learning network in the digital age. People will learn how to represent their unique gifts and abilities, their accomplishments, their knowledge and skills, and they will be proud to be part of a worldwide UoP community.

Remember those commercials with the red sox? They were on to something, but they didn’t let it permeate the entire organization. It was a great commercial, but they didn’t let it drive them enough. You can’t make a promise like that unless you are all in on it, and I would invest the effort to be all in.

Reframe drop out and stop out.

Now our goal is to mentor people to gain the competence and confidence to have high levels of positive impact in their work, communities and the world. Our faculty will be identified, trained and then focused upon just that. We declare a moratorium on just grading assignments and letting students pass from class to class, ending with a grade. Our learning experiences will be project-based, inquiry-based, case-based, deeply engaging and persistently enlightening.

When you sign up to be a student at the UoP, you are joining a community that is intensely invested in your future, but we also have high expectations. We care deeply about retention but not because of some DOE standard. We do it because we want each person to thrive. As such, when and if a person has obtained the level of competence and confidence to achieve their goals, we have no problem letting them move on, even if it is prior to finishing a degree. We will get creative about recognizing their accomplishment up to that point and making sure they know there is always an open seating awaiting them upon their return.

We are committed to providing a lifelong learning network.

Once you join the UoP community, we are committed to helping you throughout life. That comes with career assistance, ongoing professional development, coaching and mentoring, and whatever other related elements you need. We will be known for hosting some of the most amazing and inspiring events for our students and alumni that you can find. They will eventually compete with the brand of TED, but exclusive access is limited to those in the UoP community. In addition, we are going to invest in the best ideas within our community, becoming known as a place that supports and ignites entrepreneurship, becoming a place to learn how to start new ventures that benefit the world.

This isn’t necessarily the vision or strategy that I would set for every higher education institution, but given the unique and distinct history and attributes of the UoP, this is where I would take it. I am confident that it would be both profitable and impactful. It could help recover and then improve the brand of the organization. It could also once again make the UoP an industry leader and visionary in the future of learning in a connected age.

That is my idea. How about you? You’ve just been placed in charge of the UoP. Where will you take it?

Online Learning is the Real Disruption, Not Online Degrees

The real coming education disruption is online learning, not online degrees. Some argue that online degrees will disrupt traditional degrees. That is a possibility for some targeted areas, but that is not yet a certainty. I can see one potential future where the majority of people with a college degree earned half or more of it online. However, for us to see the potential for true disruption, we are wise to broaden our view. It might be online learning that disrupts, not online degrees.

Online learning encompasses more than online degrees. The phrase “Online degrees” is one that refers specifically to degree programs that are typically offered by regionally and nationally accredited higher education institutions. Online learning can refer to that as well, but it also includes informal online learning, self-directed learning, non-credit and continuing education offerings, offerings by non-universities and the increasingly common experience of people who mix and match online resources and experiences to achieve personally and professionally meaningful learning goals.

Disruptive innovations, as described by Clayton Christiansen, gain traction by providing an unmet need via what is often seen as an initially inferior product. Over time, as a customer base grows and the product gains refinement, this innovation begins to take market share from what was previously the gold standard offering. While many have followed the growth of online degrees since the 1990s (developing out of a much older tradition of distance and correspondence education), it is the online learning beyond courses, degrees and programs that has grown the fastest.

Consider the growth of online learning more broadly compared to online degrees. Yes, online degree programs have grown, but during that growth, Khan Academy grew from nothing to well over 10 million unique visitors per month. Youtube, a source of ubiquitous informal learning and the second largest search engine on the web,  grew to over 1 billion monthly users since its start in 2005. Countless communities of practice have emerged online. The concept of the “personal learning network” emerged. We saw the rapid growth of online book clubs, Twitter chats, open courses, low-cost and inexpensive non-credit courses from individuals and organizations, and thousands of companies have started that focus on educational products and services for individuals…not just providers of materials for schools.

This is a potentially larger disruption than online degree programs. These online learning options do not commonly lead to degrees (that can change and is changing in some circumstances). They do lead to something that has always been more important than degrees…learning and progress toward expertise. As concepts like multiple learning pathways, informal learning, and self-directed learning continue to grow in popularity, so will the interest in the broader world of online learning, that which extends far beyond the walls of formal schooling and accredited schools.

What has yet to occur is a clear understanding of how people will show their work, provide evidence of their increased expertise, and leverage that as a means of accomplishing personal goals. Yet, this is the space for a next and emergent round of education startups, innovators, and scholars willing to come to the table. Expect to see much progress in this area over the upcoming years. As it does, more people will begin to recognize that the great disruption in modern education might be online learning and not just online degrees.