This is a guest post by Martin Weller for the On the Horizon series on distributed learning environments. Martin is Professor of Educational Technology at the Open University in the UK (OUUK). In 1998 he created the first major elearning course at the OUUK, which attracted over 12,000 students annually. He then went on to be the OUUK's VLE Project Director for two years, which resulted in the adoption of Moodle. He is the author of two elearning text books, and blogs at http://edtechie.net. His current interests are in emerging technologies and their implications for higher education. He is the academic lead on the OUUK's SocialLearn project which is developing a social network for learners.
Higher education faces a challenge. It may not know it yet, but it does. And the challenge is this – when learners have been accustomed to very facilitative, usable, personalisable and adaptive tools both for learning and socialising, why will they accept standardised, unintuitive, clumsy and out of date tools in formal education they are paying for? It won't be a dramatic revolution (students accept lower physical accommodation standards when they leave home for university after all), but instead there will be a quiet migration. The monolithic LMSs will be deserted, digital tumbleweed blowing down their forums. Students will abandon these in favour of their tools, the back channel will grow and it will be constituted from content and communication technologies that don't require a training course to understand and that come with a ready made community.
This may seem like just a technological issue, but it runs deeper than this. If we add to the technological experience, the user participation one they will have had through social tools such as Flickr, YouTube, blogging, wikis, etc and compare this with the top-down, pre-filtered experience they have in courses and selected resources, it becomes obvious that this is about more than just technology, it is a social change.
And yet it is still the case that most students want the structure, the support and the filter that higher education provides. Technology isn't the solution, or the problem here, but we can see it as the medium through which the cultural differences between traditional higher education and web 2.0 will be realised. We can think of the learning systems we use as the metaphor for the way we approach pedagogy, the learner experience and the role of the educator.
Let's take an example - at the Open University in the UK we are developing a social network oriented approach to learning, in a project called SocialLearn. The concept is that learners have a central profile where they list their learning goals, contacts, resources, and tools. The system uses an open API, so any third party application can write to it. In essence this allows any application to become a learning tool. We are also developing a number of applications that we think will be useful for such learners. And who are 'such learners'? Well, everybody, because as soon as you conceive of learning as something that is in the control of the learner, rather than the institution, then 'the curriculum' becomes 'whatever it is you're interested in.' That could be quantum physics, it could be the world of Harry Potter. By being part of a network, you create your own cohort, and pull in the resources that are relevant to you (which will be recommended by the network). You may want the structure and motivation a course offers, which could come from a recognised institution, or could be a user generated 'course' that is taken just for fun and run by an enthusiast.
The key point is this - most LMSs are based on a centralisation philosophy, and as soon as you disaggregate the technology, you also decentralise control. With SocialLearn we found that very soon we weren't considering tools just for students in higher education, but for informal learners also. Once you do this for technology, it quickly follows that a similar disaggregation, and then reaggregation, of the various parts of the education system follow - accreditation, support, expertise, teaching. So, in SocialLearn we have begun to consider not only the technical system required, but also the business, support and pedagogical frameworks that might follow.
When it was necessary for education to be performed face to face, a number of services were bundled together. When it becomes digital and online, this may no longer be the case, as we have seen in most content industries, such as music and newspapers (education has some similarities with content and also some significant differences). The first round of learning tools replicated the centralised model, but as the tools have become easier to use, and the methods for integrating them simpler, so this centralised approach seems less applicable. In 'Here Comes Everybody', Clay Shirky argues that the 'cost' of organising people has collapsed, which makes informal groupings more likely to occur and often more successful:
By making it easier for groups to self-assemble and for individuals to contribute to group effort without requiring formal management, these tools have radically altered the old limits on the size, sophistication, and scope of unsupervised effort
Part of the function of universities is to provide this organisation, for example by grouping individuals together to form a student cohort who are interested in the same subject. But as this grouping becomes easier to do online, it becomes less of a valued function of the university - ie you don't need to go to a university to find like minded people. Shirky's argument might also apply to the technology itself - not only is it easier to group people, it's easier to group tools also.
In my article I will expand on this relationship between the technology and related educational framework, using the SocialLearn project as my main example. I would suggest that the reason the centralised LMS is not the answer to the 'web 2.0 problem' for education is because in its software DNA it embodies the wrong metaphor. It seeks to realise the principles of hierarchy, control and centralisation – the traditional classroom made virtual. This approach won't help educators understand the new challenges and opportunities they are now facing.