April 2013 Issue: The Near Future of Education

WowEd! Newsletter from the Center for Educational Improvement

National Association for Elementary School Principals

Anticipating the Future of Online Education

By Joseph Jay Williams, Doctoral Candidate,  University of California at Berkeley

Director of the Learning Education and Research Network


Online Education is at the forefront of public discussion, making waves with an explosion of new software and unprecedented financial investments. Where is it going? What do we do to prepare for and benefit from its rise?  


In ten years, will hindsight reveal the current plethora of "ed-tech" as an obviously transient fad? Skeptics who remember exaggerated claims about the revolutionary impact of computers in classrooms might well predict that little will be changed. It could be argued that online education is not inherently new-videos like those on Khan Academy are just digitized versions of the teaching that has been with us for decades.


On the other hand, current students are immersed in technology and the Internet to a degree that is hard to fully comprehend. Many U.S. elementary school students have never known a world without the Internet and smartphones. Will future generations opt to learn in virtual classrooms, meeting peers to solve problems on mobile devices we haven't imagined yet, asking questions to Google and Quora rather than teachers? New Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) from MIT and Stanford have established the technology for offering undergraduate courses to tens of thousands, and online K-12 schools are increasing in number.  


Which of these are you placing your bets on?


To anticipate how online education will (or won't) change our schools, it helps to step back from the latest exciting technology or controversial news piece. What are the core, enduring differences between the physical spaces schools currently occupy, and the new digital medium of the Internet?


The prediction of this article is not radical disruption, but the potential for exciting and powerful improvements. Online education's largest impact will be brought about by the simple change in medium-the movement of educational resources from physical objects to digital versions. A paper textbook for each child can be converted to a series of online videos, chosen by their teacher. Paper and pencil homework becomes interactive exercises that adaptively guide and challenge students. This also includes online education for teachers themselves-professional development can expand beyond staff room conversations and scheduled visits to workshops, to on-demand webinars, emails and updates with practical tips and suggestions, and to regular collaborative discussion about teaching-when it's most convenient and most relevant to real-world challenges.


Surely such a simple change couldn't be very consequential? But it can be, for the same reason that it is only in the 21st century that the world's most comprehensive and up-to-date encyclopedia (Wikipedia) could be accessed for free, at a moment's notice, from anywhere and anything with a connection to the Internet. Sidestepping any debate or personal feelings on Wikipedia's pros and cons, let's consider three factors that allow it to cover more articles and be widely available than Britannica ever was-accessibility, improvability, and collaboration. These are the forces that are on the side of improving online educational resources.


Once educational resources are available in digital and online versions, they are widely accessible and can be easily modified through collaboration unlike their physical counterparts. A current (often justified) criticism of online educational resources is that they are immense in number but often of questionable quality. While not desirable, this notion is understandable because the greatest strengths of online education are only just beginning to work-more good resources like videos and homework assignments are available than ever before, and good and bad resources alike can be copied and improved easily, by a vast network of people with diverse expertise. In the same way, Wikipedia was a far more dubious resource than Microsoft Encarta when it first emerged, because its key strengths were only manifested over time. Its excellence emerged once people began to use it regularly and a diversity of people across the world repeatedly improved it.


For current educators and students, this suggests the importance of patience, but also of proactively seeking the benefits of access, improvability, and collaboration. Many teachers on Twitter’s #edchat hashtag already share knowledge of good resources that are now available online, having searched for the diamonds in the rough. Using, supporting and creating websites and social media groups that do this curation is essential to reaping the benefits of online education. For example, What Works Clearinghouse is a government resource on evidence-based practice, EdSurge and Edudemic provide reviews of educational technology resources, Gooru learning is a search engine for online content, and Tioki is a new social network for educators.


To foster the constant evolution and improvement of educational resources, teachers can use websites that make it easy to edit and rearrange videos and assignments--like OER commons--and spread the word about software that makes it easy for teachers to construct their own materials by adapting, such as the Teachers pay Teachers and noRedInk websites. Taking the time to test out materials with their students and provide feedback online can also drive forward this development.

Finally, online education makes a wide range of new collaborations possible. Teacher professional development programs, such as those from the University of Virginia CASTL program, provide teachers with the latest research findings, allow ways to collaborate to evaluate educational materials like lesson plans, and let teachers video record and discuss lessons with other teachers and coaches. This can be done through a variety of channels--phone calls, online lessons and chats, or  email exchanges at their convenience. Moreover, these methods  facilitate a novel bridge between research and practice, a goal close to the heart of the Center for Educational Improvement.


In previous years, it has been arduous to connect researchers in education and psychology with students and teachers, so they can understand the practical problems faced and benefit from on-the-ground wisdom. This obstacle has also held back researchers from collecting data and evidence about what practices work best, or explaining how the latest research findings can be applied practically. By communicating through online networks--and working together on developing online educational resources--there isn't a need to rely on coincidental personal meetings or general press releases. Teachers and researchers anywhere can have direct conversations, find counterparts interested in collaborating, and make great progress in producing materials such as videos and homework assignments.  


It is hard to predict exactly what online education will bring. But there are many ways to ensure our schools and students benefit from it.