Whatever education comes to look like in the years and decades to come, it's a safe bet it won't look like it did in years and decades past. Such, anyway, is the expectation of David Hunter Tow, Director of the Future Planet Research Centre located in Australia.
In an article dated March 13, 2011 for International World News, Tow announces that "[o]ver the coming decades the process of learning and education will undergo a profound shift, from the traditional classroom/face to face method of knowledge transfer to a much more abstract model, where teaching will be largely separated from its current physical infrastructure, such as classrooms and campuses, in much the same way as the content of a printed book is becoming abstracted from its physical medium in digitised eBook form."
The coming "Education Revolution" will owe its impetus "to two major drivers." These are:
The Knowledge Revolution - the hyper-fast generation of information and knowledge processes; The Cyber Revolution - the transformation of the world’s knowledge base, including all processes and services to digital form, distributed via the Web.
Traditional "brick and mortar" institutions of higher learning risk plunging into history's dustbin should they refuse to join these interlocking revolutions.
Yet legitimacy remains a sticking point. Presently, for-profit colleges dominate the online learning market, and the scandal that continues to dog them tends to make the very idea of online learning seem dubious.
Tow doesn’t worry, however; the preeminence of University of Phoenix and its ilk prevails today, but seems unlikely to prevail tomorrow, as traditional institutions overhaul their curriculum in such ways as to make them robust to coming changes. Whatever its drawbacks, University of Phoenix (as the representative example of the current state of affairs) does offer "many beneficial flow-on effects for both individuals and communities," Tow continues, "including reduced travel time and more flexible delivery of courseware, making learning more affordable and accessible, particularly for working and part time students."
These benefits only stand to shine more brightly should online learning gain greater acceptance. Tow believes that soon it will manage to do just this. "Studies have already suggested that students in online learning environments perform as well as or better than those receiving face-to-face classroom instruction," he writes. "Traditional teaching institutions therefore will find it increasingly difficult to compete with online cyber innovations on a cost, convenience and quality basis."
Tow's optimism many no doubt share. The danger constantly lurks, however, of developing too rosily utopian an outlook and of thus missing some of the more solemn realities attending the online learning industry, particularly in its present predominantly for-profit iteration. An article appearing in the March 13, 2011 edition of University World News covers a keynotes address given by one Sir John Daniel, who treats the present state of online learning with more circumspection than you find in Tow's piece. "Delivering the first international keynote address [to the Fourth Annual Australian Higher Education Congress], Daniel said that if used properly, education technology could achieve wider access, higher quality and lower cost all at the same time," the article reports. "He said this was a revolution -- it had never happened before -- but public universities had failed to achieve these advantages and could lose out to private providers."
"Referring to a report by Vancouver researcher Dr Tony Bates, Daniel noted the rapid growth of e-learning," the article continues. "In the US enrolments in fully online distance education courses had expanded by 21% between 2009 and 2010 compared with a 2% expansion in campus-based enrolments."
Thus far, Sir John considers for-profit colleges to have treated their market position too lightly in their aggressive pursuit of profit to the sacrifice of curriculum development:
Yet, despite this growth, Bates found that institutional goals for e-learning were "unambitious", Daniel said. The intelligent use of technology could help higher education accommodate more students, improve learning outcomes, provide more flexible access and do all this at less cost.
As Sir John sees it, for-profit colleges risk squandering the revolutionary promise they in large part helped to bring about. A more sober approach to their ethical responsibilities with respect to both their students and the public good remains a tremendously pressing order of business -- especially if we do indeed find ourselves on the threshold of the new educational order the futurist Tow predicts for us.