Nothing inspires flights of utopian fancy quite like the Internet. Mike Davies, guest-blogger at Helge Scherlund's E-Learning News, enthuses over the transformative power of computer technology. "Everything’s going the 'e' way today --from the way we communicate to the way we learn, computers are taking over every aspect of our lives," he writes.
The rapid advances being made in the world of technology have revolutionized the world of education and brought about many unconventional, yet convenient changes. We are more dependent on bits and bytes today than books and paper, and unless something dramatic happens to wipe out technology forever, there’s no going back to the way things used to be.
Our crossing the threshold beyond which there's no going back need not frighten us, however. No matter how dizzying this onslaught of technology may seem, we ultimately remain its masters, even if, as Davies puts it, we're dependent on our devices like never before. Davies observes how "[m]ore and more people are taking to e-learning nowadays," and how this includes "children in regular classrooms who use e-learning to augment their face-to-face lessons" as well as "adults who learn how to use the Internet and computers to facilitate their back to school efforts." The Internet would appear more to bind than divide generations, so comprehensively has its presence established itself.
But computer technology has divided today's mode of learning from yesterday's. Davies goes on to speak of "just in time learning," which he defines as "a methodology that imparts just the right kind of knowledge, at the right time and the right place." Just in time learning has been steadily supplanting these antecedent modes, which rely on fairly constant and unchanging elements -- texts, course subjects -- delivered in a more or less constant and unchanging manner: curricula, lectures, course requirements. Just in time learning, on the other hand, enjoys a robustness and flexibility closely analogous to the just in time supply chains that revolutionized industry (and later retail) in the 1970s. The signature innovation of the Japanese automobile company Toyota, just in time supply chains allowed for the defraying of the once-fixed cost of warehousing and inventorying parts. Necessary auto components could instead move from ship to shop as present demand dictated. All it took was sophisticated logistical planning that, once perfected, allowed Toyota to produce cars well below the cost incurred by manufacturers in Detroit. The rest, as they say, is history. Toyota has since eclipsed General Motors as the world's largest manufacturer of automobiles.
Who, I wonder, will emerge as the Toyota of online education? Right now, it's still too early to tell. Suffice it to say that whoever it is will have developed and refined a just in time learning model that offers the kind of quality and value that drivers have come to expect from Japanese cars. There's as yet much work to be done, not only practically but culturally, because for all its native virtues online learning labors under a cloud of suspicion. Consumers just don't believe that degrees or certification from nontraditional education programs command as much respect as those earned from traditional programs.
This perception is, however, anything but set in stone. Davies for one waxes optimistic about e-learning's future. He even speculates that it will impact with far greater force corporate rather than academic spheres of learning. "While the acceptability of e-learning is low in the professional world where employers still prefer degrees from traditional colleges, it is rapidly gaining popularity in the sphere of corporate training," he writes. "More and more companies are going the e-learning way to train their employees and bring them up to speed with the way things are done around their offices."
It will be interesting to see if the just in time learning's popularity in corporate headquarters will catch on in the ivory tower. But if brick and mortar universities are to weather the upheavals of the digital revolution, it behooves them to find a way to harmonize the liberal educational tradition with the "'e" way" that, as Davies puts it, everything is following. If these brick and mortars manage to pull this off, it will be ... well ... just in time.