Just another critical year for online learning
by Clive Shepherd
Assuming the bug doesn't strike us all down, the year 2000 should be just another critical year in the short history of online learning. So far, an awful lot is being done by so many to so few, but more than one or two share prices depend on the market conforming to the expectations of the visionaries and the finance directors and coming to the learning table in the year 2000.
Things have moved so fast - even the companies who's names you recognised (Asymetrix, CBT Systems et al) have been magically rebranded in the past few months - that it might be a good time to reflect on the major trends and pause for breath before the onslaught. Here Clive Shepherd gets into the spirit of things and contributes his very own millennial musings.
The law of ever diminishing objects
If learning is packaged in small objects, perhaps 5-20 minutes each, and made available online, you have yourself a truly learner-centred resource. And if the objects are small enough to dodge the interruptions, then learning at the desktop can be a reality.
So now the race is on for who can produce the smallest learning objects - what yours are still more than 10 seconds? - but common sense (as always, in short supply) means matching the size of the chunk to the needs of the content. Let's face it, some learning points simply can't be made in a few minutes, and who wants to keep selecting another object after every few screens? Nevertheless, this is one development we should welcome with open arms - only those content providers with hundreds of hours of material packaged in really whopping chunks (and they shall remain nameless) will wish the idea had remained a theoretical one.
Pay for your own learning - whatever next?
Until now, technology-based training has been sold (where it's been sold at all) to large corporates, typically on an annual license basis. The training has been delivered by CD-ROM or over relatively fast internal networks. Selling directly to the learner requires a completely different business model and a new delivery channel. Individual learners will want to pay by the course and they will be very conscious of price. They'll also want to access the training where they are - most probably at home - and that means over the Internet.
So what are the implications for content providers? The first is that prices will have to tumble if they are to tempt customers who're going to be far more cautious with their training dollar than any training department. And this will, of course, have a knock-on effect on the prices that corporates will pay. The second implication is that content will have to be media-poor - most learners will have dial-up connections and will not be interested in downloading audio and video files or any superfluous imagery. Expect to see libraries of CD-ROM training material appearing at car boot sales near you.
Any portal in a storm
The idea has caught on so fast that personalised home pages will be a thing of the past - soon every learner will be able to have their own portal! The word is that there's likely to be at least 150 portals vying for trade come the millennium. Of course that's far too many, but it's typical of the early stages of any new technology and most will not survive for long. Come 2002 we'll be down to the handful of players that really can deliver what the public wants at the right price, with room at the margins for niche offerings.
What business model is likely to win out? Well, looking from the learner's perspective, you'll want a wide assortment of offerings (from a range of vendors - a site dedicated to a single publisher is not a portal), sensible pricing, uniformly high quality (which excludes rubbish produced by the site's users) and all available in nice small chunks.
Bring back the humans - we're missing you
Yes, there comes a point when your own company is not enough. When you're completely stuck for an idea, when you can't make head or tail of the material, when you completely disagree with what's on the screen and want to make it known and when you're finding it hard to gather up any energy at all to complete the assignment. It's at times like that when you'd give your right arm for a tutor to moan at or some colleagues with whom to share your frustrations.
Quite simply, any major online learning offering has to be supported in some way by a human being - someone who can respond flexibly to your emerging needs. This person might communicate online - through email, chats and discussion forums - or sneak in a little offline messaging by phone or in the staff restaurant. Whichever way, learners are telling us that self-study is not enough. How do we know? Because they drop out of the course.
Need learning? Who you gonna call?
Now one thing you won't be short of is management systems to administer all this learning. A learning management system can't be all that difficult to produce because, let's face it, practically everyone's produced one. And as we already know, there's any number of companies anxious to arrange access to all this new material through their definitive - only place you'll ever need to shop - learning portal. The problem lies elsewhere - with the content. Who on earth is going to make all these learner-centred, artificially intelligent, AICC-compliant and extremely compact learning objects? Don't ask me, because from where I'm looking the whole education and training technology industry has, for the last ten years, employed a few thousands of professionals at the most. And not all of them are quite as professional as we'd like.
When you did that risk analysis for the introduction of online learning, did you ever consider the possibility that production capacity was limited? Probably not, because there's always some production company or other hassling you for work. But when the online learning industry takes off - and despite the cynical tone of this article, I really do believe that it will - demand could exceed supply by 10 to 1. The design and development of online materials - particularly those that are genuinely interactive - is a hell of a job, requiring excellent writing skills (almost non-existent today), a sound grasp of instructional design as well as an in-depth understanding of the subject matter.
So, if online learning was ever needed it is now, to train the tens of thousands of skilled practitioners that will be needed to ensure that, when the army of new learners do go online, there'll be something engaging and genuinely useful for them to see when the portal is opened.