All over the world learners and teachers are showing a renewed focus on the idea of the Open University and new ventures in online learning as an alternative to traditional degree and diploma courses.
For education and training professionals who might see this as a potential threat to their course or even college’s survival, there is a bigger shock coming as new further and higher institutions globally seek to compete globally.
The extent of the radical changes heading our way was well argued at the recent Online Educa Berlin conference in Germany. It raised considerable questions as to how far not only the learners but the teachers and tutors themselves are ready for such changes. We all know the pressures but how are we responding to them?
There is increasing pressure for us to provide the kind of learning and teaching that prepares or retrains learners for a very competitive employment market. Meanwhile, technology is playing a major part in changing the way in which we learn and work in a very real way. And by "we", I mean not only learners in the UK, but around the world. In the UK we have had the Open University and others deliver learning over great distances for decades. Similarly, in other countries learners have been able to access education in remote locations. However, with increasing connectivity and online delivery on a massive scale, as well as new universities and colleges opening every week in countries like Brazil, India or China, to name but a few, the number of well qualified, skilled individuals competing for jobs in a less geographically-bound workplace is going to rise steeply in the coming years and decades.
Other factors such as openly accessible research and educational resources, digital scholarship and social networking contribute to making both education and the workplace not only more connected or mobile, but more competitive. Concepts such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) might seem to be little more than buzzwords promoted by start up companies based in Silicon Valley, a flavour of the month which is rather far away from the wintery UK - trends that will pass by in a flash and leave little behind. And yet the scale of innovation in (online) education, with millions taking part, cannot be ignored.
For these changes are not only transforming the way we undertake education on a massive scale, but the ways in which we live and learn all over the planet. The skills and knowledge we need to not only navigate, but negotiate the data-rich, connected world that is emerging, are essential to succeeding in a globally competitive job market.
It is this kind of challenge that Michael Trucano, Senior ICT and Education Policy Specialist at the World Bank spoke about at the Online Educa Berlin conference. In his presentation he examined why things go wrong, why projects adopting technology in education can result in failure. One example he gave was that people may invest in technology such as tablet computers, buy a large quantity, put them in a classroom and hope that somehow results will improve. This is the kind of problem we are all familiar with. Only in his context, he was talking about adopting technology in education across nations, not classrooms or colleges. He is talking about millions of learners. And many tens of thousands of them are already participating in MOOCs and similar initiatives, collaborating and learning together. And this kind of scale deserves a pause for thought. We are part of this massive learning landscape and this landscape is becoming more visible, more active, every day.
Maren Deepwell is chief executive of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT), an independent membership charity whose mission is to ensure that use of learning technology is effective and efficient, informed by research and practice, and grounded in an understanding of the underlying technologies and their capabilities, and the situations into which they are placed