'Books will soon be obsolete in public schools. Scholars will be instructed through the eye.'
It's a bold prediction, but not one of mine.
This comment was made by Thomas Edison in 1913. Edison obviously overestimated the impact of his era’s new technology (motion pictures), but I suspect that even he would be surprised at the rise of elearning a century later.
The fact that the elearning industry is now worth US$56 billion* is especially remarkable given that the term 'elearning' was only coined 15 years ago. Today, the industry continues to evolve, but there are definite trends emerging.
To follow are eight such trends that we’ve identified here at DeakinPrime. Some of them have already taken hold, and others are more speculative. Together, they reflect the maturing nature of the industry, which is transforming itself to deliver more integrated, holistic and flexible learning solutions.
1. ‘ELEARNING’ WILL BECOME MORE ABOUT ‘CONTINUOUS LEARNING’
The growing acceptance of the 70:20:10 model, and the realisation that most of our learning is informal, will continue to challenge the elearning industry.
At face level, this trend is about embracing innovative blended learning techniques, but I’d go further. After decades of dwelling in its own ‘small compartment’, elearning is developing into a key component of a more pervasive and holistic approach to learning. Charles Jenning, a vocal 70:20:10 advocate, put it well when he said: ‘Technology is underpinning and supporting the creation of a continuous learning culture and that is the key.’
Such a continuous learning culture might include: ‘point-of-need’ learning; online scenarios using authentic (real and on-the-job) resources; platforms and tools that support social learning; drip-feed ‘learning bites’ that are delivered over time and/or in response to learner activity; wiki-style mobile resources; online coaching and more.
It’s a major paradigm shift and one that feeds into many of the other trends.
2. CHUNKS WILL BECOME ‘BITE SIZE’
The previously accepted norm of 20- to 30-minute elearning modules will not provide the level of flexibility and integration that many learners are likely to demand in the future. By contrast, 5- to 10-minute ‘elearning bites’ can be distributed over time, integrated throughout a blended workflow and even become ‘pack-and-pick’ style building blocks for larger learning experiences.
In addition to the flexibility and convenience this affords, there is growing evidence that shorter formal learning periods, repeated more often, can meet learning outcomes more effectively than large single blocks of engagement. This is particularly the case when formal learning periods are interspersed with the opportunity to apply the knowledge in real-life situations.
3. CONTENT CREATION WILL GET FASTER, MORE LEVERAGED AND CHEAPER
Opportunities to build totally customised solutions from the ground up were a major casualty of the economic climate, but they’ve also become less necessary from a development perspective.
Today, elearning solutions can incorporate engaging cost-effective content by: using rapid authoring tools (that provide strong, template-driven outputs); implementing content curation strategies; and becoming more strategic with the use of rich media.
On that final point, it’s worth noting that video has experienced a renaissance in learning, particularly through the growing juggernaut that is YouTube and initiatives such as TED Talks.
Strategically integrating short video and motion graphics into elearning solutions can create greater engagement, provide best practice examples and quickly explain concepts in a memorable, entertaining way. RSA style animations alone have already become a useful option in any educational designer’s toolkit (see as an example, our video on elearning strategy secrets).
4. LEARNING WILL BECOME MORE COLLABORATIVE
Elearning has benefitted greatly from the development of ‘Web 2.0’, in becoming more collaborative and social. Traditional learning platforms will have to orientate themselves to this trend by adopting cloud delivery and implementing social networking inspired techniques, which have been mainstreamed via Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and so on.
The Deakin University MOOC demonstrated several examples of this approach, particularly in the way it actively linked formal content with discussion forums and in the way it used gamification techniques such as peer badging of learner portfolios and work.
5. THE BOUNDARIES BETWEEN PLATFORM AND CONTENT WILL DISSOLVE
It wasn’t long ago when learners were expected to crawl through the ‘barren wasteland’ that was the learning platform environment (LMS), before stumbling onto a ‘rich oasis’ in the form of an interactive and engaging online course (SCORM content). This gap between data-base style platforms and media-rich courses was stark, and disrupted the learner experience.
The best learning platforms have begun to challenge this by providing a richer, learner-centric environment. This has been further assisted by technology shifts levelling the playing field (particularly by the decline of Adobe’s Flash, previously the go-to output for rich, interactive content, and the shift towards HTML5 for standard, device-agnostic solutions).
We are finally moving to the point where, from a learner’s perspective, there will be a seamless transition between platform and learning content, which is as it should be.
6. MORE CULTURAL AND TECHNICAL SHIFTS TO EMBRACE MOBILE LEARNING
The popularity of mobile devices will continue, providing new opportunities and challenges. Responsive designs that adapt to different platforms will be a growing requirement, but rather than just using mobile devices as ‘smaller windows’ to view traditional content, there’ll be a maturing of ‘mlearning’ techniques, such as mobile-based, quick-reference guides, audio podcasts and just-in-time video demonstrations, linked to QR codes (bar codes that can be scanned by mobile devices) in work environments.
The evolution from SCORM (the current standard output of elearning modules) to Experience API (the ‘upgrade’, previously known as Tin Can API, which integrates mobile-generated assessment and activity data) will continue and become a necessity over the coming few years.
7. A FOCUS ON CONTINUOUS FEEDBACK AND ADAPTIVE DESIGN
There are already many examples of adaptive learning programs which automatically deliver varying content based on a learner’s needs and response to questions. Such programs are relatively expensive to build, but we can expect more ‘out-of-the-box’ options, which will help popularise this approach.
As well as computer-side adaptation, the production of smaller, flexible elearning modules provides the opportunity for education designers to restructure and change learning architecture according to new requirements and behaviours. With detailed tracking data via modern learning platforms, elearning solutions can be altered or enhanced ‘on the fly’ and without a major rebuild.
8. ELEARNING PRODUCTION WILL BECOME AGILE
Elearning has traditionally been governed by ‘waterfall’ project management methodologies, where considerable effort is expended upfront in defining and documenting a complete solution before commencing the build.
While this will remain appropriate for many projects, in our ‘new flexible learning environment’, there will be more solutions that lend themselves to an agile approach.
Originating in software development, agile methods build priority increments of a solution, with short iterative phases. This means faster outputs and building completed, discrete segments based on their priority to the project.
I suspect that many elearning projects will still begin with a high-level outline of the finished product, but an agile approach will allow for a rapid, evolutionary build process, that engages the client and creates a more dynamic, fit-for-purpose outcome.
Over the coming years, elearning will break free from being considered a stand-alone offering, and become part of holistic, continuous learning solutions.
Large ‘closed modules’ that work in isolation and proscriptively define a learner's experience will eventually become the exception, rather than the rule. Instead, learners will be empowered to chart their own unique learning journeys.
To do this, solution designers will move away from defining set instructional pathways, and shift towards becoming architects of collaborative learning environments. Rather than the usual linear series of ‘20-minute modules’, we'll begin to utilise an array of small ‘learning building blocks’ that can be integrated into a learner's life and existing workflows, delivered via multiple devices and called upon at the point of need.
From a learner's perspective, this experience will be more convenient, effective and customised than ever before. Yet, ‘under the hood’, these solutions will leverage template-driven adaptable systems, use rapid content strategies and comprise modular, flexible builds.
This leads to the take-away message of this article—that, when combined skilfully, the future trends that I’ve outlined above will deliver cost-effective, personalised learning solutions that integrate seamlessly into our lives.
That might sound over ambitious but, the fact is, many of these trends have already begun to take hold. They might take years to become fully realised or, as Edison learned, our predictions might veer off into unexpected territories, but one thing’s for certain…it’s an exciting time to be in elearning.
* CertifyMe.net (2013), ‘Important elearning statistics for 2013’