Autonomous Learning and the Future of Higher Education
I am able to watch any Ohio State University football game I want on my widescreen, high-definition television. I can use the restroom anytime I want without standing in line. I can, if I desire, walk to my refrigerator and get a beer (no beer served in Ohio Stadium). And when it’s 35 degrees and raining outside, I can stay warm and dry in the comfort of my living room as I enjoy the game.
And, yet, 105,000 people attend Ohio State home games every Saturday, regardless of the weather and whether or not they can easily get to the restroom or enjoy a beer. Fans sit on hard seats even in cold and rainy (or hot and humid) conditions. There is just something about being physically present at the game — the roar of the crowd, the spirit of the marching band, the sounds, even the smells — that even the most high-resolution screens cannot capture, and that compels many to seek out the game-day experience.
I share this story as an analogy for where I believe higher education is heading in the next 10 years, especially with regard to “online” vs. “on ground” education. When I’m asked to peer into the future of higher education, I am inevitably asked if we are destined for a technologically-mediated, online-only experience. Indeed, online education is going to become more and more commonplace, because it will be advantageous for many to receive education and training in this fashion. But there will still be those who, like intrepid football fans, will crave the traditional physical college experience.
There was a time when online education meant “distance education,” and the chief advantage of learning online was that you did not need to travel to a physical location. Today, I think online education is more about time than location. Students wish to learn at times convenient for them, for those who wish to include schooling as part of their busy work schedules.
Going forward, online/technologically-mediated education will deliver self-paced learning. This is a different kind of time management; students who desire online learning options will be seeking to learn at a speed they will determine. I sense that online education (and indeed higher education as a whole) will start to look more like Rosetta Stone. For those who have not yet tried to learn a language via this method, Rosetta Stone has developed sophisticated courses that allow a learner to move at his or her own pace through an online course. In theory, a learner who is particularly adept can successfully finish a course in six weeks; another leaner might take six months to move through the same materials. As Salmon Khan has popularized in his Khan Academy, learners should be permitted to master the material at their own rate, determined by their own abilities.
Our learning environments, correspondingly, will be structured such that students move through a curriculum at a pace determined by them and their abilities. Customizable learning is difficult to manage in traditional face-to-face courses, structured as they are by the clock and the calendar, and the assumption that cohorts move through the material together. Self-paced, customizable, autonomous learning is easiest and best managed through technology.
What will a physical campus mean to autonomous learners? These students, I suspect, will still wish to meet with faculty, who will serve more as personal tutors than as traditional instructors. Autonomous learners will teach themselves via online courses, but will seek out one-to-one discussions with knowledgeable faculty practitioners when they need help, or when they crave deeper discussion of a topic. Learners might work directly with faculty on research projects, as an extension of the learning they gain through their self-paced courses.
In such a learning environment, classrooms will inevitably be altered. Large theater-style lecture halls might go unused, whereas the faculty office, seminar room or laboratory becomes the preferred physical venue for interactions between teacher and learner. Communities of self-learners might gather for mutual benefit. Autonomous learners will call upon universities to provide them with staff who will serve as sherpas, guiding and advising them along their individual learning paths. All of this suggests that online and on-ground learning will blend in new ways, and that “the course” will become decentered, not confined only to a particular time, place, duration or pace. It is also possible, of course, that many of these autonomous learners will have little need for a traditional campus at all.
Autonomous learners will soon represent a significant fraction of the overall student population. However, there will continue to be those (many, in fact) who will crave the discipline and routine of the traditional classroom experience. Many students will seek out a face-to-face, physical, time- and space-bound campus experience, complete with the other trappings of campus life: dorm parties, seminar discussions, inspiring lecturers. Like a college football game, there is something about the traditional campus experience that will not be disappearing anytime soon.