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Four Evolving Trends that May Shape the Future of Distance Education

The EvoLLLution | Four Evolving Trends that May Shape the Future of Distance Education
Over the next decade, distance education is sure to see some significant changes stemming from four specific areas.

As distance education continues to evolve and move from the fringe of higher education to the mainstream there are and will be new challenges for the field. In the past ten years we have seen a dramatic shift in how distance education is positioned within institutions. Whether it has been relocated within the mainstream academic arm of institutions or where outreach and extension divisions have garnered new attention and support, it is clear there is now a major focus on distance education and online learning at almost every institution in the United States and in many other countries. Further, distance education is now seen as a predominantly online initiative, at least in the United States, and other delivery channels have taken a back seat.

With this level of dramatic change has come increased scrutiny by the Department of Education (DOE) with increased regulations pending. We have also seen an interesting commodification in the education sector, from online bookstores, online counseling, online tutoring, advising, and other areas all carried out by third-party entities. Also, in the past few years we have seen an emergence or re-emergence of educational models such as competency-based programs, courses at scale (MOOCs—the new version of independent study compiled with interaction features), and adaptive learning.

So given these fairly dramatic shifts in the past 10 years, what should we expect over the next 5 to 10 years in the field of distance education?

1. Regulations

With what could be considered exponential growth in DE enrollments across the education spectrum, we are likely to see increased scrutiny and regulations. As a larger percentage of financial aid is directed to this education modality, and with the increase in fraud and identity theft, we will continue to see discussions and possible legislation around identify verification (beyond online proctored exams), and a greater focus on outcomes for students. We will also continue to see the evolution of the state authorization system and new accreditation standards emerge. Key to many of the new regulations will be the upcoming reauthorization of the higher education act (likely to gain momentum in 2015 with a possible legislation in 2016).

2. Learning Systems

Although we have been questioning the future of the learning management system for the past 5 years, as we look forward to the next 5 to 10 years it now becomes a bigger question. We are starting to see the companies that were defined by their Learning Management Systems (LMSs) morph into education companies where the LMS is just one of the many services they provide. The overall education service ecosystem is far greater than the LMS and it is quite possible that the LMS will fade as we rethink the education experience in the classroom and online. LMSs have been great at replicating the classroom experience of old, and have managed the student, but not really the learning. Thus, as we look forward, it is very likely that how we view learning system environments will be very different.

3. Pedagogy

By definition the art and science of how people learn will not necessarily change; however the affordances that technologies bring to the table will drive us to explore new approaches to pedagogical practices. A recent report from the Open University in the UK, “Innovating Pedagogy 2014,” highlights 10 innovations that may shape the future. Of note include: #8 Learning through storytelling—while not new, we are seeing a continued shift away from lecturing and old methods of delivering content, and into new modalities of exploring content; #9 Threshold concepts—setting the stage for exploring concepts in a new way other than the traditional presentation of content; and #10 Bricolage—this relates to the idea of tinkering or hands-on building. In other words, real-life experiences. These three innovations hold great promise for how we view our online course designs and again for how we move our courses away from the traditional replication of face-to-face experience.

4. Access and Costs

There is no doubt that both access and the cost of higher education have become front-and-center in the discussions of the value of a degree. Institutions will continue to have to find ways to cut or at least maintain current cost structures while continuing to provide a quality learning experience, and support faculty and research. Whether we will see analytics provide efficiencies is yet to be seen, and whether distance education and online can truly reduce costs is still open for debate. This will depend greatly on how institutions shift from face-to-face to online and what it means for the current physical infrastructure. Further, can we truly find a way to develop courses at scale that also provide a quality experience in terms of a social-constructive pedagogical approach, or will the ideas of connectivism as envisioned by Stephen Downs and George Siemens take root for our upper division courses?


This is an exciting time for distance education and institutions. Every concept of how we have thought about higher education is being examined and it opens the doors for great exploration and innovation in our pedagogical approaches and overall structures of institutions.

Regardless of which of the above may or may not occur it is evident that distance education and online learning will continue to push institutions of higher education to re-examine their existing educational models and how they look at serving the post-traditional students who are now the majority. Ultimately what we must stay focused on is that this is about learning; it is about changing our mental model and helping learners challenge existing ideas and expand their views of the disciplines and the world, and it is about access and success. The regulations, technologies and the rest are in support of these goals.

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Sharples, M. et. al. (2014). Innovating Pedagogy 2014: Exploring new forms of teaching, learning and assessment, to guide educators and policy makers. Open University Innovation Report 3, The Open University. Retrieved from

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