ELEVEN. Where Is E-Learning Headed in the Future?

There are lots of e-learning improvements in store in the near future and even more dramatic improvements coming in the long-term future. What we have already with e-learning can be pretty spectacular, but there's lots more to come.

-1. What makes me think I can see into the future?

- While I don't have a crystal ball, I can tell you what's likely to happen based on the evidence of other recent technologies.

- E-learning has a good chance of growing quickly, reaching critical mass, and changing the fabric of how training occurs in businesses.

Tell Me More

I can't see infallibly into the future, but I think we can feel pretty safe that e-learning is on the same path that many other society-changing technologies have already taken. So I'm not giving any guarantees here, but I'm talking about what's very likely to happen.

Think of how e-mail and the fax machine have changed the day-to-day workings of business. And think of how the cell phone has changed things in the larger social setting. Or think of the impact of the computer spreadsheet and the word processor.

There seems to be a curve of natural progression for these kinds of things.

First we see a few people adopting the new technological approach. A few people have a cell phone, or a few people have a computer with a spreadsheet. Then more people start using that new technology—and the technology itself improves while it gets more affordable. Then lots more people start using it, and it reaches a critical mass.

At that point, it starts to change the structure of the society and the businesses that use it. What business person today is without a cell phone? What business person is without an Internet connection or a fax machine? Who could survive anymore without the ability to conference several people together on the phone to have a virtual meeting? It even becomes hard to remember what it was like when everyone didn't have a cell phone, when everyone wasn't connected to the Internet, or when you couldn't watch 200 channels on your TV.

You can see from those examples that it's not just about the technology. It's about how the technology interacts with the social norms and changes the fabric of a business, as well as the basic assumptions that employees make as they do their work.

Like those other technologies, e-learning has a good chance of growing quickly, reaching a critical mass, and changing the structure and fabric of the way training is handled in most companies.

-2. What's going to happen with the courseware itself?

- The e-learning technology will become richer and richer over time so that students will get closer and closer to the richness of a face-to-face learning experience.

- And e-learning courses will probably get cheaper to make and cheaper to deliver.

- But remember that the quality of any training session is in the instructional design. It's possible to make a bad movie that has lots of spectacular special effects, and it's possible to make a bad e-learning course that has lots of spectacular multimedia and virtual reality effects.

Tell Me More

We have to realize that today we're still near the beginning of what e-learning technology is going to turn into. We're probably at the stage in e-learning that films were in around 1910. It works well enough, but it will look pretty primitive when we look back twenty-five, fifty, or seventy-five years from now.

The main message about e-learning courseware is that it will become a richer and richer experience for the student. It will become closer and closer to the multifaceted experience you can get with face-to-face learning. I can be pretty confident in predicting that the student experience with e-learning will become richer and richer.

Let's look at what's likely to happen to some of the e-learning building blocks described in Chapter 7:

E-Learning Building Block

Into the Future . . .

Virtual presentations and lectures

With more broadband capabilities and richer virtual reality technology, it will look more and more as if the speaker is face-to-face with the student.

Virtual

interaction with other people

Again, with more broadband capabilities and richer virtual reality technology, students will be able to interact with instructors and with other students in ways more like face-to-face interaction. Instead of typing messages, students will talk. And if the other person isn't online at the moment, the message will be stored and delivered later.

Simulations and games

Virtual interaction with things

Gaming technology will make it easier and cheaper to construct meaningful games and simulations so that they can be used in a much wider variety of e-learning courses. No longer will these be used sparingly because of the expense and difficulty of constructing them. For example, the key part of learning to sell is honing the sales skills needed to react to a buyer's questions and fears—what better way to practice them than interacting with a virtual buyer?

Today, you can remotely access programs running at remote computers. Tomorrow, you will be able to remotely access a wide variety of real and virtual things, which can then be used to provide hands-on experience with the subject being learned. For example, learning to drive a car can be taught via a virtual experience.

Assessments and quizzes

Today, a quiz on the Internet looks a lot like a quiz on paper: Type in the answers to these questions or select from a list of answers. But with the expected advances in virtual reality technology, a quiz could be assessing your reaction to a virtual experience, or a test could determine how well you interact with your virtual partner in a mock negotiation session.

Virtual

reference

library

Today, most things in the library are still text-based. But the libraries of the future will be full of virtual reality "experiences" as well as video and audio recordings. Many more data formats will be available. Moreover, there will be much more information, indexed in a way that partly reads your mind to guess at what you're really looking for.

The bottom line is simply that technology marches on.

Remember though that technology is the means to the end, not the end itself. Just because you have a high-tech film with lots of computer-generated special effects, it doesn't mean you have a good movie. The quality of a movie is in the script. The quality of a training session is in the instructional design. It's possible to make a bad movie that has lots of spectacular special effects, and it's possible to make a bad e-learning course that has lots of spectacular multimedia and virtual reality effects.

Finally, it will probably cost less to deliver e-learning courses on a per-capita basis in the future since running anything on computers tends to get cheaper and cheaper. However, it's not at all clear that it will cost less to develop e-learning courses in the future. (It doesn't cost less to develop movies in 2001 than it did in 1950, especially if you're thinking of a movie loaded with special effects.)

 
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