Much of the online learning we see today is centered around the idea of creating resources that will be assembled (using, say, a learning content management system) and delivered as a traditional course of instruction. But there is a growing sense in the field that most of the e-learning systems will go the way of simulations or platforms and that today’s brick to click blackboards are, perhaps, a transition or a complement. The idea of customization by the computer, thus defaults to customization by the student or students and other participants in the learning space and can include, as with multi-player role-playing games, both synchronous and asynchronous multimedia participation- and the thought is that these are closer than we realize. 1
There is no question in my mind that current e-learning systems are indeed in this transition phase from traditional e-learning to what e-learning will be in the future. There is also no doubt that simulations (or, more accurately, online environments, because they will not all be simulations, strictly speaking) will play an increasingly important role.
It is important not to gloss the concept of simulations with the idea that they will all be like Doom or Quake - that is, they will for the most part not resemble 3D environments in which a large part of the activity is exploring through caves and buildings. The most obvious simulations (I have seen these already) are emulations of control panels or similar static environments with variable displays, for example, air traffic control panels, marine radar systems (which is what I saw), nuclear reactor controls (seen this too), and the like.
Another set of simulations will be what might be styled 'faux control panels'. The best current example of this is the set of screens from Sim City. Of course, the city manager does not use a control panel to set taxes, allocate spending, or manage city growth. But these activities can be represented in the form of a control panel, and the results displayed as graphs and diagrams. Many of these will be created, I have no doubt (my next major project will be of this variety).
Though most people may consider bandwidth to be the major limiting factor to the development of simulations, in my view the major constraints are the availability of dynamic data and the capacity to interact online. Today's simulations are created with static data sets: for example, help screens are predefined, parameters are based on example sets, scenarios are predefined. We need content syndication to replace these forms of static data with dynamic (and in many cases, real) content. This will give next generation simulations a random flavour current simulations lack.
And though the internet supports many forms of interaction, work still needs to be done in the area of facilitating interaction in simulated environments. Online multiplayer gaming has long had the lead in this; the best the academic community has been able to manage is the discussion board or, in some cases, collaborative authoring. In a simulation or learning environment, interactions between participants need to be mediated, that is, an action by one person must have an impact on another person. Probably the closest we get today is with sites like Slashdot or Kuro5hin where member votes determine whether an article or a comment will be displayed.
More subtle forms of interaction will be needed to draw users in and to engage them in the simulation. In 'Distance Education: the Dream', a scenario I created for Net*Working 2000, I envisioned a virtual environment where one child played the role of a government minister who had to react to the agitation ('virtual stone throwing') of a participant in the Sim Civ. [ http://www.flexiblelearning.net.au/nw2000/main/4-30debate2.htm ]These actions create consequences in the parameters of the game (sales go down, interests rates go up, budget projects are impacted).
The creation of virtual learning environments - and through the support for interaction, virtual learning communities – will necessarily reshape how we use learning. This is the basis for the suggestion that current course management systems are only a transitional phase. And it is in this regard that the most resistance will be seen, especially in traditional academic circles.
What needs to be understood is that learning environments are multi-disciplinary. That is, environments are not constructed in order to teach geometry or to teach philosophy. A learning environment is an emulation of some 'real world' application or discipline: managing a city, building a house, flying an airplane, setting a budget, solving a crime, for example. In the process of undertaking any of these activities, learning from a large number of disciplines is required.
These environments cut across disciplines. Students will not study algebra beginning with the first principles and progressing through the functions. They will learn the principles of algebra as needed, progressing more deeply into the subject as the need for new knowledge is provoked by the demands of the simulation. Learning opportunities - either in the form of interaction with others, in the form of online learning resources (formerly known as learning objects), or in the form of interaction with mentors or instructors - will be embedded in the learning environment, sometimes presenting themselves spontaneously, sometimes presenting themselves on request.
The idea of context-sensitive learning is not new. It is already supported to a large degree in existing software; Microsoft's help system, for example, would be an example of this were the help pages designed to facilitate learning and understanding. In a similar manner, learners interacting with each other through a learning environment will access 'help' not only with the software but also with the subject matter they are dealing with.
In advanced learning environments, this help function will be tailored to the individual student and to the specific context in which the help is requested. The work being done today in the area of customized and personalized web design will facilitate this interaction. The specific help resource displayed (that is, the specific learning resource displayed) will be drawn from a large set of similar resources syndicated from learning providers world-wide. Customization will be needed to select exactly the right resource for a given person in a given situation.
In my paper 'Resource Profiles' I describe the metadata infrastructure required to make this work. [ http://www.downes.ca/files/resource_profiles.htm ]The selection of a learning resource will be based on how well it matches with two sets of metadata: an 'environment profile', which describes the current state of the learning environment (this would include such things as the topic required, the level of difficulty, and the physical infrastructure); and a 'personal profile', which will describe the current state of the learner (this would include such things as learning style preferences, accessibility requirements, language, educational level, and prior learning).
Such environments are much closer than most people think. Their development is only a few years away; much of the preliminary research has already started. And while 'classes' in the traditional sense won't disappear overnight (institutions always lag innovation), students in such circumstances will find themselves more and more immersed in learning environments that cut across and overlap the traditional bounds imposed by schedules, room sizes, and teacher availability.
1 The opening paragraph was derived from an email to me from Tom Abeles.
All articles in this series by Stephen Downes
What do we know about knowledge?
So What is Knowledge Management Anyway?
From Knowledge Management to Learning on Demand
Learning: More Than Just Knowledge
Designing Learning Objects
Learning Objects Standards
Distributing Learning Objects
Using Syndicated Learning Content
How Learning Communities use learning
Beyond Learning Objects
Learning in Communities
Creating and Capturing New Knowledge