This week in my EDUC 6135 course I am completing at Walden University, we addressed the issue of perception of distance learning institutions in contrast to brick-and-mortar institutions. One of the elements involved in the weekly activities included creating and distributing a survey aimed at gathering feedback from peers not presently enrolled at Walden University, with the intent of better understanding how others view distance learning institutions in contrast with brick-and-mortar institutions. One of the questions I posed of survey participants related to how they see the field of distance education developing over the next 20 years. Interestingly, my survey participants see the field continuing to grow for the next 10-15 years and then plateauing. While I also believe that the field of distance education has tremendous growth opportunities over the next 20 years (a primary reason I am pursuing my masters degree in Instructional Design and Technology), I do believe that the potential success of post graduate distance learning institutions is a bit of wild card presently.
As great opportunity exists for these higher education institutions (post graduate in particular), I do believe that the potential may not be fully recognized if some significant improvements in delivery and student experience aren’t made in the next 5-10 years. Presently, the vast majority of higher education distance learning experiences are delivered via antiquated platforms that allow institutions to meet certain requirements in regards to facilitation, but little concern seems to be given to student experience presently. Allow me to offer some evidence. Most platforms (LMS’s) are anything but mobile-centric. While the most widely adopted platforms, including Blackboard and Canvas, offer “mobile compatibility”, they don’t truly fit into a mobile lifestyle. I have experience other LMS’s that do offer a more mobile experience. One example of this would be a platform that is app-based, and whereby all of the primary functions necessary to interact with the platform are available in a streamlined fashion via the app. Notifications is a big part of this. If I am commenting to a classmate on a chat board, it is important that the app be able to pop up a notification on a users phone, in a native manner so that the user is immediately notified and a more natural conversation can ensue versus the asynchronous type of communication which presently takes place.
If you are wondering what the usability of an LMS has to do with the future of distance learning, I would point to George Siemens, who shared that if we can make digital distance learners “comfortable” in the future, those learners will naturally take to the environment. (Laureate Education, n.d.) In an increasingly mobile world, platforms must make the user comfortable to achieve high adoption rates. Once LMS’s move beyond targeting working professionals who are highly motivated and self-driven and are able to look past the lack of authentic experience, I believe they will begin to develop proprietary and much more comfortable platforms. As for my role in this process? I believe that being part of a “real” conversation about the present shortcomings will give the future LMS’s the best opportunity of meeting the needs and demands of a mobile world. Simply promoting distance learning because, “it worked for me”, is disingenuous at best and ultimately unhelpful to the potential future of distance education. I have had the privilege of working with the developers of a very modern LMS (Showbie) that is making great progress towards the future of what an LMS can be. Through collaboration and feedback with such companies, I see my role as helpful to promoting more usable platforms which in turn will win more users and proponents of distance learning.
I believe the best way to promote improvement in distance education is through honest conversations and supporting relevant solutions, not popular ones. The challenge for the immediate future of distance learning lies in the state of development of the more “comfortable” LMS’s that are still rather young, such as Showbie. In reality, while they offer some great features, on a spreadsheet when compared to the more popular options, they wouldn’t even be considered by most universities as they don’t seem to measure up. For this reason, I am an advocate for institutions jumping into the game of platform development. If they go with the best looking option, they are making a choice for irrelevance. We can hope that there will be a shift in the distance learning community towards development instead of adoption, as I believe this is the best way to move things forward in terms of student experience.
Laureate Education (Producer). (n.d.). The future of distance education [Video file]. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu