What are the Main Trends in Online Learning? A Helicopter Analysis of Possible Futures

By Mark Brown

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been a game-changer for online learning on several levels, the field has a long and rich history. This history has not always featured in our response to the pandemic. Earlier in the year, I was asked to undertake for an external organisation a helicopter analysis of the main trends in online learning with an eye on the future, but anchored in this history. What follows in this blog post is a raw version of my analysis that has yet to find its way into a formally published paper. The intention of this post is to share some of my analysis and the related thinking arising from both the research and the more popular literature before we start another potentially memorable year in the evolution of online learning. The analysis identifies five macro-level trends: 

  • Convergence
  • Massification
  • Openness
  • Interactivity
  • Diversification 
Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

The Definition Problem

Before setting out to consider major trends in Online Learning, it does help to set some parameters for the analysis or at the very least to establish from the outset that defining the field is a challenge. Online learning is far more complex than usually understood in everyday language and practice. According to Singh and Thurman (2019), the term “Online Learning” was first used in 1995 in the early development of the Learning Management System (LMS), which in Europe is better known as the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Since then, online learning has evolved and is a term whose meaning has become less clear over time (Irvine, 2020). As Irvine (2020) observes, 

“What used to be a simple binary of face-to-face or online has now become so extremely complex that our ability to understand each other is impaired” (p. 42).

The semantics have been muddied as online learning is often spoken about in the context of many overlapping terms such as e-learning, blended learning, digital learning, distance learning, flipped learning, hybrid learning, to name a few. Therefore, as mentioned above, defining online learning for this analysis was not a straightforward task, with Singh and Thurman (2019) identifying 46 definitions in their recent literature review. Notably, common features of most definitions include but are not limited to concepts of time, space, distance, interactivity and use of technology, particularly the Internet. While physical distance is not always an element for defining online learning, it is mentioned consistently. For this reason, the following discussion frames the analysis of current trends in online learning around the following definition:

“Online learning is defined as education being delivered or experienced in an online environment either synchronously or asynchronously through the use of the Internet where learners do not need to be co-present in a physical space” (adapted from Singh & Thurman, 2019). 

A wealth of literature falling under this broad definition has been published over the past 25-years. Importantly, a great deal is already known about the effective design of synchronous and asynchronous online learning environments, as reported in several major literature reviews (e.g. Means, et al., 2010; Siemens, Gasevic & Dawson, 2015; Martin, Sun & Westine, 2020). There is a body of scholarly literature exploring major trends and patterns in online learning in a similar vein. For example, the annual Horizon Report (EDUCAUSE, 2021) and Innovating Pedagogy Report (Kukulska-Hulme, et al., 2021) help to identify past, present, and future trends. There are also efforts to retrospectively analyse trends such as Bozkurt and Zawacki-Richter’s (2021) interesting visual representation of the online (distance) learning landscape. More popular opinion pieces on future trends and speculative scholarly works looking into the future also make up the literature, which collectively informs this analysis. 

Photo by Diego Jimenez on Unsplash

The remainder of this paper outlines five macro-level trends in the evolution and potential future development of online learning. Set against the background of these trends, how we choose to shape, reshape and reimagine the future ways that online learning can be deployed in the service of education, lifelong learning and the type of [digital] societies we want to create is a very different matter. This is a much bigger question that needs to frame any discussion of our possible, probable and preferred futures.

Go to Mark’s LinkedIn page to read the full text of this future trends analysis.

“I like your manifesto I put it to the testo”: Reflections on a book about teaching online

“My brother knows Karl Marx

He met him eating mushrooms in the People’s Park

He said what do you think about my manifesto?

I like your manifesto

I put it to the testo”

“Where’s Me Jumper?” – Sultans of Ping FC

An Irish punk song Where’s me jumper? once described the validation of a famous treatise against personal practice as putting a manifesto to the testo. Similarly, a collective response to the influential book The Manifesto for Teaching Online (Bayne et al. 2020) was recently published in the journal Postdigital Science and Education. The article sought to extend the conversations around digital learning that the Manifesto has helped engender. Here we reproduce excerpts from the article by two NIDL contributors who describe how they put the manifesto to the test in their own practice. The full article is available under a CC BY 4. 0 open access license:

MacKenzie, A., Bacalja, A., Annamali, D. et al. (2021) Dissolving the Dichotomies Between Online and Campus-Based Teaching: a Collective Response to The Manifesto for Teaching Online (Bayne et al. 2020). Postdigit Sci Educ  https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-021-00259-z

Reflections from the Time of Educational Closures and Openings (Eamon Costello)

As the world turned upside down in 2020, copies of The Manifesto for Teaching Online (Bayne et al. 2020) were furiously thumbed in search of pedagogical handholds. Debates about online teaching and all its components became critical. Terms like ‘remote emergency teaching’ (Hodges et al. 2020) may have contributed to the lexicon of online education as deficit but ultimately everything happened in the service of keeping students on their way. Campus was closed. Fortunately, we are not that campus. We are not the stones of the University. We are the people in and of it. We are the other campus. Campus was open. People were open, to ideas, to possibilities, and to creatively engaging with flipped reality.

Two particular provocations of The Manifesto — the entangling of openness with closures and the challenge to distance as deficit — caused me to reflect on my own educational practice. Education has many opens. For me, it has been the venerable tradition of correspondence and distance learning. To this lineage belong the thousands of distributed learners of Anna Eliot Ticknor’s 1873 Society to Encourage Studies at Home — which brought higher education to women to whom it was denied. Establishing the first correspondence school in the United States, Ticknor leveraged the technologies of the postal service and libraries to educate over 7,000 women across the country (Lee 2017). It evokes distance as the space we use to learn in and across.

Another open speaks of education as public good. Almost mundane concepts such as Creative Commons licensing help reduce friction of access to information at a basic level. If nothing else, its badges serve to remind us of the barriers, geo-locating firewalls, prestige boundaries, and privilege gaps that circumscribe and bind knowledge. Some access and equity gaps have been scored deeper during the pandemic. In fear some doubled down on prestige economies, putting their faith in price as a function of value.

But is access to knowledge, or the simple monetary price of this, even a fraction of our biggest problem? Do we look too much into ‘this fantasy of a weightless and untethered digital education?’ (Bayne et al. 2020: 13) Does the world really need more unfettered access to effusions of digital content? Is educational technology, as Selwyn (2016) harshly decried, already too ‘full of bulshit’? What if we over-share? Could we open onto unsafe epistemological areas (MacKenzie et al. 2020)? And if everything were free, easy, and open what would we struggle for or with?

Answers may lie in another open that unfolds or folds education — one rooted in the deep drivers of our teaching: open pedagogical practices. Such practices invite us ‘to be in the present, to remember that the classroom is never the same’, even when conventions may stress the opposite paradigm. It may now be precisely a time for renewal and rejuvenation of our teaching, the educational opening of our ‘minds and hearts so that we can know beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable, so that we can think and rethink, so that we can create new visions, celebrate teaching that enables transgressions—a movement against and beyond boundaries. It is that movement which makes education the practice of freedom’ (hooks 1994: 24). We are not the campus and educational openness does not depend on campus closures.

A Perspective from the Periphery: The Manifesto as a Welcome Sign (Prajakta Girme)

I am from India and the politically charged atmosphere remains in the country, with alleged use of surveillance to root out dissent among the people (Perrigo 2021). The Manifesto for Teaching Online (Bayne et al. 2020) made me question where normalization of surveillance starts. Is it in the classrooms? Is it earlier with exposure to social media outside of it? Do universities add to this budding mindset of surveillance being the norm? Is it to the extent that people start accepting surveillance on a wider, social scale? The book has left me with questions but with those questions, it has given me words for expression of injustice and immorality. The questions that started through digital visibility in pedagogy have evolved to resonate at a very personal albeit political level.

The Manifesto centres its critical argument against surveillance in higher education on Lyon (2017: 835) observation that ‘surveillance ought not merely be of people … so much as for people – and thus be practiced carefully and held to account’. A surveillance society is one where surveillance is understood as being done to people by agencies. Surveillance culture, by contrast, is ‘widespread compliance with surveillance’ (Lyon 2017: 828). The book promotes dialogue, giving a common language with which to dissect, examine, and attempt to encapsulate the role of society heading towards a potentially problematic surveillance culture. In its argument of pedagogy, it highlights the greater ethical dilemmas of digital visibility where distrust is sown early in the student’s lifestyle perhaps making them more compliant to it outside of the university setting. Before we question the existence of surveillance culture, there are questions we should ask ourselves as part of a possible surveillance society; of what we might allow an institution to normalize and of what we might unwittingly enable enforcement.

As someone new to the field of education research, I felt at times crowded by convoluted, jargon-filled, cleverer-than-thou academic literature. The Manifesto for Teaching Online (Bayne et al. 2020) stood out for me as a lucid, accessible read. It practices what it preaches in its easy to comprehend, intelligible style. Personally, I have always thought that the veins of education run stale with confining, traditional approaches to teaching and learning.

As a child, I loved illustrated encyclopaedias. In that sense, The Manifesto resonated with me on multimodality. I contributed illustrations to academic articles (Costello et al. 2020; MacKenzie et al. 2021). The Manifesto encouraged me to push for a multimodal methodology for my PhD proposal, and I understood that varied forms of representation of academic knowledge were legitimate (Fig. 1). The book makes an argument for multimodality that rests on the disconnect between the traditionally text-centric channel of communication in research, and the world being studied, which ‘is visual, aural, tactile, multimodal, multidimensional, and polysemic’ (Andrews et al. 2012: 24). The Manifesto for Teaching Online critically probes at the burdens carried by the written word: ‘Text has been troubled’ (Bayne et al. 2020: xi).

Read more responses to the manifesto in the full article

And, of course, if anyone has found me jumper please let me know…