Friday, June 20, 2008

Three Scenarios for Virtual Education

Virtual education is a concept that has mostly been embraced by adults who want to go back to school--but just can’t find the time in their schedule to get to campus. But in the years to come this trend will not only appeal to those who want to improve their skills post-college, it has the potential to change the way Americans learn, says futurist Mark Justman of the futurist research and consulting firm Social Technologies.

“Virtual education is definitely a growing trend in World I, but how it will play out depends on a variety of factors,” Justman expalins, and in an attempt to determine the most likely scenarios, Justman described three potential evolutionary paths for virtual education: digital enrichment, clicks-and-bricks hybrids, and e-tutoring.

Scenario One: Digital Enrichment

Currently, schools integrate computers into student learning via dedicated computer labs and classes, besides having computers in classrooms themselves. Continuing evolution of this practice—using information technology to enrich existing curricula—could steer the future of virtual education toward wider use of digital tools and virtual learning environments designed to supplement conventional classroom instruction.

Drivers for this scenario include:
• Mainstreaming of computer gaming. Immersive videogames and multi-user online game environments are gaining cultural influence.
• Technophile youth. Members of the millennial generation have grown up as “digital natives,” having a high comfort level with information technologies.
• Web-based collaboration tools. Tools for digital collaboration, such as blogs, wikis, and
Podcasts have become much simpler to use, and are now common in social and news-based contexts.

Potential developments in this scenario:

• Digital writing tools. This scenario implies extensive use of digital writing tools by students, for instance, in online journals using Weblogs, collaborative work using wikis, and Web publishing. “Students could move beyond social networking sites like MySpace to more sophisticated online communities that allow actual collaboration, but are still teen-oriented,” Justman says.
• Expanded virtual tools. Additional educational applications of virtual tools could include computer-generated environments for simulating historical communities, battlefields, and economies. “Simulation games could allow students to immerse themselves in historical contexts and engage in interactive decision-making,” he explains. “Students can also conduct virtual experiments—a cost-effective way to perform realistic physics, biology, or chemistry lab simulations on the desktop.”
• Cross-cultural connections. Much like social networking, the Internet could also be used in the educational arena to connect students across cultures in a deeper integration of sister-school programs and “live” language labs.

Scenario Two: Clicks-and-Bricks Hybrids

This scenario involves expanding existing class offerings by adding new, virtual online classes alongside existing teacher-led ones. Activities would still occur largely within the confines of conventional schools, but distance learning would slowly be added to the curricula, allowing for a cost effective expansion of educational offerings without significant investments in additional staff or facilities.

Drivers for this scenario include:

• Educational cost containment. Schools face perennial funding challenges, which can be exacerbated locally by rapid population growth. Virtual classes could help schools adjust to sudden or temporary increases in the number of students.
• Demand for curriculum expansion. College-bound students and their parents are demanding greater access to Advanced Placement classes and International Baccalaureate programs.
• Turnkey curricula. Commercial virtual curricula are beginning to come to market, making it easier for schools to purchase specific virtual classes as the need arises.

Potential developments in this scenario:

• More choices. By providing virtual classes onsite at existing school facilities, schools can offer a wider range of educational choices. Small rural schools can offer choices that rival those of suburban powerhouses, and virtual classes could allow more students on the college track to take more rigorous courses.
• Cheaper teachers. Teachers’ aides and assistants could replace certified teachers, especially at the high-school level, with scripted instruction and planning.
• Impact on college years. Virtual classes may have a larger impact during the college years, for after years of learning on their own, a greater proportion of students will be self-motivated. “Online classes could also replace lecture-style introductory classes, and be complemented by periodic face-to-face discussions led by graduate students,” Justman suggests.

Scenario Three: E-Tutoring

Instead of enriching or supplementing traditional instruction, virtual learning in the E-Tutoring scenario gradually begins to replace traditional instruction. E-tutoring software has several educational advantages, such as allowing learners to progress at their own pace, standardizing instruction, and simplifying routine mastery testing. It could gain a foothold through remedial instruction, and then gradually spread to other areas of the curriculum.

Drivers for this scenario include:

• Falling costs of IT. Computer costs continue to fall, as exemplified by the One Laptop per Child initiative, which has developed student laptops that cost less than $200 for Worlds 2 and 3.
• Mandatory testing. Schools are placing more emphasis on meeting testing requirements, in part driven by testing mandates like the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) federal educational initiative.
• Global competition. The globalized knowledge economy is elevating the competitive importance of educating highly skilled knowledge workers.

Potential developments in this scenario:

• Quantity of instructional time. E-tutoring can allow students to proceed at their own pace and therefore to take as much (or as little) time as they need to master a topic. The risk is that slower students may not complete required coursework by the end of the school term.
• Back to basics. E-tutoring is a more traditional, back-to-basics educational approach that emphasizes demonstrated skills mastery. Educators who have embraced more progressive approaches are likely to characterize e-tutoring as another form of misguided “drill and kill” pedagogy.
• Improved performance. E-tutoring could boost US students’ performance on international standardized tests due to its greater emphasis on content mastery. “However,” Justman notes, “it is unclear whether such increases in proficiency and content mastery would come at the expense of creativity and the ability to learn how to learn.”

Implications for education

According to Justman, elements from each of the three scenarios are likely to play some role in the future of virtual education, but certain scenarios may be more probable for certain types of school districts.

“Well-funded suburban school districts are likely to gravitate toward a digital enrichment approach, while under funded or rural school districts are more likely to adopt a clicks-and-bricks hybrid approach to virtual education,” he says, noting that in both cases, the approach to virtual education is an evolutionary change from conventional instructional practices.

The E-Tutoring scenario is more of a wildcard scenario—one that has a much greater potential for disruption, he believes.

“The e-tutoring approach to virtual education has potential for widespread grassroots adoption,” Justman explains. “As ‘helicopter’ parents attempt to position their children for top colleges, they could find online e-tutoring services to be a cost-effective alternative to more expensive after-schooling services like Sylvan Learning Center or Kumon.”

He believes e-tutoring services could also appeal to parents concerned about the so-called “fuzzy math” curricula, because e-tutoring approaches tend to place a stronger emphasis on more traditional measures of content mastery.

School districts concerned about demonstrating progress toward their NCLB goals could also turn to e-tutoring technologies as a more effective means for boosting student performance on standardized tests, he believes.

“If e-tutoring curricula are able to deliver measurable improvements in student learning, they have the potential to spread rapidly, driven by both concerned parents and school districts struggling with demonstrating improved learning outcomes on state standardized tests.”

Meet: Mark Justman

Mark Justman is a futurist who is focused on tracking and analyzing consumer and technology trends in the automotive, retail, and energy industries. Since receiving his MA in future studies from the University of Hawaii in 1999, Mark’s primary interest is identifying the emerging issues and discontinuities that have the potential to impede, accelerate, or modify extrapolative trends. Mark has worked at the Institute for Alternative Futures, where his project work included construction of biotechnology scenarios for the UK's Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and creation of an
Interactive forecasting tool for healthcare on behalf of the World Health Organization.

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