“Education is a fundamental human right and essential for the exercise of all other human rights” (UNESCO, Education)
Something exciting is happening in the world of learning. Experiences that were restricted to a timeslot on a timetable, to four walls of a classroom or lecture hall, or simply too expensive to achieve, can now happen more easily, more regularly, and more flexibly. It won’t have escaped your notice that the world of virtual learning is on the rise. Like all paradigm shifts, it brings challenges and steep curves, but the learning opportunities for us all, even for whole geographical areas previously cut off from such opportunities, should make us all sit up, take notice and start planning.
What is virtual learning?
If you are accessing learning experiences, courses, resources and activities, asynchronously or in real-time, using online technologies, then you are learning virtually. It ranges from formalized, academic online courses for qualifications, to informal education for your own interest. Increasingly, the lines are blurring between formal and informal, academic courses and open resources. Here’s a glimpse of the global picture:
- the prestigious MIT now offers free, open courseware
- the Khan Academy provides thousands of tutorials for anyone to access
- virtual learning is increasingly complementing school-based classes (Edutopia)
- Massive Online Open Courses, or MOOCs, offer free education to anyone with web access
- the exponential rise of virtual schooling, particularly in the US, as described in this report from the Centre for Public Education.
- Hole in the Wall and One Laptop Per Child projects begin to extend virtual learning in the developing world.
…while, here in New Zealand and Australia, we have:
- the Ministry’s Virtual Learning Network that brokers courses for schools to extend the range of learning areas on offer.
- the VLN Groups and other blended online communities offering informal professional learning
- the Technology Outlook: Australian Tertiary Education Report 2012–2012 that identifies personalised and adaptive learning environments and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as trends to watch.
- Virtual field trips with LEARNZ
What is clear is that virtual learning now provides access to education for many who, in the past, would have been too isolated, too deprived, or too disenfranchised to benefit.
What’s driving the rise in virtual learning?
There are several, largely technological, drivers behind the rise of virtual learning:
- the access to ‘web 2.0’, easily-manipulated, user-driven software, that allows anyone to create, share, create and consume content;
- increased access to online technologies through cheaper tools, such as mobile phones
- wider access to broadband, and improved connectivity
In addition, the economic downturn, and an increasing demand for personalised, flexible experiences, are also credited as spurring on the demand for virtual learning.
So, what’s the impact?
Schools and colleges are embracing the educational benefits of having shared, online learning environments:
- resource sharing, as we saw with the GCSN after the Christchurch earthquake
- flexible ways to manage discussions and knowledge creation at a distance – WikiEducator is a good example of this, as used by Albany Senior High School.
- the ability to curate, reflect on, archive and personalise one’s learning journey; check out Ewan McIntosh’s CORE Edtalks video on e-portfolios
And, increasingly, motivated learners are seizing the opportunities offered by social media to build personal learning networks, share different perspectives, and open the doors to their classrooms.
What should I be thinking about?
With increased flexibility, demand for personalised learning, and improved access, we might now ask ourselves how we can:
- blend online and face-to-face learning activities so our learners can personalise their own pathways?
- be knowledge creators but also knowledge curators, aggregating and leveraging existing digital resources?
- develop what we know about online education so we can design effective learning?
- For rich videos on virtual and online learning, check out CORE Education’s EDTalks
- Grab some virtual learning for yourself with CORE Education’s online courses.
- Share my Del.ici.ous stack of resources on virtual learning.
What are your views?
Karen Melhuish Spencer is an e-learning consultant at CORE Education. Karen describes herself as a bit of a geek on the sly, and her passion for playing with technology has spilled over into her passion for professional learning. Karen runs her own popular and thought-provoking blog: At the Virtual Chalkface.