A recent story in the Chronicle of Higher Education  quoted a Sloan Consortium report released in conjunction with their annual meeting. The headline read “Online-Course Enrollments Grow, But at a Slower Pace. Is a Plateau Approaching?” Upon reading the article and its logic, thoughtfully reported, I was reminded of the famous phrase employed by some national leaders in the mid – 1960s regarding the Vietnam War as an expression of growing hope for its end. Leaders told us, “We can see light at the end of the tunnel”, suggesting that hope and a negotiated victory were, if not just around the corner, at least within our grasp. As the war dragged on, however, another interpretation began to make the rounds, more cynical and, unhappily, more accurate. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel”, it went, “but it’s an oncoming train”. Not good news for those in the tunnel trying to get out. 

Admittedly, this is a different time and a dramatically different set of issues with little connection to a failed foreign policy of fifty years ago. But the parallel, the instinct to look for stability in a situation that is churning and out of control, was instructive to me. Most of us have an instinctive need for a rationale that explains things, even when the unknowns and imponderables out-weigh what we can anticipate and rely on. As I have discussed in earlier blogs, how we think about higher education is being jostled and tossed like a stick in a raging river, by unprecedented and growing information abundance coupled with, among other things, the early stage power of what we currently call social net-working. And the notion that “online” learning may be reaching a plateau is difficult for me to understand.

First, if there is a plateau, it is probably temporary and limited to the provision of courses online. When private sector universities like Kaplan (where I currently work) raise the bar for admission and strengthen their academic progress policies, fewer learners matriculate and their numbers decrease, at least temporarily. Also, when declining state appropriations make capital investments more difficult, developing a sophisticated online capacity becomes a more problematic path to follow. And, when faculty governance decisions make these investments and the programs they support more costly rather than pathways to increased effectiveness and efficiency, it reduces their value significantly. It will take time to work through these obstacles. But I predict that some institutions will do so and, downstream, online and blended learning will be the hallmark of many more traditionally focused institutions. For those who do not adapt and adjust, please see my earlier blogs entitled “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind is Blowing”. 

Second, online courses are not “the light at the end of the tunnel”. Seeing  online learning (in its current state) as the new paradigm is an enormous mistake. Even as it becomes a mainstream activity and begins to slowly change the way the mainstream academy thinks about their enterprise, there is new action out on and beyond the horizon. While I cannot predict what it will look like, what shapes it will take, I can offer current day examples of the types of mediating institutions that will be centrally involved. They include Open Education Resources like theGlobal Open CourseWare Consortium (OCWC) spawned several years ago by MIT; the Creative Commons which is emerging as the open source platform of choice; the emergence of the workplace as a place of learning, the ability to “mass customize” learning experiences to the needs of the learner, and the emergence and use of  multiple  types of rigorous assessments that accurately convey what learners know and are able to do as a consequence of their learning activities.

In the next blog, I will discuss the dramatic thinking  which I encountered at the annual meeting of Learning2011  in early November. And I will assess its implications for new disruptive change in the months and years ahead. Finally, in the third blog, I will attempt a more philosophical and abstract discussion of “the light at the end of the tunnel” – new forces and potentials that will further disrupt our institutions and our understandings of how advanced learning can occur.

In the meantime, I hope you have a terrific  holiday.  Happy Thanksgiving!