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Online Learning, Part III: A System Of The Future

Thursday, June 21st, 2012 | Posted by Jon Kolko

My last two posts offered my opinions on why online education doesn’t work. That’s a pretty pessimistic outlook. I thought I would offer a conceptual sketch of what online education might look like if it did work. Here are the components that I would need to offer thoughtful and reflective studio, theory, and methods courses online.

A virtual media wall. Students can place content on the wall by dragging and dropping. Once on the wall, content can be moved, resized, grouped, overlapped, and annotated. Multiple students can use the wall at once. The wall is large but finite in size, to simulate an actual war-room, and to ensure content doesn’t get lost in the periphery. A “print to media wall” (like “print to acrobat”) is installed on the client computer, allowing every application to seamlessly export to the wall. This type of tool allows for students to externalize their content, compare and contrast, see progress, and understand the whole and the sum of the parts.

A virtual conversation hall. Students can join a live conversation, simulating either a lecture hall or a small-group discussion. Everyone in the conversation displays a webcam view of their face (similar to Google Hangout), and the facilitator of the discussion can see and takeover the screens of the students (individually, or in a group) to display content. This type of tool encourages artifact-driven conversations, where content is used to substantiate a point of view.

Floating control. Students have the ability to push control to other students or teachers, letting someone else operate their mouse and keyboard remotely (similar to VNC or other remote access tools). Latency of these solutions is pretty poor, especially with rich graphics applications, and so this probably won’t happen any time soon. But this type of tool will allow for an approximation of the real-time design-led correction that occurs in a studio, where someone draws on top of your drawing or builds on top of your prototype. This form of learning is critical for designers: to see, in real time, their own work evolve through the skills of someone else.

Whiteboard on demand. At any time, students and teachers need the ability to sketch publicly in a free-form manner. Sketching with a mouse sucks, and so this feature implies a different type of input device for students (such as a stylus). This type of tool mimics the type of visual thinking that occurs throughout a design studio, where ideas are visualized in real time and in a highly raw format.

Shared music. It seems silly, but a big part of the studio environment is working in a group, quietly, listening to the same music (and fighting over control), and reminiscing about different musical styles. My online dream tool includes the ability for everyone to hear the same music at the same time, creating an ambient connective thread between students.

In addition to having these things, my ideal online teaching tool doesn’t have forums, quizzes, gradebooks, homework turn-in, plagiarism checking, attendance, and all of the other nonsense that most LMS providers have decided is critical for teaching. These patronizing features are a distraction, and have nothing to do with learning.

Perhaps the largest challenge of achieving the above is in the smoothness of interactions: the ease with which someone transitions from one tool to the other. It’s tempting to design modes – whiteboard mode, conversation mode – as discrete sections of the solution. But that’s not how education works, and that’s not how learning occurs. All of the “tools” above are not really tools at all, but facets of a learning environment, and they need to co-exist with minimal boundaries between them. I realize a lot of this is presently both obvious and a technical pipe dream (reinforcing my pessimistic view of most of the online tools being built), but I also realize that technological advancement is now approaching a period of renaissance. Believe it or not, the next ten years are going to be as close to science fiction as we’ve ever experienced. To borrow from Ray Kurzweil’s metaphor of the “second half of the chessboard”, the exponential increase in computing capability that will occur during the next ten years will be massive as compared to the last ten years. And so we’ll have the opportunity to leverage technologies to achieve a vision similar to that described above.

My vision for online learning is technically advanced in infrastructure (requiring high bandwidth, low latency, streaming video, large displays, and so-on), but extraordinarily simple in user-facing features. As Clayton Christensen describes, “We use the word disruptive, not because it was a breakthrough improvement.. it [technically] wasn’t as good. But it was more affordable, and simpler, and more convenient to use… What we found is that almost invariably, an entrant company came in and killed the leader when one of these disruptive innovations emerged.” The disruptive innovation in education will be, from a user’s standpoint, extraordinarily simple and obvious. The disruptive innovation in education will not be a superior teaching algorithm; it will be a superior learning environment.

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