2016: Looking at the Future of Online Learning by Contact North

Contact North recently published a 2 part series on the future of online learning (also available in a combined PDF). Part 1 is Advancing Technology and Online Learning – An Ideal Match for the Future. Part 2 is Transformations in Students, Programs, Teaching and Learning, Policy and Government.

PART 1: Advancing Technology and Online Learning

Technology Developments in Support of Learning

  1. Machine learning and artificial intelligence will increasingly be used to enable adaptive learning.
  2. Hand-held, mobile and integrated devices will continue to develop and become the de facto tools for learning, communication and peer networking.
  3. Predictive analytics will grow in significance in terms of student retention and learner support.
  4. Interconnectivity of devices and systems will be a significant feature of the “Internet of things” and activities.
  5. Gamification and virtual reality will enable significant advances in teaching a range of subjects, especially laboratory-based subjects.
  6. Translation engines will continuously improve and become embedded in a great many applications (but still a long way away from “instant” translators).
  7. Collaborative technologies and knowledge sharing will emerge as key resources for all forms of learning.

Five Key Features of Online Learning Which Technology Patterns Will Enable

  1. Learning is Mobile – Anywhere and Anytime
  2. Learning is Interactive and Engaging
  3. Learning is Personal and Instruction is Differentiated
  4. Learning is Intelligent
  5. Learning is Global

Institutional Context for The Development of Online Learning

  1. Institutions are Complex and Competitive
  2. Resources are Constrained
  3. Demographic Shifts Impact Activity
  4. Quality Is an Imperative
  5. Change Is Inevitable, but Difficult for Colleges and Universities
  6. Relevance and Value Shape Strategy


  1. More mature students looking for flexible learning options. This in turn requires programs to provide varied routes to completion.
  2. More international students seeking credential recognition and completion in other countries. This gives emphasis to transfer credits, international credit recognition and recognition of prior learning.
  3. More students seeking knowledge combined with employable skills. This speaks to the need for more collaborative programs between colleges and universities and more joint credentials.
  4. More students seeking shorter programs, which are skill-based and work-ready, means that the demand for micro-credit, nano-degrees and badges will grow.

PART 2: Transformations

Programs Will Look Very Different

  1. More flexible program designs.
  2. More use of open educational resources
  3. More creative assessment processes (both formative and summative)
  4. More micro-credit and nano-degrees
  5. More co-op and experiential components within programs
  6. More international collaborative programs
  7. More transfer and qualification recognition agreements between nations
  8. Blurring of lines between college and university

Teaching and Learning Will Change

  1.  Learning will no longer be defined by time, place or institutional offerings.
  2. Learners will create their own learning agendas, which reflect their own career, personal and lifelong learning goals.
  3. Learners will secure their learning outcomes through a combination of formal, informal, self-directed, instructor delivered, in class and online learning.
  4. Learners will expect personalized learning services and supports for their learning agenda.
  5. New mechanisms for meeting personal learning agendas will appear in the market as the “unbundling” of learning continues.
  6. Courses will be less important than mentoring, coaching, counselling, advising and assessment.
  7. Diverse and new forms of credentials will appear, which reflect the varied needs of learners, employers, social agencies, innovation organizations and entrepreneurs.

 Policy and Government

  1. Significant Changes in the Way in Which Higher Education Is Funded
  2. Strong Focus on Quality Assurance, with a New Understanding of Quality
  3. Commitment to Learner Mobility
  4. More Public – Private Partnerships
  5. A Strong Focus on Outcome Based Accountability and Public Assurance

 What Do Colleges and Universities Need to Do?

  1. Start engaging in strategic foresight as the basis of strategic planning.
  2. See students as partners, not customers.
  3. Rethink the Role of Faculty.
  4. Rethink outcomes and impacts and re-imagine assessments and accountability.
  5. Build collaborations (local, provincial, national and international) and partnerships.


Stephen Downes has provided a very useful critique of the articles and his thoughts on the future, also linked, in part, to the current #NRC01PL Personal Learning MOOC.




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