Online learning conjures up lots of images in people’s minds. Some people imagine the vast possibilities for how it could develop as learning migrates to an online platform that allows for rich collaborations and private explorations both online and offline. Others think drill-and-kill software and imagine offerings that drive education to a narrow and sadly limited definition of learning.

As with most disruptive innovations, the first examples of online learning were primitive. They often represented a PowerPoint simply put on the Web. Students clicked through some material, maybe answered a few multiple-choice questions, and exchanged a few emails with a teacher perhaps.

But technology improves predictably. Online learning has been no exception.

It has improved in several ways. First, in the beginning online learning was primarily a form of distance learning. That is becoming less and less the case as online learning snaps into brick-and-mortar hybrid environments of various sorts in which, among other things, students can have access to in-person peer interactions and relationships with caring adults.

Second, the communication vehicles that connect humans in online learning environments are improving. Companies like Elluminate are making strides in enhancing the interactive experience of online learning all the time through improved and varied video, chat sessions, and so forth. As the hardware improves and 3D and other technology becomes more affordable, who knows how “real” a 2-way video conversation in the future could feel like.

Finally, the basic content and pure technology behind online learning are improving as well. Providers are moving beyond the basic PowerPoint, and we are in the beginning stages of players architecting systems that actually “learn” and improve real time based on the results of different students’ experiences. Companies like 360Ed in partnership with the Florida Virtual School have built full video game-based courses such as Conspiracy Code that are making the content far more engaging. Other players like Agilix, Knewton, and Renzulli Learning are working on making the content increasing adaptable for each individual student. And, as this fascinating article in Education Week discusses, researchers are making advances in creating “intelligent tutor” systems that pick up on student’s cues about their emotions and adapt accordingly.

What could online learning look like in 10 years time? Who knows, but the smart bet is a lot different and better from what it is today.

– Michael B. Horn


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.