Five Theses on the Future of Learning

A quick summary of the videos on this page, then take the arrows to see the series.

THESIS 1. There will be no pedagogical differences between learning in person and learning online.

In the old school, it was necessary for students to be in the same room at the same time. The class was a communications architecture, thirty or so children in a classroom, a hundred or so college students in a lecture hall—just enough for the teacher to speak and be heard. The logistics of communication, transmitting knowledge from teacher to learner, demanded confinement on two dimensions, in time and in space: the walls of the classroom and the cells of the timetable.

Then e-learning comes along, and the old school seems to change. We don't have to be in the same time and space to learn. But pedagogically, things stay much the same. The cells of the timetable become the cells of the learning management system, blocks of time in the syllabus, day after day, week after relentless week. In “flipped classroom” videos, the teacher still mostly talks and the student mostly listens. The communications architecture is still one-to-many. Didactic knowledge transmission has gone online.

In the new school, the pedagogy has changed. We have identified seven affordances, things we may have always wanted to do in education, logistically challenging in the old school, but now easily achieved: ubiquitous learning, active knowledge making, multimodal knowledge representations, recursive feedback, collaborative intelligence, metacognitive reflection and differentiated learning. And because we now can, we should. But an interesting thing happens when we make this transition. Face-to-face learning is transformed. There becomes no pedagogical difference between learning online and learning face to face, just a circumstantial difference of time and space. The supporting e-learning infrastructures are the same.

THESIS 2. There will be no distinction between instruction and assessment.

In the old school, there was a sharp distinction between instruction and the peculiar practices and artifacts of assessment. To learn was to memorize; assessment is to find out what had been remembered. Learning came first; assessment followed. The relation of learning to assessment was linear: first learning, then assessment (then move on to something else). Assessment is retrospective and judgmental. Mostly, this assessment was a strange game: to distinguish the one correct answer that was hidden beside deceptively wrong answers (“distractor” items). Perhaps a student might guess right, but without understanding. Perhaps they might be distracted, but with good reasoning. The lesson: life is a game of trick questions, with right and wrong answers, and there is an element of luck in getting things right. Learning is a matter of long term memory, and the definition of long term is until the day of the exam.

Then e-learning comes along, and nothing much changes. It’s just that students encounter more of these strange artifacts than ever before. But now it’s not just at the end of the year or the end of the semester. There are “quizzes” at the end of each chapter in the e-textbook, and test-until-you-drop standardized assessments, designed to test teachers and systems more than to be helpful to learners.

In the new school, there is no distinction between learning and assessment. In a unit of work—let’s say it’s about volcanoes—students get thousands of small pieces of feedback, human and machine. They discuss volcano information, videos and data in blog-like discussion forums. Everyone must “speak” and we have a record of that, where in the old classroom, only a few could speak, and only one at a time, and speaking disappeared into the air. They create volcanoes projects, peer review others’ projects against a physical geography rubric, get feedback on their feedback, revise, share with their class, and write retrospective self-reviews. And yes, they answer questions in “knowledge surveys,” but where answers can be checked and arguments can be had about the at least partial validity of alternative answers. Every one of these interactions involves assessment. But this is always to contribute to learning in an incremental way. Instead of being retrospective and judgmental, assessment is prospective and constructive. Every interaction is a moment of what we call “recursive feedback,” or feedback that can lead to more feedback until learning is demonstrated. There is no learning without embedded assessment. There is no separate assessment. Putting assessment and instruction together, we call “reflexive pedagogy.” And replacing traditional assessment, we have “learning analytics,” where the student has a detailed progress record, and the teacher a running record of whole class learning.

THESIS 3. There will be no class scale.

In the old school, there was a pragmatics of one to thirty in the classroom or one to one hundred in the lecture hall. This is classical one-to-many communications, born in the era of “mass media” and “broadcast” communications, an era of silent audiences and read-only culture.

Then e-learning comes along, but we keep classes about the same size, and the architecture of knowledge communication one-to-many. Did anyone notice that the media have profoundly changed, that social media is a read-write culture, where we are create culture and knowledge as much as and at the same time as we consume it? Large scale (the scope of social media) and small scale come together (our friends and followings), mass and micro sociability. But not in learning management and other e-learning systems, with their old fashioned hub-and-spoke model of knowledge transmission.

In the new school, there is no necessary scale. In some moments, a teacher is working one-to-one, while any number of other students continue their interactions, structured according to the design of the learning module. In a MOOC, thousands or tens of thousands of students might be working together on peer reviewed projects scaffolded by the learning designer. Working closely with three peer reviewers is no different in a class of three than a class of three thousand. But for moments also, the class is indeed three thousand.

THESIS 4. Adaptive and personalized learning will not be at the expense of learning community.

In the old school, each student was for the most part on their own. They found themselves silently listening to the teacher or another student who happened for the moment to be answering the question (for practical reasons, there were not many chances to speak, and when they did, it was usually the student least needs to be speaking). They silently read the textbook, or did their work, or studied for the exam. If there was peer community, it was in the playground or the lunch room.

Then e-learning comes along, promising personalized and adaptive learning. And the student is still alone. In fact, they are probably more alone than ever, the lone learner playing the game of learning against the machine, denied even the simultaneity of being on the same page as the learners around them.

In the new school, the logic of social media is translated into an ecology of social knowledge. Adaptivity and personalization are not at the expense of learning community. Volcanoes again: the student can spend some more time thinking, ponder other students’ responses, before posting their own. There is a reciprocal obligation to offer feedback in peer reviews, and each student gives and receives feedback on their feedback. Intelligence is collaborative. There is machine feedback too, but the glue that moves learning forward is essentially social, the “stickiness” of reciprocal learning.

THESIS 5. Educators will stop insisting on inequality of outcomes.

“No child left behind?” “Every child succeeds?” These are not believable slogans so long as we have standardized assessments. Whoever the students are, no matter how advanced or how needy, we score them across a bell curve. In order to be able to tell some students that they have excelled, we must deem the others to have been mediocre or to have failed. The measure of the success of the few, is the necessary mediocrity and failure of the many. Many children must be classified “left behind” for a few to move forward. No matter how rigorously we profile and track learners into cohorts of similarity, we continue to insist on inequality.

Then e-learning comes along, and we mechanize the standardized test. We remain just as insistent that there must always be inequality. But now that insistence is on an industrial scale.

Fifty years ago, the renowned educator Benjamin Bloom came up with a simple idea he called “mastery learning.” Every child can learn (… volcanoes, or whatever). But some may need more time and special attention. Learners start a unit of work with different knowledge, interests and capabilities—of course. Standardized instruction translates these differences into inequalities. Those who start behind, stay behind because the instruction is the same for all. Bloom called the alternative “optimal” instruction where students could keep working on a unit of learning until they achieve mastery, with support from teachers and peers where necessary. The problem with mastery learning was that, in Bloom’s day, it was hard work. Today, e-learning ecologies offer possibilities that we call “reflexive pedagogy” where learners are supported “recursive feedback.” Today at last, e-learning ecologies make Bloom’s half-century old aspiration, a practical possibility. Indeed, in the new school let’s have every child succeed. Let’s leave no child behind.

  • First presented as a keynote address at the conference, Media Literacy in Foreign Language Education: Digital and Multimodal Perspectives, Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich, Germany, 12 March 2017. Video of the original presentation at this link.