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A Look into the Near Future (of the Virtual Classroom)

Tomorrow's Academy

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What can institutions, instructors, and their students expect to see over the next few years as online learning becomes an even greater part of not only the academy but the K-12 world as well?  Although there continue to be no certain answers to these questions, we suspect that we will see more changes in the following areas: technology, course, and program quality and development; professional development; the ways in which faculty and students interact; and increased research into online education.



The posting below, a bit longer than most, looks at what might be in store in the next few years for online education. It is from Chapter Nine, Lessons Learned in the Virtual Classroom, in the book, Lessons from the Virtual Classroom: The Realities of Online Teaching, by Rena M. Palloff & Keith Pratt, eds. Second Edition. Published by Jossey-Bass: A Wiley Imprint. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200. San Francisco, CA 94104-4594 Copyright © 2013 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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A Look into the Near Future (of the Virtual Classroom)


As we look at the lessons from the virtual classroom that we have learned thus far - some of them painful, others positive - we continue to think about what the future holds for online education.  What can institutions, instructors, and their students expect to see over the next few years as online learning becomes an even greater part of not only the academy but the K-12 world as well?  Although there continue to be no certain answers to these questions, we suspect that we will see more changes in the following areas: technology, course, and program quality and development; professional development; the ways in which faculty and students interact; and increased research into online education.  As we explore each of these, we begin to fit together the pieces of the mosaic that is the future of online education and higher education as a whole. 


With the move to mobile technology, which has become increasingly affordable, access to online courses is improving, and the ability to use chat, audio, and video will continue to become more accessible and therefore more usable in an online class.  At the same time, commercially developed and owned course management systems have become increasingly expensive, allowing open source course management systems to flourish.  Both commercial and open source systems have become more responsive to user demands and needs, incorporating social networking tools, wikis, and blogs into the systems and generally becoming more robust, allowing inclusion of multimedia tools. 

It has been predicted, however, that course management systems may become a thing of the past as personalized learning spaces become the norm.  Students may be given spaces on a server individually or in groups, or they may establish their own space online using applications such as Google Apps, where they can collect learning objects, interact with others, and collaborate on projects to pursue their own learning goals.  McLoughlin and Lee (2009) note that with the advent of Web 2.0 and social networking tools, learner control over the learning process needs to be encouraged. They state, \" Digital-age students want an active learning experience that is social, participatory and supported by social media\" (p. 639).  Personalized learning spaces allow students to create learning experiences by accessing and engaging in learning communities across the globe and piecing together learning that is meaningful to them. Personalization allows students to determine what they learn as well as when and how.  In personalized learning, learners are guided by a teacher who helps to co-create and co-design the learning experience.  Hargreaves and Shirley (2009) note that this is an important means by which to create more flexibility in learning experiences, but they also warn that this should not simply be used as a means by which to incorporate more multimedia into learning.  They express the concern that personalized learning could be mistaken for something deeper than what it is.  The debate about personalized learning spaces is likely to occur for quite some time as more traditional academics wrestle with the concept and more learners gravitate toward it.  

As the demand for online education continues to grow, we are likely to see additional means by which this form of education can be delivered.  Simultaneously, as universities become more informed consumers of technology, increasing demand for responsiveness and quality is likely.

Course and Program Quality and Design 

There is little agreement at present as to what constitutes a quality online course or program.  Furthermore, the accrediting of Jones International University by the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges in 1999 raised significant concerns on the part of faculty and traditional institutions about how the accreditation of completely online programs might be accomplished.  Questions included these:  \"Can accreditors truly evaluate a university based solely on distance learning-with classrooms, libraries, and faculty members located somewhere in cyberspace-in the same way that they evaluate a traditional institution?  Can we really call those institutions 'colleges' or 'universities' if they lack both a critical core of full-time faculty members and a system of governance by which the faculty is responsible for developing curricula and academic policy?  Can accreditors actually determine that new, on-line institutions meet the same basic criteria for quality-or at least equivalent criteria-that traditional accredited institutions must meet?\" (Perley & Tanguay, 1999, p. B4). 

These questions, first posed more than a decade ago, are still being asked, begging the need to develop quality standards that are accepted across institutions.  The Quality Matters Program (QM) has been one response, and the QM rubric has become increasingly recognized as a good measure of quality in an online course.  A course that bears the QM stamp of approval is generally recognized as a good one.  QM, however, deals with design only, not the facilitation of the course, although these standards are now in development.  In order to truly assess course quality, both must be taken into account.  Thus, continued work needs to occur on what is considered best practice in online facilitation.  The International Association for K-12 Online Learning standards developed for K-12 online teaching are a good example and could guide higher education as well. 

Despite this, we hope that standards will be created with an eye toward academic freedom.  There is wide variation occurring in current course development, yielding a need for discussions of quality in online program development.  The ideal outcome of those discussions should be a range within which faculty and institutions can comfortably work. 

Professional Development 

What does it really mean to be a \"guide on the side\"  or a \"learning facilitator\" rather than an instructor?  How does an instructor successfully make the transition required to teach an online course so that students become empowered learners and take charge of the learning process?  Is it possible to develop every instructor into a good online instructor?  How can institutions tell the difference between someone who will do well online and someone who will not, be they faculty or student? 

The questions are designed to help stimulate thinking about what might be needed in a good training and development program for faculty.  However, they also point out that we need to think carefully about who should be encouraged to teach online.  Earlier in this book, we made the point that not all faculty are suited to the online environment, just as not all students should consider taking online courses.  We even put forth the fairly controversial idea that faculty who are highly entertaining face-to-face may not make the best online instructors.  Not all faculty, even after participating in online teacher training, will do well in that environment.  And although some authors predict that the face-to-face, traditional classrooms will go the way of the Model T (Barone & Luker, 2000), we believe it is more likely that most colleges and universities will deliver at least a portion of their course offerings online, a trend that is already emerging (Allen et al., 2012).  Consequently there will be room for those who choose to teach in the classroom along those who choose to teach online. 

Greater attention should be paid to what instructors need to be able to teach online successfully.  Rather than focusing on the technology itself, training and faculty development should focus on increasing interactivity in online classes, building a learning community among the learners, delivering course content in new and creative ways, incorporating collaboration into the learning process, empowering learners, and evaluating learners and learning outcomes in ways that make sense in the online arena. As faculty become veteran facilitators online and as the online learning environment itself evolves, training and development needs will change.  Consequently, faculty development to prepare faculty to teach successfully online should be fluid and responsive to the changes that are to come. 

How Faculty and Students Interact 

One of the changes already occurring that has been noted is the ways in which faculty and students interact.  Today's student is less likely to be an eighteen to twenty-one year old seeking a one-time educational experience.  Instead, today's online student is likely to be a member of a range of students, from those in K-12 classrooms, to those considered to be traditional undergraduates, to adults returning to school to obtain knowledge and skills needed to compete and advance in the workplace. Adult students are more likely to be lifelong learners embarking on the beginning of what may be a learning process that results in the pursuit of multiple degrees, courses, or certifications.   However, even traditional undergraduates are seeking learning experiences that will lead to employment, and colleges and universities are being asked by governmental entities to demonstrate that their course and program offerings will do so.  Although previously schooled to engage with instructors in traditional ways-expecting the instructor to be the expert with knowledge and wisdom to impart-lifelong learners are looking to enter a partnership that results in the achievement of their learning objectives (Bates, 2000; McLoughlin & Lee, 2009). 

The partnership students seek is with an academic institution that understands their needs and is capable of meeting them. Thus, a shift is occurring in the academic world; academic institutions are recognizing that like other types of organizations, they must be responsive to those they serve.  The result is a shift from the traditional faculty-centered institution to a learner focus.  Consequently, the relationship between faculty and student has to change as well.  

Add technology and online teaching to the mix, and other changes begin to occur.  Because the most effective way to achieve learning outcomes in the online classroom is by using active learning techniques, students are encouraged to become empowered learners.  Today's technologies promote the ability of learners to significantly contribute to and co-create their learning experiences.  More fully engaged, active learners are likely to bring new demands to the learning situation and will not be able to return to business as usual in subsequent learning situations, face-to-face or online.  We noted that the changed relationship between faculty and student in the online classroom is spilling over into the face-to-face classroom as faculty discover that active learning techniques work well there.  Similarly, faculty who have historically made good use of active learning techniques face-to-face are finding that their transition to online learning is eased through the use of those techniques. Bates (2000) notes, \"Modern learning theory sees learning as an individual quest for meaning and relevance.  Once learning moves beyond the recall of facts, principles, or correct procedures and into the area of creativity, problem solving, analysis, or evaluation (the very skills needed in the workplace in a knowledge-based economy, not to mention in life in general), learners need the opportunity to communicate with one another as well as with their teachers.  This of course includes the opportunity to question, challenge, and discuss issues\" (pp. 13-14). 

The emergence of MOOCs is an interesting development that is calling into question not only the ways in which instructors and students interact but also delivery models of higher education.  According to Stewart (2012), the originators of the concept, Stephen Downs, George Siemens, and Dave Cormier, were looking to devise an alternative environment for learning and were not necessarily intending to disrupt higher education as we know it. Using a lecture-based model that mimics the flipped classroom, MOOCs offer snippets of lectures that are twelve to fifteen minutes long, with quizzes and other assignments to be completed in between lectures.  MOOCs are currently not credit-bearing courses and are not the same as the type of online course we have been discussing, but pathways to college credit are being forged at the time of is writing, and it will be interesting to see the impact this has on the direction of online learning in the future. 

Currently, MOOCs are being offered by many elite universities as well as for-profit entities that are partnering with universities to offer MOOCs.  They are free and capable of enrolling tens of thousands of students.  Although predominantly lecture based, some involve the ability to network with other participants.  Kim (2012) comments on the differences between what are now termed traditional online courses and MOOCs by stating, \"A well-constructed traditional online course is not a vessel to deliver content from the brains of the professor to the brains of the students, but rather an opportunity for faculty to guide, shape, reinforce, and support student learning... This work requires that the faculty have the opportunity to interact with the students\" (para, 9). Are MOOCs a threat, or will they help us to re-examine the ways we currently offer courses and teach? 

Rather than feeling threatened by this shift in relationship and course design, faculty should feel challenged by it.  Faculty too are lifelong learners.  The changing relationship with their students serves to expand the network through which they can learn. When we enter a new online course, we always believe that we have as much to learn from our students as they do from us.  We find this to be an exciting element of our online work and one that we welcome.

Research into Online Education 

When we wrote our first book in 1999, we found a paucity of research on online learning.  However, we noted that interest in the area was growing and that the research would follow.  That prediction has become increasingly true as online learning has established a stronghold in higher education.  Individual instructors are writing and publishing articles about their experiences online.  Studies are being conducted that compare face-to-face and online delivery of the same class for outcome effectiveness. The Institute for Higher Education Policy published a report (Phipps & Merisotis, 1999) reviewing contemporary research on the effectiveness of distance learning.  Since that time, many studies have been published looking at the characteristics of effective online courses and the critical elements practice that supports their development. 

Because this is a growing area in academia with exciting new developments emerging daily, research efforts are likely to increase and continue.  Those of us teaching online welcome the opportunity to contribute to this body of literature.  The educational experiences that are the result of teaching online are so different from those that we have had in the traditional classroom that we want to share them with our colleagues so that they might understand the power of online teaching in delivering education in today's knowledge society.  

James Duderstadt (1999) noted: 

Today's technology is rapidly breaking the constraints of space and time.  It has become clear that most people, in most areas, can learn-and learn well-using asynchronous learning (that is \"anytime, anyplace, anywhere\" education)... Lifetime education is becoming a reality, making learning available for anyone who wants to learn, at the time and place of their choice, without great personal effort or cost... Rather than an \"age of knowledge,\" could we instead aspire to a \"culture of learning,\" in which people are continually surrounded by, immersed in, and absorbed in learning experiences? ... This may become not only the great challenge but the compelling vision facing higher education as it enters the next millennium. (pp. 24-25)

This prophetic statement has proven true.  Research that documents the effectiveness of our efforts in creating the culture of learning to which Duderstadt refers has occurred and continues to emerge.  Sharing our experiences and lessons learned, whether positive or negative, as we explore the territory of online learning is equally important. 

We closed our first book, Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace, by commenting on our own experience of online teaching: \"Not only are we helping to shape the creating of empowered, lifelong learners, our participation as equal members of a group of learners supports us in our quest for lifelong learning.  For us, this is the power of online distance learning\" (Palloff & Pratt, 1999, p. 168).  Stansbury (2011) supports this statement and what we have been discussing in ths book by providing five characteristics of the effective educator today: anticipates the future, is a lifelong learner, fosters peer relationships, can teach and assess all levels of learners, and is able to discern effective versus ineffective technology.  Today this not only remains true for us but increases with every online class we teach, every book we write, ad every faculty group we train.  We never cease to learn.  We also never cease to wonder about and seek out what might be next. We have only begun to explore the virtual classroom and its important and powerful role in the future of education. 

Tips for Creating Successful Courses and Programs 

  • Always strive to make online courses as interactive as possible.
  • Use multiple means to deliver content and evaluate student progress.
  • Give faculty a voice in the selection of technology and in policy-making around course ownership, governance, compensation, course loads and class size, and intellectual property.
  • Provide training for both faculty and students in the new roles required to create online learning communities and complete courses successfully.
  • Provide adequate administrative and technical support to faculty who are developing and delivering courses and to students who are enrolled in courses.
  • Include issues such as course development, purchase of technology, faculty compensation for course development and delivery, and training in the institution's strategic plan and budget for a strong infrastructure to support online courses and programs.


Allen, I. E., Seaman, J., Lederman, D., & Jaschik, S. (2012) Conflicted: Faculty and online education, 2012. Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group. 

Barone C., & Luker, M. (2000). The role of advanced networks in the education of the future. In M. Luker (Ed.), Preparing your campus for a networked future. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Bates, A. W. (2000). Managing technological change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Duderstadt, J. (1999). Can colleges and universities survive in the information age? In R. Katz & Associates (Eds.), Dancing with the devil. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Hargreaves, A., & Shirley, D. (2009). The far side of educational reform. Ottawa: Canadian Teachers' Federation.  Retrieved from 

Kim, J. (2012 July 18). Parsing the NYTimes coverage of the growth of MOOCs. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from 

McLoughlin, C., & Lee, M.J.W. (2009). Personalised learning spaces and self-regulated learning: Global examples of effective pedagogy. In Same places, different spaces. Proceedings Ascilite Auckland 2009. Retrieved from 

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (1999).  Building learning communities in cyberspace: Effective strategies for the online classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Perley, J., & Tanguay, M. (1999, October 29).  Accrediting on-line institutions diminishes higher education. Chronicle of Higher Education, B4-6. 

Phipps, R., & Merisotis, J. (1999, April). What's the difference?  Washington, DC: Institute for Higher Education Policy.