Future Trends in e-Learning Technologies
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The growing of mobile and pervasive technologies, learning through simulations and open source tools are some of the trends identified in a recent study conducted on behalf of the European Commission.
This article reproduces a chapter of the Study of the e-learning suppliers’ “market” in Europe conducted on behalf of the European Commission, DG Education and Culture by the Danish Technological Institute, in partnership with independent consultant, Jane Massy, Alphametrics Ltd. and Heriot-Watt University.
The study began with desk research between November 2003 and January 2004 (Phase 1), development of 16 suppliers’ case studies in the spring of 2004 (Phase 2) and future analysis of the sector over the summer 2004 (Phase 3). The study was published in 2005. The objective of the research as a whole was to examine the structure, characteristics and trends across e-learning suppliers. Below you will find chapter 10 of the study.
Trends about e-learning technologies
Mobile and pervasive technologies
There is little doubt that in the future learning solutions and services will be integrated into a whole host of mobile technologies (mobile phones, PDAs, digital pen and paper, and in the long term, mobile devices we have not even seen on the market yet (including wearable devices). Two distinct potential markets are evolving:
- Learning services to people on the move (people in jobs that require them to continuously move, people learning and receiving information while visiting sites and buildings, certain types of full- and part-time students needing individualised learning education, on the move and while on external projects).
- Learning services to people that are without infrastructure and fixed access, in rural or remote areas and learners in developing economies.
Through large-scale projects, such as the IST MobiLearn and mlearning projects and many other research activities, several demonstrations of mobile learning have already been developed and tested. In the US, Using PDAs in schools and for workers on the move has already been adopted with significant results in terms of improved learning effectiveness (SRI 2003). In Europe, mobile learning is beginning to develop, and telecommunications companies such as Nokia and Vodafone have already integrated these technologies into their training and development systems.
However, the real growth across sectors not in the telecommunications sector remains to be seen. Any growth in this market is likely to happen in the medium to long term, and adoption even in the medium term is more likely among high-stakes mobile employees, and among target groups in education that are generally outside mainstream systems. Mainstream growth will depend on how successful all the major players in the education and training systems are at removing the cultural and organisational barriers that continue to stand in the way of change of this kind.
In the long term, learning solutions and services are also likely to be integrated into electronic appliances, machines and information interfaces. Technology adoption in the home is now going from just one computer to several networked computers, from ISDN to broadband, from computer to convergence of computer, game console, TV and sound systems.
Learning through simulations
For a number of years, simulations have played a significant role in the training activities of certain sectors, notably the defence and aviation industries in several countries. Simulations are being adopted in other industries and for a broad range of skills and competence development.
Among other factors, technical barriers and the cost of development have until now prevented the widespread use of simulations as learning tools. In the past, high-quality simulations were simply too hard to develop at an acceptable cost and bandwidth limited their distribution.
Today, computer technologies, such as Macromedia Flash, have become ubiquitous and e-learning vendors with simulation-development expertise are beginning to develop more industry- and topic-specific simulation templates.
Technology and cost barriers are continuing to shrink, opening up the potential for wider adoption of simulation technology. Already the US market has experienced growth in this type of learning tools and expect significant growth rates in the future. There are still barriers to be overcome, particularly in terms of design innovation, explicitly meeting learning objectives, demonstration of achievement of performance or behavioural change, poor organisational integration and implementation and evidence of effective exploitation in training environments. Computed mediated simulations are expected to gain a larger share of education and training activities both in workplace settings and in education.
Simulations may offer advantages over handbooks or user guides. They can complement lectures, demonstrations and real world practice opportunities. Champions of simulations argue that they engage students and learners while helping them retain and apply what they have learned. As simulation technologies become more sophisticated and more cost-effective to build, and with the increased emphasis on evaluating their effectiveness, it is likely that the market will continue to grow. (Billhardt 2004). Growth may be at a higher rate that other learning technologies, but this is a reflection of the lower base.
Learning and Content Management Systems
Replying to our survey, and asking about the management of workplace learning by 2010, 44% of our 143 respondents supported the statement that the dominant strategy would be integration of LCMS (learning content management system) with other enterprise systems in enterprises, thereby creating synergies across the company. 37% believed that outsourcing as much as possible to full-service suppliers or branded networks of suppliers will be the strategy chosen by companies. Whether choosing an internally or externally managed strategy, it appears that in the future L(C)MS will become much more integrated with other workplace systems in the organisation, particularly other human capital related systems.
One expert (Driscoll, IBM 2004) sees the makeover of training and development changing over the coming years due to two other factors apart from outsourcing, i.e. global competition and the introduction of so-called smart suites. Smart suites are systems that integrate knowledge sharing and learning with business planning activities to make the operations smarter.
Smart enterprise suites will include the following three learning relevant elements:
- Portals - providing a consistent user interface for business-to-employee (B2E) users (they may be employees within the enterprise or those within the extended enterprise of value-chain partners).
- Collaboration - including messaging, alerting, real-time application sharing, presence and threaded discussions – enabling the management and facilitation or communities and learning groups providing connectivity to a range of desktop and mobile devices via a mix of connectivity methods is supported for both content management and collaboration - dynamically profiling users and facilitating access to their knowledge.
- Content Management - including document management and Web content management, extending to digital asset management and support for rich media – enabling the categorisation, taxonomy generation and profiling of information. We believe this may occur in a small number of firms where the primary capital is embedded in expert knowledge and where there is intense focus on knowledge building and sharing processes, and in “high performance” organisations. However, experience so far in the use of all technologies, and especially e-learning, suggests that for most workplaces, such a vision is unlikely to be translated into reality for some time to come.
Open Source e-learning tools
Open source v commercial products
e-Learning is often conceived (in our view erroneously) as a product (content) delivered through a range of technology media (Internet, CD-Rom, etc.), some of which have become specialised and built for the objective of supporting learning. As our research has shown, suppliers of e-learning technologies are very heterogeneous with a large product variety: Learning Management Systems, Content Management Systems, Virtual Classrooms, Authorware, Test & Assessment Tools, Simulators and many more. Each of these e-learning applications is available from multiple vendors and middlemen.
Commercial and Open Source LMS offerings
It is estimated that there are already more than 250 providers of commercial Learning Management Systems. In addition, the JOIN project recently identified more than 40 open source LMS offerings. Some of the most well known are Moodle, ILIAS, eduplone, Claroline and SAKAI. Most of these have extensive developer communities and present strong arguments for considering open source a direct and potentially viable competitor of commercial products (Cuppola 2004). Therefore, it is a valid question to ask if in future, open source applications for e-learning offer an alternative to commercial offerings.
European research (Wichmann/Berlecon 2002) has shown that out of the top 10 criteria for making a decision in favour of Open Source software applications on the desktop (not operating platforms or databases), half of the criteria deemed “very important” are related to cost savings and four relate to technical criteria such as protection, stability, performance and access to code.
One of the challenges in considering this question objectively (will open source e-learning technologies capture current or future market share from commercial providers?) is the strong ideological flavour of arguments on both sides. As noted above, clearly Blackboard sees this as a threat to their position in the higher education segment. (Blackboard prospectus). On the other hand, there is a strong case for ensuring that users in the immediate future as well as the longer term have access to the best available applications, and these clearly should be built on open standards.
“When procuring software for education, public authorities should consider all software options, chosen on their merits and added value for the given particular learning environment and not on their model of development (i.e. open source or commercial software). Above all, public authorities should be encouraged to adopt software and applications based on open standards and interoperable systems permitting heterogeneous environments incorporating software regardless of its development model.” (Dewever 2004/e-learning Industry Group 2003).
The above advice from the e-learning Industry Group (eLIG), while clearly representing the views of its members, is a reasonable best practice guideline not only for governments, but also for academia, industry, SMEs and others. It is a reminder that the adoption decision for e-learning should always be based on a thorough business case, regardless of the type of purchaser. Moreover, it stresses that choosing an application based solely on its model of development is no alternative for a well thought thorough selection and procurement process. As our suppliers noted, poor procurement practices are currently a barrier to effective adoption and market development, and it is clearly an area where buyers must improve their competence.
It is also important to examine the demographics of the existing Open Source Community, which is:
- Overwhelmingly male
- Predominantly Generation X
- Concentrated in the United States and Europe
- IT professionals
- Mostly college and high school graduates
- Part-time participation. (Dewever 2004/Blue Oxen 2003)
These communities built the first and second generations of open source platforms, and in general, the developers and user communities were the same technically skilled people. However, for desktop applications, such as e-learning, the picture is different. Users may have limited IT literacy and have decision patterns which, while based on functionality and usability, also consider other factors such the long-term stability of the provider or the availability or relevance of training. As we know from our research and discussions with suppliers, users more often than not rely on external suppliers and service providers to assist them in adoption and integration. (Dewever 2004)
Building an open source e-learning market
Open source software is also referred to as FLOSS or Free/Libre Open Source software, as it gives users the right to freely read, redistribute, and modify the source code. The Open Source Institute definition stipulates, however, that open source does not just mean access to the source code, but also that it needs to comply with specific criteria for the distribution. “Free” in this context refers to the first criterion: “Free Redistribution”. This means:
“The license shall not restrict any party from selling or giving away the software as a component of an aggregate software distribution containing programs from several different sources. The license shall not require a royalty or other fee for such sale.” (Open Source Institute, 2004)
The definition of Free/Libre software consequently does not limit the potential to profit from the software, as long as the redistribution (and other) terms of the applicable license are respected. The implication is that open source applications can be available for free (at no cost) or at a commercial cost. Experience has shown that open source adoption in any organisation requires development for integration and implementation, and many commercial providers build their services offerings around supporting this implementation process. (Dewever 2004)
The web survey indicated that our respondents believe that standards and specifications such as IEEE LOM, SCORM and more recently IMS specifications such as IMS LD, IMS LIP and IMS QTI will be successfully evolved and become flexible enough to allow for the integration of real time learning processes, simulations, games, customised adaptive learning, digital rights management, etc., by 2010. Nearly 75% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that this would happen. Most researchers, even those closely connected with standards development, agree there is some way to go regarding standards before they will represent the sort of flexibility that is needed for all actors in the e-learning sector to totally accept them. It is generally accepted that all systems, whether commercial or open source, should be built on open standards if the market is to develop. In the meantime, developers of standardised content and platforms will introduce the standards whereas bespoke e-learning content producers will be more concerned with interoperability for the individual client. Discussions with our suppliers suggest that the stage at which standards are adopted for any application or in the integration processes is related to a certain stage of market maturity.
Read the complete Study of the e-learning suppliers’ “market” in Europe.