Our future is online

Interview cliche question. How often do you want to say ‘Right where you are sat!’? Courtesy of the Oatmeal – http://theoatmeal.com/comics/interview_questions

Its sometimes hard to imagine education looking any different in 5, 10 or 15 years from now. I think its because education now looks very similar to how it looked when I was in school… which was about 15 years ago. I think the other reason I cant see it changing very much is because I cant see recruitment into jobs and universities changing very much. Schools have a responsibility to provide students the tools they need to move on to the next step. The next step is universities, which produces students with degrees because that’s what businesses want. Thus we in schools need to continue to have students sit standardized tests to meet the requirements of universities. Its a cycle that can only be broken with the participation of all the parties.

Thinking far into the future, a century from now, school is going to look very different. Virtual reality will be ubiquitous and classrooms will be changed entirely to a virtual world. Students can travel the world to learn from their own homes with their friends by their virtual side. The computer systems will be so sophisticated that learning opportunities will appear everywhere. Maths, English, Foreign Languages and Science will all be integrated seamlessly into the day-to-day virtual world of the student. The computer will know what the student has mastered and will build a customized portfolio for them which universities can use to determine how well they will fit into their own virtual worlds. It could even be the case that universities as we know it no longer exist, and the transition to online has already begun.

In 2012 I joined a new online platform called MITx (Edx now). There was one course running that I happened to be interested in, 6.002x. It was called a prototype offering, a first course that was being trialed to see how well their new online learning platform would work. It worked well. There are now over 900 courses on Edx. They span 30 subject areas and cover topics from beginner level to degree level advanced material. There are other sites like Edx too, such as Coursera. What is great about these courses is that many of them are run by professionals or companies (such as Microsoft) and a large amount are free. You can learn from university professors, and follow top-flight-university courses (with the resources) for free. You can set up collaboration time (using a platform such as Google Hangouts) to get help and discuss content with other students on the course. Paying small fees can even get you a certificate and some run offline test centers to certify this. These sites are offering people something they have never had before in education – the freedom to choose what to study, when to study, and its done by professionals.

Edx courses are offering courses in a huge variety of different subject areas (https://www.edx.org/subjects)

One criticism of these courses is that they do not all have a high pass rate, with many (like me) not even making it to the final exam. But perhaps a high drop out rate is to be expected? If you are required to pay £9500 to go to university you either make sure its what you want to do beforehand or stick it out if you dont like it. Less than 10% of students dropped out of UK universities in 2015/2016. In contrast only about 5% of students completed that first online MOOC course, making a 95% dropout rate. Whilst this was the first Edx course and might not be representative, a study in 2014 by a team from the University of Warwick found a completion rate of less than 13% in some technical MOOC courses (Onah, D. F. O., Sinclair, J., & Boyatt, R.). But if you want to know what you are good at you need to try a lot of things. Perhaps only 5% passed that first course, but how many of that 5% would have never normally taken a course on Electronics? When it doesn’t hurt to sign up, a more diverse group of people are going to. Few will take the time to enroll in and pay for university, then decide they do not have the time for it.

So the future of our classroom is increasingly looking online, with greater freedoms in choice and autonomy over learning… but for this future to happen there needs to be change. Many educational professionals have a good idea of what the future might look like and the direction we need to be moving, but at a time when education funding in many countries is not a budgetary priority how can radical changes be made? How can school leaders be confident enough to challenge standardized testing when it will look to parents like its a school that is hamstringing their child’s future?


This video from Next School really demonstrates some of the problems we have, but when companies still require formal qualifications, you need to go to university. At university they require standardized test scores. Changing the system to move away from our current model is hard. Only a few companies require no degree level qualifications, and many of those jobs and companies are in the service sectors of their business. Universities need to change too, and whilst some are starting to, most still rely on test scores and predicted grades.

This article by Prakash Nair argues that the Physical space we have in school currently is not efficient enough for learning.

Perhaps some would define “success” as students’ ability to perform well on a standardized test, rather than their developing skills to navigate a fast-changing world. Under that limited definition, classrooms tend to do fairly well, but classroom-based schools would do poorly in comparison with educationally driven designs for true 21st-century learning.

Prakash criticizes our schools teaching students content to pass a standardized test, and yet his company, Fielding Nair International, asks for a degree if you want a job with them. So I might define my student successful if they have designed a bunch of buildings, and done other ‘architecture things’, but that will not make them good enough to join this company unless they sit and are successful at standardized tests.

Schools are itching for change, teachers want to redesign their content and classrooms to make it more tailored and beneficial to students, but until we stop being ranked and judged on the results of standardized tests, that is what schools are going to keep working towards. What we can do in the meantime is work with classroom teachers to help improve pedagogy, move to inquiry based learning and have students becoming more resilient learners so that when the revolution comes, its because our students are the new leaders – and see the value in change.



Onah, D. F. O., Sinclair, J., & Boyatt, R. (2014). DROPOUT RATES OF MASSIVE OPEN ONLINE COURSES: BEHAVIOURAL PATTERNS. EDULEARN14 Proceedings, 5825–5834. Retrieved from http://library.iated.org/view/ONAH2014DRO

2 thoughts on “Our future is online

  1. Great points here Alex. I think the other side of this is the question of how universities are training teachers. If innovative teaching is encouraged in uni is it getting squashed in the actual profession or is it even encouraged? I’ve heard younger teachers say the ed tech courses in uni were worthless. I’m sure that’s not across the board, but I’ve heard it several times. I’d love to see the innovation labs like MIT’s and the d.School at Stanford develop similar approaches to education training. Its a pretty evil loop we’re in right now. Hopefully we’re putting some crinkles in it though.

    • Thats a point i hadn’t even considered. I trained as recently at 2010 and we did nearly nothing on ed tech. But then again I guess you train people to work in the general work places, which for my school consisted of a laptop trolley for the entire science department (30 laptops divided between 800 students). The laptops were poor, AND they could only be bought because we got science grants for going on PD!

      I guess the next question is how can we even hope to see public schools innovating if we strangle their funding so much they cant even afford the tech in the first place.

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