“The Future of Learning Is Increasingly Free”

Donald Clark

As the founder of Epic Group, a board member of Interactive University, an award-winning designer of e-learning tools and author of numerous articles on the topic, Donald Clark has “seen it all” in the field of online education and shares his observations frequently on his blog http://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.com. Clark will be one of the keynote speakers at OEB 2009. In the following interview, he shares his excitement about the latest open learning trends.

OEB: Mr Clark, you are an old hand in the field of e-learning and have been a member of OEB’s Steering Committee since 2008. Now in the run-up to this year’s conference, what have you found to be the biggest news in the past year?
Mr Clark: The biggest news is bad news: Education and training will be forced to do ‘more for less’ over the next decade. The party is over. This means pushing faster towards the use of technology. Mobile technology such as Android, iPhone, Blackberry, etc. has come of age. They are essentially handheld computers and offer lots to learning. Games have matured out of their ‘shoot ‘em up’ niche – although Modern Warfare is a masterpiece – offering much in performance simulation. Laptops, notebooks and memory sticks are cheaper than ever before. Then there is Google Wave and the promise of cloud computing. As usual, technology leads the way. Educators are fond of saying “it is not about the technology”. Sorry, but it has everything to do with the technology!

OEB: What developments have excited you the most this year?
Mr Clark: The most interesting general trend is the drift towards the FREE, as described in Chris Anderson’s book FREE – The Future of a Radical Price. Knowledge is already free. In 1991 the encyclopaedia industry was worth an astonishing $ 1.2 billion: it’s now worth next to nothing. Wikipedia means that the cost to the learner is ZERO. A free, encyclopaedic knowledge base, that is bigger, better, broader and available in more languages than ever before has naturally won the day. The really interesting economic point is that the real money that would previously have been spent on expensive sets of rarely used encyclopaedias can be spent elsewhere. It can be redistributed. We as customers get to keep our money, as well as getting a better product.

Then there’s also the rise of free teacher-created content that really took off in 2009. Now that lectures are being recorded and distributed – often for free – through YouTube EDU, iTunes U, Open Learn, MIT Courseware and others, anyone can have access to this level of instruction. In fact, these recorded lectures are better than their live originals in many ways, supported by the psychology of learning. The future is increasingly free.

OEB: At the ONLINE EDUCA debate you will be one of our four experts discussing the pros and cons of the Social Web. What is your personal opinion about sites and services such as Facebook? How can these resources be best used to foster the learning process?
Mr Clark: Social networking is far more than Facebook. It is Twitter, blogs, YouTube, iTunes, it is every discussion about every article on Wikipedia, forums, chat, e-mail and so on. The truly ‘social’ stuff works fine as many people link, follow up, suggest and distribute useful knowledge and contacts. I am not really convinced that professional educators should be messing up this dynamic.
The real action, however, is in the media sharing phenomenon, which is part of the social networking world:

First, YouTube EDU. The concept is simple enough: video lectures are posted with ratings and details of download statistics, from over 320 universities. Compare this with the once a year lecture from a typical living academic – let’s say 100 students once a year for 15 years (and that’s the absolute maximum). You’re effectively extending the life of a good physics lecturer by thousands of years!
I’m also impressed by iTunes U. Like YouTube EDU, iTunes U is all free content, currently at 200,000 audio and video items from major universities. You can download one or all the tracks on a specific topic. One distinct advantage is that you can play audio or video on your iPod, iTouch, iPhone, MP3 player, Mac or PC.

Then there’s Open Learn, the Open University’s Moodle-based system is much more sophisticated on support for learners with its learning tools, knowledge maps, shared activities and activity reports. All you need to do is to register with a personal profile. The content and forums are then available for group discussions. You can do the self-assessment, where you answer questions, then compare your answers with model answers. You can rate and review units, create a learning journal and use Learning Space to organise your study. It is pretty impressive.

MITOpenCourseware has an annual running cost of $ 3.6 million (10% lower than last year) and they’re constantly lowering their cost base, with over 1900 courses – some translated – at both undergraduate and graduate level. This is an astonishingly rich resource of free lecture notes, videos and exams from MIT’s actual courses. There are translations in Chinese, Thai and Persian. The stats are astounding: 40 million visits by 31 million people from almost every country in the world. The majority view this stuff for personal learning (62%). Overall the breakdown is 49% self-learners, 32% students and 16% educators.

The ‘free’ University of the People, (yes free!) has just started this year but puts forward a model that may be ideal for the developing world.

Lastly, Wikibooks, Project Gutenberg (2.5 million downloads a month), and the whole Open Education movement has changed gear into a real resource that challenges the old model.

OEB: What will you personally investigate at this year’s OEB?
Mr Clark: I suppose I will go to ONLINE EDUCA to be surprised, so rather than attend things I would naturally choose, I would like to pop into things I do not know much about. It is the new, fresh and innovative things I am most keen to see.

OEB: Mr Clark, thank you very much for your time.

At OEB 2009, Donald Clark will argue his case in the ONLINE EDUCA Debate on December 3rd from 17:45 – 19:00. On Friday, December 4th, Clark will chair the session “EU 3D: Ctl+Alt+Delete” from 11:45 – 13:00 and join the “Battle of the Bloggers” from 14:15 – 16:00.

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