"When patterns are broken, new worlds emerge. - Tuli Kupferberg"

Distributed LearningAny learning that allows instructor, students, and content to be located in different locations so that instruction and learning occur independent of time and place; often used synonymously with the term “Distance learning”. (Source)

Previously I’ve said,

Let’s take a ‘T.R.I.P. into the Future’ looking at some changes that are shifting learning in a way not possible just a few years ago. Here are 4 trends that education is moving towards: Greater Transparency, greater Responsibility, greater Individualization and greater Permanence.

"Future of Education - Trends"

Now I’ll add to that ‘Open and Distributed’… but what I’m ultimately talking about is greater Individualization with greater Responsibility on both schools and students.

Within 5 years, every student from Grade 6 or 7 right up to
Grade 12 will be involved in some level of distributed learning.

I’m also not just talking about Distributed Learning but, more specifically…

Blended learning – Blended learning is any time a student learns at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and at least in part through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace; (Source)

Blended learning is what will define good schools in the future.

I currently work in our Open Learning school and my principal, Stephen Whiffin, is always thinking about how we can create a ‘continuum of service’  for our students. We don’t want to see students taking all their courses online, but we do want to see a seamless learning program offered to students who struggle for any number of reasons to have their entire high school program delivered out of a brick and mortar school.

So, the current model is to see what we can do to ‘fill the gaps’, but what I’m arguing here is that we can, and in the near future will, provide every child with a blended experience. Rather than just meeting circumstantial needs of certain students, I’m talking about embedding blended and distributed learning into the programs of every student to take advantage of some latent needs that we tend not to serve in most schools.

What are some of the game changers that make this possible, or dare I say inevitable?

Here are some thoughts:

  1. BYO Laptop to school. Every student linked to the cloud, linked to the world, and not having to wait to get into a computer lab. The thought of school districts buying laptops for students is archaic in design and simply too expensive to maintain. In school I had to buy a calculator for Math and anyone who couldn’t afford one had one provided to them by the school… The BYO Laptop model is an affordable and a realistic solution to providing connectivity. I also bet there is hardly a school, even in the poorest of neighborhoods, across North America that couldn’t get corporate funding to help support needy families in this approach. Once all students are fully connected, there is no longer a need for the student to be completely tied to a class schedule.
  1. Mobile phones. See Chris Kennedy’s TedxUBC Talk and think about how learning can go mobile:

"TEDxUBC - Chris Kennedy - Students Live! Real-world Learning at the 2010 Olympic/Paralympic Games"

The real world is indeed addictive and engaging. Why does learning need to be tied to a building?

  1. Automated & individualized feedback for students learning at their own pace. See Salman Kahn’s TedTalk, (Linked to the 8:14 point, or you can go to the 11:11 point to see how teachers can use this). When teachers do meet with students they won’t be teaching 30 students a lesson only 5 or 6 of them really need, instead students will receive individualized and/or remedial attention based on their learning needs… increasing the ‘Student to valuable human time with the teacher ratio’, (14:54).
  1. Language Learning. Why on earth would we want students to wait until Grade 10 to start learning a second language? Why wouldn’t we provide students who already speak a second language at home with an opportunity to learn their other language(s) in a middle (or even elementary) school? We can’t have Spanish, Farsi, and Mandarin teachers at all schools, but we can have one teacher who teaches a language online to all students in a district… who also offers an after-school language lab for students who wish to interact face-to-face with other students learning along with them.
  1. Athletics & Arts. Young athletes, musicians, and performers will often miss hours of school time in order to train in their areas of intense focus and practice. Why does their schooling need to be ‘missed’ just because they are not in a specific, physical school setting?
  1. Travel. Whether on a world adventure or following working parents for a 2-year offshore stint, why should students uproot their graduation plans or lose credits because foreign courses don’t transfer neatly into a graduation program?
  1. Work & Family Needs. Some teens need to work to support their families. Some young students help raise their even younger siblings. Some teens have to raise their own children. Why allow school blocks and fixed timetables to limit the boundaries of their learning?

These are just seven of a myriad of things that make distributed and/or blended learning appealing and necessary. What others have I missed? What opportunities lay before us when we de-construct school timetables and when we make room for opportunities untied to fixed times and locations within our schools?

The future of education will be open and distributed.

We owe this to our students, with all their individualized learning needs.


[Cross-posted on the Connected Principals blog]

22 comments on “The future of education will be open and distributed

  1. Great ideas but how would it work in an inner city area with kids who live in slums in families with no interest in education? It works for motivated kids but not those whose interest in education is tangental. Schools give a focus and refuge as well as social aspect we shouldn’t ignore.

  2. I’m buyin’ in today, David! As you know, I am struggling with how to get my eight-year-old a balanced education, individualized to his special needs. I am going to start to develop an IEP for him, using this post as the seed for the areas that we need to cover over the next…however many years. Thank you for a very cool vision of the very near future!

  3. John,
    I can see how my post would be interpreted as distributed learning ‘replacing’ schools, but far from it! I think schools done right in the next 5 years will become even more important to students than they are now… certainly not less than now. You take away the rigid class-block structure of current schools and suddenly there is extra time for teachers to connect with students, to individualize their service and their attention to projects and programs that really matter. That’s why I put an emphasis on blended learning and not simply distributed learning. I’ll have more to say on this in a future post, but for now, please understand that I’m very excited about how these changes will revamp schools and make them more meaningful community centers and project based learning centers… this isn’t about losing the social connection to schools but rather creating more opportunities for meaningful social interaction between student and teachers as well as peers.

    I didn’t really mention special needs in the way you have, but absolutely… chalk that up as a #8 on my ongoing list above! Just think about your child’s special needs and meet some of them that the school just isn’t. Remove a few aspects of what your child finds challenging about being successful in school so that his school day is more enjoyable. You have a particularly unusual challenge in that your child with special needs learns in a language not spoken at home and in a school system that tends not to individualize programs to meet student needs… the idea of your own personal home-based IEP is brilliant!

  4. I agree with the term “blended” vs “distributed” learning. Technology use in open social networks for informal learning and connecting has influenced how tech is being incorporated into educational learning. The promise of “open” learning communities, particularly in rural areas allows students access to opportunities that they may otherwise not have access to. I don’t necessarily see a “lecture” style webinar being cast to kids across a family of schools (we have to be cautious of not replicating the traditional norms of lecture-style teaching); rather a more flexible and social approach ie/ just in time learning (skype) and eportfolio learning with mentors/ teachers across a district and districts ( and beyond!). We can no longer maintain the notion that all learning takes place within the brick and mortar, or even through linear online courses, many of which were intended to complete “grad requirements” at the sr level. Flex time for affinity-based/self-directed learning hold much promise for the future of our kids’ education.

  5. I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said here, except perhaps the use of the term “gamechangers”. When I think of gamechangers, I think of either disruptive innovations or very powerful sustaining innovations that bring new affordances into play – so BYOD and mobile learning seem to fit. The other items on your list are new things that are now possible, or more readily enabled, by these innovations. Those of us who work in this area all the time (or, speaking for myself) don’t think of online learning and blended learning as an innovation, because we live it. I need to remind myself that online and blended learning approaches have yet to reach a tipping point.

    Some schools are using online and blended approaches for their intermittent attenders – a place to come to, local and off-site educator support, but the sequence fits the student’s attendance, not the teacher’s delivery. Not sure if this is another item on your list.

  6. Very well said Tamara!


    Just today Stephen Whiffin & I were thinking about what kind of learning/support/drop-in center would appeal to intermittent attenders? I’d be interested in hearing about ones that you would consider successful?

    Excellent clarification around “gamechangers” although I think the instantaneous feedback on student progress linked above in the post at the 11:11 mark of the Salman Kahn TedTalk can be a gamechanger (using the data as described at 12:30 mark of the video). Not so much just using the data, but using the time ‘saved’ by providing individual learners just-in-time feedback, lessons and support.

    I’m on a huge learning curve here in my new job in Distributed Learning, but what I’ve seen so far suggests to me that blended learning is really where we will start to see exciting innovation and ultimately greater success rates.

  7. I was on the fence about bullet 3, but now I agree with your reasoning. Fast, meaningful feedback to students is one of the principal reasons for achievement improvements in moving from correspondence courses to online delivery, and should hold for classroom practice too – one of the many ways to improve student engagement (along with interactive media, interactions with instructors and peers, providing students with multiple options to represesent learning, etc.) The technologies that support this do indeed allow us to think about supporting a wider range of learner needs.

  8. Indeed sweeping changes are in the offing in the coming years in the field of education. We, the educators, have to pull up our socks fast.

  9. If Commonwealth governments are not ready to reform English spelling (to make it a more phonemic and logical spelling system), they should provide adequate support to students trying to crack the code (or rather, crack the exceptions to the code)! If you think I am a nutbar, then Carnegie, Websters, Shaw, Twain,… and many others (current or not, authorities in their fields or not) supported in one way or another this initiative. They were not nutbars, as far as I know! Many languages in the world have had reforms since their inception, English being the exception (in the last 400 years), which is why English spelling is such a mess! This measure alone would improve by 2 years the ability of students of the whole Commonwealth. If one person can name one measure that would improve literacy to that degree, please post a comment. And, if you think it is impossible to do? Read above. Other countries have done it and will. (More info here: http://www.spellingsociety.org/) BTW: People who have mastered the old code, will be able to use it. For one generation, a bi-codal system will be in place. Instant transcoding program on tablets could easily transcode all info.

  10. Hi David,

    Excellent wrap up of the key parts of future schools. Better pedagogy is the driver, but there is a practical consideration, too. Existing school structures just aren’t scalable.

    I think your framework is still rooted in a traditional conception of education and speaks mostly to changing how and when we deliver education. (“Deliver” is problematic word suggesting knowledge is a thing to be passed along; I don’t think you believe in that sort of model, actually.) But the content is unchanged.

    I think we can–must–push the envelope even further and look at what we teach. You mention, for example, the artists and athletes who must often miss “regular” class instruction in order to meet coaching and training schedules. The understanding here is that those people are exceptions to be better accommodated. And they are exceptions because they have a special talent. I worry that we are sending a message that unless you have such a special talent, other pursuits are not to be encouraged. At best, we offer token electives to meet the casual desire.

    What would happen if we let everyone pursue passions, even if they din’t have talent. (On a practical note, I think we can teach in 8 to 10 years all we currently teach in 12, so we have time.) Indeed, like G. K. Chesterton, I am a staunch defender of the amateur over the professional. “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly,” Chesterton wrote in What’s Wrong With the World. What’s wrong is that we are building this cult of professionalism, I suspect because we largely see education rather narrowly as providing for homo economicus. The point of an education is, ultimately and with due consideration for the need to go out and be a contributing member of society, is to make us more human. We can argue in that light that contemporary schooling actually inhibits rather than promotes the development of personhood.

    Build your new model, but build it to include everyone, not only the athletes, artists and travelling. (Maybe we should make a travel a requirement of a good education. That used to be the case.)


  11. Love your comment Brad,
    There’s a lot to digest, but it challenges in a very positive way. Quick thoughts:
    * At the Inquiry Hub, we did away with traditional lecture time. The only ‘delivery’ comes in morning workshops & seminars run by the teachers. I think we can still get better and more democratic (for lack of a better word coming to mind) with these, but that’s the only f2f time teachers get with students in a formal structured setting… and it’s usually for 30min. to an hour and a half, max.
    * “I think we can–must–push the envelope even further and look at what we teach” – ‘can’ and ‘should’ push… yes indeed! I worry about students who feel they can’t do anything ‘good enough’, that go through the motions of being ‘average’ in school. What message does that impart?
    * I love “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly,” – I must say that is in-part why I blog about topics without fear or feeling I have to know everything. Case-in-point, I wrote this 2 months into my job at Open/Online learning (but I started my research before that: http://www.scoop.it/t/shifting-learning
    * “We can argue in that light that contemporary schooling actually inhibits rather than promotes the development of personhood.” – Schools aren’t going away, but I think we have it in our power to make them far more compelling to students. We are blessed in BC, not to have to deal with the standardization that so many of our US counterparts have to deal with… we just need the courage to be daring and bold!

  12. Just so. We’re on the same page. But as we asked at #edcamp, now how do we build it?

    Here are some thoughts on what schools ought to look like–from students’ point of view. Well-aligned, I’d say, which is good news because we have to be careful we’re not assuming too much or taking things for granted.

    I want I hear more on this from students. I would love to have an experimental school where students and faculty collaboratively build the model.

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