Travel into the Future of Digital Learning


 Clark Shah-Nelson, Speaker at OLC Collaborate San Diego

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Let’s do a little time travel exercise. Imagine you have jumped into, let’s say, a Delorean, and traveled back in time 25 years, to 1994. Looking around, ok, yes, the pants are a lot wider, but more importantly, you see a lot of people have started using email at work (but not all by any means: the World Wide Web is still pretty new to most). Some people (very small minority) have started carrying around these large bulky heavy mobile phones with huge batteries, that can only make calls and send SMS text messages. A “Learning Management System” is about to come onto the scene – in a couple years yet. Distance Learning at this point is mostly either via correspondence (aka snail mail) or television, with various levels of interactivity. At this point, we still have both formal and informal learning taking place. Most formal learning takes place in schools and universities, for formal degrees and certificates, and most informal learning takes place either in libraries, book stores (remember those?), in the workplace, and probably a lot in other people’s houses. Online learning is just in its newborn infancy, and some visionaries start this little organization called the Sloan Consortium to help foster asynchronous learning networks… Ok, get out of 1994, before you run into your parents and all kinds of weirdness ensues…

If you get it timed to catch the lightning strike from the clock tower to return to today, obviously things have changed quite a lot in those 25 years, in terms of technology and the learning pathways it has opened up. Now, over 31% of all students are taking a fully online course (Babson Survey Research Group, 2017). The Sloan Consortium evolved into the Online Learning Consortium. There is now the ability to access a gazillion books, magazines, newspapers, journals, blogs, podcasts, wikis, several MOOC providers, various nano-degrees and micro-credentials, cryptocurrency, multiple LMS’s competing against each other (and still questionably holding steady to their original designs and conceptualizations, but that is another topic…) and both formal and informal learning have opened up many new pathways to lifelong learning.

In the formal realm, students now have several more options than they did a quarter of a century ago: learning fully online, synchronous or asynchronous, in hybrid or blended programs, or even mixing and matching some courses online and some in the classroom based on their lifestyle and schedules, all leading toward accredited degrees and certificates. This has added quite a bit of choice and some good options for a variety of students for whom technology, bandwidth, or lack of face-to-face time are not barriers. But the informal realm has also flourished during this most recent decade, with the expansion of web resources, open educational resources, open courseware, MOOCs, micro-credentials, nano degrees and the simultaneous expansion of systems for just in time learning for the workplace. When coupled with new technologies such as xAPI/Tin Can for tracking learning experience across many different platforms and avenues and blockchain-oriented applications for recording, storing and verifying credentials, we have entered a new dimension of non-traditional learning opportunities. But how can we track all of this and help get the word out to the 69% of folks who have never even heard of MOOCs? (Radford et al., 2014) Ok, that number is a bit old, but how can libraries, universities, and companies tap into the rich smorgasbord of learning opportunities that exist, many of which are open and accessible to anyone with a computer and an internet connection, and help more people learn what they want to learn? How can we add value and bridge gaps between already existing degrees, programs and workforce training throughout the lifelong learning journey? I hope to see you at OLC Collaborate in San Diego this June 4th to discuss these questions and more!


Babson Survey Research Group, 2017. Retrieved from

Radford, A. W. Robles, J., Cataylo, S., Horn, L., Thornton, J., & Whitfield, K. (2014).

The employer potential of MOOCs: A mixed-methods study of human resource professionals’ thinking on MOOCs. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 15 (5). Retrieved from article/view/1842/3106


Clark Shah-Nelson is Assistant Dean of Instructional Design and Technology at University of Maryland School of Social Work.

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