The field of Educational Technology is rapidly evolving and the trends and advancements in online/digital learning are ever-changing with a fast pace. Online learning has been on the rise globally, particularly with a further acceleration during and after COVID-19 pandemic as a need for a shift from traditional education to remote learning. This shift has been driven by factors such as accessibility, flexibility, and the need for continuous learning. With an increasing impact of digitalization on education and a demand for digital transformation, educational opportunities are becoming more accessible and more flexible. Education sector has to prepare and adapt itself to ensure that all students can benefit from these advancements.
During the past six months, in addition to a number of local and small events and seminars on different topics in education, I attended a few major global conferences on online learning and digital education as well as the biggest EdTech event in Europe in which I was able to participate in many keynotes, workshops, presentations, and discussions. Here, I present a reflection on my observations and takeaways of these events .
- Online Educa Berlin (OEB): a global leading cross-sector conference and exhibition on technology supported learning and training that brings participants from higher education, workplace and government sectors to discuss how technology opportunities and challenges are transforming the world of learning.
- bett London: one of the biggest EdTech exhibitions in the world and a global meeting place for the educators, change-makers, startups and major companies in the field to present and discuss cutting-edge EdTech solutions.
- EATEL Summer School : a major European event on technology enhanced learning held by the European Association of Technology Enhanced Learning which brings together researchers, doctoral students, and professors from a range of disciplines (computer science, educational science, phycology, social sciences ,and IT) to share and discuss their latest projects.
- EDEN Digital Learning Europe: Europe’s leading network for advancing digital education Digital and a community to foster knowledge exchange and enhance understanding among professionals in distance and e-learning, and to promote best practices and policies throughout Europe and beyond.
As a professional in the field with hands on development who is closely following latest developments and advancements in education and EdTech sector, I can summarize the key trends and directions in online/ digital learning as follows:
- Artificial Intelligence (AI) and generative AI in education:
Artificial intelligence and its associated technologies have been a major point of discussion in the past few years. Lately, this has been particularly augmented by the emergence of generative AI such as ChatGPT. As a hype, it has triggered very heated debates on their applications, risks, and challenges from technical, pedagogical, social, and ethical perspectives (see UNESCO’s recommendation on the ethics of AI). On a broader level, it has got the attention of all stakeholders not only on micro levels but also macro and global change/decision makers. While there are extreme viewpoints of both proponents and opponents on the impact of AI on human being, society, businesses, and future jobs, for us educators and EdTech innovators, what is most important is the educational applications of AI. Whereas AI technologies are increasingly being used for various purposes in education such as intelligent tutoring systems, AI-powered simulations and immersive experiences, automated assessments, personalized guidance, and virtual assistants to offer immediate support to students, it will be still a big challenge in education and learning that how AI-powered tools can be implemented in a pedagogical and ethically sound way in educational settings. As such, in our Global Campus project we strive to explore the potential of generative AI as an assistive tool and content creation in online learning, e.g., Creating Videos with Artificial Intelligence. Another bigger question for educational institutions’ decision makers is how to deal with use of ChatGPT and AI-powered tools by students as it increases the risk of plagiarism and cheating.
- Micro-learning, bite-sized contents and stackable credentials:
With the rise of digital learning in various formats, micro-credentials are becoming more prevalent in higher education. Micro-credentials involves delivering contents in small, flexible, focused units and bite-sized formats that learners can access on their convenience with a possibility of combining them together to accomplish wider learning topics. While micro-credentials are emerging and being developed across education sector, numerous global initiatives seek to support the development, implementation and recognition of micro-credentials across institutions, businesses, and sectors. Such examples include: European Council recommendation on micro-credentials, UNESCO’s definition of micro-credentials, and OECD’s education policy perspectives, and a cross-university initiative is the Micro-credential in Sustainability by Una Europa which the University of Helsinki is part of. Combining micro-learning modules together can create stackable credentials to build up higher-level qualifications as a flexible pathway to up-skilling, re-skilling and lifelong learning. A natural result of digital transformation and micro-credentials is the development of a kind of non-degree education structure of online credentialing and digital badges. Many online learning platforms are partnering with universities and industry organizations to offer recognized credentials, such as certificates and digital badges. These micro-credentials provide learners with evidence of specific skills and achievements which can enhance their employability. While learning outside the formal education systems through online/digital formats is increasingly growing, a big challenge that faces the global education ecosystem is to find the ways to accredit alternative learning pathways. Thus, certification and accreditation of online learning is still an issue. To address this, there have been a number of initiatives to provide both technical and organizational infrastructures to promote the recognition of digital badges and online credentials. For instance, MIT DCC Digital Credentials Consortium. Another standard for verifying and issuing badges is Open Badges which is the world’s leading format for digital badges.
- Mixed reality (XR), immersive learning and game-based learning:
Gamification as a learning and training method has been around for many years. In the recent years, however, new generations of immersive experiences have emerged and been implemented in education and learning. Immersive technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) are being incorporated into digital learning to combine physical and virtual worlds to create interactive learning environments enabling learners to interact with digital contents and virtual objects in simulated real-world contexts.
Applying appropriate pedagogical principles of entertainment, adventure, problem solving and exploration, virtual reality can create realistic simulations of complex environments such as historical settings, medical procedures, and science laboratories allowing learners to practice and experiment in a safe and controlled environment. The applications of XR in all its forms in education and learning are various. For example, they can cover a range of purposes such as skill development and training, collaborative learning and teamwork, storytelling and narrative-based learning, cultural interaction, art and design, and language learning. Apart from the many EdTech startups and SMEs developing their solutions on different aspects of XR, big enterprises such as ACER and Microsoft are also trying to provide tools and resources of the educational applications of these technologies. One of the main product development goals in our Global Campus project is to implement different types of XR technologies in our experiments of which we are currently focused on creating a a VR learning adventure for sustainability.
- Data Analytics and Learning Analytics (LA)
The grow of online learning in very many formats and the emergence of massive (open) online learning environments such as MOOCs has resulted methods and tools for data mining and learning analytics. LA is both methods and tools used to collect, analyze and report data about learners, their interaction and behavior, and the contexts and harnessing the power of data to understand and optimize learning and the environments in which it occurs.
Data analytics and learning analytics play important roles in the field of education. A well-developed area of research in education in the past decade, LA has gained the attention of course developers, learning designers and educational institutions to implement different methods of LA in online and digital learning environments to gain actionable insights and make data-driven decisions to enhance learner performance, engagement, motivation, learning outcomes and to personalize instruction. In recent years, efforts to combine LA and learning design have been developed across universities to apply and translate these approaches into online learning development.
- Upskilling, digital skills and the future skills:
With the ever-changing nature of the society impacted by digital transformation, the skills needed for the present and the future citizens are evolving in a very fast pace. Not only the workforce of tomorrow will need new sets of skills but also today’s workforce needs to continually learn new skills and adapt as new jobs emerge. This digital surge requires a skills revolution in Europe, as well as globally. Today’s learners need to develop both multidisciplinary competencies, soft-skills, and digital skills to be equipped with the demands of the society and the future job market. As such, Future Skills are currently being developed all over the world in various shapes and forms, and the focal point is the changing nature of social conditions for work, education and life and the importance of the skills for workers in a digitized world (a). Digital learning is increasingly recognized as a means to upskill and reskill individuals in a rapidly evolving job market. This calls for alternative forms of learning that the stakeholders should respond to. For instance, the European Commission calls to provide high-quality, inclusive and accessible digital education and training to develop the digital skills of the citizens. Part of the Digital Education Action Plan (2021-2027), European Commission launched European Digital Education Hub to reinforce cooperation between stakeholders to promote digitalization agendas. An effective approach of lifelong learning is key to ensure that everyone has the knowledge, skills and competences needed to thrive in personal and professional lives. Defining skills for citizens, Mckinsey & Company has identified 65 fundamental skills that will help citizens thrive in the future.
- Blockchain in education:
Alternative formats of education such as digital credentials, micro-learning and badges require appropriate standards and protocols for verification, certification, accreditation, transferability and security. One way of applying blockchain in education is to use it as a Credentialing Ecosystem to create portable, interoperable, user-controlled digital credentials. While the use of blockchain technology in education is still in its infancy, in recent years blockchain has been a debated topic to explore what are the promises and challenges of Blockchain in education. Here are a few ways and purposes that blockchain can be applied to educational contexts:
- issuing, sharing, and verifying educational qualifications
- issuing badges e.g., Open Badge Passport
- verifying academic credentials
- authenticating users on logging and verifying data
- recording academic transcripts and transferring the credentials
- storing students’ data and personal information in a secure way
- grading, assessment and recording the exam results
- automating secure payments and financial transactions of students
Blockchain can help educational institutions for a better security, anti-fraud protection and optimization as well as students to have their personal lifelong learning passport stored on Blockchain for use as part of their future career. While blockchain holds significant promises, implementing it in education requires cautious consideration of technical, regulatory, and organizational factors.
- OER/OEP and open education:
The notion of open education is not new, however, and it goes a few decades back when there were efforts to change institutional practices to eliminate barriers and expand access to learning (b). Open education in its wider definition includes open educational resources (OER), open educational practices (OEP) encompassing a range of concepts and strategies that promote the accessibility, sharing, and collaboration of educational resources and practices. They are characterized as learning opportunities which are informal, personalized and distributed largely outside the boundaries of established educational institutions. MOOCs as the results of OEP and OER are the main formats of opening up learning possibilities to all that have been increasingly expanded in the past ten years and still are the major form of open online courses developed globally covering a wide range of topics.
There are numerous examples of the implementation of OER/OEP: OER Commons, Open Educational Resources (OER) toolkit, ENCORE+: European Network for Catalyzing Open Resources in Education. Open access, open publishing, open licensing and Creative Commons have been encouraged and implemented in the realm of research and publishing as the results of openness movement in education. The adaption of OER and OEP requires fundamental transformations in policy, pedagogy, institutional structure, technical infrastructure, and cooperation.
- Mobile learning and learning on the go:
With the widespread use of smartphones, tablets, and handheld devices, mobile learning has become prevalent in recent years. Learning platforms and educational apps are optimized for mobile devices enabling learners to access learning resources anytime, anywhere. Still, mobile learning is remaining a relevant solution to be more explored and adapted in the future of digital learning as a solution to address accessibility and equity in education. With the increasing development of mobile apps for various purposes, mobile learning is becoming even more prevailing in the future to empower learners on the go and with bit-sized digital learning materials, as mentioned above. More recent kinds of wearable technologies such as smartwatches, eyewear, AR/VR headsets are being implements and researched for their learning potential such as in-situ and real-time learning, immersive and interactive learning, and learning anytime/anywhere.
a. Future Skills – Future Learning and Future Higher Education. https://nextskills.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Future-Skills-The-Future-of-learning-and-higher-education.pdf
b. A NEW ECOLOGY FOR LEARNING: An Online Ethnographic Study of Learners’ Participation and Experience in Connectivist MOOCs. https://helda.helsinki.fi/bitstream/handle/10138/184138/saadatmand.pdf?sequence=3&isAllowed=y