Trends and Futures of Education:

Implications for Distance Education
 

Brent G. Wilson

October 2001

For inclusion in a special issue of

the Quarterly Review of Distance Education

edited by Les Moller


Distance education has been described as a disruptive technology—an innovation that, while initially posing no threat to established institutions, over time challenges conventional practices and contributes to new ways of thinking (Archer, Garrison, & Anderson, 1999). I agree with this assessment. Distance education has already become more than an alternative form of delivery. It has shaken up the educational establishment, especially at higher education and corporate levels. Precisely because of this success, though, assessing potential at midstream can be a challenge.

At times like these, instructional designers and providers can benefit enormously by stepping back, reviewing broad trends, and forecasting likely scenarios based on those trends. That is the purpose of this paper. A number of current trends will be outlined and their likely impact on education considered. Then some brief pointers toward the future will be presented. I invite you the reader to join me in a response to the trends, and come up with your own likely scenario!

Observers of distance education can point to a number of discernible trends affecting practice over the past several years. Table 1 presents a list of trends in summary form, to be discussed in the paper.
 
 
 
 Technologizing of School Systems Standardized competencies 
System-side assessments and accountability 
Incentivization of funding
Regulated processes and methods 
Alignment of outcomes, assessments, and methods 
De-professionalizing the teacher’s role 
Learner- and User-Centered Philosophies Convenient, anytime/anywhere access 
Constructivism 
Field-based and informal learning 
High-touch connectivity 
Moves to Automate Instructional Design Standardized taxonomies for learning outcomes and instructional strategies 
Data-driven generation of rule-based instruction 
More flexible, adaptable authoring tools 
More modular, re-usable design 
The Digital Shift: Advances in Information Technologies Archivability 
Searchability 
Replicability 
Hypertext linkability 
Communication tools 
Representation and modeling tools 
 
 
Global Marketplace Economies of scale 
Globally distributed labor pool 
Disaggregation of products and services 
Commoditization of instruction 
Mixing of commerce and education
Radical Forces Inspired by Global Connectivity Web as democratizing, emancipating, empowering force 
Open source 
Self-publishing and knowledge sharing 
Peer-to-peer networking 
Self-organized learning- and performance-support groups 
Threats to credentialing, degree- granting institutions 
Global education as an alternative to a national curriculum 
Changing Paradigms of Thought in Instructional Design From strategy to activity 
From individual to social 
From social to value 
From multiple scales to integration of scale 
From linear causality to systemic impact

Table 1. Key trends relating to education, distance education, and learning technologies. Current trends do not determine the future, but they can provide a basis for present action and an understanding of possible futures. The trends depicted in Table 1 are pulling in different directions—some fostering change, others reinforcing the status quo; some using technology in a controlling way, others using technology to empower individuals. I should explain at the outset that the presentation of trends in this paper seeks to include different viewpoints, but is low on detailed analysis. This is done partly for reasons of scope and focus, but also because my purpose is to convey contrasting impressions and possibilities, rather than argue for a single scenario or set of values.

Technologizing of School Systems

School systems, particularly American K12 public schools, are facing pressures to modernize and "technologize" their processes by establishing more predictable outputs and methods (Tyack & Cuban, 1995). Although American public schools are the immediate point of discussion for this section, the principles extend to any schooling or educational system.

Standardized competencies. The standards movement has resulted in a common set of learning outcomes that can be shared across districts, states, or an entire nation. These curriculum standards are presented in quasi-behavioral language, but at a fairly high level of generality to accommodate different teaching methods.

System-side assessments and accountability. Standardized assessments are now being mandated throughout the United State and, of course, in many parts of the world. These assessments are part of an overall move to make schools more accountable to the public or to the government. Test scores are thus indicators of tax dollars and government resources being well-spent.

Incentivization of funding. Increasingly, operational funds are being tied to compliance with specific mandates and regulations. These mandates are made at levels beyond individual schools, intended to bring schools into line with desired teaching and assessment practices.

Regulated processes and methods. Traditionally, teachers have enjoyed considerable autonomy in their classrooms, choosing teaching methods that fit their style while meeting curriculum expectations. Now with increased emphasis on high-stakes testing, teachers are being asked to fit their teaching methods more closely to the larger system of goals and assessments. In many cases, methods are established and prescribed by schools, districts, and even states, leaving less room for professional judgment and variations in teaching style. This can also constrain teachers’ efforts to meet unique needs of diverse learners.

Alignment of outcomes, assessments, and methods. In a well-coordinated schooling system, an alignment exists between processes and outputs—in particular, between standardized outcomes, assessment measures, and acceptable teaching methods. This principle of alignment is well-established as an instructional-design principle, but until recently, has not been the norm within the American public-school system.

De-professionalizing the teacher’s role. Tighter alignment of processes and outputs has a definite impact on the teacher’s role. As suggested above, the teacher often assumes a "technician’s" role of implementing prescribed rules, as opposed to a professional’s role of exercising judgment.

The overall pull of these trends is in the direction of standardization, conformity, and efficiency. This is consistent with a factory or industrial model of schooling, i.e., given known inputs, the system applies predictable rules and processes, resulting in fairly standard and controllable outputs. I use the term ‘technologize’ because it suggests the application of knowledge and technologies to the solution of a practical problem—in this case, the education of children in a responsible and efficient manner.

Learner- and User-Centered Philosophies

At the same time schools are moving toward efficiency and control, the mood among many educators is definitely learner-centered. The constructivist movement in education stresses individual and collaborative construction of meaning. While many teachers wish they could teach in more learner-centered ways, the system can make it difficult. Teachers and trainers thus face a certain tension between efficiency and control on the one hand, and learner-centered flexibility on the other. The trends below relate to the treatment of students, but also to teachers and managers themselves. Both instructors and students are thus seen as end users of learning resources.

Convenient, anytime/anywhere access. Instead of students going to class, learning is coming to the student—in the workplace or at home. Just-in-time, just-in-place learning resources are increasingly available to learners in their normal living settings. This has always been a defining advantage of distance learning; the Web has only continued and improved upon this trend. Adult learners are typically seeking specific skills as opposed to general educational outcomes. The result is, many adult learners are starting to look first to the Web and to locally available resources before committing to formal programs of study.

Constructivism. Constructivism is a psychologically-oriented approach to learning that emphasizes individual and collaborative meaning construction. While early theorists Vygotsky, Dewey, and Piaget paved the way 60-70 years ago, constructivism moved to the mainstream only in the 1990s. Constructivist teaching strategies give students complex and engaging projects and tasks to perform, with scaffolding and support from colleagues or a teacher/facilitator. Learning happens via meaningful experiences and direct encounters. Examples include guided inquiry activities such as Webquests, or problem-based learning cases.

Field-based and informal learning. Many educators have become conscious of the limits of classroom learning, because it happens outside of natural and authentic contexts. This has led to greater appreciation for informal and field-based learning opportunities. Informal learning happens by virtue of participation in some other valued activity, e.g., work or play. Field-based learning refers to semi-structured activities such as internships, practicum experiences, expeditions and trips, etc. These informal and field-based experiences are compatible with constructivist values and are learner-centered in the same sense—the emphasis on individuals’ meaningful encounters with the world as opposed to direct instruction in controlled settings.

High-touch connectivity. Many technology innovators maintain a dual focus in their dissemination efforts—providing advanced information tools coupled with high levels of personal support and connectivity among individuals (Naisbitt, 1982; Spitzer, 2001). The commitment to both high-tech and high-touch suggests a need to make tools people-centered rather than the reverse (Norman, 1993).

How does distance education fit within these conflicting forces of standardization versus learner-centered values? Ironically, distance education can be seen to support both movements. A well-conceived distance education program can fit squarely within a strictly controlled standards-based curriculum. At the same time, some aspects of the distance learning experience are completely learner-centered, especially the access and convenience afforded students.

Moves to Automate Instructional Design

The research agenda of Dave Merrill and others has focused on how to make high-quality instruction happen more regularly and consistently. One way to do this is to create an expert system that will ensure adequate instructional quality, based on a defined theory of instruction. In this section several trends are outlined that relate to making instructional-design processes more efficient and effective, either through improved tools or improved theories.

Standardized taxonomies for learning outcomes and instructional strategies. A basic precept of instructional design is known as the "conditions-of-learning" assumption (Ragan & Smith, 1996). Before producing instruction, you determine what you need to teach, as well as your audience and situation. Then and only then can good instructional strategies be determined. To make this assumption workable, designers use specific taxonomies of learning outcomes, matched up with instructional strategies. Examples of this strategy-outcome coupling include Robert Gagné’s nine events of instruction and Dave Merrill’s component display theory. According to this view, rules connecting goals with instructional strategies become essential to the systematic practice of instructional design.

Data-driven generation of rule-based instruction. An automated version of this line of thinking seeks to make instructional development largely a data-driven activity. In theory, automated instructional design is an ambitious concept: Just plug in data concerning learning outcomes, learners, and situation, and the rule system spits out—not only a set of recommended strategies—but draft instructional materials. A major advantage of an automated system like this would be the efficiency gains achieved through re-usability of data. For example, investment in content representation—depicting the facts, procedures, principles, and examples in a subject area—could yield some quickly developed instruction for different learners in different situations, according to the rules of the system. Learning objects are based on a similar idea, although perhaps not as theory-driven (Wiley, 2002). While research on automating instruction has continued over two decades, the agenda is still in its infancy, and may prove increasingly viable in coming years.

More flexible, adaptable authoring tools. In addition to rule-based taxonomies and instructional prescriptions, authoring tools have become more flexible and powerful. Rather than force designers into linear, top-down ways of thinking and producing, more powerful tools allow late and iterative changes in design, more in keeping with natural design thinking and envisioning. Examples include 3-D modeling programs that allow for various uses once the model has been created; or authoring tools that allow prototyping and creation of dummy interfaces, to test out concepts at early stages before investing in full-design development. These powerful tools are useful, not just to instructional-design professionals, but to non-professionals seeking to engage in design activities.

More modular, re-usable design. The learning-objects movement is about reusing content to make efficiency gains in the instructional development process. Because digital content is "non-rival" in nature (i.e., copies of equal quality can easily be made from originals), reusability for various purposes, media, and occasions become an inviting possibility (Wiley, 2002).

But the learning-objects movement is only one line of an overall effort to allow for modular re-usability of design components. The idea is that good instructional design is based on a very finite number of models, templates, and solutions, created while addressing earlier problems. The task is to adopt these available resources, re-using and appropriating wherever possible, to address the problem at hand. This modular attitude seems to draw from a workshop metaphor that sees designers as craftspersons re-using ideas and content for different clients and purposes, somewhere between factory or pure-artist metaphors of production. The IMMEX environment for problem-based learning lessons (http://www.immex.ucla.edu/) is a Web example of template use.

The Digital Shift: Advances in Information Technologies

New technologies serve a number of functions: They empower people and open up new possibilities for action. They serve as metaphors for new ways of thinking about problems. They eventually come to constrain our thinking and actions, especially after heavy investment in their use. Advances in information technologies over the last twenty years are so profound that they are affecting every area of our professional lives. I term this condition the "digital shift" because, as we convert our thinking, knowledge, and communication to digital and informational form, a whole new set of possibilities opens up (Brown, 2000; Brown & Duguid, 1996).

Archivability. Digitized information is traceable and archivable. Exchanges and interactions are more easily captured, at least on a digital level.

Searchability. Digital databases are searchable to a degree that we can often retrieve needed resources when solving problems in real time.

Replicability. Because of their non-rival nature, digital resources can be copied and distributed an infinite number of times at zero or extremely low cost.

Hypertext linkability. The hypertext structures of the Web draw heavily on the associative structures conceived by behaviorists and systems thinkers in the 1940s and 50s (Hebb, 1949). Using webs of interconnecting information has become commonplace in the problem-solving practices of information workers.

Communication tools. We have learned more about how to navigate rich information structures, and then to communicate with other people within those structures. Online tools will increasingly allow higher resolution, more modalities, more choice, and more fidelity to everyday and face-to-face encounters.

Representation and modeling tools. Representation tools—everything from PowerPoint to 3-D animation to digital TV and beyond—are changing our notion of reality. These tools, coupled with sophisticated communications, have led to virtual worlds that, increasingly, allow for rich experience and interaction. We now need to match this growth with a better understanding of how to use the tools for good learning effect.

Global Marketplace

In recent years, economies worldwide have moved toward greater linkages and interdependencies. This move is called the global economy or the global marketplace. I discuss below several aspects of this global trend, affecting the delivery of educational and learning resources (see also Collis & Gommer, 2001a and Collis & Gommer, 2001b for a helpful analysis on this general issue).

Economies of scale. By virtue of the Web and the shift to online learning, markets for learning resources have shifted from local to global. Thus a school in Australia may offer a course that attracts students from all over the world. A portal or website may compete against an office of student services within a community college. These shifts in markets and audiences create new economies of scale—allowing larger investment and larger outreach—but they can also threaten locally developed providers.

Globally distributed labor pool. A company based out of India may hire an experienced PhD at $3/hour to facilitate a graduate-level computer science course. This, in turn, may force a competitive response by a local school or learning-resource provider. By simple virtue of the Web, salary scales and hiring practices for online resource providers are starting to become more globalized

Disaggregation of products and services. It can be hard to put a price tag on residential school experiences. What is a Harvard MBA worth, and where does the value lie? Many graduates would place great value on non-traditional outcomes, e.g., the network of friends and contacts; the exposure to a company’s work practices via an internship; the rite-of-passage and developmental roles of schooling; the opportunity to take personal risks and test oneself. Online learning providers will need to somehow differentiate the valued outcomes of a schooling experience. Parsing out these valued outcomes will help to make sure the online experience can be specifically designed to include them. For example, if college graduates value the personal experimentation and growth accruing from going away to school, then online providers may want to design and encourage avenues for personal experimentation online—for example, through music or political involvement. Also, once valued outcomes are identified and understood, providers may be able to set up pricing schemes that differentiate among those outcomes. Credential costs, for example, may be priced separately from some learning costs.

Commoditization of instruction. As suggested earlier, instruction can be seen either as a mass-produced product or as a unique experience. Because online learning resources require more up-front development than typical classroom experiences, and because online instruction is still seen as an entrepreneurial enterprise, there is a tendency to see online instruction as a commodity. Once investment has been made in the product, providers often want to distribute that product as far as the market will allow. This could also be called a shift from a craft to an industrial model of production and delivery. A view of instruction as commodity, of course, is compatible with viewing education in input-output terms.

As an industrial model of instruction is adopted, questions of ownership and control of distribution become more prominent, because a product is developed that, at least in principle, can be readily distributed (unlike the typical classroom experience). Publishers, concerned about losing their place in this changing environment, have introduced innovations such as the customizable textbook. To some extent, discussion of learning objects has been appropriated by publishers as part of an effort to maintain commercial control of content elements through proprietary standards.

Mixing of commerce and education. Many enthusiasts are disheartened at the commercialization of the Web, but it was a predictable effect coincident with increasing choice and individual control. A similar tendency is seen in schools as greater choices and perspectives are accommodated through charter and private schools. Commercial investment can provide the needed stimulus to innovation and development, but it can also reduce innovation and variation, especially small-niche perspectives at the fringes. Commercial appropriation of learning can result in some confusion through blurring of boundaries between consumption and education, between entertainment and learning. In an open market, where satisfaction of desire plays a critical role, learning outcomes may suffer from neglect.

Radical Forces Inspired by Global Connectivity

Web as democratizing, emancipating, empowering force. Early literature about the Internet was infused with optimism and idealism about universal sharing and access. The Web indeed can be an empowering force that gives information access to users who are physically remote from resources (Ryder, 1995).

At the same time, the Web, like so many other tools, reflects our own values and ideas. A divide still exists between the privileged and the disenfranchised, but the rules have changed somewhat. Principal barriers now include lack of access and lack of cultural or personal fit with the technology. Age can even be a barrier to empowerment, with younger people tending to have more time and familiarity with technology than older generations.

Open source. The commercial model of technology advancement, exemplified in the software industry by Microsoft, is being challenged right now by the open source movement. Linux, an operating system whose source code is open for the world to see and costs nothing to download and use, has become a major movement in the software development world. Open-source advocates are trying to create a world where software is freely available and a living is made through continuing relationships of service and support.

Open-source ideas may be applied to online learning and education: Challenge commercial ownership by making resources freely available, for example, on the Web. If communities of practice can be organized around openly available tools and resources, then the system can become self-sustaining and reinforcing to participants (Schrage, 2000).

Self-publishing and knowledge sharing. Self-publishing is to knowledge management as open source is to Microsoft—an alternative to a hierarchically controlled system. Instead of fixed search categories and a company-designed form, end users themselves can publish solutions and locally valued resources. The Web epitomizes this growing trend, to the occasional chagrin of copyright owners and librarians (Ryder & Wilson, 1997).

Peer-to-peer networking. The Napster phenomenon taught us that downloading from central servers is not the only way to perpetuate an online enterprise. Peer-to-peer networking refers to individual users sharing resources by opening up their hard drives to each other. The core concept is even more radical than Napster’s, because once out of the bag and in the hands of end users, true peer-to-peer usage cannot be controlled. In this way peer-to-peer networking constitutes a classic form of self-organizing system, using the technology to bypass every form of central control.

Self-organized learning- and performance-support groups. Peer-to-peer connectivity is the extreme end of self-organizing on the Web, but there are other forms. Interest groups, listservs, support groups of all kinds—Each of these is a self-organizing system that draws on distributed energy and participation for its survival. An interesting example is slashdot.org, a news and discussion group for open-source and technical geeks. Run by a group of about a dozen editors, thousands of readers participate at multiple levels: by contributing stories, discussing the stories, rating the comments, and even rating the ratings. Together, these carefully crafted forms of participation result in a finely tuned environment for learning about news and technology—In short, it’s a very successful informal learning environment exhibiting both designed and self-organizing qualities (Wiley & Edwards, this issue). And contrary to threaded discussions typical of online courses, the slashdot experience gets better with more students involved. It seems inevitable that educational institutions will see an advantage in exploiting these tools for more formal learning purposes. I can imagine, for example, a consortium of graduate programs sponsoring participation in a discussion forum like slashlearn.org, currently run by David Wiley. Slashlearn.org uses slashdot source code, with the conversation directed toward instructional technology issues (Irving, 2001).

Threats to credentialing, degree-granting institutions. To stay in business, educational institutions must maintain the value of their credentialing processes. The college graduate must hold some kind of advantage over the non-degreed person. The basis for accreditation and credentialing has historically been seat time—Students live in residence and accumulate seat time until a requisite number of classes (with proper grades) is attained.

An alternative to seat time is demonstrated mastery of competencies. Professionally certified tests are an example of this approach. Competency-based alternatives have only been partly successful in their challenge of seat-time credentialing, partly because of technical and quality problems with competency measures. Also, it is argued, something unique happens in the experience of schooling. It’s not just about the competency, critics argue—It’s about the learning experience itself. There is something in going to school that’s irreducible down to a competency exam.

In recent years, however, competency-based approaches are enjoying a comeback, thanks largely to growth in online and self-directed learning. For-profit outreach institutions like the University of Phoenix, once ridiculed for giving credit for "life experience," continue to gain market share against residential institutions. In spite of reliability problems, professional portfolios are increasingly used for competency demonstration and evaluation. Online learning, where seat time loses much of its meaning, continues to improve its services and learning outcomes, along with market share. These "disruptive technologies" and accompanying competency-based tools are truly disrupting the status quo.

The challenge to seat-time credentialing is formidable. The fast-growing home schooling movement, for example, is increasingly dependent on online resources and interest groups, and has been fairly successful in demonstrating learning outcomes. Many working professionals are opting for narrower and shorter training certificates instead of full degrees, often with credit given for previously acquired competencies.

Global education as an alternative to a national curriculum. Email exchanges and projects linking students from different parts of the world are not the only curricular impact of global connectivity. ‘Global education’ refers to a new philosophy of learning that seeks to create responsible citizens of the world. Transcending national interests, the global education curriculum takes broadly based positions on issues of non-violence and conflict resolution; sustainable growth policies; treatment of rich and poor; and protection of the global environment (McEneaney, Kolker, & Ustinova, 1998).

Changing Paradigms of Thought in Instructional Design

The fields of education, psychology, and instructional design continue to contribute to the professional environment within which distance education is practiced. And, of course, no professional field is a static state; rather, we each contribute to constant changes in the disciplines and fields we participate in. This section is a highly personal slant on how professional paradigms in instructional design have been changing in recent years, and where they are likely to continue changing.

From strategy to activity. Instructional designers talk about strategies that get used or applied in various situations. Merriam-Webster Online provides a first definition of ‘strategy’ that relates to war and peace. The second definition is:

2 a : a careful plan or method : a clever stratagem
b : the art of devising or employing plans or stratagems toward a goal
A strategy, then, seems to refer to a pre-existing plan or method that can be deployed to address an immediate problem. From what we know about human cognition, however, much of our behavior, including the solving of complex problems, involves more than applying plans or methods. Our intentional behavior, constrained by a number of situational conditions and purposes, is sometimes methodical and strategic and other times more ad hoc.

My point is this: Instructional design models often carry a strong bias toward rational planning and adoption of a fixed set of strategies; whereas instructional design practice is much more interesting than that. Designers do apply plans and strategies, but they also respond very directly to environments, colleagues, and tasks at hand. The formal plans and strategies get more attention in the literature than the in-context problem-solving activities. Activity theory presents a framework for analyzing situations with a focus on participants and their intentions, tools, and culture (Jonassen & Rohrer-Murphy, 1999; Ryder, 2001b). When I think of good instructional-design practice, I now tend to think less in terms of strategy deployment and more in terms of activity—What are people actually doing (concrete), rather than what strategy (abstraction) might they be applying?

From individual to social. Throughout the 1990s, some of the major innovations in psychology came from movements in situated cognition and the social construction of meaning. This is somewhat ironic since psychology’s entire stance is predicated on individual behavior and cognition. In fact, the situated cognition movement is a tacit acknowledgement of the need for something more than individual cognition.

From social to value. Social and cultural levels of understanding human behavior lead naturally to questions of value: What is it that people want? What should people want? What is right and fair? How can we get people working together better? We run up against a fairly dead end, however, when we ask our psychology-derived theories to help us with value questions.

For tools to identify the multiple meanings and values inherent in our materials, we can turn to critical and hermeneutical approaches that seek to understand and interpret situations like a critic would understand a text. These approaches, while not scientific in method or purpose, are better equipped to identify and highlight contrasting values and perspectives, while not imposing a specific value system. Critical approaches can thus serve a needed role in the design of distance-education resources as they help us examine the various meanings implicit in our messages, and determine if that’s what we really want to say.

From multiple scales to integration of scale. Designers of distance education programs need more inclusive, holistic models that can inform simultaneously at different levels of context: individual cognition, cultures and communities, and political and value dimensions. Right now theorists at these specific levels are fairly defensive and protective of their terrain. Practitioners are forced to cobble together inclusive perspectives by combining contradictory and incommensurate theories on their own. Frankly, I have not found models in the educational or social-science literature that successfully integrate these levels of scale, but activity theory comes close (Wilson & Myers, 2000).

From linear causality to systemic impact. Future models of instructional design must quit looking simplistically for linear cause-and-effect relationships outside of systemic interactions. Rather than ask questions such as: Which is better—Distance education or traditional delivery?—we must closely examine local, dynamic, and systemic interactions. Systems theory, especially complexity theory, has received recent attention in the literature, and this seems likely to continue in the future.

Reflections

How do these various trends add up? I hope the reader engages in some reflection and conversation about that question. What follows is my best effort at generalizing upon the trends. Rather than paint a specific scenario, I highlight a few principles suggesting to how the trends may combine.

The trends keep marching on. Each of the trends listed above will continue to play a role in future developments of education and training, where distance technologies will play an expanding role. The trends may compete with one another, or sometimes cancel each other out. But they all represent significant aspects of the problem space within which distance education of the future will take shape.

Open systems trump closed ones. This is my way of saying, learners and communities will find a way to appropriate emerging tools and technologies, rather than the reverse. I have a bias that says that open systems (self-directed learners, self-organizing groups of learners and workers) constitute the most vital and thriving unit for understanding human actions and choices (cf. Hill, 1999). Process efficiencies and mass-produced tutorials can be appropriated and put into service by these learners and groups, and that is good. Where a group can appropriate a tool or technology and use it to learn from, let it do so. Where the technology breaks down, the group will adapt and make do.

This is not a Utopian faith in the goodness of people; rather, it is an acknowledgement of the power and priority of groups that identify us and guide our behavior. Schools as collectivized learning institutions will not go away. Teachers or guides, responsible for the growth of novices, will not go away. Collective learning in real time will not go away. These practices are in place, not because we lack alternatives, but because we are social beings who invest considerable time and resources toward local interactions and support. I am confident that the same groups—schools, classrooms, families, workgroups, professional organizations—will find ways for distance-education resources to work in their service.

Technologies are still reflections of us. Through technologies and new ideas, we are always in the process of re-inventing ourselves. Technologies serve as mirrors of our values and aspirations, as well as our weaknesses and intractable problems. This truth about technologies underscores the importance of subjecting our plans to continuing scrutiny. Whenever possible, we want our technologies to reflect our best selves and our highest ambitions.

Technology and ideas will continue to co-evolve together. Historians of technology tell us that a technology, often based on the best thinking available, in turn stimulates new thinking and new possibilities. This is certainly true of the Web and networked information systems. A huge spike of promising ideas, models, and R &D efforts has accompanied the new technology. When these new efforts are seen as artifacts themselves, we see how one technology prompts the development of another, and how the cycle repeats itself through new iterations of technology, design, theorizing, and practice. Thus we can be sure that, as technology continues its onward march, new models and ideas will surely follow—and in some cases, precede the technology itself. As John Dewey said more than seventy years ago:

Many are the conditions which must be fulfilled if the Great Society is to become a Great Community… The highest and most difficult kind of inquiry and a subtle, delicate, vivid and responsive art of communication must take possession of the physical machinery of transmission and circulation and breath life into it. When the machine age has thus perfected its machinery, it will be a means of life and not its despotic master. (Dewey, 1954/27)
 
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Author Notes

Brent G. Wilson <brent.wilson@ucdenver.edu or http://carbon.ucdenver.edu/~bwilson> is professor of Information and Learning Technologies at the University of Colorado at Denver. His current research leads him to the following questions: How can we help people make effective use of learning resources? How can we help designers of learning resources create better materials? And, How can we encourage people to collaborate, share, and participate as active members of learning communities? He wishes to thank the various colleagues who read the paper and provided feedback, including Erin Edwards, David Wiley, Joni Dunlap, Les Moller, and Martin Ryder.