Education Opinion

The Learning Design Opportunity of Our Time

By Tom Vander Ark — October 01, 2012 5 min read
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If you’re interested in human development, the opportunity set has never been more interesting. Search in the browser marked the beginning of
anywhere/anytime learning opportunities, but the official beginning of the new era was a decade ago with the Wikipedia launch.

As noted in the Lessons from SkillShare blog, anywhere,
anytime learning sites have been popping up at an increasing rate. You can learn about rate of change and differential calculus on Khan Academy. Academic Earth was an early source of college
knowledge. Udemy let anyone teach anything. Saylor.org and P2PU.org made it all free. Anya Kamenetz outlined the
expanded post-sec landscape in


last year. This year, massively open online courses (MOOC) from Coursera, Udacity, and Edx are all the rage. The aggregate impact is a dramatic increase in
access to great content and great teachers.

We can compare these anywhere/anytime opportunities, let’s call them For Me, with traditional formal K-20 education, let’s call it For Degree, on five dimensions:

For Me

For Degree
















For Me
learning is interest or need driven: How do I make lasagna? How do I play Stairway to Heaven? What is a derivative? The goal of formal learning is a degree
or certificate. The time, place, and pace of For Me learning is learner-driven.

As assessment systems get better, formal learning is shifting from time-based to learning-based, from chronology to competency (see CompetencyWorks). Online learning is making individual progress models easier to monitor and manage. Now that
we don’t need to rely on age cohorts to manage matriculation, it creates opportunity to use groups, teams, and cohorts when it make sense to enhance
achievement or persistence (see Cohort vs. Competency).

A continuum of six types of opportunities is developing ranging from instantaneous For Me learning to traditional For Degree:

  • Casual:
    Meeting an immediate need with search, Wikipedia, Salyor, or Khan Academy

  • Social:
    Joining a test prep group or signing up for a short course. Examples: Grockit,Udemy, Skillshare, Edx, and Coursera.

  • DIY:
    Self directed course of study, may be guided by courses or knowledge maps, perhaps rewarded with badges or competency-based testing, may be supported
    by an advisory. Examples: WGU, P2PU. The Envisions network is blended DIY.

  • Blended:
    Designed pathways to mastery including adaptive and multimodal experiences. Examples: Lockheed pilot training, blended
    schools including Rocketship and Carpe Diem.

  • Online:
    Allows learner to vary rate, time, location, and pacing. Example: Connections, K12, and Florida Virtual (which features rolling enrollment).

  • Traditional:
    Age cohort and time-based. Good examples of cohort-based schools include High Tech High and KIPP.

With clear learning targets or job requirements, there’s lots of interesting opportunity right in the middle of the spectrum with combinations of
learner-driven and standards-based. Following are examples in four categories:

  • Middle grade students:
    Summit Public Schools
    is shifting middle grades in new schools to multi-age academies with focus on getting ready for high school. With clear goals, students take the time
    they need using a variety of resources. Reinventing Schools Coalition pioneered this standards-based
    personalized model in Alaska, Kunskapsskolan in Sweden.

    With clear targets and competency-based gateways, we’ll see more interesting unschooling experimentation--learn anyway you want, just show up and show what
    you know. See Marie Bjerede’s vision for a non-coercive blend
    and my post on Why Every School Should Be a Maker Faire.

  • Master teacher:

    Summit Public Schools has seven dimensions of effective teaching;

    teachers progress through four clearly defined levels with observable skills and expected outcomes. A framework like this powered by individual
    learning plans on a platform like Bloomboard allows teachers learn on their own, with colleagues at school,
    and with an online professional learning community. As suggested in Digital Learning Now !, performance-based teacher certification could work the same way with a mixture of self-study, coaching, and team-based study.

  • Coder:
    A variety of online resources--search, video, courses, and chat--help coders learn new languages. On P2PU, developers can take a class, find a mentor,
    and earn a badge. Clear job requirements, competency-signalling devices like badges, Linkedin-like recommendations, and portfolios of work will form
    new market signaling systems that will replace degrees degree programs in dynamic job categories.

  • Business:
    The Ecceles School,
    University of Utah, combines business courses with an incubator experience. Enstitute in NYC is an alternative
    post-sec apprenticeship program with wrap around business mentoring.

Combining an individual learning plan with a cohort experience for breadth, application, and support is a great model for leadership development (more on
that soon).

As outlined in Digital Learning Now!, the K-12 policy implications of blending formal
and informal, online and onsite include:

  • Multiple state-authorized credit granting providers

  • No barriers to access wtih with rolling enrollment and no limits to course load

  • On demand gateway and end-of-course assessments

  • Performance-based certification; and

  • Portable performance-based funding.

These policy changes will encourage students to take advantage of a wide range of learning opportunities. As noted last week, we can also help students take
ownership of their own learning by creating knowledge maps (what to learn), playlists (how to learn) and badges (show what you know).

Combining the benefits of anywhere, anytime interest-driven learning with standards-based learning is the design opportunity of our time. We can build--and
let learners build--pathways that are more engaging, more efficient, and far more flexible that traditional K-2- education.

Udemy and Bloomboard are portfolio companies of Learn Capital where Tom is a partner. K12, Connections Education, Digital Learning Now! and Florida
Virtual School are Getting Smart Advocacy Partners.

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.