Prospective Futures of Distance Education

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Mohamed Hassan / Pixabay

Society is in the midst of multiple technology revolutions that are changing econometrics, national security, health, transportation, shopping, travel, cost of living, socialization, commerce, employment, and education. We have moved beyond the Industrial Age into the Information Technology Age, heading rapidly into the Virtual Age. In that process we are changing from physical activities to virtual activities, developing and embracing tele-everything, including tele-education, or distance education.

Tele-everything took a great leap forward during the COVID-19 pandemic response. In the Virtual Age, the latest of the historical human societal constructs, we’ll see greatly enhanced noncorporal interaction via immersive, increasingly 3-D multisensory digital reality and communications.

One of the impacts of the ongoing technology revolutions is the development of artificial intelligence, sensors, and robotics that are increasingly capable of performing at human or better levels. As a result, these technologies are projected to increasingly subsume human employment. This in turn is changing the direction(s) of education toward areas where humans are still competitive and into providing lifelong education.

Considering the resulting context of future education, there are perhaps three major goals of education going forward:

  • To enable humans to compete with, partner with, and exist with machines and AI.
  • To improve society writ large, “raising all boats” and addressing the far too many societal issues, ranging from crashing ecosystems to decisions being made by algorithm.
  • To develop the next stage of human society in the Virtual Age.

Throughout history into the Industrial Age, educational constructs were similar in approach to that of the monastery schools dating from the 1400s. They were constrained by the scarcity and expense of buildings, faculty, transportation, instructional time, and materials. An Air University report summarized desired futures of education going forward when stating “We need education which is on-demand, off-site, in-time, properly sourced, under budget, and on the net. It should be demand driven, continuously available, and individualized.”

There is an ongoing revolution in education, a shift to personalized instruction on the web. Using the huge informational resources on the web and with avatars as mentors and instructors, we are shifting away from the Industrial Age approach constrained by limited and expensive human physical instruction at discrete locations and times.

This shift has been ongoing as machine and communications capabilities have developed that proffer orders of magnitude increases in education availability (anytime and anyplace), education motivation (designed into the software), education quality (software content produced by the “best of the best”), education flexibility (vast selection of content and delivery approaches), and education efficiency (increased learning rate). Such capabilities could soon and affordably improve U.S. global economic competitiveness, producing creative knowledge workers and lifelong learners while decreasing education costs: fewer bricks-and-mortar facilities, fewer faculty and staff, lower state and local taxes required to support education, less disparity of educational offerings, and less education-related traffic from physical travel.

On-campus students often prefer staying in their dorm rooms and working online. Tele-ed mitigates many physical classroom issues. These issues include too large a class size, resulting dearth of time available to nurture individuals, time required to “keep order,” the impacts of such “order keeping” and regimentation upon individual creativity, a tendency to operate at or below the median level, and classmate censure and derision.

Yet another problem that is solved by distance ed is students being ostracized for being “smart.” With distance ed this problem does not arise. The avatars and “real” folks associated with the online educational experience are all extremely supportive and encouraging. The vision for distance ed was laid out early on by a 1998 Presidential IT Advisory committee, which stated, “Any individual can participate in on-line educational programs regardless of geographic location, age, physical limitation or personal schedule. Educational programs can be customized to each individual’s need so that our IT revolution reaches everyone, and no one gets left behind.”

A 2010 report, “Innovate to Educate,” called for flexible, anytime/anywhere learning, characterized by the teacher’s role as the “guide at the side,” a student-driven learning path, and the extant virtually unlimited multiple instructional online resources.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, education communities resorted to virtual tele-ed too rapidly for requisite preparations to be made, with largely mixed results. The major issues appeared to center around uneven digital access and concerns about sociability shortfalls. The tens of thousands of low-Earth-orbiting satellites providing high-speed internet access should solve the former problem.

The sociability issue that concerns many (who grew up on physical interactions and often decry the shift to virtual technologies) devolves mainly from the millions of years of human evolution involving direct human-to-human contact. Such contact has been diminishing as the enabling digital reality technology has developed over these last decades.

Much of our employment for teachers and professors, the travel industry as a whole (some 10% of global gross domestic product), the physical shopping venues, medical professions (until COVID), and much more rely upon physical interactions. But more recent generations have grown up on increasing use of nonphysical, virtual interactions that they have increasingly considered the norm. There is anecdotal information that, even at the kindergarten level, children are texting their friends across the playground. Teletravel and other forms of digital reality reflect the fact that humans are, in a sense, evolving through the advent of new technology, including artificial intelligence. We appear to be merging, we and the machines, even as digital reality produces what is commonly termed “the death of distance.”

Current State of Distance Education

Coursera, a massive open online course (MOOC) operation with 65 million learners, is one indication of the development status and utilization of distance education. MOOCs overall have a total of 180 million learners. Regarding individual online schools, Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire, and University of Phoenix each have over 93,000 students. The online education market was $187 billion in 2019 and is projected to be at $370 billion by 2026. The largest university in the world is the Indira Gandhi National Open (virtual) University in India with 4 million students.

One-third of some 20 million U.S. college students take online courses. There are many free courses and free course programs with certification available. These free courses proffer, now, an ultra-low-cost approach to adult worker retraining with little impact upon an organization’s training budget. Such retraining is essential with the current requirement for lifelong learning due to rapid technology developments and ever-increasing competition from both machines and a technologically “flattened” Earth.

As stated, many of the online courses are free, including those from the best schools. With distance education, course material can be worked and reworked using different approaches and contexts until mastery is achieved. Learners have total control of their learning process and are valued and respected within their learning environment, in which they have the undivided attention of the software. Course software provides immediate feedback in a context that is nonthreatening, supportive, nonjudgmental, and interactive. With a tremendous breadth of resources available, the learner is encouraged to create and explore, in the process acquiring a large measure of self-worth, competence, and achievement. Such effort is associated with success, and the software explicates the value and application of the learning activity.

Distance learners have reportedly found that computers can create environments and content in ways that are more directly engaging than can textbooks and standard teaching methods. These learning environments possess interactive capability, encouraging students to partake in activities that invite them to create while minimizing anxiety associated with making mistakes. With the repetition function, students like competing against themselves and receiving immediate feedback. In comparison to traditional, physical classroom learning, distance learning provides improved accessibility, inclusivity, affordability, convenience, student control, and (according to some studies) effectiveness.

Communities and governments also use distance learning to help improve citizens’ earning potential, enhance lifestyle, and so on. Most municipalities have career guidance in the high schools, small business assistance, and industrial development support. An office that facilitates utilization of free distance education and certification for individual citizen career development should improve overall municipal well-being at little cost. Such an office could facilitate identification of free courses in various areas and possibly provide a listing of retired people who would be willing to provide counseling and intellectual tutoring help virtually.

As the enabling technology has developed and due to its many and large benefits, distance education has grown rapidly into an increasing competitor for in-person learning, buildings, teachers, transportation, and fixed schedule education. The major markets for distance education are currently postsecondary school to lifelong learning, but with increasing application to K-12. The evaluations of the U.S. education system are not favorable, with worldwide rankings of 38th in math and 24th in science. This shortfall in critical skills in a world economy where wealth is now created by ideation, invention is a serious issue, and distance education appears to be the only affordable, rapid, and effective way forward to produce serious improvement.

Prospective Futures of Distance Education

Factors that are rapidly altering and improving the distance education experience include the increasing capabilities of IT equipment, the advent of massive low Earth-orbiting arrays of small satellites to provide global high-speed internet, AI and human–machine interaction developments, and immersive presence including five senses virtual reality and holographic projection. Also, developing rapidly now are applicable AI, brain chips, direct brain–machine communications, and intelligent agents, which execute directed search and analysis, operating (if requested) 24/7/365.

Possibilities going forward include virtual labs that allow students to “walk” into a virtual room and, for example, discuss physics with a virtual Einstein or similar. Motivational cues would be built into the software, avatars would become mentors and teachers in cyberspace, and personalized software would morph appropriately for students’ educational, intellectual, and socioeconomic background. Given the huge markets and that increasingly machines are writing the software, a superb distance education should become available at extraordinarily low cost (if not free), like much of the current distance ed offerings.

Sources of motivational approaches that could be incorporated into the educational software include capturing what encourages the SEALS to stay in during extreme training, what works best in home schooling, what succeeds in industry, the psychological and motivational precepts of discipline, advertising and political campaign motivational approaches, and employing gaming.

Tele-education, as already discussed, has a long list of major benefits going forward, such as universal lifelong learning at minimal to no cost, highly motivational software, availability at any time or place including on phones, the massive information and connectivity of the internet including the developing global brain and global sensor grid, and massive cost savings with a resulting capability to raise all boats, improving inclusion.

However, there are also concerns associated with alterations in human sociability, lack of direct human contact to the extent that physical teacher and human presence in the classroom supplies such. Obviously physical, in-person education is only part of the human contact or sociability that students experience. As we have increasingly adopted tele-everything, society as a whole has been shifting to virtual interactions, both with other humans and with machines. Much of tele-ed is composed of software with some avatars or human replicants in cyberspace. Technology changes have historically altered how humans meet, interact, learn, play, work, travel, and so on, as evidenced by the ongoing tele-everything impacts. We change our technology and then in turn are changed by our technology in many ways.

There are two approaches to addressing this concern regarding direct human sociability deficits due to online education. The first is ongoing developments to produce avatars that replicate nearly all of the large number of human body language communication aspects and human-level emotions. With this capability, the robots in cyberspace (avatars) will provide much closer, more effective, human class socialization. This is the nearer term approach to the issue of e-learning regarding lack of education-provided human-level socialization.

In the second strategic approach, as AI improves, tele-everything pervades societal interactions. This produces an ongoing, increasing competitive need to be skilled in human–machine interactions, which tele-education can provide and for which it will be valued.

Another issue with the shift to tele-education is the displacement of human teachers, part of the major issue of machines taking over jobs in increasing segments of the workforce as AI and robotics of all flavors improve rapidly.

Potential Impacts of Universal Distance Education

The superb quality, ultra-low cost, constant availability, personalization, and motivational content of developing distance ed should greatly level the societal playing field, raising all boats with resultant wealth creation, reduced environmental impacts, and the more rapid development of solution spaces to the many serious to existential societal issues, including inclusion.

The enablers for widespread adoption of distance ed include tele-working parents at home to monitor and assist children and the rise of a “tele-generation” who not only accept but prefer digital reality. Economic enablers include the massive cost savings, quality and availability improvements, increasing avatar quality, and reduced taxes for education expenses.

Technologically, we’ll see wider-spread high-speed internet connectivity, the emerging AI, global brain and global sensor grid, producing an overarching need to retrain: The increasing capability of AI and autonomous robotics will push requirements for adult ed, including instructional staff as tele-ed develops. With further developments occurring in brain–machine connectivity and brain chips, eventually education could become an upload, with humans switching to just-in-time ed, downloading what is needed as it is needed.

Going forward, obtaining a superb education will require fewer school buildings and human instructors. Tele-ed will provide constantly updated lifelong education at any time, will be low-cost or essentially free, and will be accessed when needed, eventually as an upload. This method of education is much different from the physical, Industrial Age education precepts.

About the Author
Dennis M. Bushnell is chief scientist at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. He has contributed several white papers to AAI Foresight, including “Where Is It All Going? Prospects for the Human Future,” AAI Foresight Report (Summer-Fall 2016).

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay