What will drive change in e-Learning adoption and practices in 2008? This isn't as hard a question as it may seem, since, fortunately, inertia is on the side of the forecaster. Even in e-Learning, most of the time, things change gradually from one year to the next, with each new development growing out of changes that started much earlier.
This year, no matter what else, will probably be one in which organizations consolidate their technology, and establish stable platforms from which they can move on, perhaps to more significant technologies, in 2009 and later. There don't seem to be any truly revolutionary changes to the way we create and deliver e-Learning coming in the next 12 months.
Don't take this to mean that there won't be any changes at all to e-Learning adoption and practices this year! I'd like to offer my view of nine trends that will affect what we do this year, and that are worth paying attention to. What you will be doing at the end of January, 2009 will probably look a lot like what you are doing this week, but the things that you will think of as important changes or developments will probably have their roots in one or more items in this list.
- Business conditions: Recession
- Expanded availability of broadband and WiFi
- Mobile devices with built-in 3G and WiFi
- “Working in the cloud”
- Enterprise social networking
- Expectations of users and decision-makers
- Ongoing redefinition and refinement of “e-Learning”
- Continued blurring of e-Learning tool categories
In spite of all the cracks and fog in my crystal ball, here's my best shot at how 2008 might shape up.
Business conditions: Recession?
Talk of recession has moved from speculation to near-certainty. Some experts don't believe we're in, or headed for, a recession at all. But you know something is going on, and nobody is sure just how long it will continue, so it makes sense to pay attention to this first.
Recessions are always somewhat unpredictable in their depth, and as to the countries or markets that they will affect. Sometimes mere apprehension about the possibility of a downturn is enough to make organizations cautious in their planning and budgets.
The most likely overall effects of recession will be to chill the consumer markets, to slow product releases and technology adoption, to negatively affect job growth, and to reduce or reverse the growth of budgets for training, including e-Learning. At the same time, in some organizations a business downturn could actually drive some instruction out of the classroom and onto the network.
If you are in a business or an organization likely to be affected by a recession, you can expect closer scrutiny of your budget, and probably a freeze on hiring. Paradoxically, you may also see more opportunities to provide online learning in support of strategies put in place to deal with business conditions. You may find increased pressure to develop e-Learning faster, and to be more flexible in development and delivery. You may also experience pressure to outsource development rather than add staff or technology.
Here are some things you can consider doing to meet these challenges:
- Standardize e-Learning technologies and vendors across business units
- Purchase products and services as part of a group or industry association
- Negotiate better prices from vendors
- Make more use of Open Source applications
- Look into collaborative Web-based applications for use by design and development teams
- Modify your learning strategy to include mobile electronic performance support
Expanded availability of wireless broadband
Over the past several years, the availability of wireless broadband has grown steadily, untethering users from their desks. In most urban areas, WiFi hotspots, in-home and workplace wireless networks, and public WiFi mesh networks, make it possible for workers with IEEE 802.11-enabled laptops, PDAs, and the latest iPods to move around while maintaining a high-speed connection to the Internet. In addition, in some cities, wide-area cellular telephone networks (3G) provide high speed Internet access and video telephony to mobile phones and other devices.
At the same time, in the United States at least, delivery of broadband services via optical fiber and cable to homes and small businesses continues to grow as AT&T, Verizon, and other companies eliminate copper lines and overcome “last mile” issues. Efforts to provide broadband over power lines (BPL) also continue to survive.
While it is difficult to get good numbers on the growth of broadband and wireless service worldwide, there is no doubt that these markets are growing. For example, 3G, which is the most expensive of the services to roll out, may triple in size by 2012. WiMax (longer-range access than WiFi) is the newest competitor, and is only beginning to become available; it will compete with 3G, especially in outlying areas. Each of these methods has its limitations. A WiFi hot spot must have broadband services available, normally via some kind of landline, for the link from the local wireless network to the Internet, and the hot spot's range is limited. 3G can't deliver the bandwidth that WiFi or WiMax can, and it is currently only available in big cities. WiMax is limited to only one band of the spectrum currently (in the United States), and its practical range in built-up areas is between 1.5 and 4 miles (2 to 6 kilometers). In spite of these limits, broadband connections, wireless or not, will be significantly more available by the end of 2008.
This expansion will enable better e-Learning opportunities for learners who travel, or who work from home. I'll address this further in the sections of this article on mobile devices and on “working in the cloud.” One possible problem that we may begin to encounter in 2008: Running out of bandwidth (although the projected crunch point doesn't arrive until 2010). We are already seeing less excess capacity, even though the Internet has not exactly “slowed to a crawl” yet. The possibility of this problem hangs on whether the large network providers succeed in adding backbone capacity to meet the rapidly expanding demand – and on whether businesses and individuals are willing to pay increased costs for service.
Devices with built-in 3G and WiFi
As wireless availability has grown, so also has the availability of mobile devices that can connect to the network by using 3G, WiFi, or both. The latest iPod (the Touch), offers WiFi, the Safari browser, and direct connection to e-Mail, YouTube, and iTunes. Soon it will be difficult to find a cell phone that does not have both a camera and a browser by default. The bigger challenge at the moment is to find phones that offer both 3G and WiFi (for example, the iPhone is WiFi only – no 3G); a user who travels will need a dual-chip 3G smart phone that also uses WiFi. This is not a major challenge, but it is not the default configuration for all smart phones.
Devices such as the Chumby may indicate the future direction of other Internet appliances in 2008 – to integrate Net life into real life. Although it is not a mobile device (the user needs to plug it into a wall outlet), the Chumby is a small WiFi terminal that uses software "widgets" to display interactive content on a 3.5-inch LCD touch screen. It does not require connection to a computer in order to receive content. At this point, there is only a bare handful of e-Learning applications for the Chumby (most related to building vocabulary), but it is conceivable that more are coming. If Chumby succeeds, you can be sure that similar appliances will follow, and some are sure to be mobile.
The key feature of these devices, in addition to the mobility of the smart phones, PDAs, and iPods, is that they do not require a desktop computer in order for the user to access online content, including e-Learning. Since they are multi-function devices, the return on the investment required for them will accrue more quickly.
While mobile devices certainly offer a great opportunity for delivery of e-Learning to an increasingly dispersed and de-centralized work force, there is a challenge to their adoption: Information Technology department (IT) policy. Because of the very diversity of the devices, IT has a real problem integrating and securing them. Until IT managers can deal with mobile devices in a way that is compatible with the way they deal with desktop PCs, this will continue to be an issue that slows adoption. If you are going to propose moving e-Learning onto mobile devices, first talk to your IT department to find out what their requirements are. You will need to present the productivity case for mobile devices, and to show how IT can remotely manage device configuration, software, and passwords, as well as how to erase everything on the device if it is stolen or lost. You will also need to work with IT to resolve the development and support issues. Mobile devices present a huge array of rich clients, databases, and microbrowsers – so compatibility with IT’s current suite of tools is essential.