The technologies that have revolutionized information exchange and enabled distributed learning continue to change at a rapid pace and influence advances in online learning. In some cases, online learning—the practice, not just the technology—has had the reverse effect by influencing the development of technical standards and entire classes of software applications. Actually, we can identify technology trends only in hindsight, though the greater the momentum, the greater the accuracy of prediction. This paper will discuss some progress in Web technology that will likely influence how organizations capture, manage, and disseminate knowledge assets; transform those assets into learning opportunities; and deliver new learning opportunities to the new knowledge worker.

Let me begin with Web technologies that will transform the full spectrum of distributed computing and then show how those technologies will probably influence online learning and spawn new technologies specific to our field.

graphic of sample XML codeXML

Without a doubt, XML, or eXtensible Markup Language, is the juggernaut technology that will impact virtually all technical trends in online learning. XML is the lingua franca of component application interoperability, data transformations, and meta-data—data about data. XML is a singular technology of supreme importance, but it is here used to refer to a larger basket of related technologies that extend its utility in many directions. XSL, SOAP, WSDL, RDF, SVG, and so many others—go to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) site to explore these related technologies.

XML is also the language of choice for evolving online learning standards. SCORM, among others, uses XML to format descriptions of learning objects and relationships of learning objects (modules, courses, etc.) into meta-data files. These XML files are the agents that provide interoperability between learning object and learning content management system.

XML is an open technology developed and extended by its users. It is not owned and controlled by any one company, thus it is not proprietary, subject to licensing, or at risk of defaulting. XML is an example of a trend toward non-proprietary, standards-based technologies for learning applications, a trend that is now well established. Organizations have long wished for training built in such a way that it is easy, quick, and cost effective to create and deliver. The proprietary tools used to author courseware hold far less influence today due to interoperability challenges, incompatibility with standards, and resultant obsolescence when companies cease business. When proprietary technologies go head to head with open technologies that offer the same utility at solving problems, the open technologies will always win. So, XML is an example, though not the only example, of an open technology that becomes the backbone of a technological trend.

Web Services

Another major trend brought about by the sweeping influence of XML is that of web services. Simply put, a web service is a component application, a nugget of computing power made available on a distributed network—the Internet, for example—by its owner. That is somewhat abstract, and it should be, for web services come in many forms to solve many different kinds of business problems. Though we have not yet seen widespread use of web services in the online learning domain, this technology will likely spread in this direction. As an example, Company A might create a learning management system as a web service and offer it by subscription to organizations needing that service. Company B might offer a web service as e-learning content broker. Company C offers a web service for cataloging and converting corporate documents into a common format useful in a knowledge management system. Then, Company D offers a translation web service that might be useful in translating content for use abroad. Assuming that the four service providers create their web service to comply with established technical standards, your organization could then construct a corporate learning portal linking all the web service components into a unified system. It matters not where the four purchased services are located—well, there may be connection or bandwidth issues—for your employees interact with the system as if everything is local.

Peer-To-Peer (P2P)

P2P is an old networking technology that may have a resurrection because now we can see potential for "killer applications". P2P has been used in the past and continues to be used today for file sharing between client computers. P2P does not rely upon a central server computer, therefore it is in competition with client/server topologies. On a P2P network, all computers are of equal ranking, each acting as both client and server. If you have ever created a shared folder and put documents in it for other workers to use, then you have used this networking technology. For the most part, P2P was used for file and printer sharing, not application sharing—that is, until Napster, Gnutella, Groove, and a bunch of new P2P applications appeared. Notwithstanding the heated content ownership issues, the big name technology companies have taken interest in P2P applications and are developing supporting technologies for a new breed of application.

Learning organizations realize that their greatest asset is the collective intellectual capital of their employees. Learning organizations also see great advantage in sharing knowledge, one employee to another. Yet, traditional methods of sharing knowledge are not so effective. Have you experienced this problem in your organization? P2P may offer a solution. There are no P2P applications in this, the early part of the decade, dedicated to knowledge sharing peer to peer. P2P will become a trend in computing in general, and we may see P2P knowledge sharing applications as well.


Once telecommunications escapes the economic doldrums of previous years, we should see a whirlwind of new wireless web devices, led by advanced cellular telephones, personal digital assistants, and pocket PCs. An era of wireless connectivity is upon us. Wireless is an established trend that will build in momentum as world economies improve. Standards for wireless devices have been in place for years. Go to any large computer store to see the many wireless networking accessories available today. Carry your wireless laptop computer to the coffee shop, step into an invisible wireless web, and take an online course while drinking your espresso—not a dream; you can do this today at some Starbucks shops.

Building high-quality training applications for delivery over a wireless web to devices like cellular telephones, personal digital assistants, or someday the small screens built into home appliances; well, that's a challenge for both technology and instructional design. There are some standards for content displayable on such devices and some technologies for media rich content creation available today. XML is one such standard that enforces the separation of content from presentation, thus leading the way for learning objects that teach the same topic whether on a wired office computer or a wireless Palm Pilot. The types of training we might see will depend heavily on the form factor of the device's screen. The typical 4-line monochrome display of a cell phone would be inadequate for all but the simplest learning objects. New hardware technologies such as small high-resolution screens and even flexible, foldable LCD displays will break down barriers. Trends toward more compact portable devices and wireless connectivity are interconnected and parallel, yet they are still separate trends. Expect convergence of learning content designed for wireless web delivery with new wireless devices capable of delivering rich learning experiences. If this trend continues, by the next decade students young and old will be using personal learning appliances (PLA)—rich, portable, wireless devices—to aid their lifelong learning.

Managed training is a current trend embedding itself into the organizational infrastructure. We are seeing more centralized training management due to the availability of sophisticated application software and adoption of technical standards.

Learning Content Management Systems (LCMS)

In earlier times computer managed instruction (CMI) meant little more than a database for tracking course enrollment and student performance measures. A training manager could see who was taking what course, who had finished, dates, scores, aggregate statistics, etc. Now days, such a system in a large organization would be thought inadequate compared to the more robust class of software, the learning content management systems. An LCMS provides an organization a full range of training management options; and since most LCMSs are web-based and integrate into an organization's intranet, the implementation is easy and the browser interface friendly. Though the use of CMI software could hardly be called a trend in past years, the quick adoption of online learning standards by LCMS vendors seems to increase LCMS significance in the training equation and thus their appeal to learning organizations. The specific features and capabilities of one vendor's LCMS over another will vary in future years, perhaps merging with learning portal and knowledge management applications, but variety will still be the norm. The constant that will be the trend is the interoperability of LCMS to learning object content, thanks to online learning standards.

Corporate Universities and Learning Portals

Many of the world's largest corporations have established internal training entities for their workforce. These corporate universities offer varieties of courseware to meet most any training needs. The interface for the employee is typically the corporation's intranet, where they have set up a web-based learning portal. The learning portal becomes the gateway to the virtual campus. As organizations evaluate the return on investment, measured in productivity gain and good will, clearer definitions and best practices result. The corporate university concept is not a technology in itself, nor does it have direct influence over developing learning standards. Yet, corporate universities and learning portals do rely upon other web technologies and standards. In a world of distributed computing and an environment of corporate responsibility for employee learning opportunity, this trend would predict that the corporate university will assume much of the role of the traditional university campus for workforce training.

Content is king, or so says Microsoft's Bill Gates and the entertainment media giants. A living learning system runs dry without its lifeblood, content. What about technology trends that assure the availability of learning content?

Learning Object Repositories

graphic of plastic construction toy symbolic of learning objectToday we have learning content residing in virtual repositories, the corporate library of custom courseware and the extensive catalogs of courseware offered by commercial training vendors. In the latter case of highly competitive courseware brokering—where, by the way, content is of questionable quality—content is now a commodity. The advent of learning objects and online learning standards will ultimately transform these learning content repositories into learning object repositories. A new economy will develop, the educational object economy. Need to construct an online course in X-ray technology for airport security screeners? No problem, locate learning objects from some university learning object repository—paying their fees, of course—find more objects at a commercial vendor or X-ray equipment manufacturer, hook in a web service for certification tracking, and your course is online in days. Finding the learning content today would require extensive research. Learning objects, on the other hand, require meta-data describing that object, data that enables the process of discovery. The computer agent built into next generation LCMSs will be able to scan the entire Web for learning objects meeting your criteria and make them available almost instantly. The current trend toward commoditizing courseware content will shift toward learning objects as content in this form becomes more prevalent.

Knowledge Management

The field of knowledge management (KM) is coming of age; KM is on the mind of many corporate executives. The U.S. Federal Government has stated that one of the biggest problems facing its workforce is the loss of knowledge assets as baby boomers retire in droves. Corporations realize that their most important asset, the collective knowledge of their employees, leaves the office every evening. KM promises a solution for capturing and disseminating worker knowledge and maintaining knowledge assets when employees leave.

Now, KM might sound similar to learning management; but be clear, it is not. KM today captures and catalogs knowledge assets: documents, forms, lists, histories, images, or anything else in electronic form that someone says is "knowledge". KM does not transform these assets into learning. Go to a KM conference and talk to vendors showing their wares. You may come away with the impression as I have that many vendors offer specialized database management systems, front-end applications for expensive enterprise database software. It is not apparent that there are new technologies involved and KM today is not learning standards compliant. To be ultimately successful, KM must have capabilities to discriminate between what is important and worth keeping and what is not, and it must have capabilities to transform knowledge assets into standards-based learning content. Otherwise, it is an application of technology that has lots of sales appeal and less substance. Regardless of today's assessment, I feel that KM is a trend worth watching closely for its potential as a key learning portal component.

Identifying current trends and predicting new ones should not imply universal acceptance and adoption. Not all online learning will follow the trends, nor should they. Early experience will tell us that many of the technologies mentioned here will in all likelihood offer advantage to the learner and the learning organization. The innovators and early adopters will become test beds and ultimate judges of the utility of the technologies. With a keen focus on what is truly important, an effective learning experience for the end user, trends will take the right direction and technology will serve its real purpose.

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