By Stephen Downes
In recent years I have been working on two major concepts: first, the connectivist theory of online learning, which views learning as a network process; and second, the massive open online course, or MOOC, which is an instantiation of that process. These, however, represent only the most recent of what can be seen as a series of ‘generations’ of e-learning. In this talk I describe these generations and discuss how they led to, and are a part of, the most recent work in online learning.
The theme I would like to explore today concerns the growth and development of our idea of online learning, or as it is sometimes called, e-learning. What I would like to do is to describe a series of ‘generations’ of technologies and approaches that have characterized the development of online learning over the years. These generations of have informed the shape of online learning as it exists today, and will help us understand something of the direction it will take in the future.
These generations span more than a 20-year period. Indeed, there may even be described a ‘generation zero’ that predates even my own involvement in online learning. This generation is characterized by systems such as Plato, and represents the very idea of placing learning content online. This includes not only text but also images, audio, video and animations. It also represents, to a degree, the idea of programmed learning. This is the idea that computers can present us with content and activities in a sequence determined by our choices and by the results of online interactions, such as tests and quizzes. We have never wandered far from this foundational idea, not even in the 21st century. And it continues to be the point of departure for all subsequent developments in the field of online learning.