As a dedicated lifelong learner, I have had to face many challenges aimed at obstructing my quest for a formal post secondary education. They say that education is wasted on youth, and in my case, I spent my youth bypassing the traditional pathways to higher education. Yes, I wasted my educational opportunities. It just never felt right for me at the time.

Within the North American culture, kids are expected to proceed in an orderly manner from grade school, to high school, and then to some form of post secondary education earning a certification, a diploma, or a degree along the way in order to set us all off on a preplanned course towards our future selves and our so called careers. Of course, not everyone follows this path. It is not always a perfect fit. In fact, in most countries, earning a post secondary education is a unique opportunity of life. Not a typical expected outcome. However, in Canada, the pressure exerted upon teenagers to move through the system in a prescribed manner is intense. Often, teens get into some educational pursuit that are not ideal for them and are more often than not, the perspective of the parents to steer them towards some path that is not the student’s heartfelt intent. In other cases, the students actually need the parent’s guidance and since the parents likely know their own kids best, they can predict a good pathway that may be beneficial. Unfortunately, in other cases, the parent simply read the current economic and social barometers of the day and then select educational pursuits that they deem to be best at the time. Sometimes these decisions are not sustainable.

If a student like me falls out of sync with the traditional pathways, then getting back on track is sometimes impossible. Life can very quickly get in the way of continued education. Most often, the student leaves the educational track and gets caught up in their own life. They fall in love, get married, have children, begin earning lots of disposable cash, or just fall into a party mindset. Before you know it, your 20s are quickly behind you and your 30s are dawning. Now, most of your friends are done with their primary education and moving on to the next logical stages of life – marriage and kids. The partying gets boring and fewer friends are around to party with as their lives are changing even when you do not want it too. Life comes in waves, so if you miss a segment, there may be no going back to fix those past mistakes.

Well, that was the case anyway. Things are beginning to change dramatically and those out of sync, forgotten students can now become late bloomers and still earn the formal education that they want and need, but at a later stage in life. Technology is making incredible strides to dismantle the limitations and disrupt the traditional flow of life.

Classic education was built around stuffy institutions made from bricks and mortar. The new wave of education is taking advantage of technology and the internet to provide new opportunities for learning. These online programs are now commonplace. Online learning is shifting to become student-centric. It is now easy to find an online program that fits your life. Even with a busy life style centred around children and family life, there is still room for education – online education. These new online programs are by design created to meet the needs of the student. They permit the necessary flexibility to adapt to your busy life.

There is an ill-conceived perception that the quality of online education is somehow less than the quality of learning had in a traditional classroom setting. But, that is simply not true. In most cases, it is actually much better. The technology today is so transparent that the student is now an integrated part of a virtual classroom setting. The learning and the student are now interwoven in this virtual setting that fits the learners needs for place, time, and platform. Online learning can be ubiquitous.

The means of delivery is changing too. The large, crowded lecture hall is a thing of the past, at least for online learners. No longer does a student need to sit in a cramped wooden seat while the professor preaches from the mount. Today’s learning settings are student centric and not teacher centric. The professor has a new role in the next generation online classroom. They facilitate the learning and the students collaborate in small groups to discover their own learning processes. They help each other learn. The learning is far more meaningful in this approach. Yes, professors may still use the lecture mode to deliver the initial foundational ideas, but then the students work in small groups to synthesis this new knowledge and make sense of it to and for themselves. It is a far richer process than the classic classroom setting.

It does not matter how old you are in an online setting, on the internet, we are all equal. Even with the more advanced electronic classrooms with real-time two-way video conferencing, you can still decide to maintain your anonymity by not turning on your camera, if that is what you desire. But, initial shyness and concerns quickly disappear and you are accepted as just another student. Why? Because in most of my online courses, there was almost always someone older than me. I was not as unique as I feared. Sometimes, the average age of the cohort was in the early 40s. Even when I was in my late 40s and early 50s, there were others that shared my demographic traits.

To make the learning experience even better, there were many others who did not compare to me at all. This contrast in backgrounds, work experience, family, culture, ethnicity, previous education all adds a level of diversity that naturally stimulates dialogue and offers contrasting points of view. This is what makes it all so wonderful. You meet some amazing fellow students online. Does this happen in the bricks and mortar setting too? Yes, of course it does. The point is that in this regard, there is a great power in the diversity of the learners and it is still present in this virtualized setting when many assume that the interactions amongst students is less in an online setting. This is a myth.

Depending upon the school and the nature of the program, the classes can be delivered in a synchronous or asynchronous mode. Synchronous delivery means that you need to log-in at a prescribed date and time. Whereas, asynchronous courses can be taken on the date and time that best fits the student’s needs. However, there is always a schedule, even for asynchronous classwork and students are expected to deliver reports and participate in group-work on a consistent, weekly basis. Weekly readings are defined in the course outlines. There is a lot of reading to be done with any course. However, students can print these articles for later times or it is now popular to load these papers into their iPad or eReaders, so they can consume these articles and papers after the kids are in bed, at work on lunch breaks, or while travelling on business trips.

Accessing the course content is commonly done from a second educational platform, a Learning Management System or LMS. Like the electronic online classroom previously mentioned, the LMS varies by institution. But, they are generally seen as a repository of the weekly reading material, a chat room, email, bulletin board, a place to download assignments, and upload your papers and reports, as well as a means for the course to be managed from by the professor. The use of the LMS is common to the classic classroom setting as well. Almost all students at every school today uses some form of LMS.

A course wiki is a common third platform used for students to interact and share learning. Often this is where student profiles are hosted and students post comments and share ideas. Professors have students develop outlines, share information regarding the topics world thought leaders and more in the course wiki.

Numerous other tools are used too. Examples include email, instant messaging, MS PowerPoint for slide decks, MS Word documents, cloud computing for collaboration efforts and more.

The cost for online learning is not as cheap as some might think. In order to attend a quality program, the same efforts need to go into creating courses so the institutes’ costs to create courseware is the same as for a classic setting, maybe even higher.

There are three main learning modalities that experts agree fit most people. They are:

  • Visualizing style
  • Auditory style
  • Tactile (Kinaesthetic) style

Descriptions of of these learning modalities is shown below:

Learning modalities are the sensory channels or pathways through which individuals give, receive, and store information. Perception, memory, and sensation comprise the concept of modality. The modalities or senses include visual, auditory, tactile / kinaesthetic, smell, and taste. Researchers, including Reiff, Eisler, Barbe, and Stronck have concluded that in a classroom, the students would be approximately:

  • 25-30% visual
  • 25-30% auditory
  • 15% tactile/kinaesthetic
  • 25-30% mixed modalities

Therefore, only 30% of the students will remember most of what is said in a classroom lecture and another 30% will remember primarily what is seen.

  • Visual learners are those who learn by seeing. They need to see overheads, diagrams, and read text books, etc. to understand a concept.
  • Auditory learners must hear what they are learning to really understand it. They enjoy listening, but cannot wait to have a chance to talk themselves. These students respond well to lecture and discussion.
  • Tactile/kinaesthetic learners need to feel and touch to learn…these learners also learn better if movement is involved. They may be those students who are not doing well in school. Instruction geared to the auditory learner can be a hindrance to these learns, causing them to fall behind.

An effective means to reach all learners is modality-based instruction; this consists of organizing around the different modalities to accommodate the needs of all learners. Many online courses do this modality-based instruction very well, likely much better than is the classic classroom. Most students learn with all their modalities, but some students may have unusual strengths and weaknesses in particular modalities. For example, students strong in the visual modality will be frustrated or confused with just verbal explanations. Learning modalities can occur independently or in combination, changing over time, and becoming integrated with age.

With online learning platforms, these learning modalities are fully integrated and leveraged to amplified the learning process and bring it to the students. Clearly, visual and auditory learners have an advantage with online learning over kinaesthetic learners. However, new methods are being developed to bring lab work into the online environment. With animation and simulations driven by years of experience in gaming, online delivery platforms are now evolving to serve the needs of all learners.

What we have learned is that everyone learns differently and has different learning habits. Adult learners and instructors alike have had years to develop these habits. Adult online instructors should become aware of their own learning preferences, as these personal preferences will affect their approaches to instruction. Instructors may need to modify their instructional approaches as much as possible to better fit the learning styles of their learners and the online delivery platform.

The future is bright for online learning. As the pace of life continues to intensify, online learner is a far better fit to accommodate these lifestyle demands. Education impacts the economy of the country and now through online learning solutions and the internet, we can extend education to locations that might never have add access before, thereby improving the quality of life for more and more people than classic classroom learning could ever satisfy. New innovations in online learning, such as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course), Kahn Academy, edX, and more are pushing the limits ever further to democratize education to all citizens.

In higher education, because the landscape is so much different from K–12 education, disruptive innovation is playing a different role. Here there is significant non-consumption of higher education. Millions of people, in the U.S., Canada, and worldwide, cannot take advantage of traditional higher colleges and universities for any number of reasons having to do with convenience and accessibility, simplicity, and cost. But they would be glad to consume education if it were delivered in a way that fit their life realities. Convenience, accessibility, simplicity, and affordability are the classic benefits that disruptions extend when they emerge, and as a result – no surprise – disruptive higher education upstarts powered by online learning are jumping into the fray.

Because the fundamental underlying costs of many colleges and universities – not their tuition, but their expenses – have risen rapidly even as governmental subsidies have not been able to keep pace because of the rising red ink and other obligations facing governments, with the emergence of disruptive innovations in higher education, it is true that many traditional colleges and universities will ultimately be threatened, not by MOOCs per se, but by the general unbundling of higher education and the ability for students to customize their education for their different needs from a variety of components. Many traditional institutions will also be okay and continue to exist largely unthreatened – and even absorb online learning as a sustaining innovation to disrupt their classrooms but not the schools themselves.

What is exciting here though is that through disruption, we have the opportunity to make a quality higher education fundamentally affordable and thereby allow many more people access to its benefits.

The disruptions happening throughout education more generally afford us an opportunity to revisit how we cultivate student’s learning and futures – and hopefully allow us to do it in a way that is even better, given what we now know today. That is not preordained either, of course, but we have the opportunity. It is now all of our turn to shape it appropriately.

With excerpt from Michael Horn, Forbes, July 2, 2014,


Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless and digital communications technologies. He is a Senior Executive Consultant with IBM’s Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He was previously a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and earlier was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation. He holds three Masters level degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has diplomas and certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology.