The Learning Design Opportunity of Our Time

Young business team working together on a creative idea Young people discussing new business project in office.

If you’re interested in human development, the opportunity to learn almost anything has never been better.

A brief history. The official beginning of anywhere anytime learning was two decades ago with the launch of Wikipedia, Netscape, search in the browser, and the rise of “www” in 1994. Suddenly anyone with a connection could learn about almost anything. started the following year.

Over the last ten years the amount and quality of free and open education resources (OER) has exploded. Curriki was founded by Sun Microsystems in March 2004. Sal Khan launched Khan Academy launched in 2006. Neeru Khosla launched CK12 launched the following year. In 2008, Saylor Foundation launched free college courses. Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU) was started in 2009.

In 2012 there was an explosion of massive open online courses (MOOC) from Coursera, Udacity, and Edx. Suddenly, a college kid from Ecuador was able to take coding classes from Stanford profs and, just a few months later, beat the best data scientists in the world in a prize competition.

Things have been getting interesting this year. A big chunk of the $1.6 billion invested in EdTech in the first half of 2015 was driven by anywhere anytime learning deals. In January raised $186 million and in April it was acquired by LinkedIn for $1.5 billion. In February Chinese online education platform 17zuoye raised $100 million. Online learning marketplace Udemy raised $65 million in June.

There are more than 200,000 apps in the Apple and Google store and many are free or cheap. The opportunity to learn anything–and the challenge of making sense of it all–was the reason we wrote Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning.

The aggregate impact is a dramatic increase in access to great content and great teachers.

Me vs. degree. We can compare these anywhere anytime opportunities, let’s call them For Me, with traditional formal K-20 education, let’s call it For Degree, on five dimensions:

For Me For Degree
Driver Interest Certification
Goal Satisfaction Standard
Time Anytime Scheduled
Control Learner Institution
Location Anywhere School






For Me learning is interest or need driven: How do I build a website? How do I make lasagna? How do I play Stairway to Heaven? What is a derivative? The time, place, path and pace of For Me learning is learner-driven.

The goal of formal learning is a degree or certificate. The school controls the place, the schedule, the path, and the assessment of learning.

As assessment systems get better, formal learning is shifting from time-based to learning-based, from chronology to competency (see CompetencyWorks). Online learning is making individual progress models easier to monitor and manage. Now that we don’t need to rely on age cohorts to manage matriculation, it creates opportunity to use groups, teams, and cohorts when it make sense to enhance achievement or persistence (see Cohort vs. Competency).

A continuum of seven types of opportunities is developing ranging from instantaneous For Me learning to traditional For Degree:

  • Casual: Meeting an immediate need with search, Wikipedia, Saylor, or Khan Academy
  • Social: Joining a test prep group or signing up for a short course. Examples: Udemy, Skillshare, Edx, and Coursera.
  • DIY: Self directed course of study, may be guided by courses or knowledge maps, perhaps rewarded with badges or competency-based testing, may be supported by an advisory. Examples: WGU, P2PU, Straighter Line.
  • Micro-credential: Udacity and AT&T offer nanodegrees. We think stackable micro-credentials will soon guide most educator prep and development.
  • Blended: Engineered pathways to mastery including adaptive and multimodal experiences. Examples: Lockheed pilot training, College for America.
  • Online: Allows learner to vary rate, time, location, and pacing. Example: Connections, K12, and Florida Virtual (which features rolling enrollment).
  • Traditional: Age cohort and time-based. Good examples of cohort-based schools include High Tech High and KIPP.

With clear learning targets or job requirements, there’s lots of interesting K-20 opportunities right in the middle of the spectrum with combinations of learner-driven and standards-based. The most promising trends are CTE, makerspace, course access, incubators and entrepreneurship training.

Combining an individual learning plan with a cohort experience for breadth, application, and support is a great model for students and professionals.  

As outlined in Digital Learning Now, the K-12 policy implications of blending formal and informal, online and onsite include:

  • Multiple state-authorized credit granting providers;
  • No barriers to access with with rolling enrollment and no limits to course load;
  • On demand gateway and end-of-course assessments;
  • Performance-based certification; and
  • Portable performance-based funding.

These policy changes will encourage students to take advantage of a wide range of learning opportunities. we can also help students take ownership of their own learning by creating knowledge maps (what to learn), playlists (how to learn) and badges (show what you know).

Combining the benefits of anywhere, anytime interest-driven learning with standards-based learning is the learning design opportunity of our time. We can build–and let learners build–pathways that are more engaging, more efficient, and far more flexible than traditional K-12 education.

For more see:

Digital Learning Now, K12, and Connections Education are Getting Smart Advocacy Partners. Udemy and Coursera are portfolio companies of Learn Capital where Tom Vander Ark is a partner.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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