I first visited Stanford and MIT in 1973 when I was writing computer programs to teach school students algebra. At Stanford I was impressed by how people doing similar work used statistics to guide their teaching programs but I was more intrigued by MIT projects that emphasised the way that learners could express their own ideas using specially designed programming languages. Since then the use of statistics has become much more sophisticated and learners have been offered an increasing variety of ways of using computers to take greater control of their own learning.
I arrived on a visit to Stanford in March 2012 just as a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Artificial Intelligence smashed the barrier of 100,000 simultaneous potential learners. My immediate intuition was that this was the most important development to date in the application of computers to education. I was now sure that MOOCs would not be ephemeral but I was not sure how they would sit alongside other approaches to technology enhanced learning.
Since March 2012 a number of enterprises have offered MOOC platforms and Edinburgh is now partnering with Coursera which originated at Stanford, FutureLearn at the Open University and edX created by MIT and Harvard. At Edinburgh we were one of the first in this new field and we have produced many wonderful MOOCs and also increased the rate at which we offer high quality online Masters courses.
I have just finished another tour of Stanford, MIT and the education research laboratories in their vicinity and return to Edinburgh very optimistic about what is happening in technology enhanced learning. These big new developments do not seem to have displaced the older approaches but rather have augmented the range of choices for learners. The work I was inspired by in 1973 continues but the scale of access for learners around the World has dramatically increased.
There is a really exciting debate about how best to support online communities of learners and about the most valuable approaches to online assessment. My own area of machine learning is being deployed to improve the choice of teaching interventions. For me, the most striking general development is the way that new technologies are being used to enhance learner autonomy.
Visiting Harvard I was very impressed by the positive role of educational technology in growing the provision of continuing education. Hand in hand with increased learner autonomy I saw the very rapid growth of informal learning supported via MOOCs and Open Educational Resources (OERs). I am delighted by the way that my colleagues at Edinburgh have positioned us so very strongly in the use of these new approaches and in fundamental research on how we may best serve the learners of the future.
The last week of April 2016 sees the two major world conferences in this area located at our University. During my tour I have kept ruminating on almost 40 years of slow progress from the 1973 cottage industry to the sudden boom from 2012 in technology enhanced learning. I am also immensely proud of the fact that everyone I have met in the last few weeks knows about and is interested in the pioneering work focussed on using technology to improve the support for learning that we are carrying out in Edinburgh.