In Dr. Curt Bonk’s newest book (as yet unpublished) on the open world of online learning, a particular passage in a chapter summary on educational resources on the Web caught my eye: “With all these [free online] lectures available, how can we not learn? What is to stop someone from learning any topic she wants at any time of the day? How will ambitious, self-directed learners be mentored or tutored into and through all of this content?” This passage got me thinking. What if someone really did create such a service for high schools, Colleges, and self-directed learners. What if there were a resource on the Web that provided not merely repositories of online learning modules, lectures, videos, OCW, and learning objects (as if that weren’t enough), but also provided tutoring, mentorship, and guidance through these ever-growing and changing Web resources? A team of instructional designers, reference librarians, and computer programmers could staff an online Web 2.0 service that provides these things (for money or ads as financial backing, or it could be volunteer work). Instead of “Online Tutor,” it could be called something like “Tutol” (TUTor OnLine). Or accreditation could be sought for such a service, leading through OCWs, independant studies, searches, research topics, etc.
One might ask: “Isn’t a wiki a form of such guided learning through a topic?” Not really. While they are participatory in nature, wikis (at least the ones I’m familiar with) have very few integrated question/response or guided participatory learning tools. Online forums can come close to this, but seem to lack a broad enough scope. Also, forums often suffer from poor information architecture, making finding your way around (or sequencing instruction) a little difficult. FAQs are sometimes well organized, but are too static and are not usually participatory in nature, nor do they allow for extended discussions.
On the other hand, there have come to my attention interesting ideas about the automization of such a service. The US government-sponsored Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) has done research into just this topic. Here are some of their wide-ranging interests in the field of instruction: http://www.adlnet.gov/technologies/index.aspx. The ADL also helped in the creation of SCORM (the shareable content object reference model) which standardizes learning resources and repositories to be easily accessible and reusable. Along these lines they are also developing Intelligent Tutoring Systems (ITS) which are “computer software systems that seek to mimic the methods and dialog of natural human tutors, to generate instructional interactions in real time and on demand–as required by individual students”. These tutoring systems are being developed for the fields of artificial intelligence, computational linguistics, and cognitive science. Is there hope for such an artificial tutoring system? Can these sytems be applied to other fields as well? Could something like this be the next Google (which automates Web searching) by automating Web tutoring? Not only could a person find anything on the Web, a person could also learn anything on the Web. Is such a thing possible? Are we being swept up into an Isaac Asimov world where we learn from robot mentors? I’m guessing not. I think, though, that social learning using automated Web 2.0 or Semantic Web tools is a distinct possibility for great growth in the next five years. So whether or not instructional designers, librarians, and computer programmers will be used to actually assist in tutoring individuals on the Web in the near future through this maze of online resources, these experts will be needed at the very least to design and implement the systems that will eventually do the tutoring. Somebody needs to teach the machine before it teaches us (tongue in cheek).